One of Louisville’s oldest neighborhoods is working to revitalize itself and art is playing a role. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer explored Portland for this report.
Historian Rick Bell points to features along the Ohio from the cupola atop the Marine Hospital in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood.
“If you look straight across you see the falls of the Ohio and every bridge,” he says. “You can see every bridge in the city of Louisville from this one room. And I think it’s the only place in the city you can do that.”
Bell is head of the foundation that is helping renovate this National Historic Landmark, which was built in 1852, during Portland’s heyday. In that era of steamships, this neighborhood was a hub of the nation’s river trading economy. Today, I-64 cuts through Portland where, according to the 2000 census, more than 30 percent of residents live in poverty and 13 percent of its housing is unoccupied.
Despite these numbers, there is artistic activity in this corner of the neighborhood just west of 22nd Street.
“Places,” calls a member of a local theater company called Specfic Gravity.
In the hospital’s basement, the theater company is performing new plays. The performances bring out locals and attract audiences from outside the neighborhood.
Across the street of Portland Avenue, there is the Portland Museum and, two doors down, a former medical clinic that local artist Bryce Hudson recently transformed into a contemporary art gallery. Here he creates his own work and displays art by regional artists. Hudson is optimistic about Portland’s rich history and its potential for revitalization.
“If I can slowly but surely build something that helps build a community, and maybe helps get some more artists and art types down here,” he says. “Then you never know. Maybe this will become the next hot spot. I mean, of course, it’s years and years and years down the line, but it’s a start.”
Hudson’s idea of revitalizing community through art dovetails with the views of sociologist and Vanderbilt University assistant professor Richard Lloyd. In his book “Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City,” Lloyd writes about how urban neighborhoods have attracted young creative people who grew up in suburbia and helped transform economies. Lloyd says these areas attract creative types for specific reasons.
“Artists are very attracted to urban neighborhoods for the sense of history and the aura of authenticity that that confers,” he says.
Members of the neighborhood group called Portland Now say they definitely hope that more people like Bryce Hudson open businesses and make homes in their neighborhood. Still, they recognize there are many other components to renewing Portland.
“We’ve got Bryce. He’s moved in. That’s wonderful. But what else is going to be there?” asks Deb Mercer, a member of Portland Now. She led the group in putting together a neighborhood plan, a process that began in 2004. In March, the Louisville Metro Council approved the plan, which recommends zoning changes designed to promote the neighborhood’s history while encouraging residential and business development that could alleviate poverty.
Mercer says land use is a major issue in the neighborhood.
“It’s a big ol’ circle,” she says. “If you can improve your housing stock, maybe get a few people to appreciate it, get people more concerned with the neighborhood. Then you get people in who maybe then have kids and then are concerned about your schools and then your schools improve. Because it takes, it, you know, takes a lot of people to make big changes.”
While those changes promise to be slow in coming, architect and history buff Steve Wiser says they will come. As a member of the American Institute of Architects’ Louisville chapter, Wiser worked with Portland Now in considering how to make the I-64 exit ramp area near the Marine Hospital more inviting to passers by. That experience helped him form ideas about how the neighborhood will play in the city in 25 years, as outlined in his recently published book “Louisville 2035.”
“I realized that here was a phenomenal, affordable district near downtown that is on the cusp of revitalization,” Wiser says. “And so with the increases of gasoline prices, people wanting shorter commutes to work, younger professionals and the affordable housing that the Portland district has, I really do see over he next 25 years as Portland being a hot place — people wanting to live and work.”
Portland Now’s Deb Mercer and artist Bryce Hudson say they want to believe in Wiser’s predictions. They caution the community to approach that future in baby steps that will allow it to improve existing housing, preserve historic housing, create attractive areas with artists and parks, and, of course, attract business. They say the development of Portland will benefit Louisville overall.
Hudson suggests the next step.
“What I think Louisville needs is somebody opening up a really nice business on Portland Avenue,” Hudson says. “I think just getting people down to Portland that normally would never step foot west of Ninth Street — that’s what I think Louisville needs.”
MORE INFORMTION ABOUT PORTLAND
Arts & History in Portland
Plexus Contemporary: Artist Bryce Hudson’s gallery in Portland
The Portland Museum
Specific Gravity Ensemble: This company staged plays at the U.S. Marine Hospital
U.S. Marine Hospital: A National Historic Landmark in Portland
Nuts and Bolts: Portland’s Neighborhood Plan and Metro Louisville’s Neighborhood Planning Program
Ideas about Portland
Steve Wiser: The Web site of the architect and author of “Louisville 2035”
Ideas about the Role of Art in Urban Neighborhoods
Richard Lloyd: Sociologist, Vanderbilt University assistant professor and author of “Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City”