I moved to Louisville in 1997. My first apartment was on Christy Avenue in the Original Highlands neighborhood about a mile-and-a-half from Downtown. I loved the beautiful historic neighborhood of Old Louisville, but in 1997 Bardstown Road had everything I was looking for.
From Christy Avenue I moved to an apartment near the beautiful Olmsted designed Cherokee Park on Sherwood Avenue in the Bonnycastle Neighborhood. A few years later my wife and I bought our first home on Shady Lane in the Deer Park neighborhood. Two kids later, we moved to our current home in the Belknap neighborhood. Each of these homes was within a short walk from Bardstown Road, though each move was incrementally further from Downtown.
I’ve thought about moving to other neighborhoods. There are so many great places to live here, and so many more vibrant commercial centers to walk to than there were twenty some odd years ago. It's also easy to become jaded after being somewhere so long, particularly for someone whose favorite thing to do is travel to different cities and explore their neighborhoods for new ideas of place. When I visit other cities, the novelty of their streetscapes is captivating. I often guiltily feel envious of this or that, wishing we had that or this in Louisville.
It isn’t often that I take the same care in exploring my own neighborhood. Hell, I started up an urbanist walking group to get people out and appreciate neighborhoods and I rarely take the time to really appreciate the one I’ve lived in for the better part of twenty years. You stop seeing things when you have seen the same three-mile stretch thousands of times.
So on an unusually warm winter night, I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with my beloved Bardstown Road on an unsanctioned two-mile Society of Urban Perambulators walk home from my equally beloved Ramsi’s Cafe. And I have to say, there is a lot to love about this corridor.
I’m mostly going to show the rest of the way, but I do have to tell that some of my favorite urban explorations are in the dead of night when I can take in the sights and sounds alone, with the streets all to myself. I first fell in love with cities exploring the back alleys and quiet squares of Savannah, Georgia at 3 am a lifetime ago.
So it is fitting this evening that I began my walk down a cobblestone alley running parallel to Bardstown Road. The city takes on a completely different character in the artificial light. The stark contrast between the shadows highlights features that seem mundane in ordinary daylight. Vibrant splashes of color and texture appear where neutral hues and seemingly ordinary materials pervade.
One of the first takeaways from my reunion was, there really are a lot of great shops, restaurants, bars and storefronts along the corridor. I drive down this road most days when I venture out to the Urban Design Studio across town and see buildings like abstract cubes along a pathway. But this night, it was like walking down South Congress Avenue in Austin or Carson Avenue in Pittsburgh. Yes, there are storefronts and spaces along Congress that make you stop and ponder reality, and the consistent two- and three-story historic buildings right up on the sidewalk on Carson feels more urban, but the commercial activity on those streets is much shorter than Bardstown Road. And though we complain about trying to cross Bardstown Road, Congress feels almost as wide as Broadway.
I witnessed some really amazing window displays on my walk. Having had to come up with ways to activate the huge storefront of the Urban Design Studio when it was on 3rd and Muhammad Ali, I know how challenging it can be. I’d love to see a friendly competition for best window display design along the corridor and celebrate the artistic creativity that folks put into them. These become even more pronounced at night when the creative use of light can transform and tantalize viewers to stop and stare. I’d like to think that my light artist friends Annie Mitchell and Teresa Koester would appreciate some of the scenes I saw on my walk.
These storefronts caught my attention so much I needed to capture their glory from multiple angles.
At night, light doesn’t only dazzle, it provides a sense of safety by illuminating the street and giving a sense, whether real or perceived, that people are present. With the proliferation of low-powered LED lights, it is now possible to brighten any storefront for pennies and with a wide range of color temperatures. Light pollution is a real thing, but commercial corridors like Bardstown Road truly benefit from being vibrant and safe places late into the evening.
Beyond lighting, many of the shops just have really cool items on display. Though I think my rock and roll days may be behind me, I still love looking at the beautiful guitars, amps and other music equipment at Guitar Emporium. The shop is also a great example of how to make these deep and narrow historic retail spaces feel open and inviting. The amazing white stamped ceiling and warm wood toned walls are fantastic. Even if you don’t play music, I would suggest stopping in.
Nice window signage, some lighting and plants can activate an otherwise dark stretch of street.
Speaking of signage, there are some great and iconic ones I saw along my route that evening. Though sadly but understandably not all of them were lit, there is something spectacular about a neon sign. At one point in the earlier part of the 20th Century neon was everywhere in cities. As urban centers declined with the rise of the suburbs, I read somewhere that this was also when neon fell out of fashion, being seen as indicators of decay. There has been a bit of a revival of sorts in neon, though the limited number of artisans skilled in bending the glass tubes makes it extremely expensive to make new signs or fix the historic icons I passed on that evening.
Along with the great neon signage, some of the buildings employ vibrantly colorful facades that add to the neighborhood character and draw the eye during the day or night. Murals have also started to proliferate along the corridor and around the city with some amazing detailed works of art and whimsical pieces that enrich the pedestrian experience.
Even without neon sometimes a good font and a graphic display with texture can make a memorable urban scene.
A few other notable things from the walk, I had often passed this prominent corner at Bonnycastle and Bardstown Road and only focused on the garish and bright billboards on the roof, but the building itself is pretty nice. The gabled roof and decorative paneling breaks down what is a really expansive building in relation to the fine grain urban forms of all the other buildings along the corridor.
One of my favorite hidden gems in the city is Ivanhoe Court. Aside from the example of the Cardinal Stadium Bus Stop Seating project Councilman Coan and I worked on with the City and the grand staircase in this photo, there is an amazing pedestrian housing court at the top that has something like 40 houses all facing inward onto a serene pedestrian court. Neighbors can sit on their front porches and look out onto a shared greenspace where children play, devoid of automobiles which are relegated to the alleys. This form of residential development is likely illegal to build by current standards these days, but it is something that should be brought back in my opinion.
This two story jem of a building that fronts Bardstown Road and the corner of an alley is pretty great. It fills a space along the street that in some areas along this section are more residential, a break between the continuous commercial facades before reaching the Douglass Loop. The lighting, signage and window display are well done and help continue the commercial experience.
Lastly, at least for me as I headed into the residential neighborhood, is the Douglass Loop. Once a historic streetcar turnaround, the physical necessity of the loop creates a great unique urban form along the corridor. The critical mass and variety of shops punctuates Bardstown Road, particularly because from this point south, the road geometry widens and the urban fabric begins to fray giving way to more autocentric businesses, though it tries to hold it together for another mile before the car bludgeons it into submission and all hope is lost.
I sometimes ask myself why I haven’t moved. Up until the pandemic, I have had the fortune of being able to travel all over the US and a bit abroad, witnessing amazing places with people doing innovative and important work improving their corner of the world. My answer invariably is that I like visiting and learning from other places, but I love coming home to Louisville, to the Highlands, to a place that has everything I could want on an average day via a short walk, or a long leisurely stroll on a warm winter night.