I’ve always been fascinated with how we form mental maps of places and how those images change over time. These impressions we create in our minds are our own, our perceptions differing slightly based on that particular time in our lives, filtered by past life experiences and more. Kevin Lynch’s groundbreaking work “The Image of the City'' helped me build a vocabulary of understanding around what elements in the environment contribute to these mental maps. But we don’t have to know what an node or terminating vista is to form rich, lasting mental pictures of the places we visit.
When I first moved to Louisville in the late nineties, I remember Whiskey Row consisting mostly of boarded up buildings. After the office workers headed out, the city streets felt like a real ghost town. There were a few great spots that came to life at night and paired perfectly with the desolate streetscapes, like Sparks and Mercury Paw, but the 100 block of West Main felt like it was a forgotten place on the edge of town. For years my impression of downtown was that it was empty, but I had some amazing experiences at the few spots I went to, seeing live music and hanging out with friends after a show on those dimly lit sidewalks on the quiet streets. There was a sense of mystery that developed in my mind that kept me interested in downtown.
Conversely, when I first experienced the vast empty parking lots south and west of Main Street, I was reminded of the industrial and bleak landscapes of northeast Philadelphia along I-95 when I was a kid. Places we drove through but never considered for more than the time it took to traverse, as there was no reason to stop. These impressions forever skewed my mental map of downtown, to this day making it hard to visualize how parts of a more vibrant Main Street connect to areas devoid of buildings and people just blocks away.
Today, Whiskey Row and the street I remember from more than 20 years ago doesn’t even seem like they are in the same city. I have a hard time mentally squaring that the two are one and the same. So much of Main Street has changed. There are a lot more interesting destinations even in the evening. Unfortunately many of the expansive surface lots south of Main still remain.
I came to an uneasy realization a week ago looking through some old 1940s Sanborn maps of downtown Louisville. We messed up the city a long time ago. We demolished a lot of the urban fabric to make way for the shiny new automobiles beginning over 80 years ago. Some of the vast surface lots that destroy the appeal of city life downtown had already begun to take shape back then, ironically by destroying beautiful residential buildings that you only see in the Brennan House on 5th Street or further south in Old Louisville.
My realization was that we are likely going to have many of these surface lots after I’ve passed on. I don’t like the idea. I think if our downtown is to ever really thrive as a place to live, and survive all the environmental challenges that are taking shape, those vast lots have to be replaced with something that creates positive impressions in the people who experience downtown and counteract the effects of climate change, not make them worse.
While flipping through dozens of historic images in the University of Louisville’s digital photo collection, I was snapped out of my malaise. There in front of me was an image that immediately took me back to middle school. The image of a large miniature golf course. I thought surely this was a mistake because I was searching for images along Chestnut Street in downtown Louisville. The caption read “Miniature golf (putt-putt) course in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, 1930 next to Henry Clay Hotel on Third and Chestnut”
I continued scanning through the archive to see if there was another angle to verify the location and came across yet another miniature golf course at 410 West Jefferson. (Fourth Street Golf-Moor miniature golf course, 410 W Jefferson Street, Louisville, Kentucky.
Having built a 3D Sketchup model of historic downtown Louisville based on 1905 Sanborn maps I was pretty sure there weren’t any large open spaces where such amenities could exist. I went back to the 1940s maps and realized that those buildings had been torn down in the interim years for auto related uses. But seeing the miniature golf courses gave me renewed hope that even if all of the surface lots in Louisville aren’t filled in by the time I pass, we can still do incremental projects that create experiences that change people’s perception of the city.
Somewhat absurdly it also dawned on me that we did this in 2014 with ReSurfaced at 615 West Main Street, and again in 2015. The inception and execution of that idea seems like so long ago. For a brief moment in time we were able to explore our imaginations and try to create a place people loved where there was only something people considered as they passed by because there wasn’t anything there to do.
Looking at these photos I can clearly remember the first night of ReSurfaced in 2014 when we it had gotten dark enough, we turned on the colored lights and everyone in the space turned to see the beautiful, vibrant building facades and for a moment the crowd was silent. I also remember walking behind a couple coming from 21c into the space from the Main Street entrance one night and hearing one of them say "this is in Louisville?!" Creating a sense of wonder and surprise is so important in a city. Creating memorable moments shapes how we feel about place.
The passion and effort required to make something like ReSurfaced happen again is still there. There are many people trying to reimagine our city. We need to continue to foster the prototyping of our underutilized places.
I don’t know if the economic model of a miniature golf course in downtown is viable, but I can imagine the mental map I and others would create if we unexpectedly walked up on a place where kids and adults were marveling at artfully miniaturized iconic places of Louisville like Church Hill Downs, the Belle of Louisville, the Old Forester water tower, and the Big Four Bridge, as they tried to figure out how to navigate the course and sink their putt.
Maybe there is a Dizzy Whizz or Mike Linnig’s serving food from an old 50s space age diner on the corner. There could be a local ice cream stand or a coffee hut. At night a small shipping container sized bar showcases rotating selections from our local breweries.
We may not fill in all the holes in our downtown streetscapes, but we should keep trying to create magical moments that shift our mental maps and build positive memories of fun times that will shape how we imagine our city.