One-way streets were primarily designed to get vehicles in, out and through neighborhoods quickly and efficiently. They benefit the people who live outside the area the most, potentially reducing their commute times (though this study may even dispute the main reason for their existence) while making the places they exist in confusing to navigate and more dangerous for other users as vehicles tend to move through at higher rates of speed, by design. It is not surprising that our community seems to lack an appreciation for our historic fabric when many are just passing through downtown, or heading to one of many surface lots adjacent to their destination.

If we are to really find a way to revive downtown after the pandemic, we should start with converting the one-way streets as soon as possible. It is expensive and there are multiple layers of bureaucracy particularly on state roads, but now is the time to do it. Here is a great article about the successes our neighbor New Albany has seen since it started converting its one-way streets back to two. Anecdotally, I’ve heard increasing numbers of people considering New Albany as a new hot neighborhood, in great part to its solid historical urban streetscapes and revived walkability. 

Another way to spark a downtown revival starts with diving deep into maps. Maps are a great way to read a city and understand where it was and where it is heading. They present things that are often hidden in plain sight, but are hard to discern from eye-level. They allow the bigger picture to come into focus. Historic maps are like novels, telling rich stories about the places and people of that time. They are not unlike treasure maps, illuminating the way to structures of historic significance and splendor. But unlike finding gold doubloons, often the buried treasures are buildings and rich places lost forever. 

I remember opening a PDF of the historic streetcar lines of Louisville from 1940 for the first time. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how expansive and developed the network had been. A copy of that map hangs on my wall. I still find myself occasionally gazing at it in disbelief at our wonderful ability to create and then shortsightedly destroy that which makes our city interesting and attractive.

Somewhat ironically in 2012 we decided to create a mock transit stop in front of the UDS in a space typically reserved for cars for Park(ing) Day. My colleague Luis artfully fused the historic streetcar lines with the style of a modern transit map to illustrate not only the tremendous loss, but hopefully spark passerbys’ imaginations to what could be. We had no delusions however, our city, as many others, made the monumentally disastrous decision to tear up the streetcar systems and turn the keys to the city over to the automobile writ large with little hope of anything like it coming back.

Park(ing) Day transit stop pop-up parklet, 2012

Download the conceptual map here

I get the same joy and dread looking over Sanborn maps from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. These beautiful hand-drawn fire insurance maps depict the built environment of cities in amazing detail with notations about the types of businesses that existed at the time, materials used, building heights and so much more. Each individual sheet represents the layout of a city block or two. When comparing them to current maps sometimes sheets are unrecognizable save for the street names and general dimensions of the blocks.

1940 Sanborn Sheet of block between W. Chestnut, W. Walnut and 7th and 6th (left) - Same block in Google Maps 2021 (right)

Clearly a lot of poor decisions were made in cities across the country as the highway system expanded through urban areas gutting their vibrant neighborhood fabric. Communities were shredded, livelihoods destroyed, magnificent buildings built with so many hands toppled by a pen. It is hard to understand with so much time passed how grand architecture could be so easily erased and communities displaced. 

It didn’t happen all at once, though urban renewal was fairly swift. But as today it is the slippery slope. One building here, a couple a few blocks away. “They weren’t that impressive.” “There wasn’t a historic event that made them special.” Suddenly you look around and your city has no history, and in some areas has no buildings.

1928 view of soutwest corner of 5th and Walnut (Muhammad Ali Blvd) | Source

Current view of the south west corner of 5th and Muhammad Ali Blvd (Walnut)

1926 Photo showing a historic streetcar in front of the US Post Office and Customs House at 4th and Chestnut| Source

We have so many holes in our urban core. There are vast expanses of soulless surface lots where pre-urban renewal structures are fragmented vestiges of what once was. This crystalized for me on a cold January day in 2012 when my colleagues and I were on the roof of the 800 Building, once known as “The Turquoise Tower of Power,” to get some aerial images of the neighborhood just south of Broadway now known as “SoBro.” Even though we had access to Google earth satellite images, the view was astonishing. How could we possibly need all of that parking? From some vantage points it appeared that there were more parking lots than buildings.

The 800 Building "Turquoise Tower of Power"

Looking west from 4th and York Street

That image stuck in my head as I turned over in my mind “how can we repair this?” We couldn’t wait for developers to fill in the holes, a proposition that could take decades upon decades, and the dead sea of parking could be an anchor dragging us down as more dense and vibrant cities would speed past this Louisville I love.

Being a big believer in the power of visuals to tell stories, we created a graphic map of downtown and adjacent areas, indicating surface lots in red and buildings in black. The stark image revealed still seems hard to believe. This became the backdrop and impetus to the ReSurfaced initiative to activate underutilized spaces in our city and show their potential vibrancy. Even now, when I give a talk on work we have done, this map usually gets people's attention. You cannot help but wonder what it will take to fill in the voids, and your mind wanders to thoughts of what occupied those red stained areas.

Why are buildings in downtown Louisville concentrated in a way that they form a “T” with Main and Market across the top and 4th Street down the middle and fewer structures on either side? I found the answer in 2014 through research of urban renewal efforts in Louisville as I was nervously preparing for a talk I was to give at the Filson Historical Society alongside Al Shands, building off of his documentary In the American Way hosted on PBS. The urban renewal zones created in the middle of the 20th Century clearly line up with the abundant areas of surface lots and large scale buildings floating in a sea of parking.

Map showing the urban renewal zones in downtown Louisville

To take the exercise a step further, I assembled the building footprints of Louisville in 1905 and 2016 providing a visual gut-punch to what we have lost as a city. The comparative maps illustrate how much more “urban” Louisville was over 100 years ago well before urban renewal, and it does a pretty good job displaying the difference between fine-grain and course-grain urbanism. The mapped area of downtown centers on Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali Boulevard) and what was a prominent and vibrant black commercial corridor and neighborhood. When the two maps are viewed side-by-side it is pretty astounding. Whole communities were erased and the rich texture of the streetscapes were scraped away leaving little behind.

That last mapping exercise is important. Fine-grain urbanism is typically found in older cities where many individual buildings line a street providing opportunities for more landowners to participate and a more diverse array of destinations along a block. This is how we built cities 100 years ago. Blocks were broken down into individual plots and sold piece by piece. It creates and contributes to the vibrant walkable neighborhoods that are much sought after in cities. This also is more equitable and inclusive as it lowers the barrier to entry for developers and business owners as properties are more reasonable for individuals or small groups to finance.

1905 Sanborn Map sheet of current Odd Fellows building block in Louisville illustrating fine grain urbanism

Taking the Sanborn map information further, I developed a downtown massing model with Sketchup to give a better sense of the form of the city in 1905. The model really helps to visualize the effect all of the individual buildings have on the city and just how much was lost in the 50s and 60s, particularly as you move west along Walnut (Muhammad Ali). Though the model is not complete, what is done is free to download and a bit more about how it was built on this page.

Sketchup massing model of downtown Louisville based on 1905 Sanborn maps, view from 2nd Street looking west down Muhammad Ali (Walnut)

Relatively the same view as the massing model from 2nd and Muhammad Ali in Google Earth, 2021

Coarse-grain urbanism in general is a more recent urban form and refers more to single developments on consolidated parcels of land often extending an entire block and typically creating instances where there are few doorways and individually owned properties, reducing the number of destinations and effectively deadening adjacent pedestrian street activity. Due to the scale of the projects only large corporations can afford to take them on, making it more difficult for smaller players to get involved, particularly when existing smaller scale historic buildings are demolished block after block.

1928 view of 2nd and Walnut looking west towards Odd Fellows and Pendennis Club | Source

The reuse of historic structures provides opportunities to maintain the more granular urbanism that makes our city more interesting and accessible. If we really want to revive our downtown post-pandemic, tearing down the remaining pieces of our dwindling historic fabric is moving in the wrong direction. Not every building needs to be saved. However, it is hard to rationalize why buildings that appear to be in relatively good condition are even under the threat of demolition, particularly if there isn’t an immediate plan for redevelopment, let alone something that in good faith couldn’t incorporate the historic buildings.

Though the Odd Fellows Building is currently the center of this attention, we should be encouraging and incentivizing ways to incorporate existing buildings into new developments that are additive rather than creating more dead spaces. Restoring and reusing historic buildings is not cheap, but what is the value of the culture and character of Louisville?

Odd Fellows Building, photo 2021. Why are we even considering demolishing this building?

Cities aren’t meant to be museums, but we must acknowledge that once historic sites are demolished that part of our character has been permanently deleted. We will never have the streetcar system we once had, the beautiful theaters won’t be rebuilt and monumental buildings like the US Post Office & Custom House will only be remembered in photos. Regret flows like the terrible one-way streets through our downtown, in one direction. Regret won’t bring our lost city back.

When I visit places like Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, they give me hope and a tinge of jealousy that lost amenities like streetcar systems and run down historic districts can not only be revived but thrive. Though we have lost a lot, there is still hope. But we need to work together as a city to ensure we don’t become a generic place with little ties to our rich history. This starts with real dialog and hearing each others viewpoints. We should also work towards a proactive approach to identifying and describing what we need to save and provide a compelling story that goes beyond the politics of any particular point in time.

Streetcar gliding by Findlay Market and a handsome strand of historic buildings in Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati

One hundred years from now when Louisvillians look back at historic maps of our city from the turn of this century, will they wonder what we were thinking when we tore down our remaining history and character, or will they have a fierce pride in the city whose vibrant mix of new and old can be clearly read in the pages of maps yet made?