The intersection of Eastern Parkway and Bardstown Road is one of the most difficult left turns in the city. Almost every day, no matter the weather, teenage skateboarders, newlywed dog-walkers and Converse-clad hipsters stroll along the crosswalk. Once a year, an army of zombies even stumbles across. With the windows rolled down, it becomes even harder, for it is seemingly impossible to ignore the wafting scent of grilled chicken and salsa from Qdoba or the distinct smell of Heine Brothers’ Coffee drifting from its doors.
Just a few miles north, Louisvillians can find the green banks of the Ohio River. The Great Lawn at Waterfront Park is multifaceted. The sweet smells of fried dough and bourbon fill the air every spring, coming from the Chow Wagon. The sounds of local bands reach across the aquatic state line during Waterfront Wednesdays. Every summer, thousands of people sit cross-legged in the grass at Forecastle Festival, listening to music and learning about how to lessen their ecological footprints.
Several blocks inland, East Market Street boasts an unusual coffee shop run by a man who lives in the storefront, a breakfast restaurant that serves French desserts in pancake form and the award-winning Green Building. NuLu, the name given to the area, holds the always popular NuLu East Market Festival each year. Last year, an acclaimed cellist played for free in a torrential downpour for umbrellaless, dancing fans.
Some say it’s the simple things in life that mean the most. And to some Louisvillians, one simple statement can sum up any description given: Louisville is underrated.
“You walk in not expecting all these things the city has to offer,” said Blair McBride, vice president of Block by Block. “I have customers who come to visit and they leave Louisville absolutely impressed.”
Block by Block is a company that provides safety and cleaning services in the downtown areas of cities around the United States. In Louisville, this entails environmental services, supplemental safety with foot and bicycle patrols, and hospitality services with mechanical and manual cleaning. The Louisville Downtown Management District serves 63 blocks with the company.
The Louisville Downtown Management District promotes, markets and advances economic development in downtown Louisville. The improvements to the downtown area are large, but many do not see the impact of the growth.
“The work on the new areas will make the economy, sports scene and music scene blast,” said Deb DeLor, executive director of the Louisville Downtown Management District. “Our goal is to impact East Main and Market even more, and then begin expanding into the West end. The Museum Plaza will help that.”
DeLor also noted that NuLu is very prominent right now, because it is connecting downtown to Market Street. The area is growing in retail, gallery space and entertainment venues.
“We want retail space like Chicago, a music scene that is similar to Austin and a public transportation system like that of Denver’s,” said DeLor. “I don’t compare Louisville to other cities. Rather, I want features of other cities to influence ours.”
Block by Block also plays a role in the growth of Louisville’s downtown. The Museum Plaza and new University of Louisville basketball arena are the obvious additions to the city, but McBride says that there are many more changes that most residents don’t even realize are happening.
“Fifteen years ago, the carpets were rolled up at 7 p.m. downtown,” said McBride. “Now, look at Fourth Street and the phenomenal Waterfront Park. Look at how many are out on a Saturday afternoon. We are in the midst of a Renaissance.”
McBride and DeLor said they would personally like to see more residential areas downtown for young professionals who start families. They are hoping that the area surrounding the new KFC Yum! Center will become more of a community.
“The names [the arena] has drawn already are impressive,” said McBride.
The Eagles, Justin Bieber and Louisville’s own My Morning Jacket are already lined up to play in the KFC Yum! Center. But those who frequent ear X-tacy, Underground Sounds, and venues like Skull Alley, The Vernon Club and Headliners know that big-name artists aren’t the ones that make Louisville special.
“It’s the developing bands that showcase a city’s vitality,” said Billy Hardison, senior talent buyer for Production Simple Concerts and Events. “An open-minded populace attracts the hottest in the underground and burgeoning talent. That’s the true barometer. And I’d say Louisville is stronger than ever in that regard.”
Another facet of the music scene is the local public radio. Rebecca Pilgrim and her husband started Pilgrim Productions and are involved with 91.9 WFPK radio station in showcasing new musical talent. Pilgrim said that she feels Louisville’s public radio is a strength because there are only a handful of great radio stations around anymore. The station plays diverse genres of music, both local and national.
“Coming from the outside, it’s overwhelming to come here and hear about all these local bands,” said Pilgrim. “No one expects that. All they think Louisville is about is horses. The bands we bring here love the city. They come back many times, just to hang out.”
To residents and visitors alike, Louisville’s music scene is closely related to its independent businesses. The two groups work together to create a community atmosphere throughout the city.
“Keep Louisville Weird.” It is a phrase that is stuck on bumpers, printed on T-shirts and posted in windows. It is the logo of the Louisville Independent Business Alliance, alongside the popular “Buy Local First” logo. LIBA’s mission is to promote local businesses, as well as to educate citizens on why buying local is important to the community as a whole.
There are 320 members of LIBA. Most are concentrated in the Highlands and Crescent Hill areas, but more businesses are popping up in different areas of Louisville, as well as southern Indiana. Jennifer Rubenstein, membership director of LIBA, said that there were only about 200 members as of this time last year.
“The growth is important because it keeps Louisville unique,” said Rubenstein. “It gives us a great quality of life. The owners are more invested in their work and live in the area. The customers are also neighbors. And the local economy grows with money spent in local businesses.”
LIBA prints 15,000 copies a year of the directory of businesses. This directory also holds materials for businesses to use to advertise that they are independent.
“Local business is part of what Louisville is,” said Rubenstein. “This city is big enough to hold a lot of diversity, but small enough to run into people you know. That’s the best part.”
WHY Louisville, a member of LIBA, is considered the unofficial fan club for the city. Located on Bardstown Road, the store sells products designed by local artists.
“We want to make shopping here an actual experience,” said Will Russell, owner of WHY Louisville. “We keep it interesting. Some of our shirts are funny, absurd and some even creepy. But it is a place people can come to bring their friends. That’s what Louisville is about. It’s having that pride in the city and its artists. All the businesses look out for each other to retain the local flavor.”
LIBA is also working with the University of Louisville in putting on a Discover Louisville Festival in October. Members of LIBA will have booths set up so that students who may not know much about the city can explore and learn. OK Go is also performing for the campus as part of the festival.
Many students who come to U of L from other cities come to love Louisville so much they don’t want to leave after they graduate.
“I feel like this is my actual home,” said Chelsea Bell, a senior nursing major from Maryville, Ill. “I have made so many connections with the people and places here. I love the park system and the restaurants. I love all the Derby events. I feel like I will miss out if I leave.”
To many students, the city is addictive. Andrew Bosscher, a junior political science major, is from Louisville. He attended U of L for two years before transferring to Middle Tennessee State University. After a semester, he transferred back.
“It’s something about the people I missed while I was gone,” said Bosscher. “There’s also so much to do. And it takes about 20 minutes to get anywhere in the city. It’s a great place to raise a family.”
He also felt that the “Keep Louisville Weird” movement gives the city a unique identity.
“It’s a big city with a small-town feel,” said Bosscher.
Many residents share the same sentiment as Bosscher. Louisville, although compared to cities such as Chicago and Austin, is really like no other.
It’s the fact that a walk down Bardstown Road is one of the most popular ways to spend a Saturday. It’s because someone can drive down to the Great Lawn on a weeknight and join a game of Ultimate Frisbee. It’s the opportunity to be in a local band’s music video. It’s shopping at quirky stores and eating at unique restaurants.
Louisville. Loo-a-vuhl. Louie-ville. Loo-vul. Whatever the pronunciation, the personality is the same. And one thing is certain: Louisville does not lack personality.