Time to Go to Louisville
There's a lot more to this town than a two-minute horse show.
If there’s one spot in Louisville that sums up the surprises of Kentucky’s largest city, it’s the intersection of Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard in the bustling center of downtown. A towering neon column marks the entrance to the renovated Fourth Street Live nightlife and entertainment complex, which sits across the street from the grand old Seelbach Hotel, a Jazz Age haunt of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Al Capone. And on the northwest corner, a roadside marker commemorates the spot where Trappist monk Thomas Merton embraced social justice issues.
It’s not exactly what people expect from the Falls City—the biggest in the Bluegrass State. Once a year, the international media focus on the thundering hooves and genteel pageantry at Churchill Downs, usually overlooking the complexity of the city for shots of celebrities sipping mint juleps on Millionaire’s Row.
After the Derby, Louisville’s locals return to life as usual in a town that’s one of the South’s best-kept secrets. Roughly equidistant between Chicago and Atlanta, just shy of three hours from Nashville, and a stone’s throw from major Midwestern cities (Cincinnati, St. Louis, Indianapolis), Louisville is content to hang just under the radar. Louisville isn’t looking to become the next Austin, Seattle, or Atlanta—it’s plenty busy being itself.
Louisville was shaped by the Ohio River in every conceivable way. The urban plan was molded around a maze of old livestock trails. Neighborhoods were named for their former industries (the stockyards of Butchertown, barge traffic of Portland) or their former immigrant communities (Irish Hill, Schnitzelburg). Over time, occupational allegiances shifted away from river commerce to more modern industries—Louisville is now UPS’s biggest transport hub and headquarters for Humana Health Care, among others—transforming the neighborhoods from working-class enclaves to affordable renovation opportunities.
Germantown’s shotgun houses, once filled with workers who needed walking-distance proximity to tobacco warehouses of the Smoketown district, are a booming area for a new generation of loyal Louisville locals. Nouveau bohemians and punk-flavored hipsters sport the city’s ubiquitous fleur-de-lis symbol in T-shirt and tattoo form.
The architecture and infrastructure of the city are both informed by Louisville’s time as a port in the pre-trucking days when the Ohio and Mississippi rivers were the country’s lifeblood for commerce and cargo. Louisville sits just upriver from the Falls of the Ohio, a mile-long stretch of rocky rapids that represented the only natural navigation barrier between the steel mills of Pittsburgh and the oceangoing vessels docked in New Orleans. Louisville’s series of locks and canals allowed barge traffic to skirt the Falls, and the city boomed as a port for Kentucky’s important exports, including livestock, tobacco, and (of course) bourbon whiskey distilled in the limestone-rich country near the city.
Neighborhoods and public spaces show the influence of the early boom years, from the stately mansions of Old Louisville to the solid brick Victorian homes in the Highlands. The city is home to a sprawling but accessible park system executed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the mind behind New York’s Central Park. The graveyard turned arboretum, Cave Hill, sits near the Olmsted park system’s crown jewel, Cherokee Park.
Spend any real time in Louisville, and you’ll find an astonishing number of multigenerational natives—people in their thirties and forties who grew up here, went to school at one of the state’s big universities (University of Louisville or its in-state rival University of Kentucky, an hour east in Lexington), then resettled in Louisville after doing a stint in some transitional boomtown (Atlanta, Dallas, any coastal city). Many return to Louisville, drawn back by the ease of life and sense of place.
In many ways, Louisville has the hallmarks of an old-money city. Where names like Brown and Forman (local families who exported brands like Jack Daniels to a thirsty world) funneled some of their riches to the public trust in the form of parkland renovation, an active fine-arts scene, and nationally renowned live theater. (Humana sponsors the annual New Festival of American Plays on the stages of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, one of the more important stages in American regionalism.)
The alternative arts have also flourished in recent years, owing in part to reasonable home prices and plenty of bars that stay open until 4:00 a.m. Local music fans remember current indie sweethearts My Morning Jacket when they got their start playing local clubs. International underground star Will Oldham (known alternately as Palace Music and Bonnie Prince Billy) roams the streets between recording sessions and gigs. Local cultural phenomena like the Lebowski Fest—a tongue-in-cheek celebration of Joel and Ethan Coen’s slacker classic The Big Lebowski—seem tailor-made for a creative city with a surplus of bowling alleys.
And still, the city retains its own character as it constantly reinvents and improves itself, adding more waterfront park facilities, sprucing up its historic architecture, quietly adding to its quality of life. The spotlights might shine bright for the two minutes of the Derby, but after the celebrities and horse folks clear out, Louisville pours itself a nice stiff shot of local brown liquor and goes back to a very pleasant (and semi-secret) life as usual at the top of the South—where the spirits of Capone, Gatsby, and Merton can all meet and feel at home.