Vision Smoketown

Vision Smoketown began as a volunteer-based community canvassing project conceived after the Jefferson County KFTC Chapter moved its office to Louisville’s Smoketown neighborhood in July 2013. Members of the chapter’s Economic Justice Team were focusing their attention on local affordable housing issues. After moving to Smoketown, the team wanted to understand the desires and needs of Smoketown residents within the changing dynamics of Louisville.

Smoketown is Louisville’s oldest and historically black neighborhood settled after the Civil War. The neighborhood is just east of Louisville’s downtown business district, and residential and commercial development has drastically changed areas surrounding Smoketown. In 2012, Smoketown’s Sheppard Square housing project was demolished to make way for a mixed-income housing development funded in part by a federal grant. Since that time the neighborhood has received more attention from city officials and developers.

From housing redevelopment to construction of new infrastructure to the revitalization of a city’s downtown area, change in neighborhoods is an inevitable part of city life. Neighborhoods like Smoketown are most susceptible to complete transformation because they have been neglected over time by both public and private investments. These areas become ripe for redevelopment based on their strategic location, economic opportunity and often their isolation from the political process. Public and private investment interests in and around a neighborhood have the potential to create new opportunities for some. Likewise, the loss of critical neighborhood assets, along with investments made without an understanding of the neighborhood’s history and culture, have the potential to displace residents who have called this neighborhood home for generations.

The Vision Smoketown project evolved into working with residents to define problems and issues in order to develop strategies that bring positive changes in the neighborhood and to its residents’ everyday lives. The Jefferson County chapter’s Economic Justice Team believes that providing a means to convey a community’s voice can lead to a more collaborative community vision and help develop future neighborhood leaders. Given the rapidly changing dynamics in Smoketown, chapter members thought it crucial to gather current information from Smoketown residents in order to spur conversations among the residents, policy makers, investors, business leaders and others about how changes in Louisville will impact the Smoketown neighborhood in the next 10 to 30 years. More important, Vision Smoketown provides an opportunity for current residents to have a positive influence in shaping the future of their neighborhood.

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The goals of Vision Smoketown were to: 

  1. Understand what people in Smoketown want and need;
  2. Highlight existing Smoketown strengths and assets;
  3. Communicate the need to preserve Smoketown’s rich history, heritage and sense of identity, and other things that its residents value; and
  4. Address the need for better community engagement and residents’ desires for more people to participate in community decision-making. 

In late 2013 and early 2014, Economic Justice Team members developed a 51-question survey in partnership with the Center For Neighborhoods and organized a community canvassing project, which launched in May 2014. From May through August, about 40 KFTC members and volunteers knocked on every door in Smoketown and collected a total of 140 survey responses. They continued cultivating relationships with neighbors during three community cookouts held in the backyard of KFTC’s office. This work was recognized when the chapter received the Gladys Maynard “Start of Something Big” award during the KFTC Annual Meeting in August 2014. 

Smoketown GetDown

In September 2014 the chapter hosted the Smoketown GetDown for Democracy, a neighborhood block party powered by the people celebrating Smoketown’s rich history and culture and the completion of the canvassing phase of the chapter’s Vision Smoketown project.  Smoketown GetDown was held on Lampton Street, right in front of the KFTC office. This first-time event was co-hosted by KFTC, Kertis Creative and West Sixth Brewing and co-sponsored by 16 other local nonprofits and businesses (co-sponsors include: The Anne Braden Institute For Social Justice Research, Awesome Everyday, BATES Community Development Corporation, Center For Neighborhoods, Harambee Health Center, Inc., Headliners Music Hall, Heine Brothers, IDEAS 40203, Kentucky Jobs with Justice, Magnolia Photo Booth Co., New Directions Housing Corporation, Robin Burke Productions, Sustainable Health Choices, Wiltshire Pantry Bakery and Café, and YouthBuild Louisville).

Smoketown GetDown was attended by hundreds of Smoketown residents, KFTC members and allies, and community members from across Louisville. The event featured live music, dance, and art, local food vendors, information tables and hands-on activities organized by 21 neighborhood organizations and businesses, and a voter registration drive. The event was emceed by Smoketown native Aubrey Clemons. Clemons and fellow KFTC members spent the days leading up to the event going door-to-door inviting our neighbors to attend.

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Smoketown residents Keishanna Hughes and Ellen Sloan welcomed the crowd to their neighborhood and talked about the positive impact Smoketown has had on their lives. KFTC member Michael Hiser and Louisville Metro Councilwoman Attica Scott encouraged the crowd to support state legislation to restore voting rights to former felons. Councilwoman Scott was the lead sponsor of the Louisville Restoration of Voting Rights resolution, which passed last summer. Member Ashanti Dallas, who interned with KFTC this summer and is a recent graduate of YouthBuild Louisville (also headquartered in Smoketown), talked about her first memories of voting and encouraged everyone in the crowd to vote in the general election.

There were also plenty of hands-on activities at Smoketown GetDown, including a live art wall, free bike repairs, fitness, hand massage, self-care, an interactive voting booth, and the ever fun Magnolia Photo Booth Co. Center For Neighborhoods signed up dozens of neighbors to help reactivate the Smoketown Neighborhoods Association, which has been inactive for about two years.

Smoketown GetDown was a huge success and attended by Louisvillians from various walks of life. Sixteen people joined KFTC during the event, and 17 people registered to vote. The crowd left feeling energized and excited about the future of Smoketown. Neighbor Ellen Sloan said, “Thanks for making our neighborhood come to life again. Let’s do this more often.” State Representative Tom Riner attended the event and later sent an email to event organizers saying, “My wife, Claudia, and I enjoyed attending the event in Smoketown yesterday, and appreciate all you did to make it a success. Please stay in contact about future endeavors.”

Member Shavaun Evans said, “I saw nothing but smiles at the GetDown! Smiles on the faces of children at the live art wall, from participants – old and young – moving along with dance and Zumba instructors, and on the faces of community members, volunteers, and vendors, excited to take part in an event that was powered by the Smoketown community.”  The chapter hopes to make the Smoketown GetDown an annual event. 

Vision Smoketown Survey

A few weeks prior to Smoketown GetDown, the 14-member Vision Smoketown Team began compiling the results of the Smoketown community survey and drafting the Vision Smoketown Survey Report. Kertis Creative donated its design services and member Jessica Bellamy designed several elements of the report, including the front cover and an infographic. The chapter also secured $2,000 in Neighborhood Development Funding from Louisville Metro Councilman David Tandy’s office to help cover more than half of the report printing costs.

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The report was released to the public during a press event held in the backyard of KFTC’s office. About 80 people attended the event, including Smoketown residents and representatives from local government, nonprofits and local media outlets. Attendees were given copies of the report and encouraged to utilize the information and share it with others. Twelve local nonprofits working in Smoketown were given 25 copies apiece to share with their constituents. Members delivered copies to survey participants and thanked them for their participation in this important project. The Vision Smoketown Survey Report is available online at www.kftc.org/visionsmoketown

Thanks to the hard work and commitment of several Smoketown residents and allies, the Smoketown Neighborhood Association is being reestablished. Councilman David Tandy attended their January meeting to begin addressing some of the issues raised in the Vision Smoketown Survey Report. The chapter remains committed to working in Smoketown and seeing Vision Smoketown come to life.

If interested in joining the chapter’s efforts, contact Jefferson County Organizer Alicia Hurle at 502-589-3188 or alicia@kftc.org. To read the report, visit www.kftc.org/visionsmoketown. Watch member Jessica Bellamy's Vision Smoketown presentation here

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