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Richmond IndyMedia Live! Every Tuesday, 12:30 - 1PM on 97.3 WRIR LP-FM, and streaming online from wrir.org!

LOCAL Commentary :: [none]

Louisville is Winning

Ten years ago, a small group of visionaries in Louisville, Kentucky, my adopted hometown, started dreaming big dreams. They dreamed that the desolate, post-apocalyptic mess of overgrown lots and former industrial buildings coupled underneath the city’s notorious Spaghetti Junction (where I-65, I-64 and I-71 meet) on the Ohio River could be beautiful, full of activity and the envy of downtowns everywhere. It was around that same time that a plan was being put together to breathe some life in Richmond’s long abandoned Canal System and downtown islands. Some things have worked well in both cities, but Richmond lags far behind the next major city westbound on I-64. Here’s why.
“Louisville Is Winning?

Ten years ago, a small group of visionaries in Louisville, Kentucky, my adopted hometown, started dreaming big dreams. They dreamed that the desolate, post-apocalyptic mess of overgrown lots and former industrial buildings coupled underneath the city’s notorious Spaghetti Junction (where I-65, I-64 and I-71 meet) on the Ohio River could be beautiful, full of activity and the envy of downtowns everywhere. It was around that same time that a plan was being put together to breathe some life in Richmond’s long abandoned Canal System and downtown islands. Some things have worked well in both cities, but Richmond lags far behind the next major city westbound on I-64. Here’s why.

In Richmond, city dignitaries, big business and politicos decided what they thought would be best for the redevelopment of downtown’s James River access points, namely rebuilding the city’s old Canal System into a tourist walk in the vein of a successful model in San Antonio. The whopping $52 million project was completed amidst much fanfare five years ago this summer. The series of walkways and pedestrian bridges stretch over a span of about a dozen city blocks between a residential/commercial district and downtown’s financial district. There are a couple of placards, one or two small statues / sculptures and some spectacular views to be sure. What there rarely is though, is people.

Five years later, there still isn’t a single place to eat on the Canal walk proper. No Ice Cream Cones, no Hot Dog vendors, not even a snack machine. Yes, some new restaurants and eateries have sprung up near the Shockoe Bottom club area, but they could have and probably would have appeared without the aid of the walk. Besides, unless you can regularly afford to spend $50 for a dinner for two, you, like me and most of the rest of the Richmond, won’t be eating in any of these new establishments.

Once you get over the being hungry part, your next dilemma begins. What in the world is there to do? Let’s see, you can walk down some creepy, winding, dark steps at night and get the crap scared out of you. You can ride one of the overpriced, canal boats for a relaxing moment. Oh wait, that’s if they’re actually operating, which is just about never. Well, you could ride your bike for a while at least. No, actually encouraging active usage of the docile, lifeless area is prohibited, with emphasis on no biking. So, what does that leave you with? A few good views, a few good scares, not passing or interacting with another soul on a hungry stomach. I can hardly wait for the expansion to Maymont.

Since the Canal Walk’s lifeline seems to be winding down already, city planners have already moved on to new riverfront revitalization schemes. Corporate headquarters, luxury condos, a 'from the ground up' township, a 500 foot tall religious statue and of course everyone’s favorite quick fix, the baseball stadium. This is just the riverfront we’re talking about here. Other desperate maneuvers include a new federal courthouse, a recently finished convention center, new super hotels, a performing arts complex, yada, yada, yada. Nothing for the kids, elderly, poor, or those who have actually lived in downtown all along. What makes Louisville so much better?

Well, they’re actually doing the easy, sensible things really, really well. The kids in Louisville, like the kids everywhere else, love to skate. As long as I can remember Louisville has had an unbelievably high concentration of skaters per capita. What’s one of the biggest complaints you here from downtown business owners and corporations? Skaters are tearing up my stairwell, my landscaping, my handrails and my benches. Seems logical that if there was a place where they could all go, anytime, day or night, without harassment, they would. So why not build it? Well, if it were that easy there would be a state of the art, 24-hour, kid friendly skate park in every downtown. Score one for Louisville.

Not to slight bikers and pedestrians, the new riverfront park is chock full of paths, trails and walkways to pedal or jog around on. Once you get tired of the scenery in the primary park, have no fear, as nearby is the entranceway to a 15 mile long riverfront walkway and bike path. The path winds you through waterside industry, some of the cities oldest neighborhoods and a sprawling park designed by Olmstead himself. You’ll see families picnicking, small kids and elderly adults fishing, lots of bikers, joggers and nature lovers, you know, real, live human beings.

Before I get too far ahead though let’s get back to Riverfront Park. City residents really wanted to see some hands on activities where children could be entertained, while parents were watching nearby. Kid activity number one: one of the most ass kicking playgrounds ever. Nets, ropes, tires, zip lines, slides of all sizes and shapes, bridges, spinning things, noisy things, tunnels and hideaways, all situated over a springy turf-like material that all but eliminates the scrapes, bruises and blood from the playgrounds of my youth. Fun for all ages. Kid activity number two: a great array of fountains shooting water all over the place for the oppressive summer humidity. Once again, fun for the whole gang.

A few blocks down is a long, flowing, impromptu water park. Water drips down a multi-leveled concrete encasement, technically an area for reflection, and drains out to the Ohio. It’s no stretch to say that if you go there right now, there are probably fifty or more people swimming right under the no swimming signs. You jump in for a minute, go dry off on the Great Lawn, look up to the east and one of the first things in your field of vision is the old, abandoned, rusted-out Big 4 Bridge. I’m thirty and grew up in the area and I’d be lying if I said I have any recollection of when last it was used for anything. It’s been a lifetime.

As I write, there are crews meticulously pouring over the joints, bolts, beams and gargantuan concrete support pillars, shaping the Big 4 Bridge up for new life in the 21st Century. As the cornerstone of the third phase of Riverfront Park, it will be converted into a pedestrian and bicycle only bridge across the Ohio, to historic downtown Jeffersonville, Indiana, where the world’s largest inland boat builders reside. Can you imagine how spectacular a car free bridge might be? I can’t even fathom it. I’m not sure if such a thing exists anywhere else in the US. Anyone?

Add it all up and these projects, along with diverse, affordable eateries and a minor league baseball stadium that has actually done something none of its counterparts has: brought tons of people into downtown and stimulated economic growth. There is no chance in the world that will happen when they build a stadium here. We’re doomed to wallow in our own mediocrity. Can anyone tell me why I left Louisville?
 
 


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