Welcome, race fans: So, you think you’re in Louisville? Think again
This is Louisville’s week.
The week before the Kentucky Derby, when everybody here is just a little smarter, cuter and happier than most other times of the year.
Kind of like what happens when you’re having several drinks under the enhancing glow of neon light.
Anyway, I love my hometown. And, I’m proud when it gets headlines for something other than someone going postal at a strip mall.
I just wish I still recognized Louisville.
Oh, Highlands, I knew ye well
Take, for example, the neighborhood where I’ve spent most of my life. The Highlands.
Bardstown Road and Baxter Avenue – the commercial heart of the area – is still a pretty cool place. It’s where your cabbie will take you to party Derby week if you’re one of the Beautiful People.
But the Bardstown Road and Baxter Avenue area has changed. A lot. It isn’t nearly as cool, weird, funky or *mine* as it used to be.
If you came to Louisville for Derby 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, you may remember the Highlands. The dirty, crazy, quirky, slightly dangerous and tolerant Highlands.
You may remember places like Annie’s. Where Annie herself – in housedress, hairnet and flip-flops – would shovel eggs, toast and strong coffee your way.
Or, other Highlands’s dives where natives and visitors worked, ate, drank, loafed, smoked, tripped, passed out and came to. The Louisville which Hunter S. Thompson had in mind when he reported long ago about his hometown’s Derby depravity.
The neighborhood that was settled and occupied by a slice of Louisville’s shabby gentility (a hat tip to Mark Twain for that snappy phrase) and the people who worked for them. My mostly Catholic-Protestant-Episcopalian-Baptist city’s old Southern-leaning, Bourbon-soaked moneyed class (and its trust-fund offspring) and the clerks and laborers living on the other side of the figurative track. The neighborhood that oh-by-the-way produced Hunter Thompson.
Nowadays, visiting race fans are going to find Panera Breads and Dunkin’ Donuts and lots and lots of trendy bars and successful, designer eateries throughout the Highlands. Which, despite doing a great job of fitting in architecturally and of supporting legions of servers and bartenders, might be enough to make Dr. Thompson blow his brains out all over again.
Part of a trend
If you’re downtown and want to hang out where Derby-time Louisville used to live, work, laugh and play back in the day, I doubt you’ll find it. (Other than at The Seelbach and The Brown, which you might remember if you were fortunate enough to have partied with F. Scott Fitzgerald when he was in town.)
You won’t find Jake’s or The Penguin Bar, both bulldozed for the Marriott hotel. Instead, you’ll find Fourth Street Live, a generic entertainment fantasyland dreamed up by a team of marketers in Baltimore.
Visitors might get a tip to head to Louisville’s old East End – sometimes referred to as NuLu – for a taste of that area’s vaunted native cuisine and local hipster flavor.
NuLu, however, is Yuppie Porn. It’s a safe, fun, upmarket, color-coordinated, Disneyesque fantasy of well-designed shops and restaurants for well-designed people – our creative classes.
It bears little resemblance to the noisy, smelly, colorful East Louisville of the Haymarket and of one of the city’s red-light districts. The East End where Jews and Lebanese and others new to this country came to live and run family businesses after Ellis Island.
Yeah, I know. Is it better to cede East Market to homeless vagrants and tittie bars?
I’m not the smartest guy in the room, but isn’t there something in between? Do we have to destroy East Louisville (to paraphrase the U.S. official referring to the bombing of Vietnam’s Ben Tre) to save it?
Some urban archaeology
I may be able to carbon date when Louisville’s original Highlands disappeared. It was on or about Dec. 4, 2008.
Remember Omar’s? The gyros place near Wick’s Pizza?
Dec. 4, 2008, was when Omar’s died. As in, Under New Management and being fitted for ferns and no-hands towel dispensers.
Omar’s was just about the last place I could go where I could connect with the old Highlands. The Highlands I remember.
OK, I just thought of a possible last-ditch holdout or two. Unless Ralph has sold The Outlook to TimeWarnerSonyDisney. Keith’s Hardware does a good job of representing, too. And, if you thought ear-x-tacy was old school, snap out of it and check out Underground Sounds for the real deal.
Anyway, maybe you have another, personal moment that marks the death of the Highlands for you. Or, the downward decline of its funky, original Louisville vibe. Your own carbon-dating moment.
Maybe it was the opening of the Starbucks at the corner of Highland and Baxter avenues. How about the Friday Trolley Hop? Bardstown Road Aglow? A Facebook group page for The Highlands of Louisville, Kentucky?
Yeah, but ….
And, if you think you’re going to find some tattered remnants of old Louisville out at the track, don’t even get me started. True, you’ll have fun and you might even remember some of it afterward.
Col. Matt Winn – the showman who re-invented the Kentucky Derby as we know it in the early 20th Century – would probably love what Churchill Downs has become.
He just wouldn’t know where he was.
About Doug Stern: Doug Stern is a freelance writer who has lived in Louisville for most of his life. His mother was born and grew up on East Market Street near Shelby, where her father had a tailor’s shop.