I appreciate that lots of people like NuLu.
That’s the name recently invented for the area just east of downtown Louisville along Main and Market.
Once the scruffy landing page for immigrant merchants, tradespeople and their families, it has been transformed – or is on its way.
In the last three or four years, East Louisville has gone from homeless shelters and desolate, vacant storefronts to one of our city’s hottest spots to eat, drink, work, buy, hang out, play, be entertained, see and be seen.
What it is about NuLu that triggers such vehemence? What do some of us see? Or, not see?
I get that everybody who likes NuLu probably likes NuLu – or a piece of NuLu — for different reasons.
- Some scene-seekers are drawn by other scene-seekers, NuLu’s novelty and its Green, artsy, indie, edgy, hipster vibe.
- Others like that people may no longer look at them as though they’re nuts (or pitiful) when they say they live in nearby Butchertown or Phoenix Hill.
- Some fans believe that NuLu has helped move Louisville up a notch or two on the Creative Class index … and that this is a good thing.
I like the part of NuLu that has kept a bunch of old buildings with character from neglect and demolition. I also like NuLu’s high design and construction standards … just what you might expect from an art and architecture snob like me.
I like that there’s still apparently room for the quirky, independent and spontaneous in NuLu.
How much room is hard for me to tell.
I like that there are some rebellious and affordable merchants and others in East Louisville who don’t seem to care much about what others – including potential customers – think about them. The ones who are ready to move on when it stops being fun or affordable or when they grow up.
That’s the part of East Louisville I knew back in the day. The East Louisville of Rick Towles and Steve Irwin and Billy Hertz.
The edgy, weird and different. It might also be the part of NuLu that’s liable to disappear if we’re not careful.
Yeah, but …
I understand that it’s still early in NuLu’s arc. There’s more to come. More housing, more infill and more who-knows-what.
NuLu is riding a pretty big trend or two. For example, The Brookings Institution recently reported that most large American cities are growing faster than their suburbs. The why, according to its analysis of census data, is because younger adults are opting for urban life. That’s shifting the attention of retailers, employers, schools and others inward.
There’s a bunch of stuff about NuLu, however, about which I’m not so sure. Parts that rub me and others the wrong way.
Maybe it’s that NuLu that reminds us of ourselves and our times. However you and I might judge NuLu and its various pieces and complexities – good, bad and in between – it’s a mirror.
NuLu is also a choice. With costs and consequences we’d be wise to consider and to discuss with one another.
Who went and picked NuLu prom queen?
For instance, NuLu has an impact on people like Andrew Hutto. He’s the founder-owner of the long-popular Baxter Station restaurant and bar who recently announced that he was putting his business up for sale.
“I drive Lexington Road to work every day, and it really needs repaving,” Hutto began. “But instead, millions of dollars are being spent on NuLu’s sidewalks. Why? … When the sidewalk around my own property needs fixing, I’m told I’m responsible for it.”
Impact? It’s discouraging enough to bust your tail for 23 years, weathering the ups and downs of the seasons, competition from too many restaurants, the economy, fickle customers and more. The Flavor-of-the-Month message Hutto and other local old timers hear when they think about NuLu adds insult to injury.
Darwinian? The death of the old to make room for the new, fresh and evolving? Maybe, but only if you believe that we live in a binary, either/or world.
Architecture in the Age of Facebook
Sometimes I feel as though I’m walking through a stage set when I visit NuLu. I’m having trouble putting my finger on it, but it feels…well, made-up.
It feels to me like a really well-designed, well-managed and well-funded fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless. NuLu reminds me of the studied imagineering of Disney World or of The Summit shopping center out on Highway 22.
It’s a feeling I don’t get in Old Louisville, or West Main Street, or in the Highlands and Crescent Hill.
It feels like a Yuppie theme park. As if I were walking through a 3D J. Peterman catalog.
NuLu is our newest Facebook friend. Louisville’s hipsterati can pay a little bit more for craft beer or upscale grub at some places on East Market and be assured that despite the “This Is Differen”t narrative we hear or make up, we’re really paying for the comfort, safety and sameness of being with our tribe – with People Like Us.
The great historian Daniel Boorstin foresaw this 50 years ago. In “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America,” he predicted NuLu, writing that modern culture is “ruled by extravagant expectations,” including the ability “to be somewhere else when we haven’t left home.”
I’ll be the first to ask, So what? After all, one of our city’s most-beloved spaces – Old Louisville’s Saint James Court – began in the 1880s as a romanticized version of English city-square architecture developed for Louisville’s nouveau riche. I live in a cozy 1938-vintage, make-believe Cotswold cottage and I’m very OK with that.
Plus, there’s nothing wrong with making an honest living, plying your trade, creating jobs and scratching somebody’s itch. Even if that includes selling designer meat, curated cupcakes or Trailer Park Chic to bourgeois bohemians and the carriage trade from the Deep East End.
Better to build high-end commerce on East Market than way out in the suburbs, yes?
The Cost of Illusion
The So what of the alone-together, make-believe NuLu is that there’s a price for choosing fiction over the real deal. By choosing NuLu, we marginalize the authentic, don’t we? We appropriate the real bodegas and Mexican restaurants on Preston Highway or French-Vietnamese cuisine on Southside Drive and then pretend they don’t exist.
We weaken support for artists living and working in Portland and Germantown and other, less-well-hyped creative nooks and crannies of our community. As consumers and patrons, we rob them of our money, attention, energy and support when we opt for the safely packaged.
I’m concerned that we’re numbering the days that weird and new and creative can afford East Louisville. I’m no economist, but I wonder whether Charles Reed is typical.
The chef-owner of Henry’s Place, according to Steve Coomes, chose U.S. 42 and outer Saint Matthews when he hit town a few months ago looking to create his art. As Steve reported, Reed pays “ … about $3,000 a month vs. $7,000 he was offered for a NuLu spot one-third the size.”
When Brooklyn’s gentrified Williamsburg becomes our gold standard, we won’t keep Louisville weird. Instead, we hasten the day when a lot of families in historically bare-knuckled Butchertown and Phoenix Hill can’t afford to live in their own neighborhoods.
Tough luck? More Darwinism? Maybe.
It’s ironic that NuLu abets this shift. One of its greatest strengths is how beautifully and cleverly it leverages a reputation for anti-materialistic, hardcore art and punk nightlife that goes back 20-plus years.
So, I bet Boorstin would challenge us. He’d warn that until we lift the fog of illusion – made most dense by our strengths, not our weaknesses – we’ll pay the price with stagnation or worse. As he put it, “More and more of our experience thus becomes invention rather than discovery. The more planned and prefabricated our experience becomes, the more we include in it only what ‘interests’ us.
“We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in their place.”
About Doug Stern: Doug Stern, bourgeois bohemian, has lived in Louisville his whole life. “I’d be a Yuppie if I were still young and upwardly mobile.”