Soon, visitors will descend upon the Old Louisville neighborhood for the St. James Court Art Show and later, the Garvin Gate Blues Festival. And when they do, they can enjoy the completion of the Garvin Gate restoration project.
It was an overcast evening in late August as friends of the Garvin Gate Neighborhood Association came together for a block party, celebrating the completion of a $60,000 project. Children played in the street, neighbors challenged each other to rounds of cornhole, and congregations gathered at the community’s cast iron gate – the centerpiece of the party.
Originally constructed circa 1987, Garvin Gate had the unfortunate distinction of being an object of abuse. According to residents, motorists had kept crashing into the gate and caused marginal damage throughout the years. But all that wear and tear accumulated into an eyesore. So, in 2016, the neighborhood came together to fundraise and rebuild it.
“The amazing thing about this project is it was a cooperative effort between all the associations,” said Christopher Bosson, president of the Garvin Gate Neighborhood Association, referring to the 15 other neighborhood associations that exist in Old Louisville.
“We went around to just about every association in Old Louisville, trying to get them on board,” Bosson explained. “We were telling them about the history of gate, getting them excited about the gate, and asked for donations.”
The history of the gate, as Bosson pointed out, was not only crucial in finding support for its renovation; it’s an important part of understanding how the neighborhood has changed over time. In order to grasp the significance of Garvin Gate and all the celebrations thereof, one must go back more than 30 years, to an incident that fractured a large swath of the city.
The original Garvin Gate
It happened on a cold February morning in 1981, just minutes before dawn, when a chemical explosion erupted through roughly 13 miles of Old Louisville sewer lines and destroyed several houses in its wake.
Local authorities discovered the source of the ignition was the Ralston Purina soybean processing plant, which had been illegally dumping highly flammable hexane vapors into the sewer. (The Purina plant occupied the now-demolished silos near the University of Louisville, which were once visible from Interstate 65.)
Scarred by 38-foot-deep manhole craters, the puckered streets contained fractures along sewer lines that threatened the area with backup overflows. Many residents were displaced due to lack of access to potable water, and the resulting damage had a detrimental impact on local businesses.
To this day, the incident is frequently cited by city planners and engineers to demonstrate the importance of strict environmental regulations in urban sewer districts.
Eventually, the neighborhood recovered. Sewer lines were repaired and replaced. Traffic patterns returned to normal. During the process of rebuilding the community, the residents of Garvin Place decided to pave their streets with more than just brick and mortar. They made a gate.
With design assistance from Garvin resident and the architect Jeff Points, a dedicated group of people worked to install the original Garvin Gate. That group later went on to organize what is now known as the Garvin Gate Neighborhood Association.
Before the gate went up, motorists had been using the street as a thoroughfare, which diminished the overall safety and walkability of the area. After the chemical explosion damaged the northern edge of the road, neighbors jumped at the opportunity to reduce through traffic and rebuild a more pedestrian-friendly street.
“Could you imagine them doing anything like that today?” Bosson asked. “Can you imagine people getting up in arms about traffic and speeding so much that they would put up a gate?”
Before they could build the gate, the neighborhood association needed permission from then-mayor Jerry Abramson and Eighth Ward alderman Tom Denning. As luck would have it, Denning’s legislative assistant lived in the famous C. Lee Cook house on the corner of 6th and Ormsby and was able to sway the decision in favor of the gate.
“There were so many business owners, engineers, lawyers who lived right here, on Garvin,” said Kevin Carman, the Garvin Gate Neighborhood Association representative for the Old Louisville Neighborhood Council. “It was that kind of pull on the city that enabled them to put the original gate put up.”
Entrance to the neighborhood
Aesthetically, the neighborhood never wanted to give the sense that the gate was supposed to function as a barricade or a wall. Rather, the elegant-yet-simple design of the original gate was meant to blend into the community and provide a sense of place.
“We wanted, from the Oak Street side, for the gate to look like an entrance,” Bosson explained. “It’s supposed to look like you’re entering in somewhere.”
However, residents grew tired of constantly fixing the old battered gate. In February 2016, shortly after Bosson became president of the neighborhood association, the group decided to draft up a new design.
The new layout called for a new brick wrap around the old pillars that flanked the gate and the addition of two new columns. Part of the original design was the concrete ball on top of the columns, which had carried over into the new plan.
“I think the original idea behind that was to mimic the column and ball at the finish line at Churchill Downs,” Bosson said. “I think you’ll find that in other places around the city: a column with a ball on top.”
During that time, an interior designer named Bethany Adams moved into the area and provided detailed advice for the project, like which types of brick needed to be used and what kinds of plants could go on top of the new columns. Another neighborhood newcomer named Phil Bevins, who worked as a landscape designer, served as the project manager for the gate’s renovation.
Construction began in March 2017 and continued until August. Sidewalks were repaired, new trees were planted, columns were reconstructed, and a new gate was put up. But the work wasn’t limited to the gate.
“One of the things we’ve done over the last two years is a neighborhood-wide tree planting,” Bosson said. “The owners were responsible for taking the existing tree out and clearing the area, but we’ve probably planted close to 200 trees and we’ve done a lot of that here on Garvin.”
The collaborative nature of the project was evidenced by the new brickscape surrounding the newly planted trees, all of which had been laid by volunteers and collected out of the backyards of nearby homeowners.
Throughout the fundraising process, a flood of donations started pouring in: some from former Garvin residents, others from neighboring Old Louisville associations.
“We had about six or seven associations that gave money; some gave as much as $1,000,” Bosson said. “Keep in mind a lot of these are smaller associations – they don’t have a festival like we do and may not have a lot of money in their budget – but they got excited about what we were doing here in Garvin and pitched in.”
The festival Bosson was referring to is the Garvin Gate Blues Festival, which started in 1988 with 400 people in the parking lot of the Rudyard Kipling and eventually expanded into the Garvin neighborhood.
“It’s a two-day festival that brings in nationally known acts and is one of the most well-respected blues festivals in the Midwest,” said Howard Rosenberg, chair of the Garvin Gate Blues Festival. “Last year, we probably had over 18,000 people over the two days.”
The Blues Festival takes place at Garvin Gate each year on the second weekend of October and is free to the public.
“When I first moved in, we had a lot of problems with prostitution and hustling,” Carman explained, partially attributing the issue to the drug culture that carried over from the 1960s. “That vanished for a while, then it started back again. I think it’s because of the change from single family units to rentals and apartments.”
Carman said that perhaps the switch from single family units to rentals and apartments is what led to the rise in loitering, and there’s a lot of research to back up that claim. For instance, homeowners have more incentive to maintain clean and safe neighborhoods, while renters tend to leave such responsibilities up to their landlord.
“It wasn’t just the loitering – it was the trash, it was the prostitution – it was really on an uptick,” Bosson said. “We would call the cops and that kind of thing, but they would just come back.”
Considerations were made regarding how to keep the gate open and inviting, yet intentionally designed to decrease unwanted activity.
“The original design included benches,” Bosson said. “While they’re nice and convenient for people who are walking by, because we have a lot of pedestrian traffic, it also attracted a lot of loiterers and a lot of bad stuff.”
For that reason, the new design sought ways to remove the sidewalk benches along the front of the gate.
“The hope is that one day we could put benches back in, maybe have them closer to the street or something like that,” Bosson explained. “We’re just not at that point right now.”
Carman said he’s witnessed illegal activities near the gate, but the police weren’t able to do anything because the benches were considered public property.
“With the benches there, the police didn’t consider it loitering,” Carman said. “So having the benches there negated the call to the police to get people moving on.”
That’s when one of the members of the neighborhood association saw that a library in Connecticut was dealing with a similar issue with teenagers loitering on the front steps. In order to safely disperse the crowd, the library put up a speaker and started playing classical music out on the front steps, and almost immediately the teenagers vanished.
“So we were like, ‘Hey, let’s give it a shot,’” Bosson said. “So in July, we put up some outdoor speakers and started playing some classical music, and sure enough, a lot of the loiterers and vagrants started moving on.”
According to Carman, loitering dropped 95 percent and littering dropped by 85 percent since the speakers were installed.
“What I’ve noticed that a lot of people who used to loiter at the gate have actually begun to take ownership of this neighborhood,” Bosson said. “Even if they don’t necessarily own homes here, they’ve seen all the effort that we’ve put into this gate. And in many cases they’ve also helped us.”
For example, the cobblestones that are beneath the gate were placed there by volunteers from throughout Old Louisville. Bosson said he’s witnessed an increase in camaraderie from people who feel like they have more ownership of the gate, especially because they helped in its creation.
“When I’m sitting on my porch, I can hear comments being made as people pass by,” Carman said. “There’s a couple, probably in their 20s, and he and his wife are pushing their stroller and have a little kid walking with them. And they make remarks about how safe they feel on this street.”
Surrounded by tall trees and permeable brick pavers, it’s not difficult to see the amount of love and care that went into the neighborhood’s reconstruction.
“I don’t know if people would have felt walking safe here 10 years ago, or even five years ago,” Bosson said. “But it’s good to know that’s how people feel about it now.”