The Louisville Urban League’s plan for a Sports and Learning Center at 30th and Muhammad Ali represents a long overdue investment in West Louisville. It is a meaningful step in the direction of investing in a neighborhood that was, many decades ago, intentionally created by white people with power to be a poor community in which people of color would live.
For most of my life, I believed that poor neighborhoods were created by a series of unfortunate but mostly unintentional events into which people of color happened to have been caught. I knew that the actions of some racist individuals contributed to a lack of opportunity for black and brown people. I realized, for example, that white people burned crosses and dynamited a home that Louisville civil rights activists Carl and Anne Braden dared purchase in a white neighborhood for a black couple. I knew that employers often refused to hire people of color and that landlords often excluded them from renting their homes.
While you could argue that it doesn’t matter how racism has created disparities of wealth and opportunity in our city, I contend that apportioning blame for how the neighborhood that the Louisville Urban League will develop for a Sports and Learning Center became a blighted toxic site — one surrounded by dilapidated homes inhabited by people with very few opportunities — changes everything in terms of a community’s responsibility to do something about it.
If I believe that private individuals who lived before me and who held racist beliefs and ideologies that are abhorrent to me caused the lack of opportunity in West Louisville today, it’s easy for me to wipe my hands of any responsibility to try to do something about it. After all, I’m not to blame for what others have done in the past. But if I realize that my local, state and federal governments, my judicial system — local, state and federal police and courts — intentionally and unconstitutionally created this site and others like it west of 9th Street, then I am complicit in its creation. And I am called to respond.
Since after Reconstruction in the late 19th Century, the federal government not only allowed and facilitated segregation of neighborhoods by race, but it actively created ways of keeping blacks and whites from living together. In the 1920s, the government began an advertising campaign directed at whites only, encouraging them to move out of apartments and into single-family homes.
In the 1930s the Roosevelt administration made maps of cities, giving neighborhoods different colors based upon the perceived threat of foreclosure. Neighborhoods where the residents were mostly black were given the color red, indicating a perceived high risk. This legal residential system of apartheid, known as redlining, then became the basis upon which banks, builders and the government invested in and made loans to people moving into white neighborhoods while rejecting those who lived in areas where people of color lived.
Because black neighborhoods received low ratings in this system, their residents had no access to credit, mortgage insurance (which allows banks to take risks on homeowners with low down payments), wealth and capital for many decades. And while the notions of white supremacy that undergirded those systems of ranking neighborhoods were in part the fault of racist individuals, the federal government not only tolerated the system, but it helped create it.
FHA, which insures loans made to people without large down payments, actually required builders to add deed restrictions before they would insure the construction of homes in those areas. The all-white subdivision was created, and it has largely stayed in existence — and mostly segregated — ever since. Meanwhile, areas west of 9th Street were deemed too risky for builders, banks and the government. So, very few people could afford to build decent housing in the neighborhood. For many years, courts upheld discriminatory deed restrictions and police enforced them, allowing pickets, bombs and terrorism of black people who attempted to live in or around white neighborhoods. Indeed, the people who bombed Carl and Anne Braden’s home weren’t charged with a crime, but the Bradens were convicted of sedition and Carl spent time in prison.
Homeownership is the primary source of wealth in most families. Equity in homes allows people to pass wealth on to their children. It’s not difficult to trace the line from redlining in neighbors of color to a lack of wealth today. If you couldn’t get a loan to buy a home in a decent neighborhood, you either continued renting or you bought a home with expensive loan terms — and, either way, you never generated wealth.
Selling your home was next to impossible because any would-be purchaser would also not be able to find a loan. This cycle continued for decades, robbing people of opportunities and potential wealth. Add to that housing and wealth crisis the active and overt discrimination that occurred for decades in educational and employment opportunities, and the discriminatory judicial system (from racially biased arrests to convictions and sentencing), and it’s not difficult to see how the neighborhood at the corner of 30th and Muhammad Ali — and for that matter most of the neighborhoods west of 9th Street — was neglected and became as toxic as it is today.
Knowing that, as a white person, I benefited from the private and public system that allowed my parents to get good loans in safe neighborhoods, that allowed them to develop the wealth necessary to be able to make education a priority in our family, and something that we could afford, I am called to raise money for the Urban League’s Sports and Learning Center.
While I don’t think it will change the neighborhood overnight, I believe that it’s a good start. The sports and education facilities will directly benefit those in the neighborhood. There are plans to build a hotel next to the site. Space is being made for restaurants and businesses owned and operated by people in the neighborhood. Maybe some of these residents will finally be able to build wealth and gain access to desperately needed homeownership opportunities. And a toxic site not fit for children to walk past, let alone play on, is being cleaned up and will become a beautiful, state-of-the-art center that will attract athletes and their families from all over the country.
We have a long way to go to address the inequities our government has helped to create in this neighborhood. Homeownership opportunities and wealth building will continue to be challenges for our neighbors west of 9th Street. But the track is a good start. We have raised $17 million of the $35 million needed for this project. Please join me, and let’s bring this one to the finish line.
John Borders is a real estate attorney and is on the Board of Directors for the Louisville Urban League. He serves on the Development Committee for the Sports and Learning Center.