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    When 31-year-old Shae Smith was in high school and starting to drive, her friend’s dad told his daughter not to go west of Ninth Street. Smith never understood why. Her mom was in the military and they had moved around throughout her childhood, but when they settled in Louisville’s East End, they’d often visit Shae’s grandparents in Shawnee. Walt, now her husband but then her high school sweetheart, lived in the neighborhood, too.

    Today the Smiths live with their two children in a house they built in Russell. Last spring, they were the first to move into a home that’s part of the Cedar Street Development project, a 25-house project by the nonprofit Community Ventures Corp., which turns vacant lots into custom-built market-rate houses. Community Ventures is also behind other Russell revitalization projects, including the kitchen incubator Chef Space.

    While the prevalence of violent crime has painted the West End as unsafe, the Smiths saw that many stories aren’t part of the narrative. “We wanted to combat that with, hey, it’s such a big area, very densely populated,” Shae says of the more than 60,000 residents. “Yes, we may have a few bad apples, but that doesn’t define our neighborhood.” Last summer, they started a blog called West of Ninth.

    They’ve since interviewed and photographed close to 200 people in west Louisville’s nine neighborhoods, posting stories on Facebook, Instagram and their website. Walt, who works at Humana, says he never leaves home without his camera. They’ll approach strangers and ask them about their lives. They’ve gotten responses on everything from adversity to happiness to religion to history to the generational divide to hard work. And many suggestions on how to make the area better. One answer that kept showing up: Give kids more things to do, more spaces and activities to replace community centers and Boys & Girls Clubs that have closed.

    “Oftentimes, people just need somebody to talk to,” Walt says. He recalls a time when he saw a man walking his dog and thought it would make a great photo, so he walked up to him. “I asked him one simple question” — Are you spiritual or religious? The man opened up to tell about the loss of several family members and his struggles with depression and suicide. “I think he felt good for talking to me because he was like, ‘I’m glad I talked to you today, man,’” Walt says. “And I’m glad I talked to him as well. I told him the same because I felt like his story was powerful.”

    Now that the blog has gotten attention, people will ask if they can be on it. “And it’s crazy ’cause we’ll see the same people that we interview and it’s kind of like we made friends along the way,” Walt says. “We’re creating more of a community with this project.”

    Here’s a sampling of photos and stories from West of Ninth, condensed for space.


    “I got $76 in my pocket and you know what I’m getting ready to do? I do this every morning. I walk from here to my job. That’s at Floyd and Breckinridge. Every time I walk to work, I put my TARC money, that’s $1.75, I put it in the jar.”

    — Will, Shawnee


    “All I had was money to buy the building but not money to renovate the building. My customers all pitched in and helped me in some kind of way. We’ve had guys that would come up in here and pick up sledgehammers to knock out walls because they want to see you back in business. That touched me so deep. Plus, 50 percent of the people in here who were helping, I had never cut their hair. That lets you know that this is more than a business.
    “My happiest moment, pertaining to the barber shop, is when I got to cut Muhammad Ali.”

    — Dontay, owner of Clippa City, Russell


    “I don’t even like going out anymore because I don’t want to get shot, at the club, trying to be cute. I want to go to concerts and stuff like that, but I fear.”

    — Shonda, Russell


    "We need some centers around here. There's only a few and you have to travel far to get to them. That'll keep everybody out of trouble. You feel me?"

    — "Young Homes," Portland


    “I just got back into God. Out of my three girls, my oldest one is still living. When I was living in Baltimore, one of my girls was seven years old and got shot in the head. I came back to Louisville and my 16-year-old got shot in the head. My 40-year-old came back from Alaska and now she lives in Houston. I got four grandkids. I turned 60 on Friday, and for a long time I had doubts about God. You know, I lost my two girls, my father died in my arms and I came back to Louisville and my grandmother died. I finally got to meet my mother, whom I didn’t know for 25 years. I couldn’t say that I loved her or liked her, and she died. I also had a sister that jumped off the bridge, so I had a lot of tragedy. I had three suicide attempts, but for some reason, God’s holding me here. I stay with my sister, who is 20 years clean and sober. On April 7th, I’ll be 13 years clean and sober. As far as knowing the Bible, I’m dyslexic, but I’m teaching myself to get through it. I don’t associate with too many people. I walk her. She’s a good therapy dog. She’s not mean to anybody. This is my buddy.”

    — Sam, Parkland


    "We started on 22nd Street, but when that riot hit (in 1968), we moved. I remember the day of the riot. I came home and my mother came and told me that we were packing and moving. They burned everything. How to fix the violence? Not more police but economics. When we came down here, we had a Winn-Dixie, a drug store and a bakery. We didn't have to travel. Everything was in the community."

    — Darnell, Shawnee


    “If my life was an album, the title would be Cold Nights. A lot of people from different races don’t understand what we go through. I remember cold nights and not having nothing to eat. I wasn’t able to do things that I wanted to do because it was a struggle.”

    — Vashaun (center) with Larry (right) and J’Shaun, Shawnee


    “At one point I traveled to Switzerland with the University of Louisville Wind Symphony. That was the first time I left the country. That was also the first time I flew on a plane. Being from Parkland…it was a culture shock, in a positive way. I was around people that spoke several languages; there wasn’t a lick of trash in the streets. The water looked like Frost Ice Gatorade. It took me out of my realm for a minute. When we came back, I knew that I wanted to travel the world, in some way, shape or form. I have family members who never left west Louisville. I have friends that never left west Louisville.”

    — Jecorey “1200” Arthur, Russell


    “We’ve been here for 47 years. We love the area. We’re right next to the golf course and near the parks. We met at the movies. That’s when he let me know that he knew who I was. I didn’t know him. We were in class together in college. He was in my math class, clownin’! I was afraid of him and I made sure that I sat in the front. He was in the back with his friends and they gave the professor the blues. I was poor and dignified. I was a poor girl, but I carried myself like a lady.”

    — Walter and Pernilla Smith, Shawnee


    “He can wear any color — I don’t want him in no gang. He can wear red, yellow, blue, orange, whatever he wants to wear. I don’t want him in no gang, man. My son inspires me.”

    — “OG” Earl, Russell


    “A longtime dream of mine is being a zoologist and having my own Animal Planet show. I love animals, man. I start college in January, so I’ll be working toward that. My grandma keeps animals and stuff. She used to sit me down and read animal books and would take me to the zoo. Now, I’m getting into it and going to school for it.”

    — Ernest, Parkland


    “My three words to describe the West are lovely, nice and beautiful. This is where I live and where I come from. It’s my neighborhood. It’s home. I mean, there’s a couple problems out here, with the young cats killing each other, but other than that I love my neighborhood. We just gotta come together. All the communities within the West End should have a get-together or something.”

    — Andre and Kehianes, Russell


    “One of my proudest moments of being a dad is seeing her go to school.”

    — Mike and Nevaeh, Parkland


    "There's nothing wrong with a man crying because we're human and we're going to feel pain."

    — Rich (left) with Kevin (center) and Snipe, Shawnee


    “I hate to hear people at my job talk about ‘west of Ninth Street.’ They think that if you come down here and someone looks at you wrong, you’re going to get shot up. That’s not the case — at all.”

    — Brittany, California


    “This is my son right here. I lost him in March. He was 22. Shit’s hard out here, bruh. It gets real out here.”

    — Critter, Parkland


    “Let’s see, my mother passed away when I was two. My dad left us at a foster home and we stayed there until I was four. Then we went to a family member and I had a lot of physical, mental and sexual abuse that happened to me. Since the age of two, my life has been one big storm. My God and my three kids keep me positive. I have my moments, but when I get to that point where I’m going to do something stupid, God’s like, ‘Hey, now!’”

    — Brittany and Kevin, Park Hill


    “Growing up, myself and a group of friends used to go to Victory Park and hang out. We would ride bikes, play kick ball…the type of stuff that kids don’t do anymore.”

    — Takesia, Park DuValle


    “You read this shirt right here? It’s the most exciting time of my life. I’m 65 and still kicking it and I don’t look a day over 56. This is the most exciting time for me!”

    — Gladys, Shawnee

    You can keep up with West of Ninth through Facebook, Instagram and their website.

    This originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. Every story in our March issue is about west Louisville, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Click here to read more from part four of our series on the West End.

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    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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