Historic communities are, by their very existence, full of contrast – even if that diversity goes unseen by the modern viewer. I imagine there are many people who see West Louisville as a single neighborhood, unified only by economic disparity, fear of violence, and boarded-up buildings with openings left expressionless by sheets of plywood. This is not a story of that West Louisville. Yes, plywood is involved, but it plays a secondary role.
It requires no great stretch of the imagination to say that the Ohio River shaped Louisville. The area of the Falls City known as West (or Western) Louisville extends west from Ninth Street, cradled in the curve of the river – a watershed that created and ravaged numerous communities over the generations. Three early towns are located in West Louisville: Shippingport, Portland, and Parkland. Every major ethnic group and economic class has called West Louisville home.
In 1900, an Irish immigrant named Mark Loftus lived in the camelback shotgun that now has the address of 2326 West Muhammad Ali Boulevard, but in earlier records was known as 2318 Walnut Street.
It first appears on the 1905 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, but was likely built in the last quarter of the 19th century. The 1884 Atlas (the first image) does show scattered development in that section of Walnut Street.
Since Hurricane Katrina, Louisville has the largest collection of historic shotguns in the United States. The camelback shotgun is one variation on the shotgun type; the rear room (usually the kitchen) has a second story added above. The camelback is not always a full two stories; one-and-one-half story examples are also common.
Between 1840 and 1860, Louisville’s population burgeoned, with Irish and German nationals settling in the city. The Irish immigrants were fleeing from the Great Famine of 1845-1852 (in which the potato blight played a large role), and clustered in Louisville’s West End. By 1850, some 7,537 German immigrants and 3, 105 Irish immigrants called Louisville home.
Mark Loftus immigrated from Ireland in 1846 with his family – he was just a baby in his mother’s arms. In the 1880 Census, he is listed as shoemaker, and he and his wife Annie had seven children – the youngest, Edward, was just three years old.
In the 1900 census, only three children remained at home, and all were working – as dressmakers, paperhangers, and as a “decorator.” Like many of his neighbors, Mark Loftus owned his own home, outright, with no mortgage.
The frame camelback shotgun may not have been overly large, but it had enough room for the family. The facade was stylish – with elongated windows in the Italianate style, with bracketed hoodmolds at the top of each window, and brackets and dentils accenting the hoodmold above the front door.
Six years later, Annie Loftus was a widow. And by 1907, the Loftus family apparently left Walnut Street and Louisville. The baby of the family, Edward, was living in Los Angeles, California in 1920, with his family, which included two of his sisters, Annie and Ella.
The Loftus family illustrates an important trend found in most urban centers – the demographic shift. As Irish families moved out of Louisville, or into different parts of the city, African American families, helped by a lawsuit in 1917 that declared restrictive real estate ordinances unconstitutional (Buchanan-Whaley case, which challenged a city ordinance barring blacks from buying houses in predominantly “white” blocks of Louisville), moved into West Walnut and West Chestnut Streets.
Neighborhoods change over time. Change is making its mark now, in the form of both boarded-up windows and doors on houses (plywood’s role), the demolition of buildings, and the efforts to better link West Louisville to the rest of the the city. Barriers to that can be found in the rail lines and highways that cut off the many neighborhoods west of Ninth Street from the rest of the city.
It’s interesting that such a wide, flat, and fertile river valley, which developed in a variety of ways – tobacco warehouses from the late-19th century, truck farms, streetcar suburbs – has been boiled down to just “West Louisville.” When I wander through West Louisville, I am not blind to what transportation corridors, Urban Renewal, and neglect have wrought in the area.
But I also see, street by street, amazingly rich layers of history, with houses that are homes, not just examples of period style or building – and families that work hard to make life better for their children. West Louisville has never been homogeneous, and perhaps that is what makes it so hard for people to understand its challenges and its significance and viability.