Tucked between a bend in the Ohio River and downtown Louisville, the Shawnee neighborhood in the West End of town was once a neighborhood of choice, full of neatly kept craftsman-style houses that featured stunning woodwork and were filled with thriving, middle- and upper-middle-class families.
But that was decades ago. By the turn of the century, many white families had bolted for the east end and suburbs of Louisville. Shops closed and were replaced by liquor stores. Houses that were once meticulously kept up were neglected and some even abandoned and boarded up. Crime, drugs and prostitution became commonplace.
The West End, however, is on the upswing once again — due in large part to the work of The Fuller Center for Housing and a climate of compassion that continues to grow in the city, especially under the leadership of Mayor Greg Fischer, who wants Louisville to be “the most compassionate city in the world.”
J.J. Wickliffe, 69, has lived in Louisville his whole life, the last 30 in the West End. This week, he has been sitting on the front porch of his West Muhammad Ali Boulevard home watching volunteers hammer, saw, drill and sweep at the home next door that had been boarded up for more than a year. It is one of six once-vacant properties that more than 100 volunteers are restoring for families in need during this year’s Millard Fuller Legacy Build.
Wickliffe has met his soon-to-be neighbors Deborah and Conrad Bennett and said “they’re real nice people.” He thinks of The Fuller Center the same way.
“I think the program is really, really nice,” he said. “It’s helping out the neighborhood a whole lot. It’s a wonderful, beautiful thing. I’ve been here in the West End almost 30 years, and it’s doing a whole lot better than it was. The better housing, I think that’s one of the main reasons why.”
On River Park Drive, 57-year-old Winifred Hammond is a 10-year Army veteran and retired nurse who is raising three grandchildren in a neatly kept rental home for which she pays $700 a month. Next door, Fuller Center volunteers are busy on the most massive rehabilitation project of this year’s Legacy Build. Hammond has gladly been allowing volunteers to use her water and electricity because the vacant house next door has been the source of many headaches — including a break-in in which burglars kicked in her back door and stole more than $10,000 worth of items, among them such irreplaceable items as her high school class ring. They broke in while she was out taking her father to chemotherapy.
“I’ve been calling the police constantly,” she said. “The main thing is the drug addicts trying to break in and smoke crack in it. We didn’t know when they would set it on fire just like they set the liquor store on fire down the street. So, I’m glad that they’re doing something with it. I was wondering how you could fix it without tearing it down to the ground, but it’s starting to look like a house instead of looking like a disaster waiting to happen.”
Real estate agent excited ‘because home ownership matters
Paula Barmore is a RE/MAX real estate agent and a volunteer with The Fuller Center of Louisville. Witnessing and being a part of the resurrection of the West End is a win-win for her. She is thrilled that the neighborhood is taking another giant leap forward thanks to Legacy Build volunteers and supporters.
“To know the difference for these kids, when their eyes light up and they say, ‘I’ve got a house, I’ve got a home,’ and it wasn’t something that was attainable before to their parents or to them … to know that they can do it with help of other people, it’s hugely important to me,” she said.
“This is a place where families are growing, where people are changing their lives. And they want to stay there. As a real estate agent, I’m very excited. But more importantly as a human it’s the right thing to do because home ownership matters, and everybody deserves a decent place to live.”
Fuller Center President David Snell said that changing a community starts with good families — and good families start with good homes.
“The thing about a house is it’s the most important structure in any community because that’s where the family nurtures, and the family is the basic building block of society,” Snell said. “So, houses are more than just structures. They are foundation stones for the community.”
Barmore was there when The Fuller Center of Louisville asked the city where it should begin working, asking city officials where the worst area of town was. They were directed to Boston Court, a little street in the heart of Shawnee.
“We took a whole neighborhood and changed it from a place where you probably wouldn’t feel safe walking down the sidewalk to a place where there are toys in the front yard, kids are playing and people are cleaning up their homes,” she said. “It’s a place where you want to live. I want to take clients there to live and to look at.”
Smart program spurs chain reaction in neighborhoods
Mayor Fischer has sung the praises of The Fuller Center’s work at house dedications since he took office in 2009. He appreciates how The Fuller Center of Louisville has focused its energy on giving vacant homes new life.
“What I love about The Fuller Center is it’s a great use of existing property, so we don’t have to start from scratch,” Mayor Fischer said last April when planning began for this year’s Legacy Build. “It’s obviously more environmentally friendly to do it this way. It takes advantage of homes that have got good bones already and just brings them back to life. It really fits well into the fabric of the existing neighborhood — a very, very smart way to go about reuse.”
River Park Drive’s Hammond is a fan of the mayor and believes his concern for the West End is genuine. She believes the mayor cannot afford to see the West End go back on the decline because it sits between a vibrant downtown and riverside parks. Seeing the homes that remain boarded up tugs at her heart strings.
“Some of them are simply beautiful,” she said. “I grew up down here since I was 4. And a lot of the houses that are boarded up are the homes of the parents of kids I grew up with.”
It makes economic sense to repair these boarded-up homes, according to Barmore, who sees value go up not just for the houses receiving the work but also for the neighboring homes and streets as neighbors feel “peer pressure” to fix up their homes, as well.
“It’s incredible the effect because it raises the value all around, the neighborhood as a whole but specifically the houses surrounding it,” she said. “When you have a house that’s gone from vacant and abandoned to being renovated and increasing the value from sometimes up to $30,000 or $40,000 more than what it was, that is huge for the whole tax base. And for pride of ownership, it’s huge.”
Snell said Fuller Center covenant partners have seen that chain reaction of home improvement everywhere there has been a focus on a single area.
“When you get a house repaired or rebuilt, the neighbors take notice,” he said. “We see this all over. You put a few nice houses in a neighborhood, and other folks start fixing their houses up. It changes the way people feel about their community and the way they feel about one another. There’s a certain caring that comes out of it. People tend to take care of things that they have an investment in. So when people start making an investment in a whole neighborhood, people start taking care of it.”
On Tuesday, that chain reaction effect was evidenced when a teenager who lives across the street from Wickliffe strolled over in his University of Kentucky sweatsuit and took out his earphones to ask two questions:
“What is a Fuller Center?” and “Where do I go to volunteer?”
Video overview of The Fuller Center of Louisville’s work: