Sunday, June 23, 2013

Dixie Highway (Part I in the series "My Louisville")

Northbound on Dixie Highway through Shively; notice the two-story house on the right, now Dixie Florist, just past the Pep Boys.  Note the above-ground power lines that dominate the view.
I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, but until now haven’t written anything about it in my blog, having spent my entire adult life in other places I liked better.  I grew up less than half a mile from Dixie Highway, in Valley Station, which is in the Southwest part of Jefferson County, and really quite far from downtown.  It’s a good 30 to 45 minutes’ drive to the downtown waterfront, depending on which route you take and the traffic conditions.  I could have walked to Valley High School, had I been a student there, but instead I attended Pleasure Ridge Park High School because I was in the advanced program.  For people who are not from Louisville, the name Pleasure Ridge Park (which is also the name for the part of town it’s in) elicits amused smiles and sometimes smirks – but that’s another story.  People in Louisville know it as PRP, and don’t think twice about the name’s origins.

Dixie Highway in Shively -- six lanes plus a center median
I always hated Dixie Highway when I was growing up.  Oh, I doubt that anyone loves Dixie Highway – for folks in Southwest Jefferson County it’s a long, traffic-clogged obstacle between them and getting anywhere fast.  We lived 6.5 miles from my grandparents’ house in Shively, but that drive – nearly all of it along Dixie Highway – seemed interminable.  

Besides Dixie Highway’s congestion, though, it is a real eyesore.  It is one long hideous stretch of unregulated commercial development dominated by car dealerships, fast food outlets, big box stores, strip malls with crummy chain restaurants in their parking lots, drugstores, gas stations with convenience stores, car washes, grocery stores, and countless small businesses filling in the remaining nooks and crannies.  There is one movie theater, the only one serving this entire vast part of town.  Oh, did I mention dive bars, nasty motels, and adult entertainment?  It has its share of those too in certain parts.  The road is lined with above-ground power lines, telephone lines, and traffic signal wires.  There has been no effort to make it aesthetically pleasing, a direct index of the economic impoverishment of this part of town.

I realize that “hate” is a very strong word, and when I say that I hated Dixie Highway, it’s not only because of the traffic nightmare or the aesthetic impoverishment it presents.  My strong emotional reaction was in part a function of my unhappy childhood.  I lived there from about the middle of 4th grade until I graduated from high school; these nine years were about the most unhappy years of my life, though the unhappiness began a few years earlier when my parents divorced.  Growing up I always associated my personal misery with the apparent squalor of Dixie Highway.  My family was poor – more accurately I should say lower middle class, because we did have all the economic necessities, and were doing better than many folks in this community, but that’s not saying a lot.  In Louisville it is painfully obvious that the better off you are financially, the further east you live – and Valley Station was about as far from the East End as you could get.  My boyfriend lived in St. Matthews (in the East End), about 20 miles from where I lived; one of his friends told him once that I “didn’t look like a girl from Valley Station.”  I knew what he meant, and I had to take that as a compliment.  But I always experienced my childhood home as a real stigma.

But on my most recent trip to Louisville I started to see Dixie Highway from a different perspective, that of a trained architectural historian, and to think about what it might have looked like once upon a time.  I began to pay attention to the many buildings along the highway that clearly began their lives as houses.  Most of these houses south of the Watterson Expressway (I-264) appear to date from the late 1940s and the post-war housing boom that occurred across the nation.  These are modest single-family homes, and look very much like the housing stock from that era that survives in the surrounding neighborhoods.  Before the late 1940s the homes on Dixie Highway were mainly farmhouses, somewhat larger than their later neighbors.  South of the expressway, every last one of them (with one possible exception*) has been converted to commercial use.
Another beautiful old farmhouse converted to commercial use on Dixie Highway.
Fortunately I have a very good source of historical information:  my mother has lived in Louisville for most of her life.  Her parents lived in Louisville for their entire lives, except for a few years during World War II when as newlyweds they lived in Virginia, where my grandfather worked at a shipyard.  (He was a welder, and couldn’t enlist in the services because his eyesight was not good enough.)  In fact my family has lived on or near Dixie Highway for several generations.

My mother remembers a time when Dixie Highway wasn’t six lanes wide with a center median; she says it used to be four lanes, with no median, and all the buildings on the highway were houses with big front yards.  (Think Southern Parkway, a well preserved example of Louisville’s residential thoroughfares.)  When Dixie Highway was widened it took away most of those lawns, and miles and miles of trees.  And when those houses became commercial real estate, much of what remained of those lawns was paved over for parking.

 Left: Dixie Highway north of the Watterson;  right: Some older houses in Shively on Dixie Highway north of the Watterson Expressway.
North of the expressway you can see what Dixie Highway used to look like:  here it is still four lanes, and there are many houses still standing, and still residential (though there’s a lot of commercial property here too).  There are a lot of old trees.  I notice there is a narrow center median, and I wonder if this is where the streetcar used to run.  My great grandparents, George Bach and Lillian Whitehouse Bach, lived in a house on Dixie Highway just north of Algonquin Parkway.  My grandmother, Lillie May Bach, grew up in this house, and she once told me that when she was little, it was “out in the country.”  By the time she grew up it was in the city, for Dixie Highway had developed quite a lot during those decades.  This part of town is called Shively, sometimes known as “Lively Shively” according to my mom (who grew up there).

This old farmhouse is now a law office.  It has an old-fashioned port-cochere.
Dixie Highway was (and still is) the road to Fort Knox, and in my grandmother’s youth it mainly ran through farmland.  Based on the style of housing, as mentioned earlier, it appears that the post-World War II housing boom brought a new wave of development and lots of single-family homes to Dixie Highway.  This was the Levittown era, with its modest spec housing built in large numbers for returning war veterans starting their families.

Post-WWII housing boom:  this 1940s house is now an insurance agency.
The next era of big changes for Dixie Highway came along with the development of interstate highways and urban planning of the early 1960s.  The Watterson Expressway was built in 1961-62 – my mom’s freshman year at the University of Kentucky – and it appears to me that this was the catalyst for Dixie Highway’s expansion into six lanes.  It does not become six lanes until you reach the Watterson – north of the Watterson it’s still four lanes – and the six-lane Dixie Highway runs from the Watterson south to Greenwood Road, a distance of 3.2 miles.  South of Greenwood Road it returns to four lanes.  When I was driving through Valley Station a couple days ago I noticed an advertisement for a local business which boasted “50 years on Dixie Highway.”  That would make it 1963 when that business began – part of that wave of commercial development following the construction of the Watterson.

In Valley Station, well south of Greenwood Road, there are long stretches of Dixie Highway lined with trees – in fact an extensive stretch of forest lies opposite the mall containing Target.  South of Ponder Lane you can even find a frontage road with houses and large front yards running next to the highway, again reminiscent of Southern Parkway.

In this essay I don't mean to recapitulate the "narrative of loss" so common among so many descriptions of historical development.  When my mother was growing up in Shively in the 1940s and 50s, "everyone went downtown for everything," as she tells it.  It's nice to be able to find the things you need without going downtown, and today Dixie Highway seems to offer a lot of things people need.  As a metropolitan area of 1.3 million people, the growth of the city was inevitable; I just wish it could have been implemented in a more aesthetically pleasing and history-conscious manner.  Dixie Highway is not a thoroughfare that historic preservationists are likely to champion, but I think some of these old structures deserve some attention and respect.

*I mentioned above that I think I found ONE house on Dixie Highway in Shively, south of the Watterson, that has not been converted to commercial use.  It’s a gray stone house that sits directly opposite Gagel Avenue, minimal traditional in style, one and a half stories.  It has absolutely no signage, plus a white picket fence around the back yard, which makes me think it’s residential.  Unfortunately it is sandwiched between All America Pool and DT’s Bar and Grill, making it a rather unpleasant place to live – not to mention the six-lane highway outside its front door.  Still, I have to hand it to anyone who can resist the many pressures, both economic and otherwise, to give in to the commercialization of the landscape.

This little house on Dixie Highway and Gagel Avenue appears to be still residential.
Note:  When I say that I hated Dixie Highway, and that I felt stigmatized for growing up in Southwest Jefferson County, I do not mean to offend anyone who previously or currently lives in this part of town – i.e., Shively, PRP, and Valley Station.  Lots of people are proud to come from this part of Jefferson County, including my mom and my grandparents, all of whom I love very much.  If anything I deplore what I perceive as the snobbery of many Louisvillians who look down on the Southwest.  (Again, that’s my subjective perception.)  Further, there are many affluent neighborhoods in the Southwest, though mine wasn’t one of them.  What I have tried to convey in this essay is my acknowledgment that it was my own unhappy childhood that made me feel bad about living in this part of town, because at the time the two were closely connected in my mind.  Now that I am 49 years old I am long past those biases formed in childhood.  And as an architectural historian I find the history of Louisville's development quite intriguing.  I offer my sincere apologies to anyone whom I may inadvertently have offended with my discussion.

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