As a child, I grew up across the street from the small segregated “black” park, the 61-acre Chickasaw Park established in 1923 for the use of the black community in a segregated neighborhood. It was just down the street from the whites-only Shawnee Park, which was well over 300 acres. Both are Olmsted parks which border the Ohio River. Chickasaw Park was where my childhood memories were made. We attended birthday parties at the lodge, school and church outings at the shelter, and young boys learned to play basketball on the courts there. We had tennis lessons on the clay courts, fished in the pond in the summer, skated on the frozen pond in the winter, walked along the shore, and watched fishermen from the banks of the river – all popular pastimes enjoyed by many.
Although the park system was “legally” desegregated in 1954, it was not until my teen-age years in the mid to late ‘60s that I was able to go to Shawnee Park, less than a mile down the street from my house, and to the Fontaine Ferry Amusement Park which my white high school classmates enjoyed, also a popular attraction along the river. The Shawnee Golf Course, which also borders the river, was another popular amenity and is where my children learned to play golf.
My father had a motorboat, and I fondly recall our Sunday family outings on the river up to Six-Mile Island where we would disembark. I remember the joy of feeling free and at ease with nature out on the water, and actually getting to steer the boat under his watchful eye.
When I moved back home after college in the mid-1970s, I discovered we no longer had access to the Ohio River from the West End – no boating, no driving along the lower River Road, and no fishing. The entrances to the lower park roads were blocked by barriers at both parks, and no one could tell me when or why the river access was prohibited. Even the old RiverWalk section of the “Louisville Loop,” a popular bike and walking path along the river, has been flooded and access denied to the many walkers and bikers who enjoyed it along the Shawnee Golf Course. Full access by residents of West Louisville to the Loop has been absent for several years, with the route detoured away from the river to nearby streets.
In 2000, as the 12th Ward Alderwoman*, I served on the Citizen’s Advisory Committee of about 50 residents to develop master plans for both Chickasaw and Shawnee Parks. One of the areas in the Chickasaw Park plan determined to have the greatest support by the Advisory Committee was the need for access to and views of the river, including a boat dock for the Spirit of Jefferson excursion boat to load and unload passengers. All too often master plans which community members have devoted hours to just sit on a shelf, and many aspects of these plans did just that for years.
Louisville is called the “River City.” It’s something that our residents take pride in, knowing we can access our river and enjoy its many attractions and the serene environment at the Waterfront Park, often for free.
As an elected official representing the northwestern–most corner of the city, my district cradles the Ohio River. I represent the Russell, Portland, Shawnee and Chickasaw neighborhoods – all of which border the beautiful river. One of my goals, and a goal of my constituents, has been to once again have recreational access to the Ohio River in those neighborhoods, and I have set about to make that happen.
Several years ago, I requested a feasibility study through Metro Parks to see if boat ramps could be re-built at Chickasaw and Shawnee Parks. Shawnee Park was identified as the preferred location for many reasons. I have appropriated funding in the city’s capital budget for two years in order to finally construct a long-awaited boat ramp in Shawnee Park near the future site of the Shawnee Outdoor Learning Center. The ramp is tentatively scheduled for construction in 2019, depending on how soon we receive final approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the completion of an archaeological survey.
In the meantime, I met with the Executive Director of the Waterfront Development Corporation, the Louisville Fire Department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Metro Parks staff to begin discussions on constructing a boat ramp in the Portland neighborhood at Shippingport Island, primarily for the emergency use of the Fire Department, but also for the enjoyment of canoers and kayakers. I appropriated $85,000 in the capital budget for the project, and the Portland boat ramp was opened to the public in November 2016. The archaeological findings at Portland Wharf Park and its restoration and preservation have been important as well. Portland’s very existence is because of its location on the river – it was developed as a town in the early nineteenth century, paralleling the rise of Shippingport and Louisville to the east. While it became a permanent part of Louisville in 1852, Portland remains a fiercely proud and independent-natured neighborhood.
I have worked with the staff of the Jefferson Memorial Forest (JMF), a division of Louisville Metro Parks and Recreation, on several projects to connect west Louisville young people to nature, education, and the great outdoors. For the last five years, we have offered free canoe rides for children and families at Shawnee Park and Riverview Park in Southwestern Jefferson County, twice a year in July and October. Giving school children opportunities to experience the natural beauty and serenity of the river has been educational for them and gratifying to me. I’ve also funded and supported Louisville’s ECHO program, Louisville is Engaging Children Outdoors, a program started by JMF which connects urban youth to nature through environmental education and free outdoor recreation initiatives, such as canoeing, archery, fishing, climbing, hiking, tree planting, and overnight camping in the park. Many of those activities are also incorporated in the annual West Louisville Appreciation Days Celebration, an event sponsored by the black Louisville Defender newspaper at Shawnee Park.
Working with Metro Parks and the Jefferson Memorial Forest staff of the Natural Areas Division, I have identified citizens to serve in an advisory capacity to assist in the process of designing and fundraising to construct the Shawnee Outdoor Learning Center, which will be built facing the Ohio River in Shawnee Park. On January 31, 2018, as part of the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge, Louisville’s West Louisville Outdoor Recreation Initiative was one of 10 community health programs nationwide to receive the “Spotlight Award” from the Aetna Foundation which included a $25,000 prize. Louisville’s West Louisville Outdoor Recreation Initiative tackles the social determinants of health that frequently lead to chronic health issues. “The program is designed to build a culture in Louisville where low-income, urban residents connect with nature to improve physical and mental health while reducing toxic stress and deterring crime.” (Kirby Adams, Louisville Courier Journal, page A8, “West End health program wins $25K” Feb. 1, 2018)
With those projects finally moving along, it was time to pursue my ultimate goal – the extension of the popular Waterfront Park to the west. With the park’s first three phases completed, the eastward expansion of the park had already gone as far to the east as it could. I set up a meeting with David Karem, the Executive Director of the Waterfront Development Corporation, to discuss the possibility of gaining his support for extending the park past 9th Street to create a Waterfront Park West, or Waterfront Park Phase IV, as it has come to be called.
David and I reviewed the original Waterfront Redevelopment Strategy, developed in the 1980s under Mayor Harvey I. Sloane, which led to the creation of the Waterfront Development Corporation to guide the development of Louisville’s waterfront. Imagine my surprise to find this document had always envisioned the extension of the park to the west. David showed me the original plan depicted on a poster of the Waterfront Plan Strategy. One side showed the eastward expansion, and the other side revealed a westward portion of the strategy. I was amazed the westward expansion was always part of the initial plan and strategy through the goal of “fostering waterfront recreational access” all the way from Riverview Park at the far southwestern part of the county, to Chickasaw Park, Shawnee Park, Portland’s McAlpine Locks and Lannan Park, through downtown and the 4th Street Wharf, all the way to Beargrass Creek in the east. The original plan suggested starting with the redevelopment of Riverview Park and was intended to move east toward downtown to include Chickasaw Park, Shawnee Park and the Portland Wharf Park. For years West Louisville residents have wanted exactly what this strategy encompassed: Access to the river again for boating, fishing, and other recreational uses, and just being with nature. The expansion was also recommended in the Shawnee Neighborhood Plan which was adopted by Metro Council.
I was shocked, to say the least. I knew one of my colleagues from the southwest had secured funding over several fiscal years to build a boat ramp which is being heavily utilized at Riverview Park. So it was now time for me to help plug in the gaps in implementing the westward strategy for Waterfront Park in between the southwest and downtown, including the parks in my district along the river. With the implementation of this strategy, we will truly become One Riverfront. The strategy’s focus is to expand river-oriented recreational uses and at the same time guide public and private development decisions about the waterfront over the next 10-15 years. This plan could lead to the reopening of Lower River Road for pedestrian traffic and future possibilities of motor vehicle access as well.
David Karem and I were very excited, and although the 22–acres that will become Waterfront Park Phase IV are not technically in District 5, the site borders my neighborhoods, my district and is my community as well. I helped identify key stakeholders of residents, elected officials, historians and park enthusiasts to serve on the advisory committee, as we developed and brainstormed ideas for developing Phase IV for 12 months.
Waterfront Park Phase IV is intended to be the westward expansion of open space along the downtown banks of the Ohio River. The site from 9th Street to 13th Street and from the river bank to Rowan Street is approximately 22–acres of underdeveloped and vacant land. This site is particularly important in the continuation of community open space along the river corridor, connecting the downtown core to the historic Portland neighborhood and West Louisville bordering the western edge of the site.
The Phase IV site is historically significant, taking us back to the area where the City of Louisville was founded and initially developed in the 1770s, around the time of Corn Island where the settlers built a stockade called Fort-on-Shore at the mouth of the Portland Canal. Cement, iron and heavy materials were manufactured for decades in this area until the 1937 flood. The steel foundries sculpted ornamental steel that was transported on the river and ended up in many notable locations, such as the historic French Quarter, the Vatican, the St. Louis Arch and portions of the Eiffel Tower. Portland was an important river port town. Fort-on-Shore was a settlement built in 1778 and is considered the first on-shore settlement along the Ohio River bank within the area now considered downtown Louisville.
To start the process, an initial $40,000 was appropriated in the Metro budget for fiscal year 2013-2014 in order to move forward with the Waterfront Park West strategy. The Courier-Journal quoted me as saying, “After seeing the success of Waterfront Park from the Fourth Street Wharf to the Big Four Bridge and beyond, I am glad we are now moving down river to begin the design for transforming and enhancing some of the other great recreational areas in our city.”
When the initial $40,000 was secured, David Karem said, “There’s no need for another study. The study has been done, and it’s time to begin the design work.”
The award-winning master plan, which includes aspects of Louisville’s earliest history, was developed by design firm MKSK and then approved and adopted as the Waterfront Park Phase IV Master Plan by the Louisville Metro Council in 2015. All 22 acres have been acquired, including a large portion of the southern part of the site purchased by the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) for a long-range 2.5 mile underground tunnel project. MSD will donate the land back to Metro when that project is completed in 2020. In the meantime, Metro has appropriated funds to begin work on some northern portions of the site, including improvements to the aging RiverWalk, an activity lawn, and an observation pier. Work will also proceed on fundraising for the $35,000,000 project. As with Waterfront Park’s first three phases, Phase IV will be broken into manageable components, with areas opened for public use as they are completed.
The preliminary design for Phase IV incorporates and celebrates the unique heritage and proud history of Portland and Louisville’s founding, which was so important to the residents and historians who participated in the process of developing a vision for this site.
As we move ahead with implementing this plan, I reflect on the knowledge that I have traveled this river, worked next to this river, played in and by this river. It will be my continuing goal to make the joys I experienced of communing with nature and the Ohio River available to all young people, as we work to make One Riverfront a reality.
*The Board of Aldermen was the City of Louisville’s legislative body at that time. In 2003, Louisville and Jefferson County merged and the legislative body became the Louisville Metro Council.