That Time a Louisville Paper Fantasized About Bombing Its Own Downtown

When urban renewal took a wrecking ball to American cities in the middle of the last century, some places looked like a war zone.

A view looking south from the Glassworks building before urban renewal circa 1926 and the same view after clearance in 1976. HIstorical photos via Broken Sidewalk
Top: looking south from the Glassworks building before urban renewal, circa 1926. Bottom: the same view after clearance in 1976. Historical photos via Broken Sidewalk

In fact, that bombed-out effect is pretty much what the proponents of “slum clearance” and related policies had in mind. In an amazing relic from June 29, 1955, unearthed by Branden Klayko at Broken Sidewalk, the Louisville Courier-Journal yearned to wipe out the city’s downtown:

The editorial was titled “A Bomb at Fourth and Walnut That Would Bless Louisville.” (Today, Walnut Street is Muhammad Ali Boulevard.) It grimly concluded that “The old shell of downtown Louisville will have to be cracked open if real progress is to be made. We don’t want it done by the violence of enemy bombs, heaven knows. But another kind of bomb falling on Fourth Street would be a blessing — a bomb of imagination and civic ambition.”

Today, many urbanists compare the fate of American downtowns to the bombings of World War II. Locally, we’ve called it “urbicide” for its thorough job in eradicating the urban landscape. But rarely, if ever, do we see a city’s major newspaper actively calling for bombing its downtown, either literal or metaphorical. But that was the sentiment toward Louisville’s grand architecture in the middle of the 20th Century. And it has ended up a rather accurate prediction of what would unfold in Louisville in the following three decades of urban renewal, highway building, poor planning, and a lack of concern for preservation.

Once Downtown had been cleared, the newspaper made a call for rebuilding in a modern way — one that would rid the city of dirty old buildings and make plenty of room for the automobile. It made the call for a new modern aesthetic using a rather sexist argument, to boot. And the prevailing notion of what would make Louisville “modern” was a pedestrian mall along Fourth Street proposed in 1955 by a college student at Yale…

In the end, Louisville did bomb itself into a parking lot oblivion, but unlike those European examples cited in the newspaper, we put too much faith in the private automobile and didn’t rebuild after the bombings. Our pedestrian mall was was a failure because it relied on a suburban notion of shopping and driving rather than living in the core city. Much of urban renewal had ulterior motives that better served keeping the city segregated than any true attempt to craft a better Louisville.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Columbus Underground explains plans for a new bus rapid transit line. Seattle Transit Blog dives deep into the somewhat-contentious question of how Seattle’s $50 billion light rail expansion will affect transit ridership in the region. And the Better Bike Share Blog points how little bike-share is subsidized compared to other types of transit.

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