In Louisville’s West End, Walmart wins and guess who loses?


After months of delays, protests, and legal wrangling, Walmart’s arrival on the border of West Louisville’s California and Russell neighborhoods looks increasingly likely. Some residents praise and are eager to hasten the construction of the big-box store in an empty lot in the West End. What lead to this pro-Walmart attitude?

The empty lot at 18th and West Broadway was leftover when Phillip Morris left Louisville, laying-off thousands of workers in its West End plant. The city government acquired the former factory and used the excuse of having this surplus land to embark on various neoliberal economic redevelopment schemes to turn a profit.

Phillip Morris’ exit from Louisville is part of a long history of deindustrialization that leaves Black workers in the lurch and many residents of West Louisville neighborhoods in precarious situations. For many, daily life is about survival through conditions of violent State-sanctioned economic disinvestment that mostly targets Black people. In fact, Louisville is the tenth worst city for Black poverty. This high rate of Black poverty directly correlates to the high rates of health problems that Black communities in West Louisville neighborhoods face, from staggering levels of infant mortality to stroke to cancer.

Politicians in the West End often characterize the need for economic revitalization as “desperate.” Desperation can drive these same politicians to reckless actions, “regardless of risks or consequences.”

Walmart wants to build a brand-new supercenter in an empty lot in the California neighborhood. The company promises 350 new jobs and economic progress. These promises alone were enough for some church leaders to hold a prayer vigil in support of the big-box store.

However, supporting Walmart as a way to decrease poverty in the West End ignores some key facts: the fact that Walmart has a tendency to exploit workers and the environment, as well as a tendency to actually increase poverty in many areas.

Another key fact ignored is that Walmart has a special relationship with harming its women workers. Whether it’s exposing pregnant employees to dangerous chemicals, buying clothes from factories that massacre women workers, or routinely discriminating against women workers in pay and advancement, Walmart is always in the business of hurting women—always. How can a company that participates in the degradation and murder of women be expected to improve a neighborhood?

The State does not care about the women workers of Walmart in Louisville or globally, nor does the State care about using tax revenue to improve working-class Black women’s lives in Louisville. It plans to reward Walmart for maintaining about 100 fewer jobs than the company promised to create in the West End, and spent millions to buy up land around the building site. One Louisville councilmember who mentioned Walmart’s low pay rates rationalized it by the need for economic development. Another councilmember who actually stood with Louisville labor groups against Walmart was demonized and later voted out of office.

Organizers and activists are fighting back in the streets and in the courts. Groups like Women In Transition and labor unions are mobilizing bodies and putting forward alternative plans. A lawsuit has been filed over the proposed design of the store and surrounding landscape, which has at least held up the process for now.

The capitalist developers who want to bring in big-box stores like Walmart like to appeal to a sense of place, community, and home (see picture below). But this sense of place, community, and home is built on the exclusion and death of poor women of color. These women are the surplus population that pays the price of “economic development.” These women are also the ones who fight back, specters of the living and the dead that haunt redevelopment projects around the world.





(Photo Credit 1: (Photo Credit 2: Paul Seltzer)

Who’s Afraid of Louisville’s West End?

Recently, I moved to the city of Louisville, Kentucky, largest city in the state. It is famous for the Kentucky Derby, bourbon, Louisville Slugger baseball bats, and being the “Gateway to the South,” among other things. Last year, AARP rated Louisville as the number one best city to visit in 2014. So when I packed my things and resettled in Louisville, I was unprepared for a warning I got from a resident there.

The resident was a worker for a pest-control company, doing routine preventative spraying in my apartment. Right after he finished spraying but right before leaving the apartment, he told me that he was glad to be done with his assignments that day in the West End of Louisville. I asked him why he felt this way.

“Well, you know, those people in the West End, the way they live. They make really great choices with their lives. Always doing what’s best for themselves,” he told me. The sarcasm in his voice was obvious. New to the city, I had not been in the West End yet. The pest control worker left quickly, and I did not get to press him on what he meant by his implications about “those people” who live in the West End and their supposed “choices.”

Then, at a recent meet-up of leftists in Louisville, someone made a comment that “white people are afraid to go into the West End.” I was intrigued.

I did a quick search on the internet of the words “West End Louisville.” From the results, it was obvious that the West End is Louisville’s Black ghetto. The first result that came up was a webpage listing “Louisville Warnings and Dangers.” Many commenters on the page remark that the West End is unsafe in general and especially for visitors. They warn of high crime, of drugs, of gang violence, while demarcating a border not to cross: “DO NOT venture past 8th st at night.”

One commenter writes: “there are kentucky fried chicken stands on every corner and crack dealers..the west end is where 99 percent of murders and rapes happen..its kinda like the harlem of the mid west,,so if your white and go past 8th street run the stop signs and dontstop.” These comments remind me of what a well-meaning friend of mine said to me when I told her I would be living in South Atlanta (where much of the city’s Black underclass resides) for a while: “Stay away from the areas around the airport They are incredibly unsafe.”

If you look at a map, the West End is a very large portion of Louisville and is made up of many different neighborhoods. Yet the political class, media, and outsiders talk about the West End as a monolithic block. Yet when analysts examine “crime in the ‘West End’,” the data does not uphold the myth of a criminal (Black) area where most crimes are committed.

We are familiar with the narratives around neighborhoods with high densities of Black people, constructed through histories of neoliberal gentrification schemes and the War on Drugs. They use tropes such as welfare queens, thugs, rampant violent crackheads, etc. They also invoke the theme of personal choice, as if the Black working class and underclass somehow willingly chose to live in substandard housing, to work low-wage jobs, and to be subjected to intense surveillance. These narratives are part of the white paranoia that makes excuses for State violence against Black people; they are always already guilty of a crime, always already guilty of making the society at large unsafe.

I drove west down Broadway, into the Shawnee neighborhood of the West End, to get my Kentucky drivers license and library card. As I drove and walked through various blocks, I did not see roving thugs, dead bodies, or drug deals. In fact, I did not see much of anything. No grocery stores, few restaurants beyond fast food, fewer houses with central air conditioning, fewer people out and about. The landscape was bare, save a paternalistic billboard here and there warning Black mothers not to have abortions. I wonder what everyone is so scared of.

(Photo Credit 1: Irena Tran / (Photo Credit 2: Sierra Club)