Shelby Park: Reviving Their Heritage

The foundation of the past still lies as a hopeful catalyst for the future.

Shelby Park Community Center

To understand the Shelby Park Neighborhood one has to understand its history. What made it tick in its early days over 150 years ago? Was it always the neighborhood outsiders view it as today?

To answers these questions time has left a trail of newspaper clippings, personal accounts, and physical evolutions that tell the story of Shelby Park.

In the 1840s Louisville began to see an increase in German residents who primarily populated the far eastern edge of Louisville. This area became known as Germantown. Two miles south of downtown and built along the edge of the L&N railway, Germantown began its rise as a hard-working, middle class neighborhood. The prosperity of the neighborhood was founded in its many mills, factories, and plants. Companies that sustained the neighborhood included Louisville Cotton Mills Co., Louisville Soap Co., and the Kentucky Refining Co.

The companies quickly engaged thousands of employees and over the next 50 years the area grew into lot after lot of shotgun houses and small plotted yards.

Interior Cotton Textile Mill Shelby Park

Courtesy of Shelby Park Neighborhood Association

Paul Barth, the mayor of Louisville from 1905-1907, noted the “little space for breathing” in the neighborhood and the need for a local park. So beginning in 1906, in association with the Board of Park Commissioners and the area’s residents, Mayor Barth helped fund the development of a park and Carnegie Library on the land that is between present-day Jackson and Clay St., and Oak and Camp St.

The park, designed by the renowned Olmsted Firm, was named after Kentucky’s first governor Issac Shelby. Shelby Park featured 16 acres of recreational facilities including a ball field, tennis courts, basketball courts, a playground, and a public pool which quickly became the heart of the area.

Shelby Park Plans

Courtesy of Shelby Park Neighborhood Association

Over the years the streets surrounding Shelby Park became known as the Shelby Park Neighborhood. The neighborhood was immensely popular during the early part of the 20th century.

But the popularity of the Shelby Park Neighborhood began to decline as Louisville began to modernize.

1937 Flood Shelby Park Louisville

Courtesy of Shelby Park Neighborhood Association

The historic flood of 1937 propelled Louisville into the modern age. Much of Louisville’s most populated and busiest areas were under water, sending residents and industries eastward towards higher ground. As mills, factories, and businesses relocated they took the livelihood of neighborhoods like Shelby Park with them. And after War World II the effects were only intensified by the introduction of the interstate system, people could now past by Shelby Park without a second glance.

A neighborhood once so reliant on the companies that fueled its growth was now left with empty warehouses, vacant houses, and a void in its economy.

Today the shot gun houses of Shelby Park stand as monuments to the ampleness that once was and that can be again. Among the homes are historic landmarks that reflect the resilience of residents. The Shelby Park Community center, once a carnegie library that was designed by Arthur Loomis (also the architect of the J. B. Speed Art Museum), is just one of the six nationally registered historic places in Shelby Park.

Shelby Park Carnegie Library

Courtesy of Shelby Park Neighborhood Association

With this historic foundation that lends itself to hard-working success, Shelby Park is a neighborhood dedicated to revitalize itself. The Shelby Park Neighborhood Association is one of Louisville’s most active. The association’s mission is to “improve the quality of life in Shelby Park while maintaining the distinct cultural and economic diversity.” Through conscious partnerships and the support of invested neighbors SPNA is doing just that.

To revive the neighborhood SPNA has partnered with non-profits like New Directions to preserve the existing housing and its ownership by helping vulnerable homeowners restore their homes. SPNA has also focused on hosting programs that invite other Louisville residents to appreciate the spirit of Shelby Park. One example of such events is this year’s Kentucky Tree Climbing Competition.

Many businesses are also joining the efforts to revitalize the neighborhood by occupying old spaces and stimulating the economy. In 2014 Head First Media, a video production company, renovated the Episcopal Church on East St. Catherine Street and created a esteemed recording space while preserving the church’s original character.

Scarlet Bakery

A new addition to the neighborhood, which plans to open this fall, is Scarlet’s Bakery. A “bakery with a purpose,” Scarlet’s Bakery will not only be a place to get sweet treats but will also serve as a business empowering its employees to be “ready for a new career.”

There is also a cowork community in Shelby Park. The Park  is a shared workspace that provides members with a space to be inspired, innovative, and impactful all in hopes of making a positive difference in the Shelby Park neighborhood.

With churches like Immanuel Baptist that have withstood the test of time (109 years to be exact), an abundance of non-profits restoring the neighborhood, and a community of active residents Shelby Park is on its way to revitalizing the neighborhood it once was.

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