07 20 18 Shae Smith

West of Ninth

"We never meet a stranger."

“Here are the car keys, but you are not to go past Ninth Street. It’s a bad area.”

The moment my friend took the keys from her dad, I stood there wondering why we weren’t allowed to go past Ninth Street. This was back in 2003, and I had never really understood why there was such a divide. I frequently visited family and friends who lived past Ninth Street, so what was the big deal?

A little background: Ninth Street is the divider between the West Louisville community and the rest of the city. It’s home to over 60,000 residents, the majority of whom are African American, and there are some who consider it a “bad” area because there’s poverty and crime. To me, it’s home and there’s so much more to it than the negative sound-bites played out in the media. I was quite disturbed to see the people I hung out with were raised thinking a whole community they had never stepped foot in was so terrible. Not having grown up in Louisville, that really struck a nerve with me.

Prior to hearing my friend’s dad advising us not to cross Ninth Street, I knew people had their opinions about West Louisville. But I never thought the people with those opinions were in my social circle. That moment caused me to pay more attention to the West Louisville community and the negative attention it receives.

Fast forward to Winter 2016–I’m a proud West Louisville resident, doing life with my family and coming home from a trip to Target. In the car, it’s just me, my husband Walt and our two sons. We’ve pulled into our driveway and the boys are sound asleep in the backseat. Walt and I take advantage of this moment to brainstorm, making the car our official creative space to discuss ways to help our community.

See, we loved West Louisville and were growing tired of seeing so much negative coverage of our neighborhood in the media. Like other urban areas in America, we were hearing more about the violence than about the positive changes happening or the resources needed in our community. We noticed that people who didn’t live in West Louisville would demand certain changes within West Louisville, but they had no real connection to the community. I would often see people’s facial expressions change to shock and disapproval when I would mention I live past Ninth Street. My West Louisville experience was so vastly contradictory to what the media and gossip portrayed. Walt, a West Louisville native, also had a contrasting experience. We wanted to share those experiences. We were realizing how so many people within our community had stories that needed to be heard. Social media seemed like it would be the perfect outlet to reach as many people as possible. After two hours bouncing ideas back and forth in the car, West of Ninth was born.

We were realizing how so many people within our community had stories that needed to be heard.

West of Ninth is primarily a photography and personal narrative blog featuring the residents within the nine neighborhoods that make up West Louisville. Our goal for the blog was and is a simple one: it’s all about the people. We want to give those people voices as well as create a sense of understanding for those within and outside of the community. With these stories, we spark some much-needed conversation about what the community needs, whether it be additional activities for youth, medical facilities, jobs or financial literacy. Oftentimes, we’ll feature people who are vocal about the violence and where the community is headed. Gentrification seems to be an ongoing topic amongst residents, as there are plans to replace housing projects with luxury apartments and commercial complexes. We also make it a point to feature people from all generations to bridge that gap of understanding. We’re providing people a scope of everyday life for West Louisvillians.

Surprisingly, we have been able to connect people we’ve featured on the blog to resources that can aid their situations. Recently, we interviewed a thirteen-year-old named KeiRon who was experiencing a great deal of adversity. His father had been shot and killed the day after KeiRon’s fifth birthday. The child of a single-parent household, when his mother was diagnosed with cancer, KeiRon was saddled with the immense pressures of providing for his younger siblings and the household. Without consistent guidance at home, he took to the streets, finding family in a local gang, even surviving a gunshot wound.

All the while, underneath KeiRon’s hard exterior, he was just a kid who loves football with dreams of playing for a leading local high school program. To explain the reach West of Ninth has had on KeiRon’s life is to know this part of his story: people read about him on the blog and were so affected, they made great efforts to offer support to enable him to pursue his dreams. They even provided assistance to his family. We received an enormous amount of emails from many coaches and community outreach organizations who saw what we saw in KeiRon. Today, KeiRon’s in summer football camps and connected with a mentor who helps him stay on track. Once a corner regular on the block, he’s now doing what any teenager his age should be doing–being a kid. He’s not dealing with the stresses of everyday life by himself. He has a support system. This is why we do what we do at West of Ninth.

Our unofficial tagline is “We never meet a stranger.”  We approach everyone we interview without judgement, which allows them to open up to us. Through this effort, we’ve found most of the people we feature just need someone to talk to. Knowing that people feel comfortable enough to trust us with their best as well as their darkest moments is an honor and a gift. It’s changed our lives in ways big and small, even helping us become more understanding to one another. When we bump into people from time to time, we remember their names. That special bond is so meaningful to us.

We’ve seen firsthand the value of connecting people in our community and that it’s okay to get out of the house and talk to people. Be that neighbor you can come to for a cup of sugar or a few eggs. A person’s day can change for the better just by speaking to another friendly face, maybe sharing a joke or a simple moment.

But what about the value of connecting communities across divides? There are people and places to explore outside of the communities we’re used to without judgement, without anything but an open heart.

Today, West of Ninth continues to grow on social media platforms. We’ve also taken up residence with a regular column in Leo Weekly. Other projects are currently brewing behind the scenes, and we look forward to sharing with the city very soon!  We are humbled by the swell of support being shown to us. I like to think I was meant to hear my friend’s dad those many years ago, saying what he did so that we could create this beautiful journey that is West of Ninth. And it’s only the beginning.

I’m interested in trying to do things that I feel like I have no business doing. Because that was part of what we did as a band. We weren’t afraid to try shit.
Michael Diamond
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