A little less than three years ago the Society of St. Vincent de Paul began a remarkable effort to transform a decaying part of downtown Louisville.
It was on Nov. 11, 2010, that ground was first broken on the $10.6 million project that the society’s executive director, Ed Wnorowski, called an “out of the box” effort for St. Vincent de Paul.
Out of the box or not, the project to essentially transform an entire city block is working. The block, surrounded by Preston and Jackson streets on the west and east and by Kentucky and St. Catherine streets on the north and south, has been the scene of earth-moving, brick-laying, hammering and painting and everything else that goes hand-in-hand with such an effort.
New housing units have been built on the block’s northeast corner and on the south side of the block where St. Catherine St. curves like an unattended water hose. There is also housing for clients with disabilities and a building to house women who are trying to leave homelessness in the rear view mirror.
In fact, on Monday, Linda Romine, the society’s director of communications, said the housing portion of the project has been completed for nearly a year and housing units are “100 percent occupied.”
All of the work has been wonderful to see and it’s encouraging to hear the people of the neighborhood respond to the society’s efforts. William Gentry doesn’t live in the affected block, but just a few paces north of all the activity. He meets at a corner grocer with his friends — there’s Frankie, who plays the lotto; “Bus Driver” Charlie Sims and a host of other retirees who’ve spent their years watching the Shelby Park and Smoketown neighborhoods head in the wrong direction.
“Haven’t been a lot of people spending a lot of money in this part of town for a long time,” said Gentry, a World War II Navy veteran. “Good to see that somebody is paying attention. The people trying to get by in these parts need all the help they can get.”
When construction on the project began three years ago, Wnorowski promised that the residential component of the block’s new buildings would be “kid intensive.” He said that, once all the residential space is completed and occupied, there would be from 50 to 100 children living in the block. And that has come to pass.
On Tuesday, April 2, some of that “kid intensive” effort came to life at the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s Open Hand Kitchen on Jackson St. Children from the neighborhood were invited into the dining room where paper and crayons awaited them.
They were asked to imagine the best playground ever — and to draw an image of that playground on their paper. Whatever the youngsters want — a spiral sliding board, perhaps; or some complicated climbing bars or swings — will be incorporated into the playground. That’s a promise to the children made by the St. Vincent de Paul Society and their partners in the playground project — Let’s Play, a community partnership led by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, and KaBOOM!, a national non-profit organization that, according to a news release from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, is “dedicated to giving kids the childhood they deserve by bringing play to those who need it most — children.” (There will be a story about the Tuesday children’s event in next week’s edition of The Record.)
The society and its partners have a “playground planning committee” that will work for the next seven weeks to design the playground and prepare for its construction. The building will begin on May 31.
“It’s kind of a way to launch the construction of our ‘Family Success Center,’ ” Romine explained. “There won’t be a ground-breaking because we’re repurposing that building; we’re not building something new on that spot.”
But what they will be adding to their family center will be a Boy’s and Girls’ Club, created with the help of the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of America. The 14,000-square-foot building that will house the success center and club for children will also include a kitchen where life-skills will be taught and classrooms where people will learn ways to seek a better life for themselves and their children.
The work of the society in this once downtrodden block of downtown Louisville is a visible symbol of an effort to live out the Gospel message. There’s little doubt that the people of the neighborhood are among the “least of these” in the city.
For a neighborhood — and neighbors — who need all the help they can get, the continuing efforts of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul deserve not only our congratulations, but our support.