“From bike-riding hipsters to yuppies” – The colonization of Smithtown
Hampton Court is a single block residential street in downtown Lexington. It connects to West Third Street and runs perpendicular to it before dead-ending just before West Fourth Street. At the end of the court there is a short stone wall with a metal gate that leads to the adjacent Smithtown neighborhood.
A review of Fayette Property Valuation Administrator records shows that the large homes on Hampton Court were mostly built in the early 1900s. Some are divided into multiple condos. A single unit in 75 Hampton Court recently sold for over four times the value of a freestanding 2001 built 3-bedroom home on Smithtown’s Smith Street.
In many ways, the Hampton Court Gate is a good starting point for a discussion on gentrification in Smithtown. Metaphorically and physically, the gate represents a boundary between two worlds, just a stone’s throw apart. A comparison of property values on Hampton Court with the nearby Smith Street demonstrates the disparity well.
The Hampton Court Gate was welded shut in 1988 by Kevin Murphy, who had previously petitioned the Urban County Council to lock it in 1982. The Council had declined his petition then, but ultimately decided to allow the closing to stand in ’88. “All Kevin Murphy and some of his neighbors on Hampton Court say they want to do is slow down the people who are carrying off their television sets, silver, and car stereos,” the Herald-Leader reported in ’82.
When the gate was first closed, the Black residents of Smithtown were almost certainly among the people the White residents of Hampton Court were trying to keep out. Council Member Robert Jefferson, who represented both neighborhoods at the time, even said as much during the Council debate. (To his credit, Jefferson ultimately voted against the resolution.)
University of Kentucky professor Richard Schein explains the phenomenon of Black towns like Smithtown popping up in the decades after the Civil War. He says recently freed slaves sought opportunity, communal security, and anonymity in urban enclaves like Smithtown.
another residential feature of the Southern urban landscape appeared in Lexington—the so-called African American “town” (Thomas, 1973; Kellogg, 1977; Kellogg, 1982). Kentucky’s ambivalence toward the Thirteenth Amendment, its refusal to ratify the Fourteenth, and the general chaos and violence that ensued in the agricultural countryside (including vigilante groups of white “night riders”), made urban centers attractive to recently freed slaves for reasons of economic opportunity, communal security, and (in the context of rural master-slave relationships) potential urban anonymity (Lucas, 1992). Former slaves began to make their way to Lexington in the decades after the Civil War, as the first stop on Kentucky’s leg of the Great Migration, a multi-generation trek that led from former plantations of the South to the burgeoning industrial cities of the Manufacturing Belt. As a result of this influx, Lexington’s racial demographics changed dramatically and swiftly.RICHARD H. SCHEIN, “Urban Form and Racial Order in Lexington”
Smithtown was platted in the early 1870s. The community, developed by African Americans at the end of the Civil War, is bordered by North Broadway, West Fourth, Jefferson, and West Sixth Streets. The neighborhood was “redlined” by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, meaning banks would not lend in it due to the presence of racial minorities.
Smithtown became a vibrant black community and even had its own baseball team, the Smithtown Reds, who competed in the Blue Grass Colored Baseball League. (One modern day Smithtown resident grew up to coach for the LA Dodgers.)
There was a Black school where St. Peter Claver Catholic Church on Jefferson Street currently stands, a community center on West Fifth Street, and a “Smithtown Day” Festival held every summer in Coolavin Park.
The Rev Horace R. Smith, Sr. served as pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church on Jefferson Street for 61 years, from 1949 until his passing in 2010.
Starting in the 1960s, Lexington began to experience major growth and downtown began to expand. While many Black residents moved out of historically Black neighborhoods starting around this time, the racial makeup of neighborhoods like Smithtown remained the same–the people who replaced those who left, while fewer in number, were still predominantly Black.
In a 2020 Herald-Leader piece, Lexington activist Sarah Williams describes a drive through one of Lexington’s other traditionally Black communities:
As I drove through Utterington, every single black family greeted me with smiles and waves as if I were family, it felt safe, it felt like home. It was still our community. In a culture and society that takes our life while we sleep in bed (Ayanna Jones) or walk down the street with a hoodie and skittles (Trayvon Martin), being in a community or neighborhood that acknowledges and respects our humanity is literally life saving. To be in community in this current society and culture requires black and brown people to live in community with people who see their humanity – most often guaranteed by living in community with those who look like us.Sarah Williams, ‘There’s ‘immeasurable loss’ around East End gentrification‘,
Williams eloquently documents the safe, familiar feeling predominantly Black communities offer their residents. While feeling at home in your own “village” is certainly not exclusive to the Black community, Williams notes that the Black experience in the US has been punctuated with trauma, making a neighborhood like Smithtown all the more valuable to her community.
US Census data shows that the population of Smithtown declined between 2010 and 2020. Concurrent with the population decline, the neighborhood saw many new “trendy” businesses popping up. It was also connected to a new bike path, The Legacy Trail, during this time.
West Sixth Brewing, established in 2012, whose brewery and taproom sits at the edge of Smithtown, describes the changes on a web page titled “Our Neighborhood”:
Recent decades have seen neighborhood businesses such as a beauty salon and discount bakery store come and go, but the feel of community has endured. Community residents could be counted on to keep a watchful eye on the community throughout its history. Influx of business and changes brought by new developers and contractors have brought many changes to Smithtown, but the history of this tight-knit African American community will always live on in the hearts of residents both past and present.West Sixth Brewing – “Our Neighborhood”
“Revitalization” in Smithtown
A feature on the West Sixth founders done by craftbeer.com breaks it down a little differently:
Founded in 2012 by Ben Self, Brady Barlow, Joe Kuosman and head brewer Robin Sither, West Sixth Brewing is located not far from the center of downtown Lexington, Ky., in what used to be known as the city’s Smithtown area. One of West Sixth’s brews, Smithtown Brown, draws its name from nearby Smith Street and the area of the city that has been revitalized thanks to the opening of eateries and businesses frequented by clientele that range from bike-riding hipsters to yuppies.‘West Sixth Brewing Company,’ Craftbeer.com, Feb. 5, 2013
The “bike-riding hipsters” referred to in the CraftBeer.com article are almost certainly members of the Lexington Bicycle Polo League, who built bike polo courts at Coolavin Park in 2009. In 2017, they hosted the World Hardcourt Bike Polo Championship Tournament in Smithtown at Coolavin Park. The event drew visitors from around the world.
As far as the “yuppies” mentioned in the CraftBeer.com article go, the Hampton Court Gate feels almost anachronistic now; in the ’80s, it was closed by wealthy residents trying to keep out their poorer neighbors. Today, though, it seems like the poorer folks would love it if the gate kept out the yuppies.
Jefferson Street Coffee, Est. 2020
County Club, Est. 2013
West Sixth Brewing, Est. 2012
Lexington Bike Polo League
This piece is part of a series on gentrification in Lexington. You can view all articles in the series here.
- Schein, Richard. (2012). Urban Form and Racial Order. Urban Geography. 33. 942-960. 10.2747/0272-36220.127.116.112.
- Bean, E., 1982, Residents want lock on gate to their street. Lexington Herald Leader, October 18, A1.
- Johns, B., 1988a, Entrance to Hampton Court again at center of controversy. Lexington Herald Leader, August 23, B1.
- J. Kellogg, “The Formation of Black Residential Areas in Lexington, Kentucky, 1865-1887,” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 48, issue 1 (Feb. 1982), pp. 21-52.
Fri, February 23, 2024
Fri, February 23, 2024