May 7, 2014

Segrest personified Louisville’s best

Jim Segrest, Louisville’s premier preservationist and neighborhood revitalizer, has died, but a lifetime of mentoring and inspiring others to sustain his vocation lights a candle as we curse the darkness.

I’ve interviewed celebrities and governors without trepidation, but the prospect of parading my ignorance in the course of scavenging Jim’s wisdom gave me pause. Nevertheless, my assignment in September 2010 was to highlight the draconian urban impacts of the original $4.1 billion Ohio River Bridges Project. Nobody loved or served Butchertown better than Jim, and no neighborhood was more endangered by the proposed mega-expansion of Spaghetti Junction, where I-64, I-65 and I-71 converge.

As I climbed the densely wooded hill surrounding his historic home, I found him exuberant in a thicket more twisted and tangled than the long-deferred project he immediately vowed to vanquish. I knew better than to question his confidence. After seven decades spanning a childhood on a massive Valley Station farm; serial academic, civic and religious officerships; military duty; fraternity life; law school; the renovation of more than a dozen homes; and a pioneering career in urban planning, Jim was uniquely qualified to raise merry bloody hell. Like Howard Beal, the fictional network anchorman in the film “Network,” Jim was as mad as hell. As a champion of smart growth, strong neighborhoods and Butchertown’s renaissance, Jim was a credible critic. His voice resonated with sweet reason and righteous indignation as he explained how the plan to reconfigure and expand Spaghetti Junction would disfigure Butchertown forever.

He argued the case against the cancerous beast in his war room, a cluttered space in the middle of his basement where slaves had once resided but felines then presided. Amid stacks of maps, news reports and official offers to mitigate the devastation, we agreed that in the best-case scenario, the project would collapse of its own weight. The decades-deferred octopus had grown untenably bloated.

Three months after LEO published “The Great Barrier,” state officials led by Gov. Steve Beshear heeded the chorus to get off our backs by keeping Spaghetti Junction predominantly in its current footprint and otherwise reducing the estimated cost to $2.6 billion. We may never identify or thank all who influenced the decision that rescued Butchertown from ruin, but I’m sure Jim was, as usual, a crucial force.

I suspect he relied on quiet diplomacy instead of bombastic letters, which he started holding after the infamous practice made news. Jim took to holding his toxic tongue prints overnight so a cooler head could ponder whether to mail or not the morning after.

Our conversation defined him as introspective and humble enough to grow and change. No one can love history as much as he did without resolving to alter its course.

I admired his heart and mind because he felt and thought deeply. His love of Louisville inspired him to make it a better place. True love is transformative. He personified all of our signature assets. A decade ago, he told the Chicago Tribune, “In Louisville, everyone wants to show they’re ‘just folks’ … Deep down, it’s because we want you to relax and enjoy yourself.”

His Derby parties were among the hottest tickets in town. The cruel secret is that they were never exclusive. Hospitable Jim Segrest celebrated and identified with crashers, outcasts and iconoclasts.

In a 2002 interview, Jim told LEO, “I believe all neighborhoods need to take control of their place. There is no validity in the idea that the City of Louisville is going to look out for our best interests. With the emphasis on economic development, Louisville would not let any neighborhood stand in the way of financial interests. If we don’t look out for ourselves, nobody else will. I believe in historic preservation — good design that is sensitive to the historic character … We can’t let what is uniquely Louisville be replaced by homogenized development that we see happening in Atlanta, Indianapolis or Kansas City. We need to be proud of Louisville, its uniqueness and its history.”

Words well spoken amid a life well lived. And Jim was the quintessential ambassador for “the city that’s not too busy.” When our interview ended, he commenced a two-hour crash course on urban planning, zoning and design.

Citizen Segrest’s soul is rested, but his work is unfinished. May the survivors he mentored be restless enough to damn the darkness and carry the torch forward — for the love of Jim’s Louisville.