In my days as editor of Utne Reader, we published an article by urban expert Peter Katz ranking Louisville as the 3rd most underrated city in America (Milwaukee was first). Ever since then I have eager to see things for myself—the last time I passed through was on the way to Daytona Beach for spring break while in college. So I jumped at the chance last fall to speak at a regional smart growth conference right across the river in Jeffersonville, Indiana. I arrived a day early to wander around Louisville, and was even more pleasantly surprised than I anticipated.

Louisville has certainly made its share of mistakes—including, most tragically, a freeway that severs downtown from the majestic Ohio River. But the town is rich with neighborhoods that maintain high levels of architectural integrity, historical charm and vibrant street life.

My whirlwind tour began in Old Louisville, said to be one of the largest historic districts in the country. It’s a red-brick wonderland, full of handsome mansions fanning out from the Olmsted-designed Central Park. I visited two days after the tail end of Hurricane Ike roared through town, andeven though the park was strewn with fallen tree limbs it still was full of kids playing, couples strolling, and old folks relaxing on benches.

Old Louisville is in the midst of gentle gentrification, so you find Laundromats and cut-rate liquor stores sharing street corners with French bakeries and swank antique shops. Wealthy professionals’ BMWs are parked on the street in front of old mansions while students’ bicycles are locked to the second story fire escapes.

A world away (but actually just a few blocks) is Germantown— an enclave of stereotypically tidy small houses interspersed with brick factories and tall-spired churches. Now an ethnically diverse area, Germantown nonetheless reminds me of a Central European village where people stop to chat in the street and community life revolves around the churches and taverns. Indeed, an unexpected characteristic of this Southern city is the German, Irish and Italian names you see everywhere.

Heading east on—what else?—Eastern Parkway, an Olmsted designed street linking several of the city’s parks, you reach the Highlands, which is a cluster of thriving neighborhoods ringing Olmsted’s magnificent Cherokee Park. Trees, trails and amenities are superbly sited among hills and dales to maximize enjoyment of this urban oasis. It’s filled with people walking, talking, jogging, flirting and just reveling in the scenery.

Nearby is Bardstown Road, the epitome of a thriving urban business district that’s lively enough to withstand occasional intrusions from parking lots and chain restaurants. The street, wisely kept to just two lanes of traffic, caters to both upscale tastes and the funky bohemian crowd. Both demographics seem to enjoy sipping coffee at sidewalk tables and promenading up and down the block but then go their separate ways into either international art galleries and fashion boutiques or skateboard shops and noisy (really noisy) music stores.

But what about the river—the reason there’s even a city here. Louisville’s Waterfront Park can be reached by passing under the I-71 freeway on the edge of downtown, but I recommended crossing over to Jeffersonville, an venerable old town on the Indiana side, and strolling the waterfront trail lined with Victorian houses. It offers a swell view of downtown Louisville across the water.

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