Creative Innovation Zone

Joshua J. Miller

More than 300 people attended The Smoketown Poetry Opera produced on YouthBuild Louisville’s campus in October 2014. Photograph by Justin Philalack/Kertis Creative.

Sustainable community—that is the driver behind the work of IDEAS 40203 (IDEAS) and YouthBuild Louisville (YBL) in the Smoketown neighborhood of Louisville, Ky. Can artists as civic innovators help to facilitate dialogue between people, organizations and policymakers in a fast-changing neighborhood to support a sustainable vision for the future?

This idea does not involve real estate development, but a programming strategy that harnesses the desires and needs of a community in a holistic, sustainable way. The 150-year history of Smoketown and what the community—both current and returning—wanted to see take shape informed and inspired the application for the Creative Innovation Zone, a $250,000 ArtPlace America grant awarded in summer 2014 to IDEAS and YBL.

Following the Civil War, freed slaves migrated to Louisville and helped establish Smoketown, a historically African-American neighborhood just southeast of downtown Louisville in ZIP code 40203. In the 1940s, the Sheppard Square housing project was constructed and by 2010, 40203 was ranked the 13th poorest ZIP code in the United States. Through a federal HOPE VI grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Sheppard Square was demolished in 2011 by the Louisville Metro Housing Authority and is being rebuilt as an energy-efficient, mixed-income development made possible by a $100-million public-private investment.

Prior to the demolition, the New Directions Housing Corp. developed a Quality of Life Action Plan (QLAP) with Smoketown residents, identifying education, green spaces, safety and jobs as "pillars" upon which they wanted to build their community.

The demolition of Sheppard Square and relocation of its residents led to a decrease in Smoketown's population and the closing of the Presbyterian Community Center, which had served the community for more than 100 years. With hundreds of families returning in phases to Smoketown and living again in the new Sheppard Square, the lack of a community center and infrastructure for current and returning residents served as the driving force behind the work currently being done by IDEAS and YBL.

The partnership between IDEAS and YBL began organically in fall 2013. Forged through the shared desire of the two organizations to fuel positive social and economic change for young people and with the community, the partnership focused on workforce development training and leveraging artists as change agents in creating a just, equitable approach to neighborhood development.

YBL, led by Executive Director Lynn Rippy, has worked diligently for the past 14 years to champion young adults to be great citizens who build productive lives and sustainable communities in Louisville. This goal is achieved through education, leadership and job-skills training in fields including construction and nursing; more than 350 students have graduated from the training. YBL's green campus in Smoketown features a water remediation garden, urban farm, barns for construction and product creation, and an expansive facility for classes and activities. IDEAS started as a collaborative Louisville-New York exhibition project in November 2012 between artist Theo Edmonds and Residency Unlimited, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based arts nonprofit. In September 2013, co-founders Theo Edmonds and Josh Miller launched IDEAS as the first contemporary art chamber of commerce in the United States, advocating for an increased role for artists in both business and civic innovation.

The Creative Innovation Zone (CIZ), which focuses on eight contiguous blocks in Smoketown surrounding Sheppard Square, works to pioneer new ways for artists as change agents to engage with the community to create new opportunities in education, environmental design and entrepreneurial activity leading to jobs. Inspired by the QLAP pillars, the aim of the CIZ is to create 20 new jobs in Smoketown by the end of 2015, create new public green spaces and digital fluency programs, and help YBL expand its current offerings with the addition of a culinary training program.

From the Smoketown arts series, the engagement of more than 25 artists and the creation of a culinary training program, CIZ has made a great deal of headway in six months. Some highlights include the following initiatives.

Steam Exchange

Steam Exchange, a startup being incubated within the CIZ, is a collective of artists and educators who offer outreach events, workshops and classes to engage young people aged 6-24 in the community. Steam Exchange changes "STEM" to "STEAM" by using art as the context for teaching science, technology, engineering and math. Since its launch in August 2014, Steam Exchange has engaged more than 800 young people in partnership with organizations including Meyzeek Middle School, YBL and Bates Memorial Church.

Because digital fluency in today's economy is important, Steam Exchange is prototyping a digital coding class for YBL's students. The class, co-created with volunteers from Louisville's professional coding community, builds apps through weekly guided, experiential education. From ideation to creation and mapping processes, the course not only teaches technical skills, but fosters team building and encourages the act of prototyping ideas that are scalable and sustainable, from organization to community.

In addition to after-school programs, Steam Exchange is developing a pre-apprenticeship program that will help to bridge the job skills gap between unfilled positions and young people in the community. This includes training in advanced manufacturing and computer-based careers, and partnering with local businesses and members of Louisville's thriving coder community to expand skills training and inspire a new generation of thinkers and doers.

Smoketown Arts Series

The Smoketown Arts Series kicked off with a poetry opera in October 2014. Former Sheppard Square resident and documentary filmmaker Lavel White's film, "More Than Bricks and Mortar: The Sheppard Square Story," served as the backbone of the poetry opera, which was created and performed by a collaborative group of poets, dancers, musicians and DJs. A diverse group of more than 300 people attended the Smoketown Poetry Opera. A sequel to White's film, which will document the impact of the CIZ on the neighborhood, is currently in production.

Also in October 2014, IDEAS partnered with the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts to bring two performers from the renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem to lead a workshop at Bates Memorial Church in Smoketown. More than 25 community members participated in the workshop, with hundreds watching from the church's pews.

Job Skills Training

Job skills training is being expanded in Smoketown through a partnership with nationally recognized culinary artist Chef Edward Lee, who is creating a culinary training program for at-risk young people. Three apprentices have begun working with Chef Lee to write the curriculum for the training program, set to launch in 2015.

Through all of these programs, as well as the ongoing implementation of CIZ initiatives, dynamic partnerships have been crucial to fostering a thriving community. From Louisville Metro's Commission on Public Art to Smoketown-based Kertis Creative and the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, each organization has played a role in helping to make the CIZ a reality. By focusing on an approach that meets human, economic and environmental needs and highlights people as the community's greatest assets, CIZ continues to prototype projects and initiatives toward building a sustainable community.

Information on the Creative Innovation Zone programs and initiatives can be found at

TOP: Young people from Smoketown participate in arts activities led by the Steam Exchange during the Smoketown Mobile Market organized by KSU’s Thorobred Nutrition Kitchen in Summer 2014. Photograph by Josh Miller.
MIDDLE: Screen-printed banners created by the Steam Exchange with artist Patrick Rowe for The Smoketown Poetry Opera. Photograph by Amber Garvey/Kertis Creative.
BOTTOM: Cast from The Smoketown Poetry Opera. Photograph by Justin Philalack/Kertis Creative.

Joshua J. Miller is the co-founder of IDEAS 40203 in Louisville, Ky.


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