Earlier this month in Louisville, Kentucky, Hillary Clinton spoke about job creation, early childhood education, and the state’s opioid crisis. Nyquist won the Derby. And on the concrete steps outside a West End apartment, three women sat watching for rain and talking about gunfire.
A fourth woman approached the steps. Someone asked what she thought about the violence casting a long shadow over parts of the city.
“It’s not gonna stop,” she responded.
Devin Cornelius, a 32-year-old mother of five, frowned from the bottom step. “So you think we’re doomed, as a people?”
In 2015, Louisville recorded its deadliest year in over three decades. Out of 80 murders, 63 were shootings. This year, the bullets have continued to fly. In the first three months of 2016, more than 100 people were shot, a 47 percent increase over the same time period last year. To handle the uptick in killings, Louisville Metro Police added eight detectives to the homicide unit.
When the National Rifle Association’s Annual Meeting opens in the city on the night of May 19, attendees will gather to celebrate firearms that connect them to their family heritage or serve as a means for camaraderie and release at the range after a hard day’s work. They will cheer their right to bear shotguns for hunting fowl and handguns for just-in-case. But for people in Louisville’s embattled neighborhoods, bloodshed is a reality to hope against, not a possibility to prepare for. Where they live, guns damage more than they comfort.
Tiffany Brown lives in the Beecher Terrace public housing development in Louisville’s Russell neighborhood. She estimates she hears the crackle of gunshots “probably every other day.” Her kids know the routine when the rounds reverberate. “I just say, ‘Don’t go to the window. Just don’t look out the window. Stay low.’” Brown hopes to move into a house in the comparatively safer South End soon.
About 13 miles south of Beecher Terrace sits a quiet apartment complex in the Okolona neighborhood, where shots rang out in the early morning hours of Sunday, May 8. The bullets struck Angelina Pressley, who’d just returned from a Kentucky Derby party with her fiancé and son, 8-year-old Darrien. Just feet away, the boy watched hysterically as his mother perished on the sidewalk. It was Mother’s Day.
“She was a very good, nice person,” says Darrien of his mother, who taught children with special needs. “Everybody she met, she was nice to. She was never mean.” Darrien, a slight child who shares his mother’s enormous brown eyes, is just beginning to process what he’s lost. No more after-school trips with his mom for pizza at Papa Murphy’s; no more handmade birthday gifts she’d conjured from her closetful of craft supplies.
“I just don’t know how he’s going to go the rest of his life without his mother,” says Darrien’s father, Darren Brasher, Jr., who lost his stepfather to gun violence at the age of 10. “I don’t think that picture in his head will ever go away.”
Police are still investigating the 27-year-old’s death, and have not named a motive or suspect.
Ninth Street is a two-way boulevard that cuts southward from the Ohio River waterfront until it reaches Old Louisville. Much of the city’s serious crime is concentrated in the West End, commonly defined as anything west of the “Ninth Street Divide.”
The division that the boulevard demarcates is more than geographic. Sadiqa Reynolds, president and CEO of the Louisville Urban League, draws links between West End shootings and the shortages — of public transportation, of good homes, of mental health services, of decent grocery stores — its residents contend with. “Anywhere you find people who don’t feel like they have been included, don’t feel like they have opportunity, you’re going to find violence,” she says. “Decrease hope, increase hurt.”
At the same time, West End residents are weary of the stigma that comes with being part of a neighborhood outsiders are more eager to avoid than they are to understand. “There’s a vast majority of people, in this side of town that is perceived to be bad, that are working hard, trying to get their kids to school, they own homes,” says Reynolds. “No community wants to be defined by what is least among them.”
Frank Irvin, 35, lives in Beecher Terrace. During a march through the public housing project to raise awareness about gun violence, he spoke about what he’d like to see in his community. “More mentors, more field trips, more playgrounds,” he said.
“These kids have mentors,” responded Major Andrea Brown, who oversees LMPD’s First Division. “They’re just the wrong ones.”
Louisville police say they’re trying to find the right balance in the neighborhoods where they are most likely to find themselves working from behind crime scene tape.
“Sometimes what I hear from one generation is we’re over-policing the community,” says Brown. “And then the older generation will tell you, ‘No you’re not, we don’t see you enough.’”
During the march, Mayor Greg Fischer got an earful from Beecher Terrace resident Montez Jones. “Half the friends I grew up with, they died from gun violence,” Jones later told a local news reporter.
In the wake of a triple homicide at a single intersection in 2012, Fischer’s office created the Office of Safe & Healthy Neighborhoods, designed to reduce violent deaths by homicide, suicide, and overdose. Suicide in Louisville typically outpaces homicide — last year, three-quarters of 102 suicides were by firearm. “When it comes to our gunshot rates and our homicide rates, we’re average as a country,” the mayor says. “We’re not one of these super violent cities.” Louisville’s homicide rate exceeds that of similar-sized cities like Portland, Oregon, which had 33 homicides last year. It’s lower than cities like Las Vegas and Milwaukee.
But there’s the way Louisville’s crime trends look on a bar chart, and then there’s the way it feels to live in the Terraces and other parts of the city.
“We are having an epidemic,” says Michelle Unseld Thomas, a resident of the South Side.
The violence in Louisville right now is “unprecedented,” says Brown, the police major.
Rain patters on the windshield of Larry Holden’s car in a West End McDonald’s parking lot. He takes a solemn moment to remember his brother, who died from a gunshot wound in 1994 at the age of 15.
“I wasn’t right for a couple years,” says the 41-year-old, who works as a business development manager for an electrical and plumbing supply company. The death made it harder to “connect [with] and trust people.”
Gunshots continued to steal members of Holden’s family. In 2006, his brother-in-law was murdered. Four years ago, his cousin was fatally shot in his Newburg home, while his children were there. Both cases remain unsolved. Last year in Louisville, clearance rates for solving murders fell below the national average.
In the past two years, University of Louisville Hospital has treated more than 600 people for gunshot injuries. The region’s only Level 1 trauma center, it treats those from outside the city as well. One recent patient was Shenitrea Vaughn of Campbellsville, a small city located 90 miles to the south. On the evening of April 30, a man entered Vaughn’s apartment and opened fire, striking her and killing another young woman.
Vaughn’s first few days in recovery were “very tough,” she says. The prognosis from the doctors was not good. “They just told me basically I’m not gonna walk again. But I think I am. I know I am.”
Her family is planning to move to the city, so she’ll be closer to resources for people in wheelchairs.
David McElroy works as a custodian at Brown Memorial CME Church. He spent seven years incarcerated for manslaughter in the second degree.
McElroy was born in Louisville, but spent most of his childhood in Nicholasville, Kentucky, south of Lexington. He grew up feeling like an outcast. He says he suffered abuse at the hands of his foster parents. “I was told so many times I was ugly,” he says.
At 20, McElroy found himself back in Louisville, fashioning a new persona on the streets. “I became a cutthroat,” he says. “You go from being a have-not, a foster child, no one liked me … then I come here, and I get into this gang lifestyle and I’m selling drugs and I’m making money and people love me.”
One day in 1996, McElroy was selling crack in the city’s West End when the client changed his mind about the sale. McElroy says he thought the man was reaching for a gun. “I just pull out my gun and I just shoot one shot,” he says. “I didn’t intend for it to hit.” The shot paralyzed the man, who died four months later.
While in prison, McElroy tried to rationalize the shooting. “I kept telling myself it was his fault.” But his guilt would not relent. “I’ve been attacked in my sleep by demons. I’ve been haunted by this situation over and over.” His teeth are worn from years of gnashing. He says he doesn’t keep a gun anymore.
Along the bend in the Ohio River, at the northwestern edge of the city, sits the Portland neighborhood. Populated by mostly low-income whites, it’s one of the city’s most crime-troubled areas. “It’s changed for the worst I think,” says Edward Logsdon, 70, who was born and raised in Portland. “Drugs on every corner, murders around here every week.”
Logsdon, a Vietnam veteran, remembers one day when people in the neighborhood were harassing his son for being gay. He pulled out his revolver and went outside before a neighbor called the police. He says he feels safer when carrying a firearm. “I think it helps a lot to have a gun,” he says. “I believe in self defense.” As member of the NRA, he hopes to be able to make it to some of the convention.
On May 9 in the Portland neighborhood, Amber Stepp was fatally shot while sitting in a parked car. A block away is a bullet-scarred window, a remnant of another bout of gunfire.
Back in Beecher Terrace, Cornelius, the mother of five, worries constantly about her children.
“We’ve had drive-by shootings on our street, right by the alley, in the daytime, 9 o’clock in the morning.” Her children are forbidden from playing in a nearby park. Instead she has devised endless ways to keep them busy — with school, basketball, cheerleading, gymnastics, summer camp — in an effort to lower odds that she can never fully control.
“Bullets don’t have a name,” she says.
[Photography by Kyle Grillot for The Trace]