Detail image for Reviving Russell story.

A ramshackle 16-room Victorian mansion is a bold investment that Kaila Washington and her partner Gaberiel Jones Jr. made in their future — and the future they envision for this historic West End neighborhood.

Written by Javacia Harris Bowser | Photographed by Kylene White

For five years Kaila Washington and her partner Gaberiel Jones Jr., dreamed of owning a home in the Russell neighborhood of West Louisville. They put offers on several houses only to be outdone by investors seeking to purchase old homes in the area and flip them into rental properties.

“It felt like that dream for us was getting further and further away because of that sort of competition with people from outside the neighborhood who are not going to live here,” says Kaila, an Army reservist and doctoral student.

Eventually, they had their eye on one home in particular – a 134-year-old 16-room Victorian mansion on West Muhammad Ali Boulevard.

“We would drive by this house all the time,” Kaila says. “We would go home and make plans for what we would do in this house.”

One day Kaila and Gaberiel, who currently rent a home in Russell, found the house listed on Zillow. They immediately called their realtor and jumped at the opportunity. Now the two are the owners of this three-story house that’s as rich in history as the neighborhood in which it was built.

A white widow built the house in 1888. Decades later, white flight began and soon ads were placed in local newspapers calling for people of color to move into the home. A Black family, the Ebbs, moved in and owned the house for generations. For 97 years the house was passed down through that family.

Now, Kaila and Gaberiel hope this house will be where they will start a family of their own.

Detail image for Reviving Russell story.

“It’s important for me to live here,” Kaila says of the Russell neighborhood. “When we think about starting a family, we feel that it’s very important for our children to grow up around people who look like them. They can walk around their neighborhood and not think, ‘Someone’s going call the police on me.’”

Kaila cherishes the sense of community she’s found in Russell too. “My parents live out in the suburbs and they have no idea who their neighbors are, but we’re out here sharing hot dogs on the Fourth of July,” she says.

For Gaberiel, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences in the School of Public Health at the University of Louisville, investing in the Russell community is his way of trying to help right the wrongs Black people have endured for decades regarding homeownership.

Much of his professional research has centered on how governmental policies and banking practices have not only created barriers to homeownership for people of color, but also driven down property values in Black neighborhoods.

Not only has Russell been negatively impacted by the number of vacant and abandoned properties in the area, but Kaila and Gaberiel say the neighborhood also has a disproportionate amount of halfway houses – both official and illegitimate ones.

For years, West Louisville residents have complained about the spread of poorly managed temporary housing in neighborhoods like Russell. Operators snatch up cheap property and then create halfway houses or other temporary boarding or group homes. The operations typically have little to no oversight and thus become problematic for the neighborhoods.

“This number of halfway houses and boarding houses makes it difficult to build community and we know that there are affordable housing developers in the city that refuse to build houses on certain blocks down here because of the number of halfway houses,” Kaila says. “They know they will not be able to convince families to buy these houses, and that’s what you really need to build community.”

Detail image for Reviving Russell story.

Kaila Washington and her partner Gaberiel Jones Jr. purchased their dream home, this 134-year-old Victorian mansion in the Russell neighborhood.

Despite these issues, Kaila and Gaberiel were determined to buy a home in Russell.

“If we were going to spend the money, we’re going to spend the money to buy a house where it benefits people who look like us,” Gaberiel says, “where it benefits people that systems have harmed for decades.”

The couple purchased the home in June of 2021 for $60,000 but they estimate it will take $350,000 to renovate the property. The gutters, roof, plumbing, electrical wiring and more need major repairs or a complete overhaul. The house needs central air and heating too. The house has been vacant for about 10 years and due to years of water damage, squatters and robberies, it isn’t livable right now. Once it is, Kaila and Gaberiel want to make this house their forever home.

They have big plans for this big house, including turning the third floor into an Airbnb. The couple can see beyond the peeling paint and wallpaper, the leaking ceilings and the broken windows. They imagine a gorgeous home filled with family and friends enjoying dinner and drinks.

But Kaila and Gaberiel know they will face many challenges as they try to make this dream a reality. Several of the house’s doors, fireplace mantles and stained-glass windows were stolen while the property was vacant. The couple was able to locate the stolen fixtures at a local business but had to spend roughly $8,000 to buy back the items.

They’ve also had trouble finding contractors to work on the house. Because the property is a historic home, some contractors aren’t qualified. Others simply aren’t willing.

“It’s apparent that they just don’t want to work in this neighborhood,” Gaberiel says. “They’ll ghost us, or they’ll give us a price that’s so extreme that they know we have to say no.”

They had hoped to take advantage of the Russell Homeownership Incentive Program, which offered assistance for up to $24,999 in home repairs to qualified buyers. But after completing the application process and being told they had been approved, they were later told the program had ended.

“That was, honestly, devastating,” Gaberiel says. They are hopeful, however, that they will receive historic preservation tax credits to help with the renovation costs.

Detail image for Reviving Russell story.

Russell was once known as “Louisville’s Harlem.” Residents are determined to see their community become the vibrant and economically diverse neighborhood it once was.

Louisville’s Harlem

There was a time when the Russell neighborhood was known as “Louisville’s Harlem.” In the 1940s, Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali Boulevard) was bustling with Black-owned businesses including theaters, restaurants, grocers, and professional offices. Educator and civil rights activist Albert E. Meyzeek fought to open the first full-service library for African Americans in the country in Russell. But in the 1960s, in part due to misguided urban renewal efforts that demolished the commercial area along Walnut Street, the neighborhood began to decline.

With a population of nearly 4,000 households, today the Russell neighborhood grapples with high levels of poverty and divestment. But many Russell residents are determined to see their community become the vibrant, thriving, and economically diverse neighborhood it once was.

One of the people leading the charge is Jackie Floyd. She’s known as the unofficial mayor of Russell and has lived in the neighborhood since 1990. Jackie doesn’t remember exactly when people started calling her the mayor of Russell, but she’s happy to take the title. “I’m very protective of Russell,” she says. “I want people to know, and I make sure that they know, that we don’t need saviors in our community.”

Jackie wants any groups or organizations looking to help out in the Russell community to do so by partnering with the residents. She serves as lead community outreach specialist on the advisory board for Russell: A Place of Promise, or RPOP.

RPOP is a project fiscally sponsored by the Community Foundation of Louisville and incubated in Cities United and Louisville Metro Government with the aim of getting Russell residents, business, faith leaders, and other community members engaged in revitalization efforts. “They’re really bringing the community together,” Kaila says of RPOP.

In her role with RPOP, Jackie spends a lot of time meeting with Russell residents to learn what issues concern them most. She’s also been one of Kaila and Gaberiel’s greatest cheerleaders.

“As young people buy into the neighborhood, it keeps the neighborhood going and growing,” Jackie says. ”It brings more businesses because young folks have income and they want those amenities that people have out there on the other side of 9th Street.”

Jackie not only keeps Kaila and Gaberiel informed about neighborhood happenings, but she connects them to resources and makes time to send them encouraging texts and emails. “I do know that buying a home and trying to get it together sometimes it can be very frustrating,” Jackie says. “But when somebody sends you a positive message that can change the whole flavor of your day.”

Her efforts are appreciated.

“She embodies what it means to fight for your neighborhood,” Gaberiel says of Jackie. “She is Russell. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about younger people doing this kind of work is because folks like Miss Jackie deserve to be able to chill a little bit. I think she’s going to be a fighter until her last breath because it’s just in her, but I also want the elders of our community to be able to sit back and know that their community is going to be okay.”

A Place of Promise

A walk through Russell reveals that signs of renewal are all around.

Last year, the Louisville Urban League opened a $53 million state-of-the-art track and field facility in the Russell neighborhood. Even before the official ribbon-cutting ceremony in March of 2021, the Norton Sports and Learning Complex had already hosted track meets with athletes from across the country and around the world.

In June of 2021, Louisville Metro Government received a $500,000 grant from the National Park Service to help rehabilitate the historic Bourgard College of Music & Art in Russell. Bourgard College was the first art school in Louisville for African American children and helped produce many of Louisville’s most popular Black musicians.

Following a racial equity review of the policies, programs, and procedures of Louisville’s Landbank Authority, changes have been implemented to prioritize the sale of Landbank properties for owner occupancy, which should make it easier for folks like Kaila and Gaberiel to buy homes in areas like Russell. The Landbank Authority acquires, manages, and sells distressed and vacant properties and parcels to responsible developers.

​​“The highest and best use for these properties is to get them in the hands of residents who live nearby and to use these properties to increase affordable housing in our city and homeownership for our Black residents,” Mayor Greg Fischer said in a released statement on the new policies. “Changes to our Landbank programs identified through this racial equity review will help us better meet these goals.”

Russell is buzzing with Black-owned businesses too. Seafood lovers can dine at Tha Drippin’ Crab, a restaurant by celebrity chef Darnell Ferguson. Gaberiel likes to get his java fix at Julee’s Mocha Coffee Shop where they know his order. Kaila loves the “Bangin’ Banana Pudding” at the hip-hop themed bakery and dessert shop, Hip Hop Sweet Shop.

Lafesa Johnson, owner of Hip Hop Sweet Shop, wishes more people knew about all the great things the Russell neighborhood has to offer – including unique businesses like hers.“What I love about Russell is the history and the future together,” Lafesa says. “I know where it was, I know how it’s been, and I know where it’s going.”

Detail image for Reviving Russell story.

Remaking a Mansion and a Community 

Despite the challenges, Kaila and Gaberiel are confident that taking on the task of remaking a mansion was the right thing to do.

“We’ve got the whole neighborhood behind us, so we know it’s going to work,” Gaberiel says.

When the couple closed on the house, a few folks from the neighborhood surprised them with balloons on the front gate and a big sign that read “Congratulations.” They also gave the new homeowners gifts —  a door mat and a piece of art.

“The story of how dope the people in this community actually are never gets told,” Gaberiel says.

Kaila and Gaberiel are determined to change that. The couple started an Instagram account @RemakingAMansion to document their journey and to share the story of Russell.

“We want to shed a positive light on Russell,” Kaila says. “We want people to be along for the ride, but we also want to be realistic about the challenges we’re facing. It’s not HGTV.”

Most of all, Kaila hopes documenting their journey will inspire other young people of color to invest in their neighborhoods. “I want people to know that they can do it too,” she says.