Lord, We’re Getting Them Big City Ways Part 1: Power, Development and Democracy in Kentucky
Updated: Jul 16
Part 1 of a KY Tenants Op-Ed Series. KY Tenants is a statewide tenant organizing project launched by Root Cause Research Center.
“We have always worked, those people [public officials and developers] have never worked for what they have. Our mayor has never dug a ditch, cleaned a house, cleaned a toilet or whatever for minimum wage to raise her kids. She had her money handed to her. But I’ve worked 3 jobs [for] years and years and years to raise my kid. And they call me the blight? No! I’m not the blight, they’re the blight.”
- Mindy Davenport, eastern KY trailer park resident
Residents in a Rowan County trailer park recently organized to fight a mass eviction. These evictions were orchestrated by the City of Morehead, the Rowan County Government and a private developer. During the campaign, residents and organizers from the Justice for North Fork campaign filed into the Morehead City Council meeting to give public comments on May 10th. The last thing we expected was to be escorted out by the police. After all, we were scheduled to speak and this wasn't a big city like Louisville, where brute force in response to challenges to law and order was normalized throughout 2020. But that is exactly what happened. Mayor Laura White-Brown ended public comments after only 3 residents and State Representative Attica Scott spoke. Then, Mayor White-Brown called for extra units of police back-up and threatened to arrest any resident who tried to speak in the meeting.
In contrast, she bent over backwards when Lexington developer and horse lawyer Patrick Madden visited Morehead City Council. In August 2020, Madden came with a proposal to get Tax Increment Financing (TIF) money for a scheme to replace the North Fork mobile home park with a celebrated strip mall. Madden recommended a speedy public engagement process. He promised to add 250 jobs to the area while eliminating a “blight,” as he called the North Fork neighborhood. No public official questioned the logic of trading 250 minimum wage jobs for the destruction of both an entire neighborhood and nearly 100 units of KY affordable housing. In these dark times of public-private crony capitalism, a Mayor has two jobs, 1) attract as much capital to their city as possible, and 2) make sure the workers are completely obedient to the owners of that capital. Morehead Mayor Laura White-Brown is batting a thousand in the first area. But with North Fork residents objecting to their mistreatment, the workers were getting a bit out of hand; that's when Mayor White-Brown called in the police.
We work hard every day. Where are we supposed to live?
It's getting hard to find a place to live in KY. There are over 165,000 renter households in KY (29% of all renter households in the state) that are what HUD calls “extremely low income”—meaning, families of four, making less than $25,000 per year. We are living during a great squeeze. Those who usually make money off land are making more money than ever. Capital is moving. Rents are increasing. Land is scarce while incomes stay the same and what jobs exist don’t pay enough to survive. In the midst of this economic squeeze, cities compete against each other to lure the next big development. City leaders don’t care whether it's a strip mall, a fast food restaurant, or a prison. The need to attract capital means that politicians will slash public services and sell the ground out from under us to satisfy their ruling class masters, who control their political aspirations. Within the logic of the free market, people making under $35,000 a year can’t afford to exist and are banished into houselessness, incarceration, and even death. When you can’t afford the rent, you move on. But eventually there is no place to go.
Aside from the anti-Black terrorism that includes police brutality and murder, rural gentrification functions pretty much the same as urban gentrification. Liberal Democrats are pushing development projects that dispossess people of their homes and displace working class families in both places. Republicans are more than happy to sign on for some bi-partisan performance. We're starting to see the signs of gentrification in downtown Morehead. There's a brewery; there are fancy murals. The police recently started running roadblock checkpoints during weekends downtown, sending a clear message to anyone with an expired license or faulty tail light that downtown might not be for them anymore.
Meanwhile, Laura White-Brown is establishing her liberal inclusion credentials as Morehead’s first woman mayor. She comes from a political family, her father is a Rowan Co District 1 Magistrate and her uncle is the District 99 State Representative. She is laying her foundation for a state level political career with platitudes and virtue signaling like starting a Gender Equity Task Force and convening a reading group on Facebook to read books like Just Mercy by Byron Stevenson. But despite her woke rhetoric, White-Brown is also the daughter of Morehead lumber baron Ray White, who owns Harold White Lumber Inc. This company is one of the biggest sawmills in the Eastern United States. Which means she is deeply invested in capital, class struggle and exploitation. Liberals are great at hiding the fact that all institutions have a class identity based on the class who controls them and that relationships between classes are “irrevocably antagonistic.” The wealthy, who own the land and most of the capital, tolerate poor and working class people because they can only grow and maintain their wealth through the extraction of our labor and our rent. They build their wealth on our backs. The wealthy feel justified in using the threat of police violence and incarceration against outraged citizens out of class interest and a dangerous disregard for poor and working class people. They do it to preserve a system that they and their peers have historically and continue to benefit from. In the end, capitalism with a Black, femme, or queer face is still capitalism. Neoliberalism with a Black, femme, or queer face is still neoliberalism. And gentrification with a Black, femme, or queer face is still gentrification.
It didn’t matter that Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer started his first campaign with “compassion” as a hashtag. It didn’t matter that he invested years into his own woke rhetoric with racial equity performances including talking circles, public art, and community conversations about acknowledging “historic” racism. None of it stopped Breonna Taylor from being murdered by the same racist forces of property and policing. Still, with no justice.
It didn't matter that Democrat Governor Andy Beshear called for action to end racial injustice. It didn’t stop David McAtee from being murdered by the KY National Guard on the orders of Governor Beshear.
Laura White-Brown’s Gender Equity Task Force didn’t matter to the poor and working class women who lived in the North Fork trailer park. They were still evicted with no justice or accountability. Words like “equity,” “anti-racism,” and “transformative policies” have very little meaning outside of a grant proposal. They are abstractions that hide the obvious fact that capitalism is killing us and using white supremacy to do it.
Society is not actually organized into compartments of left vs. right, conservative vs woke, racist vs anti-racist. It’s organized around people getting exploited for labor and land by those who profit from those things, with racism being a key component in crushing worker solidarity and justifying the exploitation of Black workers. And it doesn't matter what the exploiters THINK so much as what they are DOING. Because what they are DOING is making life miserable for poor and working class people and it has to stop. We need to stop focusing on what is being said by power holders and start focusing on what is being done and practiced by power holders, especially when it comes to protecting and stabilizing our lives, housing, and livelihood. With that said, let’s talk about concrete things like land and labor in KY.
Along with being a noted horse lawyer, poker player, and developer, Patrick Winchester Madden is the only child of Anita and Preston Madden. The Maddens developed Hamburg Place in Lexington and owned famous race horses like Alysheba, Pink Pigeon, Sir Barton, and other notable champions.
The Maddens are super rich and career builders for KY politicians, with large Democratic Party donations going back decades. Patrick Madden has donated tens of thousands of dollars to mainly liberal political candidates, including former Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and Kentucky governor Andy Beshear. When Patrick Madden brought his TIF proposal to the Morehead City Council, he was playing to the political aspirations of Laura White-Brown. In exchange for White-Brown’s political career, Madden got some cheap land, cheap labor, and decades of rent and tax revenue. This is how KY politicians sell the ground out from under our feet and future generations.
The West End’s got something to say!
Meanwhile, in the big city of Louisville, the ruling class just figured out a way to speed up this process. They’ve learned to bypass the illusion of democracy altogether, leaving nothing to chance. The ruling class now just installs one of their lackeys (i.e. a wealthy developer deeply invested in the gentrification of poor and working class neighborhoods) as mayor. They are able to get whatever they want, whenever they want it. In a nutshell, the ruling class in Louisville has escalated their tactics (in order to maintain their control over land and labor) to not only buying the up-and-coming mayoral election but also filling that mayoral seat themselves, which is effectively cutting out the middleman. This strategy change is likely a king-sized strategic counter to the political power generated by the organized community outrage that erupted last year in response to Breonna Taylor’s murder. To the ruling class, those workers got seriously out of control and were—and still are—in need of some corralling.
On July 7, 2020, one day after the connection between Breonna’s murder and the gentrification in the Russell neighborhood was exposed by local and national media outlets, Christy Brown, of the famed Louisville Brown family, published an op-ed of her thoughts on Breonna Taylor’s murder. In the op-ed, she said that she was “greatly concerned about the new accusations in the July 6 Courier Journal about the LMPD and allegedly different set of circumstances leading up to the murder of Breonna Taylor.”
These “allegedly different set of circumstances” that concerned Chrisy were the connections to gentrification that implicated her son-in-law Gill Holland’s real estate investments in the area. For those who don’t know, Louisville’s Brown family owns the Brown Forman whiskey distillery that makes your favorite whisky brands like Jack Daniels, Old Forester and Woodford Reserve. They are listed as one of the 20th wealthiest families on the Forbes list of US wealthiest families. They have a combined net worth of $12.3 billion, which means they pretty much run the city, along with the Jones family, who own the Humana Corporation.
One of the first things Brown/Jones did after the protests was buy off an even bigger chunk of the local media. In January 2021, the president of Louisville Public Media announced that local public radio station WFPL would be expanding through a $1 million donation from 6 donors (one of whom would be anonymous). They were:
David Jones, Jr. and Mary Gwen Wheeler
Brooke and Matthew Barzun
The Sociable Weaver Foundation
Heather McHold and Stephen Campbell
Mike and Kathy Davis
Brooke and Mathew Barzun are the Brown family. The Sociable Weaver Foundation is Gill Holland and Augusta Brown-Holland, our guess is that the anonymous donor is Christy Brown, since Gill and Augusta tried to hide their donation. In some ways this was just an expansion of the Brown family’s authority and influence over this media group, as Gill also served on the board of WFPL for 9 years. Allowing the ruling class this much control over public media means that local journalists will never be allowed to criticize what they do. Meaning, they will never be able to criticize anything that actually matters, such as land and labor.
Also in January 2021, Louisville luxury hotel developer Craig Greenberg and Kentucky Sports Radio founder/host Matt Jones announced they were buying the Ohio Valley Wrestling Federation. It was a strange business move by itself, though not all that strange by the standards of Kentucky politics. A month later, Greenberg stepped down as CEO of 21c Hotels, a position he got from his friends, developers and philanthropists Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown (another Brown Forman heiress). Still, nothing too weird: just another luxury hotel developer looking to cash-in on and profiting off of the empty buildings that lay in the aftermath of COVID evictions and the gentrification of west Louisville. But things got a little weirder a month later. In March, a state-level resolution was announced to make the entire West End of Louisville—which is a massive area that includes 9 neighborhoods and houses over 60,000 residents—a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) district. Sound familiar? The residents of North Fork in eastern KY were fighting the same deeply problematic developer subsidy.
To be continued in Lord, We’re Getting Them Big City Ways Part 2.
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