Complaining about one’s hometown is as fruitless as it is familiar. All children, if they have any gumption, are wild to leave home as soon as they possibly can and then disparage the place as though it somehow caused their woes. Years ago, fourteen-year-old boys hit the road to escape home-grown abuse; girls were often trapped until marriage, which might go far to explain the psychological damage so many women suffered.
I was among the small group of girls privileged by talent, access and means to escape at seventeen, on my way to college and out to the big world. It would never have occurred to me to return to a Midwestern town (with southern affectations) where the upper-class white men, still securely in the saddle in business, politics, education and what passed for the arts, had no use for bright, uppity girls. (Remember, this was the time when after suburban dinner parties, women were herded up to their hostess’ bathroom to “powder their noses” while their men discussed the news of the day downstairs over cigars and brandy.)
Architecturally, Louisville then had suffered an aesthetic decline along with a drop in per capital income after the boom years of the late 1940’s. The handsome, late nineteenth-century houses in the old neighborhoods close to downtown were deteriorating, broken up into apartments. Smoketown and the West End were beginning to fall prey to developers building hive-like “projects” which exist today (some have been torn down), deteriorating in plots of mashed-looking dying grass. A few have been renovated, with balconies, stoops and iron railings, giving them an air of middle-class respectability; remarkably, there is very little litter, and here and there a pot of annual flowers on a stoop.
All that is relatively unchanged. Developers can’t make the money they want to make on low-cost housing, and “projects” no longer attract any support. But a few blocks east, in the busy downtown, renovation projects have almost entirely altered the drab, bland cityscape of my childhood, made up of six-story brick commercial warehouses and limestone office buildings with a few grace notes—columns, porticos…
Ordinances designed to protect historic buildings prevent these now-outdated, shabby structures from being torn down. On Main Street, the old facades, propped up on long supports, are now all that remain of the commercial buildings. They’re reminiscent of the facades built in Russia when the Czar was due to pass through, to hide the peasants’ hovels. Six-story tall scaffolding is buzzing with construction workers, and I wonder if any of them are voting for Trump. In six days in the state, I saw only about a dozen Trump yard signs, and only two bumper stickers—only two Clinton yard signs and no bumper stickers—and this is the part of the country (although traditionally Democrat, that has been changing) which might be presumed to vote for the T. But here, at least, in renovating Louisville, there are a lot of good construction jobs which might lead these workers to wonder about some of the T’s pronouncements.
Even more astonishing is the railroad bridge, engineered in 1870 by a man in my family, unused for decades, which the city has turned into a pedestrian walkway uniting Louisville with its neighbor across the river, Indiana. Even on a working day, the bridge is thronged with people walking, riding bikes or pushing strollers—a mixed population of city dwellers taking in the fresh air and the long views of the big river stretching down to the falls and the locks, with a busy little tug boat nosing its loaded barges along.
And then there is the new bridge, recently constructed after a lot of controversy focused on its sister bridge whose construction in the suburbs disrupted and disturbed the well-off inhabitants and threatened several not-quite-historic houses in its path.The bridge I’m looking at, the downtown bridge, a beautiful slender, spidery structure gleaming over the river, is as pretty as any bridge could be, and may spread out the snarls of cars and trucks shoving their way from the city to Indiana. But we know now that new bridges and new superhighways—likely to be part of the opportunities for employment offered by the next administration—only lead to more cars and more trucks and, inevitably (eventually) more snarls. We are reproducing too fast, and our fuel is too available, and, right now, too affordable, to allow for mitigation by highway and bridge construction.
But never mind that now. The Hillbilly Teahouse offers the best tea-baked catfish I’ve ever tasted (the tea is the novel element) and the hammering and banging of new construction and renovation lend an air of vitality to what was once drab and declining.
So—I never would have believed it, but my hometown city is blooming as it never has before.