Travis the waterman—this is the way he answers his telephone—is the second generation of men in his family who delivers water to the cisterns on the farms in this rapidly disappearing swatch of country east of Louisville, Kentucky. Change has come here for interesting reasons: the Supreme Court desegregated Kentucky schools in the 1950’s, provoking a white flight that seeded the country with enormous subdivisions; those new county schools—“neighborhood schools” in the common parlance—meant that Travis and his generation avoided what was always called “forced busing”-two and a half hours each way on school buses into the Black neighborhood far to the west of downtown.
That neighborhood, within walking distance of the commercial district, was decisively sliced off by the building of a throughway and overpasses in the 1970’s; there is really no way any more to walk to downtown from the black west end, which explains why the commercial district looks abandoned, and is for the most part. Once it was crowded day and night with white and black people—although only the whites could try on clothes or hats in the thriving department stores where they spent a lot of money, especially before Easter; soldiers from Fort Knox to the South-West also pushed their ways through the streets and thronged the bars. There were four or five movie theatres constantly showing Hollywood movies; all are boarded up now or have been demolished. This poison fruit of progress has never been recognized, as far as I know, because its recognition seems to depend on an even more poisonous sentimentality about “the good old days.”
The good old days were no better than any old days, and were in some ways far worse. Racism was not only tolerated but supported by the city’s clubs and institutions, recognized by it’s housing patterns and labor possibilities, which for the black residents meant domestic work, the L&N Railroad, or counter and kitchen service in the many greasy spoons that lined Fourth Street. A generation earlier, those possibilities would have included work on the riverboats hauling commerce up and down the Ohio. A generation before that, it was slavery.
But when Travis the water man tells me, in answer to my question, about the destruction of the farms he remembers from childhood, I understand his nostalgia for those beautiful green landscapes, the corn and wheat, dairy cattle and chickens that were so much a part of growing up here thirty years ago. Almost all are gone now, swallowed up by what we have to recognize as progress, even when it presents itself as hideous strip malls, gas stations, and poorly built, energy devouring subdivisions.
Now a massive Interstate highway is about to be dug across this landscape, leading to an enormous four-lane bridge across the Ohio to Indiana. Conservation groups and neighborhood associations fought it for years, hampered by the association with wealth and privilege that all efforts at holding back change evoke. After twenty years of battling, these groups have now given up, facing the stonewall of the Federal Government in the person of Senator Mitch McConnell. The bridge, which is sure to make money for someone, will be built, and the tremors from blasting to create an enormous tunnel leading to the river—this to preserve an historic house—are already being felt in the neighborhood. A friend plans to photograph her walls as they are now in order to register any cracks resulting from the blasting.
The attempt to hold back the bridge, and now to deal with its consequences, has united the neighborhood. Nothing can be done alone. Is it possible that this result somehow justifies the destruction, that the potluck suppers, fundraising, and new friendships based on common concerns carry more value than the stripped and desecrated fields? We must nurture a great belief in the value of neighbors to believe that.
Travis the water man, whose livelihood I thought might be threatened by all this development, tells me he is busier than he has ever been, as county residents long suspicious of any form of government dig cisterns and depend on his water truck to fill them in order to avoid the expense, and the suspicions raised—fluoride, or not fluoride?—by city water.
Fluoride, like other long-resisted improvements, was pushed through by a group of powerful, liberal-minded and politically connected men who ruled the state for the first fifty years of the twentieth century. They are gone now although their sons still exercise a form of influence; inconceivable that they daughters might inherit the power which is one reason it has been diluted.
But the truth is that progressive ideas, whether about equality or water quality, have never taken root here; those are the seeds that fall on rocky ground, sprout and rapidly wither.