When the Roadwork Slows

Michael Abernethy
Main Street
Photo: Michael Abernethy

After the two-week festivities of the Kentucky Derby are over -- the potholes are allowed to grow deeper, the weeds along the roads are left to grow -- Louisville settles into a comfortable balance of country and urban, conventional and cutting-edge.

The race is billed as the most exciting two minutes in sports. It attracts the nation's top gamblers, A-list celebrities, and state politicians, all wearing their Sunday go-to-meeting clothes and gathered to watch a group of very expensive horses run around a big oval track. Not only do millions of dollars change hands at the track, but many local businesses, especially hotels and restaurants, rake in enough cash in one weekend to tide them over for the rest of the year.

For the residents of Louisville, the Kentucky Derby is more than just one glorious horse race; it is a two-week celebration, featuring free concerts, a parade, a hot air balloon festival, a steamboat race, and a host of odd contests, such as racing beds and a competition testing the skills of the town's best wait people. The latter event, which takes place on an observation area overlooking the Ohio River, climaxes with The Run for the Rose, during which servers run an obstacle course while carrying trays loaded with glasses of wine; the person who finishes the course with the best time and the least spillage wears the mantle of Restaurant Royalty. The "Derby Festival", as it is known, is launched each year in conjunction with "Thunder Over Louisville", North America's largest annual fireworks displays. In 2004, over a half million people flocked to the shores of the Ohio to watch a blinding array of colors and lights explode over the waters. These two events, which bookend the festival, are a perfect representation of what Louisville is about: the modern combined with the traditional.

My favorite part of Derby occurs a couple weeks before the actual race, but it is a little more pragmatic than fun: it starts with the inevitable road repairs. With the prospect of dozens of big names arriving all at once, road repair crews find a sudden motivation that was sorely lacking for most of the year. Potholes, nuisances for months, finally get fixed, and fresh stripes appear on roads where only general approximation to the curb served as a guide before. Efforts to avoid damaging potholes transform into efforts to avoid daily work crews, who seemingly have the odd schedule of only working during rush hours. Indeed, the entire city undergoes a massive scrubbing; each April, we emerge from the previous winter sparkling clean and lemon fresh.

Then, on the first Saturday in May, the horses run, a champion is crowned, and the celebs go back to where they came from. Before they leave, however, they enjoy the cyclone of activity that is Derby Weekend. Friends and neighbors gather for Derby watching parties, A-listers attend the numerous charity balls, the bars stay open 24-hours per day, and the streets become a bumper car ride filled with drunk drivers. On Sunday afternoon, as people wake up to the haze of their hangovers, many feel a sense of letdown at having to face daily life once again; it's paramount to laying in bed after really great sex and realizing that you still need to take the dog out for his nightly walk. Life in Louisville becomes normal, once again.

It is during the remaining 50 weeks of the year that Louisville is truly interesting. During this time, you are most likely to notice a young, pale Goth couple, strolling down a hectic neighborhood street; watch them as they stop to chat with an elderly couple who have lived on the street for 50-something years. Or you can take your pooch to play with hundreds of dogs gathering on Dog Hill, an area in Cherokee Park where dozens of diverse people, sharing love for their animals, meet each day to converse while their dogs romp. The scene resembles a city playground, parents standing off to the side, exchanging the neighborhood gossip, while their youngsters play together. It is the one area of the park where dogs are allowed to run free, and they do so with little incidence. Or you might notice the 4,500+ people from around the world who get together each summer for the Lebowski Festival, an annual event for those interested in all things related to the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski. Fans of the film engage in a weekend of bowling, live music, and contests such as the "Sheriff of Malibu Coffee Mug Throw", all while sipping on White Russians and Oat Sodas. The festival has been so successful that similar festivals are being planned in New York and Los Angeles.

Of course, there's an ugly side to Louisville, as well. Race relations are often tense, heightened by a string of police shootings, each with a white cop and a black victim. The appointment of an African American police chief has done little to ease tensions, as local black activists march with some frequency on City Hall, demanding justice for the latest victim of perceived injustice. One such victim was James Taylor, a middle-aged black man who was shot and killed by a white officer despite having his hands cuffed behind his back. The officer was cleared of wrong-doing, as Mr. Taylor was brandishing a box-cutter in his cuffed hands, leading to protests from the black community and bewilderment among many others, and further complicating the work of the many honorable white officers assigned to work in predominantly African American neighborhoods.

Socio-economic factors also play a role in creating problems with achieving racial unity, as a weak economy has affected everything from staffing at city government offices to enrollment at local universities, which is down throughout the region. And police predict that the local drug problem will continue to get even worse after discovering a meth lab in the basement of a retirement home, further evidence of the drug's growing hold on the city. The lab was allegedly run by two of the home's maintenance crew without the knowledge of the home's staff or residents, which begs the question, "Did everyone in the building lose their sense of smell?" Aside from pointing out the extent of the city's drug problem, the incident also points out the poor job done by local health inspectors. As long as there are no large, rabid rats roaming freely through your establishment, city inspectors will gladly and easily give you their seal of approval. (I would gladly substantiate this claim with examples, but they are pretty disgusting and might give the false impression that all local businesses are lacking proper sanitation.)

Another problem facing the city of Louisville is the perception that it is a "hick" town, full of hillbillies who've moved from their shanties up in the woods into the city for a better way of life. I admit sharing this misconception when I moved here from Dallas, certain there would be no arts, no culture, no personality, and no sports beyond the Derby and an annual rodeo. Shortly after arriving, friends told me they were going to take me to two of the city's top attractions: a local cemetery and an antique store. My first thought was that I was right; if these two attractions were the tops the city had to offer, I was going to slowly die of cultural deprivation. As it turns out, though, both Cave Hill Cemetery and Joe Ley's Antiques are among the most captivating places I've ever been, and I've returned to both numerous times.

Most visitors who tour Cave Hill, so named because there is an actual cave on cemetery grounds, seek out the grave of Col. Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It is a nice grave, indeed, appropriately dignified for a corporate founder and CEO, but it pales compared to the Satterwhite Memorial, a mini-garden within the cemetery centered around a statue of the beautiful Mrs. Satterwhite. The cemetery also features a small pond inhabited by fish, and frequented by families of geese, ducks, and peacocks. And, of course, there are grave markers and mausoleums, thousands of them, in every conceivable size and variation. The entire cemetery is so large that one could easily get lost, both figuratively and literally. It is equally easy to get lost in Joe Ley's. The owner has connected several pre-existing buildings to make a labyrinth of antiques. If there is something old that you want to find, try Joe Ley's. Sheet music for some obscure song from the 1920s? One of the world's largest pinball machines? Hand-carved mantel for your castle's dining room fireplace? Got it. And so much more that the store has had to start charging a membership fee of $1 to slow down the traffic from tourists through the establishment.

I was wrong regarding almost all my pre-conceived ideas about Louisville, including the part about there being an annual rodeo (there isn't). Louisville, I found, is a city of balance: the conventional mixes with the cutting edge; urban co-exists with country. One of the first things I noticed about Louisville was that people identified themselves according to the part of town from which they came. Initially, the city seemed to me to be nothing more than a string of small towns, each just a few miles in circumference, all gathered together under the umbrella of Louisville city government. Shively is where the rednecks live, and the Highlands is where you live if you are hip and cool, I was told. St. Matthews is yuppie family land, and Old Louisville is full of beautiful, century-old homes that have been ruined by the presence of prostitutes, crackheads, and gangs.

However, when I started driving through the city, frequently getting lost, I found it difficult to tell one area of town from another. Certainly, the architecture changed from area to area, and some parts of town are more privileged. But the people are the same everywhere: proud of their hometown, friendly, willing to help others, nonjudgmental. Like every other place on the planet, we have our share of assholes and annoyers, but I found this city to be more of an open mix of personalities and lifestyles than any other I've lived in or visited.

Founded in 1778, the city quickly became one of the richest and largest in the country, but it lost considerable prestige, wealth, and power when the railroad replaced the steamboat as the primary means of travel and moving goods. Starting in 2003, Louisville began to undergo another change, merging local and Jefferson County governments into one. The move changed Louisville from being the 64th largest city in the country five years earlier to being the 16th largest city. And with this change came expanded government and increased demands on already strained resources. Louisville and several smaller cities had to merge together their water, fire, police, sewage, garbage, health, and social services departments, to name just a few. Smaller towns which couldn't afford equipment or services required by new city codes will need to have extra funds and manpower pumped into them to bring them up to code; residents of these out-lying areas will enjoy the benefits of not only improvements to their facilities, but also the financial rewards behind the current administration's push to bring both industry and corporate business to town. Suddenly, Louisville has been faced with figuring out how to be a "big" city.

Since the merging of governments, the first year of transition has gone smoothly, as the immediate need of re-aligning government services was completed quickly and efficiently. Now the mayor and council must face its greater obstacle: establishing Louisville as a world-class city, not just the home of the horses. One of the primary goals of the new city government is to attract new business to the area, which has led to a revival of downtown. Main Street has the second largest collection of cast-iron storefront facades in the US, behind New York. Many of the storefronts are 100-150 years old, and had fallen into disrepair until a revitalization effort was begun. Built facing the shore of the Ohio, the original businesses were built to handle commerce off the river. With new tax breaks as incentives, businesses have taken over the spaces long vacated, investing millions of dollars in restoring not only the detailed features of the original buildings, but also in repairing the cast iron benches and the cast iron fences surrounding trees and garbage pails on the street in front of the businesses. For instance, The Glasswork Loft moved into a former steel factory, opening the region's first glass studio on the first floor, several glass art galleries on the second, and offices on the remaining floors. To occupy the space, major renovations had to be made, and the new design infuses modern touches with the traditional architecture. Main Street is also the location of the city's new e-business push, designed to attract technological firms to town.

A couple of blocks away is the elegant, century-old Seelbach Hotel, the lobby of which is so luxurious that F. Scott Fitzgerald used it as the inspiration for the wedding scene in The Great Gatsby. Built with imported marble and featuring works of art from around the world, the Seelbach also houses The Oakroom, a five star dining room resembling a turn of the century gentleman's billiard room. Across the street from the Seelbach is the Galleria, a shopping mall located in the center of downtown with walkways connecting it to several major hotels and businesses. As far as shopping experiences go, the Galleria has always been a major disappointment, so, with city backing, it is undergoing massive renovations. The improved mall will contain a variety of restaurants, nightclubs, and new shops, all anchored around a new Hard Rock Café. With a newly expanded convention center located nearby, conventioneers will now have a downtown playground for after their meetings, and local residents will have a reason to go downtown after dark.

Just beyond downtown is my favorite part of the city, the Highlands, the area I call home. Lined with old houses and stately oak and maple trees, the street on which I live reminds one of a set from Meet Me in Saint Louis; peaceful, pretty, idyllic. However, instead of a love-sick Judy Garland and pixyish Margaret O'Brien on our block, we have a mix of gay and lesbian couples; young, disillusioned poets and artists undergoing their obligatory angst phase; yuppie couples who send their kids to one of the city's many private schools; elderly men and women who have lived in the area for close to a century; and conservative Christians who have learned to tolerate the pagans up the street. The house in which I live was built in the 1880s, and, like most of the historic houses in the neighborhood, it has been divided into a few small apartments. It is a quiet and peace-loving place.

Several years ago, a group of racist skinheads moved in up the street and wound up being arrested for committing hate crimes. Police entered their apartment after one of the boys was arrested for physically assaulting a Japanese family outside of a local restaurant, and found the residence filled with swastikas, hate literature, and Nazi propaganda. While most of the young men were cleared of any wrongdoing (aside from being racist jack-asses), the block reeled, as neighbors discussed the arrest over back fences and stopped each other on the street. Why would such xenophobic people purposely choose to live in one of the most diverse parts of town? In response, my partner hung a banner out our second story window reading "Hate Free Zone". People of all races and ages commented positively on the banner; they stopped and waved or gave a "thumbs up". The affirmation was wonderful.

Quite the opposite is Bardstown Road, located one small block over from my street. This crowded stretch of street is packed with restaurants, coffee houses, bookstores, art galleries, record stores, and bars. Lots of bars. There was at one time a tradition known as the Bambi Walk, which entailed having a drink at Bambi's Bar and then stopping and drinking at every bar on Bardstown for about a five mile stretch, ending at the now-defunct Brewery. Apparently, Bambi Walking was an activity reserved for college kids and recent college graduates, although occasionally a thirty-something would attempt the feat. Those engaging in such a walk were easy to spot, usually traveling in small groups of five or six and always, of course, on foot. Lucid and laughing as they left Bambi's, they progressed to tatered by mid-walk, stumbling and slurring their way on to the next bar. By the end of the walk, Walkers were usually incoherent, frequently wondering into traffic, and could be easily identified by their panicked expressions as they stumbled from store to restaurant, desperate to find a public restroom. Many businesses posted signs on their front doors reading "No Bambi Walkers". Bambi Walking is discouraged these days, as no one really needs that much to drink and the Walkers tended to scare off other potential customers. Bambi Walkers have since been replaced by much more docile window shoppers and the coffeehouse crowd.

The blend of old and new also extends to the city's parks. The city's 2,000 acre park system, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, now includes the new Extreme Sports Park, a 40,000 foot skating park with areas for street-style and transition-style boarding, a wooden vert ramp (for non-boarders like myself, a vert ramp is like a tube cut in half; open on top, with a flat floor surface that curves up into vertical walls), and a 24-foot full pipe (a closed tube). The primarily in-ground skating area looks like it could have been designed by the late artist Keith Haring, all curves and free-form; its design was create after consultation with over 100 local extreme athletes. The space is shared equally by in-line skaters, boarders, and cyclists, most of who are in their teens and in far better physical shape than many gym-bunnies. On a warm evening, the park is packed with young men and women, shorts barely clinging to their hips, the men shirtless, flying across concrete and through the air in a mad ballet. There is a code of behavior to be adhered to here: no skates out of turn, don't invade others' space, respect the fact that everyone is at a different level of proficiency, no stage-hogging, apologize if you break one of the rules. Since skaters are unsupervised (except for the parents of most younger skaters), it is up to them to adhere to their own code, and chivalry usually reigns. A 20,000 foot second phase to the park will feature indoor skating, concessions, and much needed restrooms.

If harmony reigns at the skate park, it doesn't on the political scene. Fiscally conservative and socially liberal, the local electorate has been excessively indecisive in its voting preferences, electing both staunch conservatives and progressive liberals to local, state, and national offices, a fact which will ultimately create unnecessary stalemates in the city's drive to grow and accommodate new businesses and residents. The current mayor, Jerry Abrahamson, a moderate Democrat, has been dubbed "Mayor for Life" for his inability to lose an election. "Mayor Jer", as he is known, has a good business mind, having made realistic and appropriate cuts in government expenditures to deal with expected deficits and laying out a strong framework for attracting new companies to the city, but he tends to rely too often on what the polls say when it comes to social issues. The new city council is predominantly Democrat, although a Republican serves as Council President. My state representative is a bleeding heart liberal, and my national representative is a Gingrich-wannabe conservative. Like many parts of the United States, politics in the area is not unlike the Push Me-Pull Me from Doctor Doolittle. Regardless of the stand you take, you're likely to experience both forward and backward movement; advances made on the local level are offset by defeats on the national, or vice versa.

Nevertheless, the city continues to move forward, politics notwithstanding. The art scene is thriving, as is the music scene. A hundred years ago, Louisville sisters Patti and Mildred Hill shared their new song with the world, "Happy Birthday to You". Today, Louisville is the birthplace of such diverse groups as Nappy Roots and My Morning Jacket. The annual Humana Festival for New Plays at Actors Theatre continues to introduce dynamic new plays to the world, such as the Pulitzer Prize winning Night Mother, a two character drama examining a young woman's attempts to explain to her mother why she wants to commit suicide. And the city that introduced to the world such culinary creations as the cheeseburger, chewing gum, and Benedictine (a cool spread made of spices, cream cheese, and cucumbers), currently generates some of the country's best new chefs at the National Center for Hospitality Studies at Sullivan University. Emeril Lagasse is a frequent guest instructor at the school, and graduates have gone on successful careers throughout the United States and Europe. As training, the culinary students at Sullivan operate Winston's Restaurant, located on campus and named Kentucky's Restaurant of the Year by the Kentucky Restaurant Association.

Louisville is the perfect city for me. Like the city itself, I want to treasure the experiences of my past but also move in a new direction. In Louisville, I have found a wonderful mate, the perfect job, a great neighborhood, and a hometown that is accepting and brimming with energy. As the city undergoes its inevitable growing pains, the mood of the city may alter; it may become, as many larger cities do, more serious and business-oriented. However, as long as the residents here stop to chat with one another on the street, or gather in the parks to let their kids or pets play together, or continue to support the dozens of emerging writers, artists, and musicians, the biggest attraction of this city will remain its people, not a two-minute horse race. Will I grow old here? I don't know; there is a lot of world left to see and I'm not that old. But at this time, this is a good place to be.

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