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For several years now, out here in the middle distance, I have made regular pilgrimages to Louisville, Kentucky, where at age 50, I entered graduate school. Coming to Kentucky, the state of my birth, was a homecoming of sorts after many years living out west.
The graduate school program brought me to Louisville for a ten-day residency twice a year over a two-year period — once in late spring and once in late fall — and twice now I have gone back to participate in post-graduate activities, in part to hear lectures and readings by writers I admire, and to reconnect with that spirit of learning, but in equal part to wander the streets of downtown Louisville and observe the city’s progress.
When I first arrived there in 2004, downtown Louisville was at the beginning of a much-needed urban redevelopment program. Fourth Street, a major artery between Broadway to the south and the Ohio River to the north, was a mixed bag of abandoned storefronts and snazzy new shopping and entertainment areas designed to draw tourists. Most days, I would walk toward the river with short detours east or west, past decaying facades and stately old churches, only occasionally encountering another person on the empty side streets.
Fourth Street was also the north-south trolley route and had received a cosmetic facelift, including the placement of a number of bronze plaques by the Kentucky Historical Society. Between the hotel where I stayed and the shiny neon shopping district with its Hard Rock Café and bourbon bars and loud music, among the wig stores and grimy smoke shops, the markers told the story of racial desegregation in Louisville in the 1960s. The McCrory’s department store where soda fountain sit-ins were staged stood empty, its tired neon sign gone dark.
Nearer the river, historical markers told stories of Louisville’s history in slave trading, just a ways up from the Muhammad Ali Center, a museum in honor of the city’s most famous African-American son, dedicated to his ideals. Here you could see videos of Ali’s fights and scenes from his life as well as vintage Civil Rights era media footage and multiple hands-on exhibits exhorting hopes and dreams and the possibility of personal greatness.
These odd contrasts of commerce and spirit, past and present, light and dark, drew me ever deeper into Louisville’s downtown.
Last week in Louisville, I walked my familiar route and noted changes along the way. More stores reclaimed, mostly by craft distilleries and bourbon merchants or shops selling Kentuckiana souvenirs to tourists, but also theaters re-opened and fine new restaurants with multi-ethnic chefs and fusion fare. I took the free trolley, now grown into a regular transportation system that links central downtown to newer urban developments in reclaimed industrial buildings to the east. A trolley arrives at any given stop every 15 minutes, and the one I rode carried a mix of homeless, business people, tourists and just regular folks hitching a ride to the ball park or taking their kids on an outing. A young man in a wheelchair who could move only one hand and his eyes clearly reveled in his trolley ride to the end of the line and back.
So on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I am enjoying the energized vibe of downtown Louisville. It’s almost June, and a bride and groom pose out front of the fine old Seelbach Hotel, a row of identically dressed bridesmaids in lilac satin gowns looking on tearfully.
Heading toward the river, at the corner of Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, formerly Walnut Street, I spot a bronze plaque on the corner and walk over to read it.
A Revelation, it announces, not a battle or an historic event or a commercial enterprise. The quote engraved on the marker is attributed to Thomas Merton, the Trappist priest, prolific author and influential religious thinker who lived for 27 years at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, just down the road from Louisville, out in the woods near Bardstown. Running errands for the monastery one day, Merton’s revelation occurred at this busy corner.
The plaque reads:
Merton had a sudden insight at this corner March 18, 1958 that led him to redefine his monastic identity with greater involvement in social justice issues. He was “suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people …” He found them “walking around shining like the sun.”
All around, families from small towns holding hands in the big city street, children with sticky ice cream cone faces, eyes inclined upward. The late May sun lights us all.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.