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Revisiting The New Yorker's 1974 Examination of Louisville, a 'City in Transition'

“City in Transition” is the title that The New Yorker gave its lengthy story about Louisville in the Sept. 9, 1974, issue. Yes – 1974 not 2014. That was only 40 years ago, but it is still relevant today. Fred Powledge, the author, captured a moment in our city’s history that, viewed today through the lens of forty years, was remarkably perceptive. It deserves our renewed attention.Several weeks ago, Gabe Bullard, the WFPL editor who is now on leave as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, reminded me of the article. If you want to read the article, you can go toThe New Yorker’s website.If you are a New Yorker subscriber you can read it for free; otherwise, there is a modest charge.Mr. Powledge’s story was written at what now seems like a golden moment in our city’s history. It was the late summer of 1974; progressive Mayor Harvey Sloane was newly elected, with a mandate to emphasize the strength of our city’s neighborhoods. The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times were at their zenith of influence (having just ranked No. 3 in the Time magazine survey of the best American newspapers) and Barry Bingham Sr., the former editor and publisher then serving as chairman of the board, was identified by reporter Powledge as possibly “the most important [local citizen] of the past three decades.” The skyline of the city had been dramatically changed by the addition of high-rise bank headquarters and hotels, and a local consensus had decided that downtown should be strengthened and improved to make Louisville a really vibrant American city, rejecting suburban sprawl.Some of the innovations that were hailed were to prove failures, most notably the River City Mall, a pedestrian promenade that extended from Jefferson Street south to Broadway, then filled with commerce.Here’s his description: “Walking along the River City Mall, a visitor finds dime stores, men’s and women’s clothing shops, discount stores, stores that sell wigs, young women selling flowers from carts, a newsstand, shoe stores, office supply stores, notions shops, airline-ticket offices, bookstores, movie houses, banks, restaurants, a department store, a hotel, an experimental public school for children from the center of the city, a pastry shop, fast-food places, a Christian Science Reading Room, a liquor store, an Army-Navy store, a place that sells organs and pianos, a store specializing in ‘adult’ movies and books, an optician’s, a $1.99 ‘steak palace,’ a poolroom, a radio station, a record store, and the Old Walnut Chile Parlor Number 3.”Sounds like a city, doesn’t it. I remember most of those (but the poolroom eludes me – I know there was a bowling alley in the 600 block, up above a street level store and you could hear the crash of 10 pins every few seconds).

The story cites a major study done for the city by Gruen and Associates which emphasized the importance of strengthening downtown commerce – and also reclaiming the riverfront. It is that aspect of Louisville’s ambitions in 1974 that has been so clearly realized today.When I was a child in the 1950s, the Louisville waterfront reminded me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of the road from Long Island into New York … “a valley of ashes” – except in our case it was a valley of junkyards, sand piles, refineries and hobo shacks. The river itself was barely accessible. You could see the water splash on the stones at the old city wharf at the foot of Third and Fourth streets. And there was a little access as you traveled east on River Road.Of course, had it not been for the Ohio River, there never would have been a Louisville. More specifically, if it had not been for the Falls of the Ohio, there would not have been a Louisville. Pioneers and others traveling west from Pittsburgh had to stop here and have their cargo and ships carried overland – portaged – hence the name Portland, for the commercial hub where most of this happened.But between the 1800s and 1974, Louisville gradually separated itself from the Ohio. That “valley of ashes” extended for miles and very little opportunity existed for the hundreds of thousands of people who made their home here to commune with the origin of their home.

  A few visionaries understood the disconnect. Perhaps the most important of these was Archibald Cochran Jr., heir to a foundry fortune whose aluminum foil company became the Anaconda Aluminum Co. He saw the commercial, aesthetic and recreational importance of re-opening the Louisville waterfront to people. With hotelier Al J. Schneider Jr., he pushed for what became the Waterfront Renaissance, and that was the genesis of what is now known as Waterfront Park.“Archie” Cochran, as he was known, was like Moses. He saw the Promised Land, but he never got to be there; he died in 1970 before the Galt House, the Waterfront Plaza and Belvedere, and most of the Main Street Historic District were created. However, he did leave his mark. In 1959, along with Mary Bingham, Sara Shallenberger Brown, James W. Stites and former Mayor Charles P. Farnsley, he created River Fields, the largest river conservation group on the Ohio River, which is now celebrating its 55th anniversary and for which my wife serves as the executive director. (Tomorrow evening there will be a gala celebration for River Fields in Prospect, on the farm of Henry Wallace Jr., which is protected by a conservation easement held by River Fields.)It is fitting that Mr. Cochran’s grandson, Neville Blakemore III, is in charge of this year’s “Festival of Riverboats,” celebrating not only the 100th anniversary of the Belle of Louisville, but also the reclamation of the waterfront.One of the key figures in the 1974 New Yorker story was newly elected Mayor Harvey Sloane, who would go on to serve our community as both mayor and county judge-executive over the next 18 years. Dr. Sloane came to Kentucky as a young physician who wanted to serve in Appalachia and then in the depressed area of West Louisville. His focus was on community building and air pollution. It was his arrival in office that sparked the emphasis on neighborhoods, and in the 40 years that movement has solidified and it a critical factor in Louisville’s success. And though air pollution has improved (in part because of the loss of major polluting industries), the levels remain too high. Ours is an attractive city, but it is not entirely healthy—especially for those who suffer from pulmonary problems like asthma, COPD and emphysema.In 1974, there was talk of creating bike lanes and trails. And amazingly enough, one of the ideas circulated in that New Yorker article was opening the Big Four Bridge for pedestrians. It took four decades for that to happen, but the result has been one of the most popular attractions our city has to offer.The bridge is a centerpiece of an even greater achievement: the amazing Waterfront Park, which has become a reality because of the generosity of many people and the dogged leadership of David Karem, president of the Waterfront Development Corp. The 72-acre, mixed use park includes the Abraham Lincoln Memorial with a statue carved by Louisville sculptor Ed Hamilton.The article also discussed race relations in Louisville, and in retrospect it was too complimentary of how well the races worked together here. Less than one year later, the community would be riven by the federal court’s desegregation order, which led to countywide busing of school children. In the greatest irony, the cover of the Sept. 9, 1974, New Yorker featured a drawing of a yellow school bus.There are many other ironies and challenges in the Fred Powledge article. I urge you to dig it out and read it. Wouldn’t it be great for The New Yorker to send a reporter back to Louisville and offer us a new and objective assessment?Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. Read his past WFPL commentaries  here.