Sunday, 19 July 2009

A random report on Louisville

Although I spent most of my trip to Louisville for ICoN1 around the Shelby Campus in an eastern suburb, actually about 10 miles from the city's "downtown", I did manage a couple of trips to the centre, as well as two skirmishing raids with fellow scientist drinkers to the Highlands area. In fact, almost all of the photographs from my trip relate to these forays away from ICoN1's venue. So I thought I'd record a few (fairly random) impressions of Louisville since, not being a major city or conference host, I'm not likely to get around to visiting it again.

  • My very first impressions were of the surrounding area. Our plane came down below cloud base some way out of Louisville, so I got good views of the large tracts of forest around the city. I also noticed a sizeable theme park (Six Flags I think) immediately adjacent to the airport - though sadly I didn't have time to visit during my stay.

  • My inbound flight had me next to a woman, a local resident, on her way back from a trip to visit the family in the "old country", specifically Rome (the Italian one). She spoke highly of the city (Louisville, that is), although I now only remember that she told me to avoid the west of the city (where, my arrival being July 4th, I was more likely to hear gunshots than fireworks), and that the airport is the US hub for UPS. Apparently, they're sufficiently important there that the airport is open only to the company for certain periods of the day.

  • On my first full day in the city (a Sunday), I travelled to "downtown" using about the only bus service that runs to and from the distant portion of suburbia where Shelby Campus is located. From this journey, and others I later took, it turns out that public transport is pretty good in Louisville. The journey in was a good 10 miles, and took the better part of an hour (despite it being an "express" service), but it still only cost $1.50, and the ticket I bought remained valid on any other bus route for a couple of hours after I bought it.

  • One immediately obvious feature of the buses, however, is that they cater for a more impoverished portion of society. Which, not uncommonly for the US (though it applies elsewhere too), means that they are used mostly by African Americans. In fact, my first journey into town must actually have been pretty strange for the locals using the bus: first of all, because of me and my fellow ICoN1 attendees, it was disproportionally well-stocked with white passengers; but secondly, none of us spoke with an American accent (3/5 weren't native English speakers). Subsequent journeys were a bit more diverse, but the buses pretty obviously operate for an economic underclass. This was underlined when I spoke to white Louisville residents - I mentioned how good I thought the bus service was, and while they nodded and agreed, none had ever used it.

  • Aside from providing socio-economic illumination, the bus took me over a fair chunk of Louisville to get to downtown, so I got more of a feel for it than I often get on short visits to cities. The overwhelming impression was "low density", or more pejoratively, "urban sprawl". For most of the way in, the city consisted of single or two storey buildings and homes, with large spaces between each structure. It was actually only within a few blocks of downtown that this began to change and Louisville became more like a conventional city. While such sprawl was fascinating to me when I first saw it in Los Angeles in 1992, now it just seems like a whole load of wasted space.

  • It doesn't, of course, help calm effete European sensibilities that the sprawl is regularly provisioned with fast food outlets. The stereotype of American consumer culture was reinforced at least once every city block that we traversed on our journey to downtown. To be fair, it may just have been the road we took into town, which mostly (slowly) followed an interstate's transcity route. Our later taxi rides to Highlands saw a lot more houses and a lot fewer burger stops.

  • Anyway, for all my whining about the buses, I found them a great way to get around town. And both the drivers who ran them, and many of the other passengers I came across on my travels, were extremely polite and helpful. Especially on my last day in Louisville when I managed to totally cock-up my return journey to Shelby Campus to catch my airport shuttle. That all worked out well in the end, but only because I got help from a couple of the drivers and another passenger who, coincidentally, really liked my boots.

  • Turning to downtown, the whole area probably only covers a square of about 7 blocks a side. It's dominated by a number of "skyscrapers", the most prominent of which is an office/retail block with art deco stylings (as celebrated here). There are a couple of other interesting ones, including the Humana Building which features some strange balcony-like tiering and a massive marble entrance complete with streaming water.

  • Downtown also has a number of much older buildings dating from the early 20th century, and some of them are fantastic. At one point I bumped into an old woman who runs one of the tourist information centres, and she was able to point me in the direction of some of these that are actually cast iron. She even gave me a promotional magnet to help me identify which of the buildings were built this way. That was pretty cool.

  • Coolest of all, however, were the various fibreglass horse statues located all over the city centre. These are part of a CowParade-like public art installation called Gallopalooza. Much like the CowParade's cows, the horses of Gallopalooza are brightly painted along all sorts of thematic lines, typically by local artists. Individual horses are sponsored by businesses, who sometimes shape the design chosen, and at the end of Gallopalooza they are auctioned off for charity. Needless to say, far too much time was spent photographing as many of the horses as I could find. I am such a sucker for this sort of bubbly public art.

  • Other sculptures included the brother of William Clark of Lewis and Clark Expedition fame; York, the slave who accompanied said expedition; some cool bicycle racks; and a rather ridiculous building-sized baseball bat at the museum for the Louisville Slugger. Not a bad city for sculpture to say the least.

  • Taking in a broader sweep of the arts, I also travelled to the Speed Art Museum out by the University's main campus. Not a huge museum, but it had a lot of really good stuff. I must have misread its description, as I'd been expecting modern art, but it took in a much wider range including items from ancient civilisations, the Renaissance, French-American etchings, Native American crafts and modern American works. It also had a brilliant (if temporary) photography exhibition going on. It didn't have an accompanying book but, in a curious departure from normal policy at museums, I was assured by one of the attendants that I could just use my phone's camera if I wanted to.

  • One big goof: in an attempt to broaden my experience of US fast food culture, I visited White Castle, a chain I'd heard about but never seen before. Never again. (P.S. Although I did get a great, if super-thick, shake - it wasn't 100% a bad experience.)

  • A strange detail I noticed in the city was that it had quite a number of hospitals in and around downtown that each dealt with very specific illnesses. So there'd be an eye hospital on one side of the street, but a kidney one on the other. More bizarre still, at least from my blinkered, UK-o-centric perspective, was a specifically Jewish hospital. The only thing I could think of was that, once upon a time, the Jewish community needed to build its own hospital to be assured of medical treatment. An interesting thought.

  • Away from downtown, I only really visited the area known as Highlands, and then only on a quest for drinking establishments. While the collective we fumbled a bit finding good bars to drink in (especially on our second night), there was good beer to be had, and we certainly had a lot of fun. We hit a couple of road bumps with places that wanted our IDs, but we had enough natives with us to smooth things over (thanks Tyler).

  • Highlands was quite a hike from Shelby Campus, so we wound up using a fleet of taxis on both trips there. These were quite a hoot too - mainly because the taxi business attracts some interesting staffing. Our first ride was a guy from, I think, Algeria or somewhere in northern Africa. He was interested to hear that some of us were from Europe but we wound up getting into a bizarre discussion when he refused to believe that the Netherlands existed. I think we confused him when we said they spoke Dutch there, which he interpreted as Deutsch. The second night had us in a car with another African driver who it transpired was doing the job to subsidise his masters degree in mathematics - by way of an intro for his planned doctorate. Other ICoN1 attendees managed to land a driver on his first night out, and we were snubbed at one point by a driver who was suspiciously named "Muhammad Aly" (Muhammad Ali being a local boy).

Anyway, despite all of my moaning above, I enjoyed visiting Louisville. It's not somewhere I'll probably ever get back to, but it was interesting enough that I'd recommend giving it the once over should one find oneself at a loose end in Kentucky. That probably sounds like damning with faint praise, but it was definitely worth poking around.


Anne Gearhart said...

Sorry you didn't care for White Castle. It's sort of an acquired thing, and best with lots of mustard if you ask me. It's got nothing on In-and-out, with its crazy secret menu :)

Did you have BBQ out there?

Plumbago said...

Actually, I've had to amend my post since I did get a really good chocolate milkshake at White Castle. I almost gave myself a stroke trying to suck it through a straw (in fact, I collapsed two straws in the attempt), but it made up somewhat for the whole burger experience.

Possibly with you, possibly not, but I've been to In-and-Out burger while in California. Although they've stuck to their fast food roots, I thought they were really good.

I also remember that you can alter their "In-and-Out Burger" bumper stickers to "In-and-Out urge" to communicate a less-than-wholesome message.

P.S. What was that cryptic note about science stuff at the end of your last comment all about? Do tell ...

Anne Gearhart said...

Ah... BBQ is, I guess, American shorthand for Barbeque. You were in Kentucky BBQ country, and it would have really been a shame if you didn't sample it to have in mind for eventually comparison to Carolina-style or Texas-style or KansasCity-style.


Plumbago said...

Sorry, I was being needlessly confusing there. I didn't mean the BBQ (although, sadly, I missed out on that in Kentucky), I meant your remark over at an earlier posting: "Me, I'm planning to get back knee deep in pollinator conservation stuff".

This isn't in response to CA's financial woes and potential teaching cuts is it? I hope not. Although there was an item about it on the news this morning. Looks like the 2003 recall may not have been so clever after all.

Anyway, what's the story on cross-kingdom sex-facilitators?

Anne Gearhart said...

Ah- So, I haven't been directly affected by the education cuts as of yet. I have teaching units for the coming semester, and could have actually had them coming out my ears, but chose not to overload myself. Too much of my life has been about overload. The pollinator stuff: Tehre has been lots of buzz lately about Colony Collapse Disorder and its effect on honey bees, and thus, the emerging importance of native bees. There is this fellow at Berkeley doing a lot in this regard, and if dont find a way to fit myself in, and pollinator conservation really takes off as a field, I'll be really pissed with myself. Part of the reason I passed on overloading myself was so that I can *hopefully* get something going there that I would enjoy really developing. And, hopefully, be compensated for.