Reconnecting with my hometown
The articles spill out of two large ring binders, stories about the present that bring me face-to-face with my past.Skip to next paragraph
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There's the story about an 80-year-old who mows the grass as part of his civic commitment to an Adopt-a-Spot intersection near where I grew up; another about plans to rebuild the zoo, with its unforgettable monkey-ship entrance; a third describing the excitement over a youth ice-hockey tournament in this basketball-crazed part of the world.
From a thousand miles away, I've brought my hometown of Evansville, Ind., back into my life, devouring news from the website edition of the local newspaper.
I've been delighted by stories about Main Street loft dwellers helping to revive downtown and saddened by the high level of teen binge drinking and moonshine-style methamphetamine "labs."
I've applauded efforts to bring more foot and car traffic to Main Street and cringed that a casino is now a centerpiece of the city's economy.
I've marveled at how the faces of today's Middle America are no longer just white and black. And slowly, subtly, as I sort out the present by reconnecting to the past, I've come to understand how different my perspective of community has become.
It's been 33 years since I last lived in Evansville, a dozen since I last visited and my parents moved to California. As my son entered his teen years, I started thinking more about my own. It was time to "drop in" on my hometown, which hugs the banks of the Ohio River near where Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois converge.
As a child I'd plunge into the sports pages of the home-delivered Courier and red-striped evening Press, which Dad, a stockbroker, bought to get the day's closing prices. Now, with a click of a computer mouse I visit MyInKy.com, the cyberspace home of the combined Courier & Press.
Let other people play computer games that put participants in charge of virtual cities. I'd rather follow the news of a real city with real people, and live vicariously a civic drama that I long ago left behind. It's been a reunion with a community satisfyingly familiar and dizzyingly different.
When I was a child, Evansville seemed a complete universe. We livedon the booming East Side. Dad, who was born and raised in Evansville and whose family survived the Ohio River flood of 1937, always said it made sense to live east of downtown to avoid driving into the sun during the morning and evening commutes.
To me, our modest ranch-style house was perfectly situated. It was about 100 yards from Harper Elementary School's ball fields, and a block or so from East Side Park, the Dairy Queen, and the lunch counter at Weinbach's all-purpose drugstore.
Downtown was where you went on occasion to shop, take in a movie, or watch the pleasure boats, barges, and paddle-wheelers at the riverfront.
Who needed more?
Today, Evansville, population 121,000, is a little smaller than back then. Butthe city is no bump in the road. It joins about 100 other American communities with populations between 100,000 and 150,000 that try to balance small-town friendliness with big-city opportunity.
In culling the news, I find reports about the Freedom Festival and the Thunder on the Ohio hydroplane race. Indoor pro football has come to town. Ivy Tech, a community college, is planning a $39 million expansion, and the city's light industry has earned it a reputation as "Plastics Valley."
As I study the hometown headlines, I'm torn. On one hand, I want the places, people, and institutions to be pretty much as I remember them. On the other, I want Evansville to keep up with the times, if not necessarily charge ahead.
To my satisfaction, I find both. The University of Evansville (formerly Evansville College) is still going strong, but it now shares the higher-ed spotlight with the University of Southern Indiana. Dress Plaza is still the architectural focal point at the foot of Main Street, but it has undergone a face-lift. The wooded wilderness near Roberts Stadium remains, but now it is a popular nature center and park.
Other changes seem more striking. Evansville is more ethnically diverse. Names like Hernandez, Chong, Kulikov, and Singh find their way into the news alongside familiar German names such as Winternheimer, Weinzapfel, and Niekamp. There are stories about an Islamic center rummage sale and the new Mexican food and music store opened by a 21-year-old college student.
Reading the Courier & Press electronically, it's difficult to judge how well the city has bridged racial differences since busing integrated my all-white high school. The police are seeking to recruit more black officers in a department with few. There's also news of a plan to build the state's first African-American museum in Evansville, the site of a race riot that took 13 lives a century ago.