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Reconnecting with my hometown

(Page 2 of 2)

I realize I've changed, too.I'm as idealistic as ever, yet more realistic when it comes to understanding that social, racial, and economic barriers don't yield quickly or easily. (To their credit, my parents never expressed concern when a black family moved next door, although, looking back, I'm sure that jarred some in the neighborhood.)

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A new generation's turn

As the years have passed, I've also become more aware that it is my generation's turn at bat. That, just as "the Greatest Generation," my parents', left its mark, so, too, will today's baby boomers.

For me, this has led to feelings of generational responsibility, to an interest in society's progress, not just my own. I realize I've got a stake in what happens.

As a teen I noticed little beyond school and the neighborhood. It was always different driving to school with Mr. Lutterman. He'd listen to J.C. Kerlin delivering the local headlines, and we'd wonder what made a grownup prefer this to Top 20, rock 'n' roll radio.

Now I'm the one interested in the local news, the threads of issues that engage, bind, and test a community.

As I followed the failed attempt to build a new minor-league baseball stadium or the successful efforts to hammer out urban-renewal plans, I learned riveting civics lessons.

This is a different perspective from that of a child who knows the neighbors' names and the names of their dogs, too, but is oblivious to much else.

While growing up, for example, I never thought much about how Evansville sits at a bend in the river. Now I'm fascinated by an online geography lesson that tells me about the city's growth near the abandoned site of Mississippian Indians, at a hairpin turn on the Ohio that was a natural for river commerce.

Grand plans once existed to link Evansville by canal to Indianapolis and Lake Erie. Yet by the time the Erie & Wabash canal reached Evansville in 1853, canals were out and train transport in.

The railroad helped industrialize Evansville, and during World War II troop trains regularly passed through the city, the most prolific of the era's "corn-yard shipyards."

If the connection to the riveris a pleasing rediscovery for me, the realization that Indiana's first riverboat casino now anchors downtown, is not. Opened in late 1996, Casino Aztar is a major tourist attraction. But it is out of character with my image of Middle America.

Time and circumstance, however, have a way of erasing or eroding familiar landmarks. One of mine was the National Guard Armory, where my friends and I once modeled Sears clothing for a ladies' club fundraiser. I read that it is unused, threatened by neglect, and on the city's list of endangered historic places.

What they're doing now

Some of my fellow "models" still live in Evansville. One, a high school art teacher, phones occasionally. And now and again, a former Sunday school teacher will call or write.

Most people I knew in Evansville, though, have drifted off my radar screen. Now, in my Internet journey, some come back to life.

One classmate, an architect, turns up in a story about a newly opened branch library his firm designed. Another, a police detective, is quoted in a story about car thefts (Chevrolets are the most stolen car in Evansville). The husband of "the girl next door" is now the deputy prosecutor. The mischievous young boy across the street is a second-generation dry cleaner. A teenager from three houses over, a Harvard MBA, surfaces in a report about a bankruptcy-related suit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Then there's Randall Shepard, a "most likely to succeed" type turned state Supreme Court justice.

Finding these schoolmates in news accounts provides a sense of continuity. The people I grew up with are touchstones to the past and stewards of a future I root for and am encouraged by.

There are promising signs for Evansville: House sales are up, crime down; a greenway is taking shape; a $4 million soccer complex is on the way; and there's talk of bringing a children's museum, an aquarium, and an IMAX theater to town. On the horizon is I-69, an interstate extension from Indianapolis to the Mexico border.

Best yet, because of its downtown redevelopment and other improvement efforts, Evansville wasa finalist in this year's All-America City competition of the National Civic League. Although it wasn't among the 10 winners, community leaders are fired up about trying again next year.

None of this will necessarily bring me back to Evansville. In searching for my roots, I don't intend to return to them any more than does the adopted child who seeks out his birth parents. I simply want to validate my past and better understand who I am by better understanding where I came from.

In doing so I'm reminded of our son's almost forgotten middle name, Evan. It was chosen partly because it rhythmically fits - Drew Evan Atkin - but also because, well, it connects with Evansville.

There's something that feels very right about that. A hometown, after all, should never be a stranger.