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.

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, 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.

Looking back

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.

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.)

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.

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