Bridge to somewhere

The new bridge sparkled in the way only concrete does, a flat kind of matte-bright that stripped the finish off the sun, giving the hulking concrete span a clear coat appropriate for the moment.

Pulled tightly across the entrance ramp was a banner made as if striped in gold, inscribed poetically with the words, “Why is a strong, vibrant, creative downtown so important?” The quote was attributed to former Mayor Jerry Abramson, who, despite major criticism at the time, is now lauded as the champion of this particular growth effort. (Unfortunately, the banner invoking the sudden greatness of downtown Louisville is on the south side of the Ohio River, orientated such that to face up and read it is to also gaze northward, where the southern tip of Indiana remains pregnant with new construction, to accommodate the glut of Fortune 500 companies that have since located there.)

The stage was laden with various podiums sporting assorted crests and seals: one fleur-de-lis pattern, an overblown cursive “One,” the letters G, L and I, a wildly inaccurate-yet-imaginative rendering of the bridge before which it sat. A man dressed in all black was cuing the sound system, tapping the microphones and repeating the word “sibilance” to test for hiss. His associate, also dressed in black, fingered knobs and faders on the soundboard.

A crowd had assembled and a din commenced, audible mostly because the silence of the moment was so particular and unique that to realize it was to temporarily cede your surroundings. Over the past two decades, the predominant soundtrack of downtown Louisville, Ky., had been the sharp roar of industrial machinery. The cranes and core drills ran full-tilt. The dump trucks trampled all over the city streets, and a series of special watering machines had been installed to keep the tons of misplaced dirt from becoming a terrorizing dust cloud.

In more than 20 years, there had not been enough quietude to allow for the definitive clanks of a city. The car horns, alarms and whisks of passing cars were drowned out, even during the night. There was no sound of rails because there were none downtown, despite the total restructuring of the automobile industry amid the gasoline crisis and the longtime presence of Ford Motor Company, now the country’s largest producer of light-rail transit systems. The only time a resident of downtown Louisville, Ky., could expect the comfort of city sounds was after a ballgame in the downtown arena, when the traffic congestion was so intense that street vendors hawked the area, selling food, coffee, water and oblong containers into which males — and the occasional industrious female — could relieve themselves amid the three-to-four hour entanglements.

During the period locals came to know as The Great Construction, companies altered over-the-road commerce routes to avoid the Gateway to the South, as many interstate travelers were rumored to have done. The once-booming revitalization of downtown crept to a crawl; condos and lofts were again vacant as the immediate western and eastern parts of the inner city enjoyed unprecedented economic prosperity, sparked by a broad-based coalition of local and regional businesses.

A city once remarked upon for its unique character and “soul” — an intangible that helped conjure some of the most vibrant arts and music scenes in the world — came to be avoided by the increasingly impatient ruling class of 30-something professionals, whose collective discretionary income had again failed to attract a professional sports franchise.

There the city leaders stood, talking amongst themselves with empty highways and bridges in the background, their fingers all poked in the dam and ready to withdraw. Around them was a profound tangle of elevated roadway, done on a scale not even attempted in this country since the proud days of the Detroit expansion around the time of Eisenhower.

Meanwhile, the city they thought they were helping had moved on without them. Or rather, the city had moved on around them, finding ways — as organic beings often do — to avoid that which could hasten its downfall. Despite the best efforts of these leagues of so-called leaders, the people of Louisville maintained a sense of humor about the ordeal, and decided, not en masse but in an extraordinary act of shared temperament, that they would simply treat this area of the city as a passageway and not a destination.

As the sun fell behind a clump of cumulus clouds, the mayor stepped to his microphone prematurely.

“Is this thing on?” he asked, his voice shooting from the speakers like a cannon.