It was 1999 or so when I met a young woman whose name I have long forgotten. She was visiting my friend Beth’s house in Charlestown, Ind., and we were engaged in casual conversation when I asked if she had been to some restaurant or another. The place was in Louisville, but I didn’t specify that.
“I don’t go into the city much,” said the young woman, who was probably in her early 20s. She sat on a couch, brown hair tucked behind her ears, if memory serves. I urged her to try the eatery the next time she did get to the city; Beth quickly cut off a conversation with her grandmother, who also was there, to interject.
“When she refers to ‘the city,’” Beth said, “she means Jeffersonville.”
“What?” I said.
“I’ve never been to Louisville,” the young woman clarified.
After 20-plus years living maybe 10 miles away, the woman had never visited the center of her metropolitan area. It staggered me. And it stuck with me as the moment when I first truly recognized the breadth of “The Great Divide” that exists in the area many ironically refer to as Kentuckiana — as if it is somehow socially unified.
At 981 miles long and a main tributary to the Mississippi, the Ohio River is in many ways the main waterway in America’s best-known river system. For centuries it has provided natural resources and trade routes; it helped bring the North and South together.
Today, however, many who live on its shores practically refuse to cross it. And when they do, it’s as if they’ve suddenly traveled thousands of miles into some strange, foreign land.
Matt McMahan last year opened Big Four Burgers + Beer on Spring Street in downtown Jeffersonville with an eye toward the Big Four Bridge foot traffic that would be forthcoming. And yet, he knows the mental divide remains, even though the bridge finally opened on the Indiana side on May 20.
“I watched a Fox-41 interview with some Louisvillians the day before the bridge opened,” McMahan says, “and they were saying, ‘I can’t wait to walk over there and see what’s over there’ — like it’s a different country.”
In some ways, it is. At least in mindset.
Kathy Scherer of Louisville, speaking of her husband, said, “Phil was telling me today how fabulous it was to ‘interact’ with the ‘other’ side. He walked over this morning and now has plans for specific destinations.”
That mindset is The Great Divide at work.
A former co-worker who lived in Germantown called me one afternoon and told me she was stuck in traffic in Southern Indiana. She had no idea where to go or what to do to get around it. As a native of the Jeffersonville/Clarksville side, I steered her to a shortcut.
“Thanks,” she told me. “I knew you would know a way.”
So, how did George Rogers Clark and his comrades manage? George didn’t call me for directions, that’s for sure. No, they figured out a way. There was no mental block, which is what seems to be the barrier today.
Todd Antz owns The Keg Liquors in Clarksville and New Albany. He is also the organizer of the annual Fest of Ale, which this year attracted 1,600 people and raised $13,000 for the WHAS Crusade for Children. During the event, he spoke to a young man who lives in the Highlands who was attending for the first time, simply because he had never heard of it previously. The Fest of Ale is in its ninth year.
Hell, when I turned 16 and got my own car as a junior at Clarksville High School, my father told me, “No driving in Louisville.”
The following weekend, I went to the Vogue in St. Matthews for a Saturday midnight movie. For some, the divide does not exist. Heck, in 2013, Lonely Planet included Louisville in its top 10 travel destinations. So, a major travel website touts Louisville as a place worth lengthy travel, yet some won’t even cross a bridge?
Perhaps immunity is acquired.
Kristen Reinhart Davis grew up in Louisville and lived in the Crescent Hill area until 2008; she now lives with her husband Dave in New Albany.
“You don’t get it ’til you’ve lived on both sides,” she says. “I started exploring my new hometown of New Albany and discovered there are awesome people in Indiana, too. I also learned that Louisville isn’t the only cool city in this region.”
The divide is divided
Stacey Yates is a Louisvillian who recently took her family to Jeffersonville for an art fair at the Howard Steamboat Museum, a decades-old establishment that offers a fascinating look back at the steamboat industry’s history on both sides of the river. It bears noting that Yates is vice president of marketing communications for the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau, and that her job is to attract tourism to Louisville. But she does not acknowledge The Great Divide, even though she knows plenty who do.
“I have cousins and friends who seem more willing to drive to Hurstbourne than to cross a bridge, when they live in the Highlands,” Yates says. “It’s always seemed funny to me, maybe because my dad owned a business in New Albany. We would go to dinner at Southside back in the day and get there as quickly as if we were headed somewhere ‘outside the Watterson’ from our Crescent Hill home.”
For you Louisvillians who aren’t familiar with the Southside Inn, it was a cafeteria-style restaurant that was a New Albany staple for decades, and today would be accessible via a 10-minute drive on I-64 west and into downtown New Albany. Clearly, Yates is one for whom the Divide never truly existed, since she grew up interacting with both sides of the Ohio.
Antz is another who is confused by The Great Divide. In fact, he estimates that 20 percent of his business comes from the south side of the Ohio River. Alcohol distribution being what it is, he has an advantage in a sense.
“Most of it is in the craft and import beer side,” he explains, “but we do have some good wine customers who come over for the brands we carry that they can’t get in Louisville.”
And the truth is, many who make their living in Louisville live in Indiana because the cost of living is simply cheaper. What’s a 15-minute commute from Floyds Knobs to downtown Louisville if you have a house that would have cost you double the price in Jefferson County?
According to figures obtained by Trulia.com, the median price of all homes listed in Louisville the week ending May 28 was $244,000. In New Albany, that number was $144,984, while Jeffersonville’s median was $161,904. There are also smaller towns like Sellersburg in northern Clark County that attract families of all sizes; the median home price there bumps up to $216,657.
The truth is, there is a lot of development in Southern Indiana — Clarksville is like one giant shopping center, featuring an enormous Bass Pro Shop and countless department stores, restaurants and more. It has exploded in the past decade.
Likewise, downtown Louisville today looks very different from the downtown of 10 years ago. Louisville has long had an impressive arts and dining scene, but downtown is just now catching up. Why wouldn’t someone drive across the Clark Memorial Bridge to visit the Evan Williams Experience? Or to see Paul McCartney — or even (gasp!) Cher — at the Yum! Center?
There is plenty going on in New Albany and Jeffersonville, too, especially on a dining level. Besides Big Four Burgers and Red Yeti Brewing in downtown Jeffersonville, there are ice cream shops, a take-you-back-in-time candy shop, Come Back Inn and plenty more. And New Albany’s downtown boasts Feast Barbecue, River City Winery, Bank Street Brewhouse, Bread and Breakfast and a lot more. Hell, one of the best sandwiches I ever put in my mouth came from Bread and Breakfast, located on Main Street in New Albany, and it took me all of 10 minutes to get there from my home in Clifton.
Believe it or not, tourism officials are working their tails off to unite both sides of The Great Divide in the minds of residents north and south. Yates says the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau confers regularly with the Jeffersonville-based Sunny Side of Louisville bureau.
“Their staff is great,” she says. “They participate in several event marketing programs we offer when we market the area regionally. They are also invaluable when we have large conventions that fill the entire city.”
In fact, when Yates and her team are selling a convention location to an organization, Southern Indiana is very much a part of the pitch. To a would-be visitor from, say, Portland, Ore., the Divide does not exist.
“We have several partners in attractions in Indiana, and we showcase them on our website, visitors guide, etc.” Yates says. “We also just try to share with leisure visitors and convention delegates any authentic experience they might have while in our area. We try to use any asset as a hook. We’ve done several podcasts featuring Indiana attractions and dining.”
Is the walking bridge the first step?
My girlfriend Cynthia won’t drive to Southern Indiana. In the three-plus years we have dated, she has ridden or driven (with me riding shotgun and giving directions) to my parents’ house in Clarksville countless times. But if there was an emergency that required her getting there and I was not available to navigate, she would be absolutely lost.
Such is The Great Divide. She grew up in Bullitt County, lives in Clifton and basically only ventures to Indiana when absolutely necessary. Or when I beg her.
But some are past the Divide. The Big Four Bridge finally opening could be a major step in the right direction — both literally and figuratively — by making each side of the river more accessible to the other. No uncharted territory to navigate in your car, no worries about where to park — you just take a long walk to see what you can see.
McMahan says in the early weeks of the bridge’s opening, sales were up 25 percent. On a recent Saturday when I was there, downtown Jeffersonville was crawling with people. Red Yeti, just down the street from Big Four Burgers and one of the first businesses Louisvillians encounter after stepping off the ramp from the bridge, ran out of food that Saturday afternoon. That can’t be a coincidence.
Motivation is everything. Or maybe it’s just giving something new a chance. Some I interviewed for this story feel it is all about perspective and mindset, which are difficult aspects of a personality to alter, especially when they’ve been ingrained since childhood.
Unfortunately, there is a looming presence that may cast a dark cloud over progress that has been made. That presence is that of bridge tolls when a new downtown bridge is built. Will Joe Louisville take a date to River City Winery in New Albany if there is a toll and even a potential slow-down in getting across the river? It’s tough enough without a toll.
“It seems like we’ve made strides over the past few years in getting over the issues of crossing the bridge,” says Antz, “but I’m worried about what is going to happen when people have to pay a toll to cross the bridge, and then pay it to come back across. Suddenly the thought of spending an extra $2-$4 per trip will start to weigh on people’s minds.”
His point is valid. If you suddenly add $4 to that meal or that bottle of wine, will you reconsider and choose something comparable on your own side?
T.J. Adcock, who grew up in Clarksville and now lives in Jeffersonville, believes there is even some animosity that comes from the Louisville side.
“I feel like people who grew up and still reside in Louisville have a certain hate for Southern Indiana,” he says. “They don’t like to go to that side of the river because it’s too ‘trashy,’ ‘ghetto’ or ‘redneck.’ There are people like that everywhere; it’s not like the river is some great divide separating two drastically different societies.”
But it goes both ways, he insists: “People from Southern Indiana sometimes shun people who aren’t from Indiana. An example would be, ‘What high school did you go to?’ If you answer with Male or Manual or any other Louisville high school, you get treated differently. The same goes for Louisville residents. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked where I went to school. When I reply that I went to school in Indiana, most people are, like, ‘Oh …’ Conversation over.”
For some, it’s just a matter of feeling uncomfortable driving on strange roads in unfamiliar neighborhoods.
“I’ve heard the fear (of driving) side of it a few times,” Antz says, “but I’ve also heard more of people looking down on Kentucky as well. I think the fact that we are two different states plays a lot into why there is that reluctance.”
To wit, several responses I received via social media about why people won’t cross the bridge play right into these stereotypes. One Louisville native who now lives in Indiana called Louisville “to [sic] ghetto.” Another said of Southern Indiana, “Not much over there. Except great restaurants, brewery’s [sic] and cool views of Louisville. Otherwise, it’s way too ghetto in Indiana.”
Local musician Jeremy Smith said, “It’s to the point where I don’t tell my Indiana friends about Louisville gigs anymore. They won’t cross the bridge.”
Still, several members of Develop New Albany, comprising local business owners and community-minded residents, see improvements in The Great Divide. Stefanie Griffith understands how fellow Hoosiers came to loathe crossing the bridge, for starters.
“When growing up in Galena (Ind.),” says Griffith, “we thought New Albany was the big city and Louisville was like New York City or Chicago — huge.”
However, she has seen New Albany come into its own in recent years, and believes that’s helping to level the playing field.
“I do not think Louisville people are as (reluctant) as they used to be,” she says. “We have a lot to offer in a completely different setting than Louisville has to offer. New Albany is a quaint town that is livable, walkable with many new shops and something for everyone to eat.”
“I think we still see some reluctance to cross the river, but less than in the past,” says Rich Robinson, another Develop New Albany member. “For example, years ago my mother was one who ‘didn’t drive in Louisville.’ At the time, that was not all that unusual. There is still some of that, but it is rare. I think there is a greater reluctance for the Kentucky people to come to Indiana, because there is not necessarily a reason they have to go to Indiana, whereas us Hoosiers many times have to go to Louisville to the airport, to shows, etc. That gives us more comfort with crossing that bridge.”
Maybe the area is simply outgrowing the Divide.
“I do think that mindset is changing with the millennial generation who are looking for authentic experiences,” Yates says. “What’s happening in New Albany and Jeffersonville along their historic Main streets and beyond is really offering that — very similar to Louisville’s NuLu neighborhood.”
Adcock, 26, is one such person who seems to “get it.” Which is to say that, to him, the Divide is invisible and non-existent. The fact that he grew up in Clarksville doesn’t enter into how he views Kentuckiana.
“It’s like saying people who live in Old Louisville and people who live on Frankfort Avenue are completely different,” Adcock says. “It’s just a river that divides two areas that is less than a mile wide in most areas. If that river wasn’t there and it was just an imaginary line, would people still feel the same?”
The Big Four Bridge has at least started the trickle of a trend. Perhaps that trickle represents the beginning of an ever-widening hole in The Great Divide that separates Southern Indiana and Louisville. Now that the bridge actually goes both ways, isn’t anything possible?
“To people who haven’t lived on both sides,” Reinhart-Davis says, “I’d say there’s good and bad bits on both sides. But you have to cross the bridge to broaden your horizons.”