HENDERSON, KY — The 981-mile Ohio River Valley, which extends from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill. is full of surprises these days. Pittsburgh shed its sooty industrial coat of the 20th century to emerge as a center of engineering and biomedical innovation. Cincinnati, battered by race riots and disinvestment, is building a $1 billion riverfront neighborhood and a streetcar line.
Louisville’s days as a meatpacking hub are long gone. Now it’s the growing capital of the American bourbon industry, home to one of the country’s fine urban universities, and experiencing a boom in hotel construction to accommodate all the interest in its new stature as a hub of exceptional restaurants supplied with fresh locally grown food.
Further downriver, Owensboro, KY. passed a local tax increase to invest in downtown redevelopment that yielded a new convention center, rebuilt streets, two hotels, an office building, dozens of new residential units, restaurants, and a riverfront park complete with jet fountains designed and built by the same guys who shower Las Vegas in thrilling curtains of water.
Then comes Henderson, an Ohio River city of such grace and idealized mid-continent whimsy that you almost expect to see riverboats docked along the banks and trolleys at the center of the 100-foot wide Main Street. Tall trees shade the city’s residential streets. Beautifully maintained Victorian homes keep a vigil on the river and Henderson’s business district. In the early 1990s, film director Penny Marshall arrived with Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, and Rosie O’Donell to use the three-story brick mansion with the lovely porch at 612 North Main as the set for “A League of Their Own.”
The newest piece of Henderson’s small town landscape is its three-mile Riverwalk, which spans the rolling bluffs of the Ohio River’s southern bank. The Riverwalk, in early evening, is bathed in the pink and purple of Kentucky’s characteristically beautiful setting sun. During the day the rumble of coal trains, and the vibrating bass of the big engines of river towboats form an attractive soundtrack for a city of 29,000 that was founded in the Kentucky wilderness in 1797. The city’s Riverwalk affords such views of the Ohio, the flat fields beyond, and the thick forests on the Indiana banks that it’s possible to imagine the stunning display of flora and fauna that drew John James Aububon here in 1810 to spend nine years studying and painting.
Yet even more than its attractiveness and utility as a recreational asset is what the Riverwalk says about the people who live in Henderson and their view of the value of public spending for public purposes. Henderson has largely resisted the politics of austerity, government hatred, and tax cutting that now describes much of what Kentucky’s governing strategy has become. Though presidential candidate Mitch Romney won big here in 2012, Henderson and its surrounding county did not support Republican Senator Mitch McConnell in 2008 and Senator Rand Paul in 2010. Henderson supported Bill Clinton in both of his elections, Al Gore over George Bush, and President Obama in 2008.
The city’s handsome and welcoming appearance reflects the progressive principle of public investment for public purposes. Housing values have stayed strong. Schools are good. Jobs are available. I asked a businessman in town whether voters understood that the reason the Riverwalk and the other public assets are available is through public investments, including the $8 million that Sen. McConnell secured in federal earmarks for the Riverwalk and several more projects. The businessman said most people didn’t make that connection. They just like what was built.
Sen. McConnell has since disavowed such earmarks in order to calm the hell-with-public-spending critics on his right. Yesterday McConnell trounced his Tea Party Republican primary opponent, setting up a showdown in the Senate election in November with Allison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic secretary of state.
The big question in this election is whether Republicans can win with a message of hopelessness — that the US is running out of money, that taxes have to be cut, that the new healthcare law is a grave insult to medical management and Democracy, that climate change is a hoax, that raising wages is a danger to business, and that you are on your own with your gun, your straight marriage, and your church. Or can Democrats make the case that the essence of American values and the American economy is a nation that has good ideas, acts on them together, and then makes the investments necessary to achieve them. Henderson’s Riverwalk is a terrific example of what happens when all those facets come together.
— Keith Schneider