Food Feature: Down on Main Street

River revival in Louisville, Ky.

Back when rivers were the nation's highways, Louisville grew rich. The reason? A series of rapids interrupted navigation on the Ohio River. Goods coming from upstream places like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati had to be offloaded, portaged and then loaded onto other boats for the journey west.

The result? A thriving port. And with the coming of railroads and highways, a major transportation hub.

One legacy, Main Street, running just above the river on a low bluff, has one of the largest collections of wonderfully ornate 19th-century cast-iron-fronted buildings in the country.

But like most American downtowns, Louisville hit hard times after World War II. And short-sighted transportation planners rammed an interstate highway between the city and its raison d'etre, the river.

Recent decades have brought a renaissance. Some date it from the construction of the Galt House, a two-tower high-rise hotel-apartment complex overlooking the river, sporting roofs that recall, in a silly way, the old paddlewheel steamboats.

Michael Graves' nearby Humana building, which came soon after, also whacks you on the funny bone. But as one of the seminal works of postmodern architecture, its humor is presumably ironic and intentional.

Museums and other cultural attractions followed and were quick to take up residence in Main Street's charming old buildings. But the area is no longer just for tourists. Many of the old commercial buildings have since been retrofitted, and new ones of sympathetic design dropped in.

Main Street is now a fashionable business and residential address, too. Meanwhile a series of esplanades and parks have reclaimed the riverfront itself. These are wildly popular with Louisvillians, and provide venues for all kinds of festivals and events.

There is much to keep you occupied, and you hardly have to leave Main Street and the river to enjoy what this city has to offer.

Orient yourself first by taking the hour-and-a-half West Main Street Walking Tour. Guide Martha Cull, who has been giving the tours since 1979, starts on the belvedere overlooking the river. She traces the whole sweep of the city's history as she leads you along Main Street's principal nine blocks.

Then you can go back on your own to spend more time at the Main Street places that intrigued you. Most likely one of those will be the Kentucky Art and Craft Center. Shows change every two months. Through Oct. 26, the exhibition is Bottled Spirits, celebrating the state's twin histories of craft work and bourbon distilling. Forty-five artists were asked to create vessels for storing booze. These works, plus a sales gallery full of others, can be purchased; but you must supply your own hooch.

One modern structure inserted into the historic Main Street fabric is the Kentucky Center for the Arts. On permanent display are 20th-century works by local and regional artists and international masters like Alexander Calder, Jean Dubuffet, Louise Nevelson and Joan Miro. Primarily a performance venue, the center is home to the Louisville Ballet, Kentucky Opera, Louisville Orchestra, Broadway in Louisville and Stage One theater.

But if it's drama you're after, head first for Actors Theatre of Louisville. One of the country's most acclaimed regional theater companies, it is cleverly inserted into a series of adjacent historic Main Street buildings. This is the site of the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, the 27th edition of which takes place March 2-April 13. Now through Oct. 19, there is a production of August Wilson's Jitney.

Main Street is steeped in history, but it has welcomed one art form that is just about the hottest new thing — both in temperature, and in trendiness. Glassworks combines galleries and a shop with working art-glass studios. A one-hour tour includes an introductory video and visits to studios to watch artists engaged in flameworking and hot and cold glassworking techniques. The galleries show the work of both local and prominent national glass artists.

But travelers do not thrive on the high arts alone, so how 'bout some baseball? Main Street is also the location of the factory where Louisville Slugger bats are made. You'll know it right away, because out front is the world's biggest bat. It's 120 feet tall, but made of steel, not oak. The wood graining is meticulously hand-painted. Inside, among other diversions, you can crawl through a 17-ton glove sculpted from Kentucky limestone. Could it be that in Louisville art and sport are actually one?

But let's get back to Louisville's origins, the river. The complex of parks along the riverside, consisting of plazas, playgrounds, meadows and trails, make a great place to kick back after pounding the Main Street pavements. The working life of the river — which is still a thoroughfare for industrial shipping, now aided by locks and canals — is fascinating to watch.

You can actually get out on the water, too, in old-timey Louisville style. Three riverboats offer various cruises. The Belle of Louisville is an authentic 1914 stern-wheel steamboat that offers daytime sightseeing and evening dance cruises. The Spirit of Jefferson — diesel-powered and built in 1963 — sails in the daytime and at sunset. The Star of Louisville — newer still, built in 1988 — does lunch, dinner and brunch cruises.

The only major project left for those who want to bring Louisville fully back to the river is the one that will be hardest to pull off: tearing down that interstate. On the other hand, in today's world, perhaps it's the highway that is truly the river of life. travel@creativeloafing.com??

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