Tour of historic West Main Street with Susan Foley

I think perhaps I was the only one on the tour who didn’t take any pictures.

It wasn’t for a lack of interest, but rather because I was trying my hardest to hang on every word of our tour guide.  Since moving to Louisville, I generally take any opportunity I can get to take a historic tour.  My first date with my now-girlfriend was a walking tour of the Portland neighborhood.  I’ve also been on numerous other preservation-themed bus tours, usually through Preservation Louisville.  There was something different about this one, however.  Susan Foley’s knowledge of West Main Street largely comes from the dozens and dozens of oral history interviews that she’s conducted for Louisville’s Main Street Association.  The amount of knowledge about individual buildings and organizations that the collection of oral histories contains is wholly overwhelming.  Susan admirably disseminated enough compelling tidbits to send us all home satisfied.

I wonder, though, how I would have felt if

A. I hadn’t already started listening to my quota of the interviews, or

B. They didn’t have some bearing on the research I’m currently conducting for (West Main’s own) Science Center.  Several of my colleagues have made the point (here and here for example) that many of the street’s fascinating features go generally unnoticed.. .which brings me to my point:

Should the Main Street Association do a better job of communicating the history of the street to all who walk down it?  Or is their subtle approach intentional?  Is it the public historian’s responsibility to inform and enlighten every man, woman, and child who passes by their little corner of the world?

For me, these sorts of in-your-face public displays reek too strongly of tourist traps.  Personally I would hate to see Main St. turn into one of these urban children’s museum exhibits (Although 21c is making a pretty good go of it.  The Science Center is exempted because it is a children’s museum, effectively)  I’m referring here, to places like Beale St. in Memphis and even Lower Broadway in Nashville.  Does Louisville need a history-themed Fourth Street Live?  Okay, maybe I’m going overboard.  But I think that, in conducting the oral history interviews and making them available at the University archives, Susan and the MSA have done a commendable job of preserving the street’s history in a way that is not only thorough, but perhaps more permanent than another plaque or museum panel on the street.  These histories could be incorporated into podcasts and walking tours without cluttering up the sidewalk.  I think that the creation of this content and making it available to those who seek it out should be the primary focus.

And that, Forrest, is all I have to say about that.  But I can’t end it without disseminating a couple of nuggets of my own; gleaned, you understand, from the oral histories.  Like the time the cast iron facade on the Science Center was unbolted and removed in order to admit the Apollo 13 space capsule (Mattei).  Or the fact that Louisville’s Jewish community initially didn’t want to participate in the Heritage Weekends during Louisville’s Bicentennial celebration for fear that their exposure could precipitate anti-Semetic violence (Guthrie/Courtney/Victor).  Whose idea was it to give Colonel Sanders that hair dryer to help him blow out all of those candles (Guthrie)?  Did you know that West Main’s revitalization was seen as critical because of its historic association with the river, which other parts of downtown lacked (Roberts)?

Man.  History is cool.



3 responses to “Tour of historic West Main Street with Susan Foley

  • Whitney T

    I didn’t take pictures either. I borrowed from this thing called the internet. Also, your oral histories sound very interesting. And yes, history is pretty cool- I hope that more people realize this fact everyday [the reason why I am pursuing public history].

  • johnjswanson10mil

    You and Whitney are both wrong! I too, took no pictures! Unfortunately, for the viewers, my mug was in several photos! I think that history rocks!

    • drlarakelland

      nice comparative observations, matt! i really appreciate them. you smartly challenge the idea that PH interpretation needs to grab its public by the lapels. i think i align myself a bit more closely with the “pandering to all the publics” approach on paper, but i do really love the subtlety and smartness of the main street interpretation.

      and john, you always put a smile on my face.

      and you’re all absolutely correct: history does rock.

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