Since we have met before, and because we both come from London (but not the same one, of course), I thought I should reach out to you, renew our acquaintance, and tell you a little bit about my adopted hometown of almost 28 years.
You may not recall our previous meeting. It was in 1986 at the celebration of Harvard University's 350th anniversary. I was in a group of students selected to chat with you (probably because they thought the inclusion of a rustic provincial might be amusing). We very briefly discussed Kentucky and horses.
I came here the next year, having married into this city, and have never wanted to live anywhere else. Having been raised in a small town in southeastern Kentucky, I was, like many who hail from our state's rural regions, somewhat ignorant, suspicious, and even a little afraid of Louisville at first.
Now I love this place, although it is far from perfect and perhaps best described as Paradoxical City rather than Possibility City as it was in a recent promotional campaign. Maybe my telling you about it will also cause any Kentuckians who still harbor hostility toward our state's largest city to reconsider.
What are the best things about Louisville? The people are friendly, its many distinctive neighborhoods are great, and newcomers are welcome. The cultural, music, park, recreation, religion, restaurant, and sports scenes are outstanding.
Louisville has its own sort of royalty. They bear no titles, but names like Brown (yes, the in-laws of America's ambassador to the Court of St. James) and Bingham. Their power comes from fortunes built back when Louisville enjoyed bigger national stature than it does now. Like your family, Louisville's ancient nobility has also been comprised of fine philanthropists.
Newer money and names like Blue, Jones, Trager, and Schnatter wield considerable clout in Louisville now. Fortunately, these barons of business are also very generous in sharing the fruits of their success. Thankfully, they also display more diversity of political opinion than the predecessor elites did.
Our city's real aristocracy is one of accomplishment. You will see the faces of many of Louisville's most famous citizens – ranging from Ali to Brandeis, Reese to Sanders, and Sawyer to Thompson, on huge signs hanging around the city.
These banners reflect justifiable pride, but also some insecurity. Despite its rich history, Louisville seems to be always and almost desperately seeking recognition and respect from the rest of America.
There are plenty of other paradoxes, too. Consider, for example, the other big event happening in Louisville this weekend – the NCAA basketball tournament.
No city in the United States is as interested in – indeed obsessed with – the athletic activities of small groups of tall young men as is Louisville. Yet mere blocks from the publicly-financed, fast-food themed palace in which pampered players will display their talents for fans almost as rabid as those of English football, there are many more young men who lead very different lives.
Our city's famous teen and twenty-something hoop heroes often share newscast time with their less fortunate and largely unknown urban peers. While we hail the players for their accomplishments on the court, many of those others are, sadly, receiving fleeting infamy in the courts -- for drug crimes, mob violence, murder, and shootings, including of innocent bystanders, children, and even a school bus recently.
These are not problems unique to Louisville, of course, but our college basketball fixation provides an especially stark contrast between the attention and resources we lavish on the relatively few "haves" and our "out of sight, out of mind" attitude toward the much more numerous "have-nots."
The same sort of paradox is evident in education. Louisville boasts some of the state's finest public schools, but also a disturbingly large number of its absolute worst. The system – which is a proxy for the citizenry -- is failing in many respects. Lots of young people are essentially forgotten and left behind.
Student achievement has sometimes taken a backseat to bureaucracy, political correctness, and ill-conceived social engineering. For far too long, this city, which fancies itself as liberal and open-minded, has clung to outdated and unsuccessful approaches to problems like these.
There are signs of some progress, but it is agonizingly incremental and slow. We need bold action, new ideas, dynamic leadership, and intense, sustained attention.
Our mayor is a lot like you, if I may say so. He is not charismatic, but styles himself as something of a middle-aged entrepreneurial hipster, equally comfortable with business and "crunchy" crowds.
Bike lanes are his most visible priority. That is fitting since automobile travel around Louisville is often virtually impossible as we build two new bridges and reconfigure our intricate interstate highway intersection.
Unlike us commoners, you probably will not have to deal with the resulting traffic nightmare made even worse by recent flooding. Still, you have to admit that it is yet another paradox that your visit emphasizing "sustainability" is taking place in the midst of such a massive and expensive project to prolong our sprawling community's marriage to cars, global and interstate commerce, and the fossil fuel and internal combustion engines on which they depend.
But that is precisely the point, isn't it? You and Wendell Berry, the sustainability movement's poetic prophet who has also sent you greetings, argue that we need bold action, new ideas, dynamic leadership, and intense, sustained attention on these issues, too. Your visit draws attention to that cause, which is, after all, a truly conservative one in a very valid sense of that word.
So thanks for coming, enjoy your visit, give our best to the rest of the royals, and come back when the construction is completed. Let's not let it be so long before we get together again!