Uniquely Kentucky: Closing essay from Friday’s special section

September 30, 2014

abeEduardo Kobra’s mural of Abraham Lincoln in downtown Lexington, with the moon over his shoulder. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Kentucky has always been at a crossroads. Buffalo came looking for food and water. Native Americans came looking for buffalo. Pioneers and settlers came looking for land and opportunity.

Originally the Western frontier, Kentucky has been more or less at the center of the country geographically since the 1830s. Culturally, though, it remains a place unto itself. Many places, actually.

Early settlers came to the Bluegrass for fertile land and pure water to produce hemp, tobacco, strong-boned horses and good whiskey. Eastern Kentucky developed a rich, complex Appalachian culture as newer immigrants joined Anglo-Saxon settlers when railroads opened the mountains for timber and coal harvesting.

Communities along the Ohio River, long nourished by commerce, have created personalities all their own, as have those amid the farms of Southern Kentucky. Western Kentucky rolls out like a rumpled green carpet to the Jackson Purchase, encompassing many unique local cultures.

Ask someone in China what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply, “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” I went to church once with friends in a small Australian town and was introduced to the minister afterward. He immediately said, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”

The recent popularity of bourbon has given Kentucky another international claim to fame. Jimmy Russell, the master distiller at Wild Turkey, told me that when he travels to Asia, Europe and Australia he is treated like a rock star. As he should be.

Kentuckians know how to eat well. Nothing is better than Western Kentucky barbecue in the summer or spicy burgoo in the winter. Any morning that begins with country ham and biscuits is a good morning.

Louisville has the calorie-packed Hot Brown sandwich, otherwise known as “heart attack on a plate.” Want something lighter? Try benedictine, a cucumber spread long popular with Louisville ladies who lunch.

Immigration continues to enrich Kentucky’s culture and palate: Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and African. The newest menu item at the 134-year-old Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County is barbecue nachos.

Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, as was his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis. America’s greatest sports car, the Corvette, is made in Bowling Green. The stoplight was invented Garrett Morris, a black man from Paris.

Country music owes much of its sound to old-time Kentucky fiddlers and the hard-charging mandolin of Kentuckian Bill Monroe. And don’t forget Loretta Lynn, Jean Ritchie, Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush.

Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning has started calling Kentucky the “literary capital of mid-America.”  Sure, it’s a big boast. But consider the evidence: Robert Penn Warren, James Still, Wendell Berry, Harriette Arnow, Bobbie Ann Mason, Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Grafton, Jesse Stuart, Silas House, William Wells Brown, Hunter S. Thompson, C.E. Morgan and too many more to mention. Outsiders may still joke that Kentuckians don’t wear shoes, but we sure can write.

That’s the good news. Now for some bad news: Kentucky lags most other states in many measures of health, education, social welfare and economic innovation.

Kentuckians tend to cling to what worked in the past rather than leveraging their unique assets, heritage, culture, location and know-how for a brighter future. We carelessly spoil beautiful landscape with strip mines and strip malls. We focus on fears instead of possibilities.

Remember what I said about Kentucky being at a crossroads?  It has never been more true than today.


Author of new William Wells Brown biography speaks in Lexington

September 16, 2014

William Wells Brown is a name few people recognize today. He may be best known in Lexington as the namesake of an elementary school and community center in the East End.

But Brown (1814-1884) became a celebrity in the 19th century as the first black American to publish a novel, a travelogue, a song book and a play. He wrote three major volumes of black history, including the first about black military service in the Civil War.

The Central Kentucky native, who spent much of his adult life as a fugitive slave, spoke widely in this country and Europe against slavery. After emancipation, he was an important voice for black self-improvement. He also became a physician.

But that summary of accomplishments gives no clue about the fact that Brown’s own life story was as complex and fascinating as any work of literature.

wwbEzra Greenspan, an English professor at Southern Methodist University who has edited two collections of Brown’s writing, next month will publish a groundbreaking biography of America’s first black literary giant, William Wells Brown: An African American Life (W.W. Norton & Co., $35).

As part of a national tour celebrating the bicentennial of Brown’s birth, Greenspan is in Lexington this week to talk about his biography, which sheds new light on a man whose life and work were often surrounded by mystery and controversy. Greenspan plans to speak to students at four Lexington schools, and he has two free public events Thursday: a 4 p.m. talk at Third Street Stuff coffee shop and a more extensive presentation at 6:30 p.m. at the Lyric Theatre.

I had been eager to read Greenspan’s book since last year, when I interviewed him for a Black History Month column about Brown. I recently got a draft and found it to be an engaging, well-written story, filled with new information from years of painstaking research.

Greenspan’s work was difficult because Brown left no personal papers — perhaps because of scandals involving his first wife and a daughter — and the fact that he often mixed fact with fiction when writing about himself. Because Brown was born a slave, early records are sparse.

Greenspan first came to Lexington in 2009, when he and his wife were traveling around the United States and Britain to places where Brown spent time. They came here because Brown’s first published work — a narrative about his life in slavery — began: “I was born in Lexington, Kentucky.”

Brown may have thought that, because he was taken from Kentucky when he was only 3. But Greenspan discovered that Brown was actually born in Montgomery County, the child of a black slave and his owner’s white cousin, George W. Higgins. Called “Sandy” as a youth, Brown later adapted his chosen name from that of a subsequent owner.

Greenspan’s book traces Brown’s life from Kentucky to Missouri, where he lived on a farm next to Daniel Boone, to his work on Mississippi River steamboats for various masters, including a notorious slave-trader. All this time, Brown was observing much that would eventually find its way into print.

Brown’s third and successful escape from slavery came in 1834, when he was 19, after he saw both his mother and sister “sold down the river.”

His accomplishments were remarkable on many counts. He taught himself to read as an adult. With no formal education, he became a stylish, sophisticated and unusually prolific writer and a speaker of such skill that he attracted huge audiences.

Brown also was a resourceful entrepreneur. He profitably managed most of his own publishing, and he fiercely guarded his creative and financial independence despite persistent racism.

As Greenspan’s book recounts, Brown took considerable literary license with facts and indulged in bold examples of using others’ material in his own work. As both an activist and writer, he was fearless.

Brown’s most famous book was the novel Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, first published in London in 1853. It boldly cast its title character as the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, whose relationship with his slave Sally Hemings had long been the subject of gossip.

Clotel was heavily influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was then an international sensation. Brown was always savvy about writing and rewriting his work to sell. But Stowe’s novel, which also was deeply rooted in Kentucky, had a profound impact on Brown.

“It was basically a retelling of his own life story,” Greenspan said. “It hit home in a very powerful way.”

 


When it comes to broadband, why is Kentucky stuck in slow lane?

August 17, 2014

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When Dr. Pamela Graber traveled in Uzbekistan and Turkey, she was surprised to find fast, reliable Internet connections. She just wishes she could get that kind of service at her home, 20 miles from Kentucky’s State Capitol building.

“I sit here and wait for things to come up” on the screen, said Graber, an emergency physician who lives in the Beaver Lake area of Anderson County.

She and neighbors have petitioned a major Internet provider in their area for service, with no luck. So they use a satellite dish service. With data charges, Graber’s monthly bill is more than $100 — much higher than she pays for excellent service in Florida, where she lives and works each winter.

While slow Internet is annoying for Graber and her husband, Melvin Wilson, it’s a serious problem for two neighbors who have home-based online jobs. “When there’s a wind storm, they can’t work,” she said.

“Internet’s the main infrastructure we’re going to need to work in the future,” Graber said. “It’s going to be a huge issue.”

It already is. Akamai Technologies’ quarterly State of the Internet report last week highlighted Kentucky — and not in a good way. It said that while Alaska has the nation’s worst average Internet connection speed, at 7.0 megabits per second, Kentucky, Montana and Arkansas are almost as bad, at 7.3 Mbps.

By comparison, 26 states have average connection speeds of 10 Mbps or above, which is now considered a minimum by tech-savvy homeowners. The fastest average speeds are above 13 Mbps in Virginia, Delaware and Massachusetts.

Kentucky also was near the bottom of the list when it came to improvement of average speeds over the past year. And when Akamai measured states’ “readiness” for ultra-high definition (4k) video streaming, Kentucky was dead last.

“Embarrassing, actually,” is how Brian Kiser described the report. He is executive director of the Commonwealth Office of Broadband Outreach and Development, and I called to ask him why Kentucky is so far behind.

“Our broadband speeds are left up to the providers, and I’m not sure the providers are investing enough in infrastructure,” said Kiser, who takes between three and 10 calls a day from citizens wanting help with Internet service.

Other studies rank Kentucky 46th nationally in broadband availability, with 23 percent of state residents having no access at all.

Part of the issue is a chicken-and-egg problem. Virtually all of Kentucky’s Internet providers are private companies, which are reluctant to invest in infrastructure if they can’t see a potential return on their investment. Providers usually want at least a dozen customers per mile in rural areas. “The problem is that 10 minutes outside our biggest cities it’s rural,” Kiser said.

Kentucky has one of the nation’s lowest demand rates for home Internet, at about 60 percent. “Surveys show people say either it’s too expensive or they don’t see a need for it,” he said.

(It’s worth noting that Kentucky has a high adoption rate for smart phones. Kiser said that’s because smart phones can be a more economical way for poor people to meet many needs — phone, Internet, camera, entertainment — especially in rural areas under-served by broadband.)

Kiser said his office has partnered with Community Action Kentucky to build 30 public Internet facilities in rural parts of the state to encourage technology literacy and use. The centers have proven quite popular for things such as résumé writing and social media use. “We just want people to not be intimidated by it,” he said.

Internet costs in Kentucky are comparable to neighboring states. But Internet all over the United States is much more expensive than in many other countries. “The real problem, I think, is we don’t have enough competition,” Kiser said.

Connected Nation, a national broadband advocacy group, says that improving Internet service requires a two-prong strategy: pushing Internet providers to offer better service and making the public more technologically literate and savvy, so they will create the business demand for that better service.

Tom Ferree, the president of Connected Nation, said the states with the best Internet infrastructure are those that have had strong leadership on the issue at both state and local levels, plus a lot of grassroots advocacy.

Many states got a jump on Kentucky because they were well-positioned with “shovel ready” broadband expansion plans in 2009 when Congress and the Obama administration put about $7 billion in economic “stimulus” money into data network development.

But there may be more funding opportunities ahead, Ferree said. The Federal Communications Commission is changing policy to shift subsidies away from traditional telephone service to digital data networks. That could be a big opportunity for states that develop good broadband plans.

As an outgrowth of the bipartisan Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative, Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers have proposed a $100 million public-private effort to begin building a 3,000-mile, high-speed fiber optic network across Kentucky to connect with local Internet providers.

“I cannot emphasize enough the need for local planning and plan building,” Ferree said. “I think that plan holds great promise. I hope Kentucky makes the most of it.”


Before vacation season ends, experience wonders close to home

August 12, 2014

140731Maker'sMark0168This art glass installation in the ceiling of a barrel warehouse is the newest visitor attraction at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Marion County. Below, Ward Hall in Georgetown is a Greek Revival masterpiece. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

There’s a chill in the air this week. Schools are back in session. Fall is beginning to arrive.

But if you want to stretch vacation season a little longer, here’s an idea: Find time to visit some Central Kentucky wonders. You know, the places tourists come from around the world to see but locals often forget about.

Here are a few suggestions. For more details on many of them, go to Visitlex.com, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website.

Horses. This may be the horse capital of the world, but when did you last see one? Spend a day at the Kentucky Horse Park (Kyhorsepark.com) or visit a Thoroughbred farm. Several farms welcome visitors who schedule in advance. Or you can do like out-of-towners do and book a horse farm bus tour.

Keeneland Race Course is the best place to see Thoroughbreds in action. The park-like grounds are open year-around. The yearling sales are Sept. 8-21. The fall racing meet is Oct. 3-25. More information: Keeneland.com.

Bourbon. More than 90 percent of this globally popular whiskey is made within a short drive of Lexington. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is becoming a major tourist draw. My favorite distilleries to visit include Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Wild Turkey and Four Roses near Lawrenceburg, Maker’s Mark near Lebanon and Woodford Reserve near Versailles. More information: Kybourbontrail.com.

Country roads. Some of my favorite places to enjoy Central Kentucky’s beauty are the country roads that connect the region like a vast spider’s web. These are perfect for scenic drives. I like to go by bicycle, but it takes experience to know which roads are safe and comfortable for cycling. The Bluegrass Cycling Club has well-managed group rides each week. Check the calendar: Bgcycling.net.

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comArchitecture and history. This was a rich agricultural region before the Civil War, and remnants of that era can be seen in Central Kentucky’s grand mansions. Architectural styles include Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Gothic Revival.

Many historic homes are still private residences, but some of the best are open for tours. Among them: Ward Hall in Georgetown, White Hall in Madison County and these in Lexington: Waveland, the Hunt-Morgan House, the Mary Todd Lincoln House and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Other must-sees: Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County and the Old Capitol in Frankfort.

Nature. Perhaps the least-known attractions in Central Kentucky are natural areas, but they can be spectacularly beautiful. I especially love the Palisades region of the Kentucky River, which stretches from Boonesboro to Frankfort.

Lexington’s Raven Run park is the most-visited natural area in the Palisades region. Others include Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve (lowerhowardscreek.org), Floracliff Nature Sanctuary (Floracliff.org) and Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary, all of which have more-limited public access.

Julian Campbell, a botanist and authority on native Kentucky plants, has begun leading monthly hikes to promote awareness and conservation of natural areas. More information: Bluegrasswoodland.com or email campmeet@gmail.com.

But you don’t have to go hiking in the woods to see Central Kentucky’s oldest and most magnificent natural specimens.

A unique feature of the Bluegrass landscape is huge burr and chinkapin oak, blue ash and kingnut hickory trees, some of which are thought to be 300-500 years old. Tom Kimmerer, a forest scientist, has launched a non-profit organization to study how to better care for these “venerable” trees, as he calls them. More information: Venerabletrees.org.

Because Lexington has literally grown up around these old trees, they can be found in some strange places.

Recent brush-trimming has highlighted a magnificent burr oak that Kimmerer is conserving for Ball Homes beside a new subdivision at Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike. In the 1990s, a parking structure for medical offices was built around another huge oak tree, near the corner of Harrodsburg and Mason Headley roads.

Other notable examples can be found in front of an Avis car rental office on South Broadway; on the lawns of Sullivan University and the mansion at Griffin Gate; and scattered among new buildings along Sir Barton Way in Hamburg.

Here’s an idea: as you drive around on your weekly errands, start an ancient tree scavenger hunt! Anything to make the lazy days of summer last a little longer.

140807Gainesway0018This burr oak tree on Gainesway Farm is likely several hundred years old. 


Photos from Bill Clinton’s campaign stop in Lexington today

August 6, 2014

Former President Bill Clinton was in Lexington today for a campaign fundraising luncheon at Carrick House for Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat challenging the re-election of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. Photos by Tom Eblen

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Crisis of children at the border brings out worst in some adults

July 22, 2014

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Child detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Brownsville, Texas, on June 18. Photo by Eric Gay/Associated Press.

 

I feel sorry for the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who have crossed our Southern border, desperate to escape the widespread violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

But the people I pity are the adults in this country who — wrapped up in selfishness, mean-spirited politics or misguided patriotism — have tried to make the lives of these vulnerable kids more miserable than they already are.

Protesters have tried to block buses taking young refugees to shelters. They gathered in cities across the country last weekend — including a dozen or so on a New Circle Road overpass in Lexington — to hold up signs such as, “1 flag, language, country” and “Americans First.”

Some members of both parties in Congress are shamefully seeking to revoke refugee protections they passed during the Bush administration so these children can be deported without hearings.

Some Kentucky politicians fretted that these kids might be given shelter at Fort Knox pending deportation hearings, but Health and Human Services officials chose other locations. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, pandering to his right-wing base, called out the Texas National Guard at a cost of $12 million a month to assist the U.S. Border Patrol, which didn’t ask for his help.

Republicans are blaming President Barack Obama for lax border security. But the problem of child refugees has been building for more than a decade. Overall, illegal immigration is down and deportations are up in the six years since George Bush was president.

A former colleague, Mike Luckovich of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, summed up my thoughts in a recent editorial cartoon. It showed the Statue of Liberty with a new inscription: “I’ll trade you your huddled masses for my racist nitwits.”

Immigration controversies are nothing new. “We have always been a nation of immigrants who hate the newer immigrants,” comedian Jon Stewart said recently.

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens?” Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1751, about the time some of my ancestors were arriving in Philadelphia from a village near Stuttgart.

Ignoring the fact that the English took Pennsylvania from Native Americans, Franklin added that “swarthy” Germans “will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.”

America’s immigration policies have always been twisted by prejudice, politics and powerful economic interests. Chinese immigrants were banned for 60 years after thousands were allowed in to build the Transcontinental Railroad because they would work cheaper than Irish immigrants.

On the eve of World War II, a ship carrying nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees from Hitler was turned back from our shore amid anti-immigration public sentiment. Anyone feel good about that decision?

Many of today’s protesters insist they aren’t against legal immigration. And they point out — rightly so — that America can’t take in everybody. But our immigration system is broken, and protesters like those hanging banners that say “No Amnesty” are the biggest obstacle to fixing it.

Complex problems rarely have simple solutions. Progress in a representative democracy requires compromise, which today’s angry fringe abhors.

There are a couple of claims that need addressing. The first is that these children are “not our problem.” That assertion ignores the root causes of Latin America’s chaos: a violent drug trade whose demand we fuel, and more than a century of U.S. support for oppressive “banana republics” — either to advance American business interests or out of anti-Communism paranoia.

The second claim is that undocumented immigrants are a drain on our economy and society. In most cases, I would bet they give more than they take. If all the undocumented immigrants in Central Kentucky disappeared tomorrow, the equine, agriculture, construction and many low-wage service industries would be crippled.

No, the United States cannot take in every refugee and immigrant. But I cannot look at the pictures of these frightened children without thinking of my grandson and his mother and her sister when they were young.

The United States needs a just and rational immigration system. Until our dysfunctional elected leaders achieve that, I would much rather my tax dollars go toward treating these children with fairness and compassion than building more fences, which never have and never will solve the real problem.

This a humanitarian crisis, both on our Southern border and in our national soul. How we resolve it will say a lot about what kind of people we are.


Carnegie Center asks: Who is Kentucky’s greatest living writer?

July 5, 2014

WendellBerryThe Carnegie Center is asking for nominations of Kentucky’s greatest living writer for its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. My nomination is Wendell Berry, shown here at his Henry County home in December 2012.  Whom would you choose?  Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning has a new message as it seeks public nominations for its third class of inductees into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame: We’re not just for dead folks anymore.

In January, the center plans to add four more Kentucky writers who are no longer living to the 13 already in the Hall of Fame, plus its first living writer. So here is the question: Who is Kentucky’s greatest living writer?

“We are ready to show that great Kentucky writing is being created now,” said Neil Chethik, the Carnegie Center’s director. “It just doesn’t exist in the past.”

halloffamelogoThe criteria for all nominations is that a writer, living or dead, must be published; must have lived in Kentucky for a significant period or have a significant connection to the state; and must have produced writing of “enduring stature.”

Since he became director in 2011, Chethik has expanded the Carnegie Center’s mission of promoting literacy education, reading and writing to celebrating Kentucky’s literary heritage. One way has been by creating the Hall of Fame.

“People like lists,” he said. “They like awards.”

Nominations to the Hall of Fame are vetted by the Carnegie Center staff and inductees are chosen by a committee of writers and readers headed by Lori Meadows, director of the Kentucky Arts Council.

The first 13 inductees have reflected a diverse group of great writers spanning two centuries: Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Rebecca Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Janice Holt Giles, James Baker Hall, Etheridge Knight, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren.

“People have a lot of passion about who gets named to the Hall of Fame,” Chethik said. “We’ve even had some protests.”

For example, fans of two popular novelists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, James Lane Allen and John Fox Jr., have lobbied for their inclusion. So have fans of the late “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

They and others will be considered in the future, Chethik said, along with perhaps one living writer each year.

“I think we’ve got five-to-10 who are truly great writers working right now who are nationally known,” he said. “You can start making a list, but as soon as you start … well, I’ll leave it to you and others to make the list.”

I can think of several Kentucky writers who have produced impressive bodies of work over several decades, including Barbara Kingsolver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, Sena Jeter Naslund, Nikky Finney, Gurney Norman and Gloria Jean Watkins, whose pen name is bell hooks.

Kim Edwards of Lexington has won many awards for her short stories and best-selling novel, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Louisville native Sue Grafton has attracted a national following with her detective novels.

There are many fine up-and-coming Kentucky writers, such as Frank X. Walker, Silas House, C.E. Morgan, Erik Reece, Crystal Wilkinson, Maurice Manning and Bianca Spriggs.

You probably can think of others worthy of consideration, too. But for me, this competition comes down to a search for Wendell Berry. No other Kentucky writer can match the quality, breadth and impact of his work over the past half-century.

Berry, who turns 80 on Aug. 5, has written dozens of novels, poems, short stories and influential essays and non-fiction books. A fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he won the National Humanities Medal and gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012.

The Henry County native and resident is revered internationally for elegant, no-nonsense writing that helped inspire the environmental, local food and sustainable agriculture movements.

Berry’s 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, has become a classic. The Unforeseen Wilderness in 1971 helped rally public opposition to flooding the Red River Gorge. In recent years, he has been an eloquent voice against destructive strip-mining practices in Appalachia.

That’s my nomination for Kentucky’s greatest living writer. What’s yours? Email your suggestion, plus your reasoning and any supporting material, before July 15 to Chethik at: neil@carnegiecenterlex.org.

“We figure that when you’re arguing about who the best writers are, you’re in the right conversation,” Chethik said. “We want to spark conversations that will get more people to read more.”


Kentucky needs leadership for change, not the politics of fear

June 8, 2014

I have had mixed emotions since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its long-awaited plan to reduce coal-fired power plant pollution, setting a goal to cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels.

I felt happy that my government was finally taking some action to fight manmade climate change, which threatens humanity’s safety, prosperity and future.

But I felt sad as I watched a bipartisan majority of Kentucky politicians fall all over each other to condemn this long-overdue action. Pandering to public fear may be good politics, but, in this case, it is an irresponsible failure of leadership.

SenateCandidatesRepublican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul called the EPA’s plan illegal and vowed to repeal it. (It is legal, according to a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.)

Not to be outdone, McConnell’s Democratic challenger, Allison Lundergan Grimes, launched an ad blitz repeating the coal industry’s “war on coal” talking points.

“The Obama administration has doubled down on its war on Kentucky coal jobs and coal families,” said another industry parrot, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican from Lexington.

State House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, called the pollution-cutting plan “a dumb-ass policy.”

Let us review the facts:

An overwhelming majority of climate scientists think manmade carbon pollution is contributing significantly to climate change. We are already seeing the disastrous results: more frequent killer storms, droughts, shrinking glaciers and rising seas.

Public opinion polls show that a substantial majority of Americans, even in coal-dependent states, understand these realities and want stricter carbon limits.

In addition, health experts say the EPA plan will reduce cancer, heart disease and lung disease through fewer emissions of mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. The American Lung Association says the plan will prevent as many as 4,000 premature deaths in its first year alone.

So why all the political nonsense? It’s simple: the coal, utility and business lobbies that fund these politicians’ campaigns will see their profits suffer, at least in the short term.

The coal industry’s disinformation campaign portrays the desire for cleaner air and water as a “war on coal.” In reality, there are two “wars” on coal, and environmental regulation has only a minor role in each.

The first “war” is one on coal-company profits. It is being waged largely by natural gas companies, whose fracking technology has produced cheaper energy and hurt coal sales. Solar, wind and other renewable energy sources pose another threat.

The second “war” is being waged by coal companies and their political allies against miners and their communities. Kentucky lost about 30,000 coal mining jobs between 1979 and 2006, mostly because of industry mechanization. Add to that a historic disregard for mine safety. Kentucky legislators recently cut the number of state safety inspections at mines from six per year to four.

It is worth noting that the EPA’s new rule could have hit Kentucky much harder had it not been for the coal-friendly administration of Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat. Energy Secretary Len Peters pushed a plan, which the EPA adopted, to give states flexibility in achieving carbon-reduction goals. It set different targets for each state. Kentucky will be required to cut power-plant emissions by 18 percent, much lower than the national average of 30 percent.

Kentucky now gets more than 90 percent of its electricity from coal. The state has some of the nation’s cheapest power because the true cost of coal mining and burning to our health and environment has never been reflected in the rates.

America is gradually moving away from coal toward cleaner energy sources. This will happen no matter how loud and long Kentucky politicians scream. Unless this state acts aggressively to develop alternative energy sources to eventually replace diminishing coal reserves, Kentucky will be left behind — again.

Entrenched business interests have always predicted that each new environmental regulation would destroy the economy. It has never happened. Instead, regulation has sparked innovation that created new jobs and economic opportunities and made America a healthier place to live.

More limits on pollution will raise electricity rates in the short term. But Kentuckians will be rewarded with better health, a less-damaged environment, more innovation and a stronger economy in the future.

Change is hard, but it is necessary. Forward-thinking business people and citizens must demand that our politicians stop pandering to fear and become the leaders we need to make this inevitable transition as painless as possible. A brighter future never comes to those who insist on living in the past.


NY photographer explores historic Bluegrass homes in new book

May 24, 2014

140525KyBook0009The walled garden and orchard at Gainesway Farm was added by owner Antony Beck, a longtime friend of photographer Pieter Estersohn.  Beck suggested that Estersohn do the book, Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country, which has just been published.  Photo by Pieter Estersohn / Courtesy of Monacelli Press

 

Central Kentucky’s grand mansions and horse farms have been fodder for pretty picture books for more than a century, at least since Thomas A. Knight’s Country Estates of the Bluegrass came out in 1904.

Of the many books I have seen, the best has just been published: Pieter Estersohn’s Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country (Monacelli Press, $60).

The photographs are stunning, as they should be. Estersohn, 53, is one of America’s top “shelter” magazine photographers. He has shot covers for Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Southern Accents, Metropolitan Home and many other big magazines. This is his 23rd book.

140525KyBook0008What makes this book especially interesting and authentic are the places Estersohn chose to photograph. There are only a few of the usual suspects, too important to omit: Waveland, Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate.

Many of the other 15 properties are not well-known, even to many Kentuckians, but they are some of the most precious architectural gems of the Bluegrass. That didn’t happen by accident. Estersohn had inside help.

In a telephone interview, Estersohn said he and Antony Beck, owner of Gainesway Farm, have been best friends since they were 19. The New York-based photographer said he and his son, Elio, 10, have been visiting the farm regularly for years.

“It’s sort of like our home away from home,” he said. “It’s just such a magical environment to be on that farm. Antony’s landscaping is amazing.”

Beck suggested the book, and Estersohn quickly agreed. For more than a year, the photographer made quick trips to Kentucky between other jobs, scouting locations and making pictures. The initial focus was on equine culture, but the emphasis soon shifted to the much-loved examples of historic preservation Estersohn found.

“I wanted to find a balance,” Estersohn said, “between some things that were more humble and some things that were more extravagant and some things that were really over the top.”

Beck opened doors for Estersohn, and his key local contact was antiques dealer Gay Reading, owner of The Greentree Tea Room. Reading, who wrote the book’s well-informed introduction, has a curator’s eye and extensive local connections.

“He wanted a variety of styles and periods, and I chose places I thought were special and different,” Reading said. “Unless you’re a friend, you don’t get to see many of these gems. They are places where people are really living.”

140525KyBook0006Estersohn said he was charmed by the houses he photographed, their owners and the houses’ varied stages of restoration. He was especially impressed by Ward Hall in Georgetown, one of the nation’s largest and finest Greek Revival mansions.

Other highlights were Walnut Hall, where Margaret Jewett has preserved the ornate Victorian decorations her grandfather put there in the 1890s, and Elley Villa, an elegant Gothic Revival mansion near the University of Kentucky campus that was condemned before being lovingly restored by James and Martha Birchfield.

“I loved Mary Lou’s place,” Estersohn said of the 1792 farmhouse restored in the 1960s by horsewoman and socialite Mary Lou Whitney. “It’s sort of like a time piece. It’s a very specific expression of decoration, which I think is amazing.”

Other featured properties include Gainesway Farm; the Simpson Farm in Bourbon County, built in 1785 as a pioneer station; Welcome Hall near Versailles; Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate in Mercer County; Overbrook Farm; the Alexander Moore and Thomas January houses downtown; and Liberty Hall in Frankfort.

Estersohn photographed Botherum as its new owners, garden designer Jon Carloftis and Dale Fisher, were beginning their restoration. And he was moved by the much- damaged Pope Villa, the most significant house designed by America’s first great architect, Benjamin Latrobe.

“For Pope Villa, I hope we can elicit some financial attention so that it can be further renovated,” Estersohn said. “It is a very, very, very important piece of American architecture.”

Estersohn said he photographed the houses with a large-format digital camera. He used mirrors to even out natural light and illuminate dark corners and cavernous rooms.

Each chapter is accompanied by text that is well-researched and tightly written. Inexplicably, though, there is no text with the final chapter to explain the Iroquois Hunt Club.

“I thought the biggest challenge was going to be enrolling people to have their private residence shot, which is oftentimes the issue shooting for magazines in New York,” Estersohn said. “But I think there was such a regional pride and appreciation. Every single person was enthusiastic and wanted to contribute to the book.”

The photographer said what he enjoyed most about this project was “developing a very intimate experience” with the Bluegrass.

“I really feel like I know the area,” he said. “I can get around there very easily now. I know all the pikes. I know how to say Versailles.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

 


Once Kentucky’s biggest cash crop, it’s high time hemp returned

May 19, 2014

hempknightPhotographer Thomas A. Knight took this photo of hemp stacks in the early 1900s. 

 

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer last week sued the Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and Border Protection and the Justice Department, seeking the release of 250 pounds of Italian hemp seeds for planting in Kentucky test plots this spring.

Kentucky is one of 10 states seeking to once again legalize the production of industrial hemp, which has been banned since World War II because of resemblance to its botanical cousin, marijuana.

Hemp has only a fraction of the chemical THC that makes marijuana narcotic, so it has virtually no drug value. But states seeking to re-establish America’s industrial hemp industry have met stiff resistance from the DEA.

Hemp was Central Kentucky’s biggest cash crop during most of the 19th century, because the plant’s oil, seeds and fibers were very useful for such things as rope, fabric and even paper. But after prohibitionists began outlawing marijuana in the 1930s, hemp fell victim to guilt by association.

Could hemp become a big Kentucky industry again? Probably not. Should it be allowed to make a comeback as part of agriculture diversification? Absolutely. Banning hemp has never made much sense. And since nearly half the states have acted to decriminalize or allow limited marijuana use, it makes even less sense.

 


Story magazine founder wanted to tell Kentucky stories

May 4, 2014

story1 Julie Wilson is founder, publisher and editor of Story magazine. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

How does a woman born in Detroit become the founder, editor and publisher of a magazine dedicated to telling Kentucky stories? Well, there’s a story there.

Julie Wilson’s father was born into a big family in the Harlan County community of Pathfork. Like thousands of Kentuckians after World War II, he migrated north to seek his fortune. And, like many of those thousands, he eventually got homesick and returned to Kentucky.

Wilson, who has lived in Lexington since she was 4 years old, thinks her father’s experience nurtured her love for Kentucky in all its diversity. She now shares that love in each quarterly issue of Story magazine.

“There are so many unique stories in Kentucky,” Wilson said. “And every time we go out and talk to somebody, we get two more story ideas.”

With nearly two years of publication under their belts, Wilson and her partners are expanding Story magazine into a broader brand built around Kentucky culture and pride.

Kentucky Educational Television on May 14 will show the first episode of backStory, a quarterly program about the making of the magazine. Story is producing the show with Lexington-based Locker Public Relations.

Another project in the works, called Sessions, will feature collaborations of Kentucky musicians from a variety of genres. For that, Wilson is partnering with the magazine’s National Avenue neighbor, Duane Lundy of Shangri-La Productions.

story2Musicians scheduled up for the first session, on June 25, include Willie Breeding of The Breedings; Mark Heidiger of Vandaveer; and Stephen Trask, composer of the 1998 rock musicalHedwig and the Angry Inch, a revival of which opened recently on Broadway.

Wilson said a limited number of tickets for each session will be sold through The Morris Book Shop. An edited video will be posted online soon afterward. Event details will be available soon at Storythemagazine.com.

Wilson, 43, is a graduate of the University of Kentucky journalism program who worked as a free-lance writer for the Herald-Leader and a reporter for the Richmond Register. Then she spent a decade learning the magazine business at Host Communications, where she edited business-to-business magazines for the tour and spa industries.

After a year and a half as publisher of Kentucky Bride magazine, Wilson got to thinking about all of the interesting Kentucky stories she heard about but wasn’t seeing in other publications.

The cover of Story magazine’s first issue, which Wilson wrote, was a profile of Ashley Brock, a successful young model who travels from her home in Leslie County to do photo shoots in Europe and Asia.

“We look for how we can tell stories about Kentucky that are debunking the myths that are out there,” Wilson said.

She seeks out stories about Kentuckians doing cutting-edge things. Some are famous, such as the current issue’s cover subject, the late Louisville-born journalist Hunter S. Thompson. But many stories are about people whom readers might never have heard about otherwise, such as Dr. Joseph Yocum, a Nicholasville veterinarian who is a pioneer in animal stem-cell therapy, or Tim Hensley and Jane Post, gourmet mushroom farmers in Madison County.

story3Regular features focus on successful Kentucky expatriates, artists and craftsmen, musicians, philanthropists and people doing good things in their communities. Wilson said she tries to include features from across the state “so people won’t think we’re just a Lexington and Louisville magazine.”

She developed Story’s concept with Tim Jones, who as creative director oversees the magazine’s sophisticated design, and Laurel Cassidy, the associate publisher, who focuses on advertising sales. Bart Mahan is chief operating officer, and Allison May and Sara Plummer are account executives.

Wilson said the business is close to breaking even. The magazine has a distribution of about 18,000 copies and 2,200 paid subscribers, many of them Kentuckians living out of state. Eventually, she hopes to publish bimonthly.

Wilson’s husband, David Wilson, is chief operating officer of Yonder Interactive Neighborhoods, a sustainability education consultant. They have a daughter, who turns 9 this week.

“And, yes, her name is Story,” Julie Wilson said. “She says she was the first Story — but we didn’t name the magazine after her.”

The Lexington chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners recently gave Wilson an award as small business owner of the year.

“It has been more rewarding than I ever expected,” she said of the magazine’s first two years. “But I’m just doing this by the seat of my pants. I hope they know that.”


Celebrate 250th birthday of architect who shaped early Kentucky

April 26, 2014

130826PopeVilla0046The main parlor rooms of Pope Villa, which has been owned by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation since a 1987 fire. Benjamin Latrobe designed the house for U.S. Sen. John Pope. It was finished in 1813 but drastically altered in the years since.  Center, an 1804 of Latrobe by Charles Wilson Peale. Bottom, the Pope Villa exterior.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Thursday marks the 250th birthday of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, America’s first professional architect of renown and a man who left a lasting impression on Kentucky.

Latrobe, who is best known for his work in the nation’s capitol, had eight Kentucky commissions between 1802 and 1817, six of which were in Lexington and five of which were built. His designs influenced many Kentucky architects and builders, including Gideon Shryock and John McMurtry, setting the tone for much of the state’s most iconic architecture.

Only one of Latrobe’s Kentucky buildings survives, but it is among his most significant: Pope Villa in Lexington. The house will be open for free tours Thursday evening as the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which is slowly working to restore it, throws a birthday party for Latrobe and marks the beginning of National Preservation Month.

Latrobe was born in England in 1764 to a British father and American mother. He came to America in 1796 and died in New Orleans in 1820 after an illustrious career. Early on, his neo-classical designs caught the attention of Thomas Jefferson. Latrobe’s work in Washington included the U.S. Capitol and White House porticos.

Patrick Snadon, a professor in the University of Cincinnati’s School of Architecture and Interior Design, has studied Latrobe’s Kentucky work, which he detailed in a chapter of the 2012 book, Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852.

Most of Latrobe’s Kentucky projects were the result of his friendships with Rep. Henry Clay and Sen. John Pope. Snadon thinks Latrobe, the nation’s most avant-garde architect of the time, found the Kentuckians willing clients for his ideas.

140501Latrobe0002Latrobe’s first project in the state, in 1803, was the First Kentucky Bank in Lexington, on Main Street just east of Wrenn Alley. It was demolished before the Civil War.

In 1807, Latrobe was asked to design First Presbyterian Church, which then was on Broadway at Second Street, where Broadway Christian Church now stands. But by the time Latrobe’s detailed plans arrived, the church had already been built using a design that may or may not have followed his initial proposal. That building was demolished in 1857.

Latrobe designed three projects for Clay. The first was his Ashland mansion, 1811-1814. It was demolished after Clay’s death in 1852 and rebuilt on the same foundation by Clay’s son, James, and his architect, Thomas Lewinski.

Clay’s influence led to Latrobe being asked in 1812 to design the Transylvania University building in what is now Gratz Park. But his plan was too big and costly, so trustees hired Lexington architect Matthew Kennedy instead. That building burned in 1829 and Transylvania moved north to its current location.

Clay asked Latrobe in 1813 to design several townhouses, shops and tenements for property he owned at the northwest corner of Short and Market Streets. Parlay Social and Dudley’s on Short are now located in late 1800s buildings there that replaced Latrobe’s structures.

140501Latrobe0001Latrobe asked to design Kentucky’s second state capitol when the first one burned in 1813. But when another project kept him from traveling to Kentucky, that job, too, went to Kennedy. Pope asked Latrobe in 1817 to design an armory for Frankfort, but it was never built.

Also in 1817, Latrobe designed a house in Newport for Gen. James Taylor. It was completed in 1819, but burned in 1842.

Pope Villa is perhaps the most significant house Latrobe designed. That is because Pope and his wife, Eliza, gave the architect freedom to express his radical ideas for what a “rational” American house should look like.

“Altogether, the Pope Villa is theoretically and spatially the most sophisticated house designed in federal-period America,” Snadon wrote.

Pope Villa was a perfect square with service rooms on the first floor and main rooms on the second floor, which had a domed center rotunda with a skylight. It had full-length, three-panel windows upstairs that were widely copied in other Greek Revival houses in 1800s Kentucky.

When Pope wasn’t re-elected to the Senate in 1813, he and his wife sold their new house. Later owners did everything they could to obliterate Latrobe’s unique design. The remodeling included addition of a back wing and center hall, two then-common design elements that Latrobe hated.

Pope Villa was divided into apartments in the early 1900s. The Blue Grass Trust acquired the building in 1987 after a fire did considerable damage. Restoration according to Latrobe’s original drawings has been slow, both because of a lack of money and uncertainty about Pope Villa’s future use.

One idea at a brainstorming session last November was to use the reconstruction-in-progress interior as gallery space for contemporary art. An initial installation is planned this fall by the Lexington Art League. Details are still being worked out.

“It’s going to be the first foray into the next step for the Pope Villa.” said Sheila Ferrell, the Trust’s executive director.


Winter’s last gasp reinforces the joy of springtime in Kentucky

April 15, 2014

Mahan-KeenelandA horse is exercised at Keeneland after Tuesday’s snow. Photo by Mark Mahan. Below, snow melts off a tulip at Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky. Photo by Pablo Alcala.

 

We should have known this winter would not give up easily. But I just smiled when I woke up Tuesday to that little last gasp of a snow storm.

I smiled because I had already seen, felt and smelled the warm promise of spring. I had a sunburn from the weekend. And I knew that there is no better place to enjoy springtime than in Kentucky.

Two Saturdays ago, I saw the new season arrive on the tiny blooms of Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot and rare snow trillium. The rugged creeks that feed into the Kentucky River Palisades harbor a unique array of spring wildflowers, both common and endangered.

Wildflower hikes are offered by such places as the Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, the Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve and the Salato Wildlife Education Center. But opportunities are limited, and the flowers are fleeting.

More common wildflowers can be enjoyed on lawns whose owners eschew toxic chemicals. My yard is awash in purple violets. The grassy median that divides my street has patches of white spring beauties. The grounds at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, have been so covered with spring beauties that it looked as if the snow had arrived there early.

TulipThe lilac bushes beside my front porch have made it a fragrant place to relax on warm evenings and watch my neighbors dust off their bicycles and take a spin.

Last weekend was a perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with some of my cycling friends. Sunshine and perfect temperatures made it feel like late May, although our out-of-shape bodies kept reminding us that it was only early April.

We rode a 35-mile loop Saturday past manicured horse farms in Fayette, Scott and Bourbon counties, then enjoyed a late lunch at Windy Corner Market, where a steady line of customers stretched out the door for hours.

Sunday’s ride was more ambitious: 50-something hilly miles from our Lexington homes to Berea. A few steep climbs and a constant headwind showed who had and who had not kept in shape over the winter. I had not. As we crossed the Kentucky River on the Valley View Ferry, a crew member serenaded us with his guitar. Birds took over the musical duties as we pedaled along Tate’s Creek on the other side, admiring redbud trees in full bloom.

We stopped for lunch at Acres of Land winery, the road up to which required climbing acres of steep asphalt. We needed the rest before continuing on to Boone Tavern for a round of iced tea on the veranda.

Madison County showed a visiting friend from Atlanta a more rugged view of Bluegrass beauty than he had seen the day before. Sadly, though, many back roads were littered with plastic bottles and fast-food cups tossed from passing vehicles. As Forrest Gump would say, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

While we were biking, many others were enjoying one of my favorite spring venues, Keeneland Race Course. Saturday’s weather made it no surprise that nearly 40,000 people attended the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, the second-largest crowd in history.

I haven’t been to the races yet this season, but I have been to Keeneland. When I can manage to pull myself out of bed an hour before daylight, I like to go out there, walk around the backside and watch exercise riders warm up that day’s competitors on the track. It is one of the best free shows in Lexington.

As the rising sun fully illuminates forsythia and dogwood, and as Keeneland’s equine athletes are being cooled off and groomed, I walk to the Track Kitchen for the sort of delicious breakfast cardiologists disapprove of.

As I finish writing this, the last remnants of the snow have melted off my front yard. The budding leaves on my tulip poplar and the giant sycamore across the street look twice as big as they were yesterday. It will be at least six months before they turn color and fall, big as dinner plates.

So long, winter. Don’t be in any hurry to come back.

 


After this awful winter, spring cannot come soon enough.

March 8, 2014

Spring cannot come soon enough to deliver us from this winter of our discontent.

As I watched mounds of snow and ice all over town melt late last week, I hoped they would be the last I would see for many months. No more single-digit temperatures, please. I have three favorite seasons in Kentucky and winter is not one of them.

We have gotten more than 24 inches of snow since November, nearly twice the normal amount. It has been the second-snowiest winter in 20 years.

Single-digit and below-zero temperatures have been far too frequent and ill-timed, thanks in part to the evil Polar Vortex. Lexington set only one new daily low — a 6 below zero in January — but it was the first one to be set since February 1996, according to WKYT Chief Meteorologist Chris Bailey.

“We didn’t get close to any top-10 winters on record,” Bailey said. “But the cold shots came at just the right time to keep snow on the ground for long periods of time and make it seem especially harsh.”

Bailey said you would have to go back to the late 1970s to find a similar winter. I remember it well. I was in college in Bowling Green, and when the roads got clear enough we drove to Louisville to see the Ohio River frozen over.

“This winter has seemed brutal, because it started early and has gone late,” Bailey said. “The only thing we were missing was a good snowstorm, and we got that last week.”

Plumbers and utility linemen are weary, road crews are running out of salt and we’re all running out of patience.

“They were talking about it at the station the other day,” Bailey said, “and somebody said, ‘Either the snow melts down soon or the parents are going to melt down.”

Fayette County Public Schools have missed 13 days because of snow, ice and cold temperatures — the most in more than two decades. Officials don’t plan to cancel spring break, but who knows when classes will finally let out for the summer.

School systems in Kentucky’s more rural and mountainous counties are in much worse shape.

State legislators, who have been busy all winter avoiding tax reform, are considering legislation that would allow school districts to waive up to 10 of the 177 instructional days required by state law. The bill’s outcome may depend on how many lawmakers’ constituents have Disney World reservations for early June.

Still, you hate to see kids miss valuable instruction days, especially since so much of the school year is now taken up with preparing for and taking standardized tests.

Our misery has plenty of company. Virtually every part of America east of the Mississippi River has had an unusually bad winter, even the Deep South states where snowplows are more scarce than liberals.

My younger daughter keeps reminding me that the weather has been far worse in New York City, where she lives. I tell her that’s why I never wanted to live north of the Ohio River.

During the Winter Olympics, my former Atlanta Journal-Constitution colleagues kept remarking on Facebook that it was warmer in Sochi than it was in Atlanta — and suggesting that their city should become the first to host both the Summer and Winter Games.

My physical and mental health requires a lot of time outdoors, and this winter has made that difficult. I’m sure that being cooped up inside is a big reason I got a two-week sinus infection. That was followed by a terrible cold, which led to coughing fits. I coughed so hard I cracked a rib, which has made me sore and cranky.

I know things will get better when the snow melts, temperatures warm, my rib heals and I can spend some quality time on my bicycle.

There’s nothing like spring to lift your spirits and make you glad you live in Kentucky. Horses racing and forsythia at Keeneland.Redbuds and dogwood in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. Wildflowers along the Kentucky River Palisades.

But don’t get your hopes up yet.

“I hate to say it, but I think we’ve got another snowfall or two before it’s all over,” Bailey said. “I like my snow, but I’m ready for baseball.”


Voters should push back against pro-pollution politicians

February 17, 2014

Politicians say a lot of dumb things. What’s puzzling, though, is how much we listen to them.

Some of the dumbest things politicians say these days involve criticism of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other state and federal environmental watchdogs. These politicians are indignant that “regulators” are enforcing the laws they and their predecessors passed to keep air fit to breathe and water safe to drink.

The Democrats and Republicans who passed those environmental laws and created the watchdog agencies during the last half of the 20th century were smart enough to realize that pollution spoils our nation, makes us sick and, in the long run, is bad for business.

So why are many politicians today fighting for more pollution? It’s really very simple: Companies pay them to.

If you look at these politicians’ campaign funds, you will see big contributions from polluters: coal companies, chemical companies, electric utilities and other corporations that make more money when they can push the environmental costs of their businesses off on the public.

The politicians who complain loudest about environmental regulation tend to get the most money from polluters. Funny how it works that way.

When these politicians can’t repeal or ignore environmental laws and regulations, they argue that they should be enforced by state rather than federal agencies. That’s easy to understand, too: the smaller the watchdog, the easier it is to muzzle.

Federal prosecutors last week launched a criminal investigation into the relationship between North Carolina regulators and Duke Energy after 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water spilled into the Dan River on Feb. 2. It was the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

The Associated Press reported last week that North Carolina regulators repeatedly thwarted attempts by environmental groups to use the federal Clean Water Act to force Duke to clean up leaky coal ash dumps near its power plants.

Two recent incidents in West Virginia, another state where politicians are frequently hostile to environmental regulation, also has raised questions about cozy political relationships with polluters.

The water supply for more than 300,000 people in nine counties around Charleston hasn’t been right since Jan. 9. That’s when storage tanks owned by Freedom Industries leaked as much as 7,500 gallons of coal-processing chemicals into the Elk River.

Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy protection to avoid lawsuits. The spill will cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Then, last Tuesday, a pipe ruptured at a Patriot Coal processing plant about 18 miles from where the chemical spill occurred. It sent more than 100,000 gallons of coal and chemical slurry into Fields Creek, a Kanawha River tributary. State officials said the spill “wiped out” six miles of stream, causing “severe, adverse environmental impact.”

We’ve heard these stories many times before. Remember the 2008 coal ash pond collapse in East Tennessee that released 5 million cubic yards of ash and cost $1.2 billion to clean up? Or the spill in Martin County, Ky., in 2000 that sent 306,000 gallons of coal sludge into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River? And there are many more smaller incidents that never make headlines.

Does this sound like environmental regulation that is too strict, or too lax?

Many Kentucky politicians like to complain about the “war on coal” — a phrase coined for a well-financed industry propaganda campaign. But the real war is being waged against Kentucky’s land, water, air and public health by companies that want more freedom to blast mountains, bury streams and release toxins into the environment.

Many people support polluters because they buy into the argument that you can’t have both a strong economy and a clean environment.

Sure, sometimes environmental regulation does cost jobs and raise costs in the short run. But history has shown that it has always been good for the economy in the long run because it creates a healthier environment and sparks job-creating innovation. Perhaps the best example is government fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, which over several decades have given us better cars and cleaner air.

How long will some politicians keep fighting for more pollution? As long as polluters keep paying them to. And as long as we keep listening to and re-electing them.


As first black senator, Powers gave voice to the powerless

February 9, 2014

powers2Georgia Powers posed last month in the study of her Louisville apartment, whose walls are covered with honors amd mementoes. Photo by Tom Eblen. Below, an undated photo of Powers in the state Senate. Photo by Keith Williams/The Courier-Journal.

 

LOUISVILLE — She had worked on two statewide political campaigns and helped organize a civil rights march that brought 10,000 people to Frankfort.

But Georgia Montgomery Davis Powers said she never thought of running for public office herself until she was working a part-time clerk’s job in 1966, processing paperwork in the state House of Representatives.

As she passed around copies of a proposed law that would ban discrimination against blacks in employment and public accommodations, she recalled recently, a newly elected representative from Western Kentucky voiced his views.

“I see no reason to change things from the way they are,” he announced. “If I voted for that, I would never get re-elected.”

Powers was furious. A few minutes later, she said she found the courage to tell him: “You know, Representative, what I need is my own seat here.”

Less than two years later, she would have one. Powers became the first black elected to the state Senate, and the first woman elected without succeeding a husband who had been a senator.

Powers is 90 years old now, still healthy, active and engaged. Her high-rise apartment has a commanding view of the downtown Louisville district she represented for 21 years as a tireless advocate for Kentucky’s underdogs: minorities, women, children and poor, elderly and disabled people.

“When you are placed in a powerful position, whatever it is, you should do everything you can do for people who have no voice and need an advocate,” she said when I visited her recently.

Powers also helped lead civil rights marches across the South, becoming a close confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1989, the year after she retired from the Senate, a book by King’s top lieutenant, Ralph David Abernathy, disclosed that Powers and King had also been lovers. Her secret exposed, Powers told her version of the story in a 1995 autobiography, I Shared The Dream.

“Things happen like that,” she said when I asked her about her relationship with King. “You’re working together and you admire them and they like you and things happen. That’s life.”

powers1Powers’ life has been both accomplished and unlikely. She was born to a poor couple in a two-room shack near Springfield. When a tornado destroyed the shack, her family moved to Louisville, where her half-white father got a factory job, enameling bathtubs.

As an only girl with eight brothers, she quickly learned to be tough. “Just because I was their sister did not mean that they tried to spoil me in any way,” she said. “Just the opposite.”

Powers left home at 18 to follow the first of many men in her life, which would include three husbands. She lived in New York and California, and her many jobs included building C-46 cargo planes during World War II as a “Rosie the riveter”.

She didn’t get involved in politics until 1962, when a church friend pestered her to work for former Louisville Mayor Wilson Wyatt’s unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate. She ended up organizing his volunteers statewide, and was hired for similar duties in Edward T. Breathitt’s successful campaign for governor the next year.

Powers realized she was the “token black” in Wyatt’s campaign, and at times she had to demand equal pay and treatment with other staffers. After Breathitt’s victory, other staff members were given jobs in Frankfort, but not Powers. The next year, Breathitt probably wished he had offered her one.

Powers was one of the main organizers of the March on Frankfort, which brought King, baseball great Jackie Robinson and folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary to the Capitol steps with 10,000 others to demand passage of a bill banning discrimination against blacks in hotels, restaurants and other public accommodations.

Breathitt was a no-show, so after the march Powers brought King and Robinson to his office and asked for a meeting. The governor was non-committal, and the bill failed. But it passed in the next session two years later with his support.

By the 1968 session, Powers was in the Senate, and she wasted no time introducing civil rights legislation. She said it was an uphill battle, but she was eventually successful because her Democratic Party was then in the majority, she was able to get along with other lawmakers and she became good at legislative horse-trading.

“I never got angry with anybody if they didn’t vote for something I had up,” she said. “I figured I would need them for something else someday.”

Powers also knew how to stand her ground. “I never had any fear,” she said. “I figured all they could do was shoot me. I had been marching down in Alabama and everywhere else and never got shot.”

At the end of her first, tough legislative session, King asked her to come to Memphis, where he was trying to win better pay and working conditions for striking black sanitation workers. When he was assassinated, she heard the fatal shot and was among the first to find his body.

She said King had initiated their relationship with the help of his brother, A.D. King, who was then a minister in Louisville. Although both were married to others, she said they met several times and she always feared their secret would get out.

Once it did, so many years later, the revelation angered some people in the black community, especially after she elaborated in her own book. A couple of Louisville ministers gave her a hard time, but she says it didn’t bother her.

“They thought somebody was going to tell on them!” she said with a laugh. “And the women just said, ‘I wish it had been me!'” More laughter.

Despite that bit of scandal, Powers thinks she will be remembered more for her legislative contributions, making life better for Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens. That work earned her walls full of awards, including honorary degrees from four Kentucky universities.

“Kentucky has been good to me,” she said. “I did what I was supposed to do in life.”


Longtime cook, maid finds fans when historic home opened for tour

November 4, 2013

House

Cozene Hawkins came to Airy Castle, then called Wyndhurst, in 1961 to work for Corrilla English. She stayed more than 35 years. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

PARIS — I recently wrote about Airy Castle, whose new owners restored the 1870s Victorian mansion and opened it for a tour to benefit the preservation group Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

That tour two Sundays ago drew a large crowd, but the elegantly restored mansion wasn’t the only treat. A friend who attended said an interesting thing happened when an elderly black lady in a dark pants suit walked through the door.

As Cozene Hawkins slowly made her way down the hall, she was stopped several times by older white women wanting to shake her hand. They asked if she remembered them and raved about her cooking, especially her beaten biscuits. They treated her like a star.

“That’s the way I felt!” said Hawkins, 79, who worked 35 years as cook and housekeeper for the mansion’s previous owner.

“It made me feel good after all those years that people remembered,” Hawkins said when I visited her in her own small home. “To be back in that house and see what the new owners have done; it’s remarkable! They restored so much. It brought back so many memories.”

HawkinsHistoric preservation is more than saving unique architecture and bygone craftsmanship. It is about preserving our collective memory. Old buildings are powerful links to the past, helping us realize how much society has changed. They also help us remember the valuable contributions of people like Cozene Hawkins.

Hawkins first saw Airy Castle in 1961. The oldest of 10 children, she was a young wife and mother working part-time as a domestic for a prominent Bourbon County family. She needed more work.

Hawkins was recommended to Corrilla English, whose grandparents bought Airy Castle in 1888 and renamed it Wyndhurst. English lived there with her grown son, Woodson. Hawkins was soon working full time for the Englishes.

“I never learned to drive,” she said. “Every morning Mrs. English picked me up at 8:30 and she brought me home at 2:30. And after she began to age, the men who worked on the farm would come in and get me.”

Hawkins spent much of her time cleaning the huge house and polishing an extensive collection of sterling silver. She also prepared a big noon meal each day. English was an excellent cook, and she taught Hawkins.

“As the years went, I learned so much,” she said. “Mrs. English loved to entertain with lunches for just women. That’s when she taught me to cook the finer dishes. We had to get out the fine china and the sterling silver and the crystal.

“She taught me to make a fabulous corn pudding; we made a lot of cheese souffles and her chicken salad,” she said. “And the famous dessert was egg kisses — meringues — and we always served those with sliced, fresh strawberries and homemade whipped cream, because they had their own cows.”

English also taught Hawkins to make beaten biscuits, a Southern delicacy that required dough to be beaten on a marble slab and run through rollers over and over for a half-hour until it popped. The hard, bite-size biscuits were served as country ham sandwiches.

“It never bothered me that whenever Mrs. English entertained I had to wear a white uniform,” Hawkins said. “And I could never wear pants out there. No woman in pants. No!”

Hawkins said the mansion was a pleasant place to work.

“Not a cross word was ever said to me from Mrs. English,” she said. “I was able to cook and please her, keep house and please her. She never had to tell me to do anything; I just knew.”

The only thing that bothered Hawkins was her low wages. It wasn’t as if English couldn’t see twice a day that she and her eight children — seven sons and a daughter — lived in a public housing project, which has since been demolished.

Corrilla English died in 1996 at age 96. Woodson English moved to an assisted-living facility and died in 2004.

“They were good days; I regret none of it,” Hawkins said. “It has a lot to do with the way you’re treated. I was always treated with respect. I learned so much, too.”

Hawkins now lives with a son, Darrell. Most of her other children are in Central Kentucky, too. She has lost count of all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“She did a good job raising us; taught us all to cook,” son Steve said. “We all turned out well.”

Hawkins still likes to cook at church. “They’re trying to make me sit down,” she said, “but I refuse!”

Physicians Jack and Sonja Brock bought Airy Castle in 2003 and began an extensive restoration that is almost finished. They plan to retire there and open a bed-and-breakfast inn.

“It was awesome to go into each room and see what the Brocks have done,” Hawkins said. “The only thing that threw me off was my kitchen. Oh mercy! That new kitchen is so nice. I wouldn’t have had to roll beaten biscuits; they probably would have had an electrical roller.” 


Chef’s tour highlights growth in Kentucky’s local food culture

October 29, 2013

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Chef Ouita Michel, left, talks with Jean and Leo Keene, who since 1988 have operated Blue Moon Farm in Madison County, which specializes in garlics. Michel said she has bought garlic from them for her restaurants for years. Michel led a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market on Saturday that included Claire Carpenter, second from left. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Ouita Michel doesn’t get to the Lexington Farmers Market much anymore.

Since the acclaimed chef and restaurant entrepreneur became one of the largest buyers of Kentucky vegetables, fruits and meats, her employees do most of the shopping, and many of the 50 local producers she buys from deliver.

The five restaurants she and husband Chris Michel have created since 2001 — Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station Deli and Midway School Bakery in Woodford County, and Windy Corner Market and Smithtown Seafood in Lexington — have bought more than $1 million in Kentucky agricultural products.

Michel credits the flavor and quality of Kentucky food for her restaurants’ success. And that success has helped fuel a local-food renaissance that began in the 1970s with farmers markets and pioneer restaurants such as Alfalfa and Dudley’s.

The Fayette Alliance, a land-use advocacy group, recently asked Michel to give a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market. Michel said it was a good opportunity for her to meet new producers she might want to buy from — and she did meet some.

Many people are now willing to pay a little more for healthier, better-tasting food grown with fewer chemicals. They also like the idea of their money going to local farmers rather than giant corporations.

Kentucky’s local food economy began taking off in 2004, when the tobacco quota buyout program helped finance crop diversification. The state’s Kentucky Proud program then helped market those products.

Whenever possible, Michel said, her restaurants buy local food. For example, the lettuce and tomatoes for Windy Corner’s salads are grown 100 yards up the road at Berries on Bryan Station, a small, family-owned organic farm that also grows okra for Ramsey’s restaurants.

131026OuitaMichel0072About a dozen people showed up Saturday to take Michel’s tour. She walked them from stall to stall, looking for lesser-known vegetables, such as Hubbard squash and Jerusalem artichoke, and explaining how she likes to prepare them.

Michel introduced the group to several of her suppliers, including Eileen O’Donohue of Kentucky Lamb in Washington County, and Ann and Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County, the state’s largest certified organic farm.

“There is a seasonality to local food,” Michel said, and new techniques such as hoop houses have extended vegetable growing seasons in Kentucky.

Michel develops menus around seasonally available produce. Her restaurants also try to use almost all of the local cattle, chickens and lambs they buy, not just choice cuts.

“We need to eat all of the animal to make it work economically,” she said. “It’s also better for the farmers, and it’s just a more responsible thing to do.”

Michel’s newest restaurant is Smithtown Seafood, next to West Sixth Brewing in the Bread Box building at West Sixth and Jefferson streets. It serves fish and greens grown in an adjoining room by the urban-agriculture non-profit organization FoodChain, which uses a process called aquaponics. Brewery waste is fed to the fish, whose waste fertilizes greens grown under lamps.

“I know the Magic Beans people are here today, and I want to talk with them about buying their coffee for Smithtown,” Michel said at the beginning of her tour. Magic Beans roasts its coffee in a back room of the Bread Box building.

The University of Kentucky has played an important role in developing the local-food economy through its sustainable agriculture and food science programs, Michel said. So have processing plants such as Marksbury Farm Market in Lancaster.

Kentucky needs more commercial kitchen space and contract packaging plants, so farmers can process more of what they grow into high-profit, value-added products such as jellies and sauces, Michel said.

“We could produce a lot of artisanal pork products that could be shipped around the world, like Spanish ham is,” she said. “It’s just a matter of taking these well-known cultural foods that we’ve had in Kentucky for 200 years and developing and promoting them to a wider market.”

State and local officials who make economic development investment decisions too often overlook agriculture while focusing on trendy areas such as high technology, Michel said.

“If we could make some strategic investments in our food economy, we could have tremendous returns,” she said. “Economic development does not just mean guys in a room staring at computers.”

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Governor’s Scholars alumni hope to create powerful network

September 10, 2013

Randall Stevens was a shy kid from Pikeville when he was chosen for the second class of the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program in the summer of 1984. It literally changed his life.

“I think I became me in those five weeks of that program,” Stevens said. “It’s a huge confidence builder. It’s a social awakening with an academic background that really develops leadership.”

The experience inspired Stevens to study computers and architecture at the University of Kentucky, he said. Since then, Stevens has created several software programs and the companies to produce and market them. He also started Base 163, an incubator work space for Lexington technology entrepreneurs.

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Randall Stevens

Stevens has met many other Governor’s Scholars over the years whose experiences were similar to his. That got him thinking about the potential of an alumni network, both for the former scholars and for Kentucky’s future.

He recently helped start the Governor’s Scholars Program Alumni Association, which will have its first gathering Sept. 27 and 28 at the Kentucky Center in downtown Louisville. The event is affiliated with the annual Idea Festival there that week.

Speakers at the event include several former scholars: U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican who represents Northern Kentucky; Drew Curtis, founder of the online humor site Fark.com; Jeff Fugate, president of Lexington’s Downtown Development Authority; and Rebecca Self, founder of FoodChain, an urban-agriculture nonprofit in Lexington.

Former scholars interested in attending the event or becoming affiliated with the alumni group can get more information at Facebook.com/gspsync or GSPsync.tumblr.com, or by email at gspsync@gmail.com.

The Governor’s Scholars Program began in 1983, with 230 rising high school seniors from across Kentucky who were brought together on Centre College’s campus in Danville for a summer enrichment program. The program is the oldest of its kind in the nation. This summer, about 1,100 students participated on three college campuses.

Scholars are chosen through a competitive process. The program is free to them and is financed by state government and private donors. Governor’s Scholars are eligible for big-dollar scholarships at virtually all of Kentucky’s public and private colleges and universities.

Stevens figures that there are now 25,349 Governor’s Scholars Alumni with three decades of accomplishments, life experiences and personal networks that could have enormous value. Simply publicizing what other former scholars are doing could spark ideas and create job opportunities.

The idea of the Governor’s Scholars Program was to keep Kentucky’s “best and brightest” from leaving the state. Surveys show that about half of all scholars now live here. But Stevens and others think that original goal was too narrow.

gsplogo“It’s not good to try to keep them in Kentucky,” he said. “Just keep them connected to Kentucky.”

For one thing, Stevens said, when scholars leave Kentucky to achieve their dreams, they can end up in good positions to help future scholars achieve theirs.

Former scholar Darlene Hunt of Lebanon Junction went to Britain, Chicago and Los Angeles on her way to becoming a successful actress, producer and television writer. Matt Cutts of Morehead went on from UK to earn a doctorate in computer science from North Carolina and is now a top executive at Google.

“Having a Matt Cutts at Google is better for the network than if he had stayed here,” Stevens said.

Also, he said, Kentuckians often have a habit of achieving success elsewhere and moving back to home, bringing back knowledge and sometimes jobs and investment capital.

Some high-profile examples include Alan Hawse, a top executive with Cypress Semiconductor, whose move back from California led to creation of a technology development center in downtown Lexington. Self, the FoodChain founder, and her husband, Ben, moved back to Lexington from Boston after a company he helped start ran President Barack Obama’s 2008 online campaign. He and three partners then started West Sixth Brewing Co.

“The network is more valuable than just having people here,” Stevens said. The oldest scholars are now reaching mid-career and rising to positions of wealth and influence, he said. “The real power could be what happens when they do want to come back.”


Kentucky should embrace the creativity, if not the slogan

January 6, 2013

Kentucky kicks ass. Often, unfortunately, its own.

To stay with anatomical metaphors, Kentuckians are good at shooting ourselves in the foot. We consider creative people to be a thorn in our side, because new ideas can be a pain in the neck.

So I wasn’t surprised at the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism’s tone-deaf response to three 30-something advertising men from Lexington who suggested that “Kentucky Kicks Ass” would be a more effective state marketing slogan than “Unbridled Spirit.”

The suggestion came from Kentucky for Kentucky, a little company formed two years ago by Griffin VanMeter of Bullhorn Creative, Whit Hiler of Cornett-IMS and fellow Lexington native Kent Carmichael, who works for Energy BBDO in Chicago.

Kentucky for Kentucky began as a hobby — an online platform for celebrating the young men’s pride in their state, its people, places, history and “general awesomeness.”

They started with a Facebook page and website. Then, in the fall of 2011, they drew national attention with an unsuccessful online campaign to raise $3.5 million for a commercial promoting Kentucky on the Super Bowl telecast.

Their kick-ass branding idea was unveiled last month in a cheeky YouTube video that also attracted national attention. In the video, Hiler and VanMeter argued that the “Unbridled Spirit” slogan state government has used since 2004 is, well, lame.

(Maybe so, but it is a big improvement over “It’s that Friendly,” which appeared on Kentucky license plates from 2002-2005 along with a smiley-faced sun that looked like it belonged in a Walmart ad.)

The Kentucky for Kentucky guys hired Lexington artists Brian and Sara Turner of Cricket Press to design a cool Kentucky Kicks Ass logo, which they have printed on T-shirts and other merchandise for sale on their website, Kentuckyforkentucky.com.

They also created some sample tourism ads that cleverly promote Kentucky’s places and culture while minimizing the word they acknowledge may offend some people.

State tourism officials were not amused.

“We certainly would not sanction or endorse that phraseology,” spokesman Pat Stipes told a USA Today reporter. “These guys are Kentucky natives and they love the state. But they have a different constituency. Which is no one.”

For these ambitious marketers, that fuddy-duddy response was a gift.

“We couldn’t have asked for anything better,” VanMeter said. “It really gave this a lot more legs than it had.”

The controversy generated even more press coverage — and a lot of orders for Kentucky Kicks Ass T-shirts. VanMeter also has received emails from organizations within Kentucky, and as far away as Arizona, seeking creative help for their own rebranding efforts.

State Tourism Commissioner Mike Mangeot sent the guys a letter offering congratulations for a slogan that has “generated a lot of buzz about Kentucky and all our beautiful Commonwealth has to offer.” But he insisted they clarify that state government neither sought nor sanctioned their work.

The Kentucky for Kentucky guys replied to Mangeot with a letter from their lawyer, Scott White, saying they never meant to imply such a thing.

The letter also included an open-records request for all “emails, notes, written correspondence, memoranda” and any other communication with state government discussing his clients and their slogan. White said state officials had not responded as of Friday.

When I called tourism officials for comment, spokesman Gil Lawson offered only this statement: “We applaud the creativity and efforts of these three gentlemen. It’s great that they support their home state of Kentucky.”

I hope that when the Kentucky for Kentucky guys receive a response to their open-records request, it will include internal communication among high-ranking state officials that goes something like this:

“Our strategy worked perfectly! By playing the role of clueless bureaucrats we generated a lot of free publicity for Kentucky. Of course, we can’t actually endorse their slogan. We would rather be boring than take the chance of offending anyone. But what can we do to quietly support this kind of home-grown creativity?”