NYT “36 Hours” Scribe Washburn Talks Whiskey Row

Michael Washburn and his wife Amy, both from Louisville, reside in Brooklyn, NY

One of the best nods to our little/big city by the river in print past was Michael Washburn’s “36 Hours in Louisville, Ky” published March 31, 2011 in the coveted Travel section of the New York Times. This pre-Derby buzz is only a taste of a life enriched by journalism and appreciation of literary culture for the Brooklyn resident.

 The Louisville native, Atherton graduate  and former U of L student has thrived after transplanting in New York City. His work has appeared in Washington Post, NPR, The San Francisco Chronicle to name only a few prestigious forums.

 The bright city lights have not blinded his hometown view and the article was received as well as it was written.

 I did let out a small whoop when reading the description of Fourth Street Live as “overwrought, underthought” and I secretly wished I would’ve come up with “frat-tastic” myself. But how do I really feel about our urban mall?

 Then just around the corner….

Since I am a concerned citizen involved in proposing uses for the Main Street buildings known as Whiskey Row, it was Washburn’s current station as a research associate with the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the Graduate Center, City University of New York that got my attention. He might have more to say than the average bear about historic preservation.


Louisville has one of the largest collections of cast-iron facades outside SoHo in New York, but because of inattention and insensitive development, several of these buildings known as Whiskey Row faces destruction. Some, however, have been restored.

Listed as #7, Whiskey Row got a nudge from a Louisville native with just enough distance and objectivity. While he proceeded to praise the design and menu of Doc Crows, Washburn took a swipe at malaise that is the controversial block of Main Street.

I had to contact the author for a few more details on his perspective of the issue that has preservationists and developers at a standoff. He got back to me on that with his own two cents.

“Speaking as a Louisvillian in exile, yes, I believe that the destruction of the buildings would be a tremendous loss to the city. but the words in the NYT piece — “inattention and insensitive development” — were chosen with care.” 

“The city’s citizens have always had a dog in the fight to maintain the historical and architectural integrity of what remains a beautiful town, but they’ve often neglected to notice. Not much was done to rehabilitate that end of the block until Todd Blue made his “plans” known. Sadly, it’s all but certainly another instance of too little too late.”

“One of the great shames of Louisville is that it is being denuded of much of it’s flavor — Whiskey Row is only the most recent bit of heritage that’s getting tossed aside — in favor of uncreative, usually corporate notions of ‘development.’ Development, in these instances, is nothing more than a euphemism for cultural sterilization, but this is what passes for progress if developers and politicians take the lead.”

“This has been happening in urban areas across the country for decades. The actions to save Whiskey Row as well as the recent growth in areas like East Market are promising. They’re great. People just have to remain vigilant and remember that this is about playing offense as well as defense.” 

He sent a separate message later that morning, feeling as if he’d been too harsh toward preservationists.

” It’s not that people failed to notice or neglected to notice, It’s just that way that power is structured it’s hard to cover all the bases, right?”

 We both agreed that it would be hard to turn all of this into a positive lesson.

 “All in all, I think that most of the people that I know in the city – who on balance are subtle, sincere, invested members of the community — have been doing amazing work in order to help keep Louisville the city that we love.

 I’m ambivalent about my comments on this because at this point I am an outsider. That doesn’t disqualify my opinion, particularly when I see national trends playing out locally, but it does give me pause when I position myself as critiquing people and organizations who have my political sympathies. I don’t know what’s happening on the ground when it gets down to the details, the day to day, in the trenches battles for Louisville’s identity.”

 On a brighter note, Washburn manages to get back to Louisville 4 or 5 times a year and that includes a mid-April. He is the early stages of working on a book about Kentucky.

 “I’m not disclosing details though, but it’ll have me in Kentucky quite a bit over the next couple of years.”

 I had to pop the traditional question to those peeps far from home in the spring-would he be coming in for Derby?

 “Sadly I won’t be coming home for derby this year.  As with the past two or three years, I’ll be at Commonwealth, a bar in Brooklyn owned by proud Kentuckian Ray Gish. The TV stays hidden but for one day each year. “

 In the fall of 2011 Michael will begin teaching on book culture and the future of criticism at NYU. He was recently named the 2011-2012 Nonfiction Fellow at the CUNY Writers’ Institute.