Last week, legendary Kentucky writer Wendell Berry turned 80 years old. The occasion reminded me just how important he is, not just to the commonwealth, but to anyone who has taken his words to heart over the many decades he has been sharing them. I’ve long been inspired by his work, first as a teenage bookworm, then as an undergrad sociology student, and now as a lawyer and writer.
Berry’s 1968 essay “The Loss of the Future” laments the “artificial, overcrowded, compartmentalized life of our cities.” According to Berry, urban career specialization and interpersonal distance reduce human beings to automatons and destroy community. Taking the time to know one’s surroundings and the people within it can combat this tragedy. He writes:
A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.
City life doesn’t have to be so alienating. An effort to understand the city, embrace its past, and identify with its inhabitants can produce a profound sense of connection and community. As others have noted, Berry’s concept of “place” can apply to urban living.
My law office is at the corner of Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard (previously Walnut Street), and there I spend most of my waking hours. The intersection is a very important place not only to me as one of its regular occupants, but also to downtown Louisville.
Aesthetically, it is perhaps the most stereotypically urban, a man-made cavern with narrow streets and tall buildings at every corner. Historically, it is home to some of the oldest remaining downtown architecture, including the Seelbach Hotel (built 1905), the Stewart Dry Goods Building (1907) and the Starks Building (1913). Most importantly, the place has been shared by many interesting people who have come and gone throughout the years.
In 1958, renowned Trappist monk Thomas Merton stood on the northwest corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, and had an epiphany about the deific beauty within all humanity. He wrote that he “was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.” A bronze historical plaque now marks the spot.
Fifty-one years before Merton, a man named Henry Bruner stood on the southwest corner of that same intersection and got hit by a beer bottle thrown from the roof garden of the Seelbach Hotel. His epiphany – after the pain of his broken shoulder subsided – was to sue the hotel and the heavily inebriated George Wolf, whom Bruner accused of throwing the bottle. But insult was piled upon injury because Bruner’s lawsuit was ultimately unsuccessful (the actual thrower of the bottle was never proven) and no bronze sign marks the unfortunate occasion.
In 1979, a young man named William James Murray stood in front of the Stewart’s building on the southeast corner of Fourth and (now) Muhammad Ali and pretended to be a disaffected taxi driver while a camera crew filmed him. The footage would become part of the opening scenes of the 1980 movie “Stripes,” and Murray, better known as “Bill,” would go on to comedy super-stardom.
The site of past revelations, tragedies, and comedies, the intersection today plays host to hundreds more mundane experiences, as workers, tourists, and people less fortunate pass by on their way somewhere else. Decades ago, perhaps thousands once crossed its streets each day, long before urban renewal and suburban sprawl emptied downtown of its past glory and occupants. Yet, despite the missteps of history, the intersection persists as a hub of human activity in a city still alive.
I agree with Wendell Berry that the ideal community must “include the place, the land itself.” But that land doesn’t have to be farmland. It can be the paved sidewalks and the tall buildings at the intersection of Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard just as it can be the rich topsoil of Henry County on the banks of the Kentucky River.
To build a real community, each of us must connect with the places we occupy. We must know those places by learning their history and developing a healthy vision for their future. And perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to view all our fellow occupants of those places the way Thomas Merton once saw them, “walking around shining like the sun.” I have no doubt that Berry would agree with Merton that in the ideal community, “there are no strangers!”