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Building Bridges, Naming Names

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Naming public buildings, roads, bridges and the like is probably more complicated and controversial than it ought to be. No matter what, politics and power play a role. And such is certainly the case with the two new cross-Ohio River bridges now under construction here in Louisville. Already, a bill has been filed in Frankfort, the state capital, to name the downtown bridge for former President Ronald Reagan.

Its sponsor, Republican Sen. Dan Seum of Louisville, has pointed out that the last bridge named in our city was for President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat. Isn't it fair, he suggests, to name the other downtown span for a notable recent Republican?

Perhaps, although a lot of people seem to disagree. The Courier-Journal conducted an unscientific poll (I voted twice, on two different computers) and found the community divided roughly half and half over the idea. My own informal survey, conducted among people I met wherever I went in the last week, found the idea less popular, but that may simply reflect the people that I happened to spend time with.

Over the 35 years I served on the Courier-Journal's editorial board, the issue of naming -- and renaming -- seemed to come up often. The most notable debate was over the renaming of the Thomas Jefferson Freeway for Gene Snyder, a longtime congressman who represented the eastern Louisville suburbs (that was when Kentucky had seven congressional districts, and Louisville was split into two seats) and secured a big chunk of federal money to complete the freeway's construction. Having the U.S. Courthouse on Broadway named for him also honored Mr. Snyder, who otherwise had a generally negligible impact on either America or his district. Mind you, his only judicial office was that of a magistrate in Jefferson County before he first went to Washington in 1963. Clearly he liked to see his name on things; in not many years few will remember who Gene Snyder was. But they will say his name, frequently.

President Kennedy's honor was unique. You really had to be alive in the fall and winter of 1963 to understand the rush of emotion that swept through the nation -- among Republicans and Democrats alike -- upon his assassination. The commemoration of its 50th anniversary last November gave younger Americans a clue as to what it meant to those of us who were alive at the time. All across the country, people sought ways to honor the memory of the slain leader. Notable sites such as Cape Canaveral, Florida, home of the space program, and Idlewild Airport in New York City were renamed for Kennedy. And in Louisville, the almost completed Interstate 65 bridge downtown had no name. It has long been my memory -- and I was only 13 at the time, but my recollections of that time are quite clear -- that the plan was to name the bridge for Stephen Collins Foster, the Pittsburgh-born composer of American folk tunes including "My Old Kentucky Home." The Foster bridge would have been quite appropriate at that time; nostalgia for the ante-bellum period remained strong and Federal Hill, the Rowan home in Bardstown, had been designated as a state "shrine" not long before.

How that name might go over today is quite another matter. My friend Emily Bingham did a paper not long ago about the history of the song and the different emotions it evokes, especially among African Americans. One good friend has told me that the singing of the state song at the Kentucky Derby literally made her cry -- and not tears of joy. So in retrospect, it was a good thing that we named our bridge for President Kennedy, not the man who wrote minstrel and plantation songs.

Moving forward five decades, we're once again faced with the naming dilemma. (I suppose Indiana, which is building the eastern bridge, will get naming rights for that one. The last bridge that Indiana named in our city was for Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton, an able enough jurist but also remembered as the card-playing buddy of President Harry Truman.) Our other major bridge is appropriately named for George Rogers Clark, generally regarded as the "founder" of Louisville. I don't think anyone would disagree with that choice. The Clark bridge was dedicated, ironically enough, the same month as the Stock Market Crash in 1929. President Herbert Hoover came over from Washington to do the honors; in 1963, it was U.N. Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson who cut the ribbon.

I don't know who will be around to dedicate the bridge when it is completed in 2016, but I do have some ideas of names that would be appropriate.

The most obvious one is Abraham Lincoln. Born just south of Louisville near Hodgenville, Kentucky, the 16th president spent most of his childhood in Southern Indiana. So if anyone spans our region's heritage, it is he. Moreover, he was the president who led the nation through its worst crisis, the Civil War, and it was he who signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Like Kennedy, he was a victim of an assassin's bullet. Louisville has a wonderful memorial on the river, a statue by sculptor Ed Hamilton, and there's another fine statue of the rail-splitter on the grounds of the Louisville Free Public Library. But no major road or public building bears his name. It is an overdue and appropriate honor. My longtime colleague, Al Cross, has made that suggestion as well.

The second name I would propose is that of Louis D. Brandeis, one of the most distinguished lawyers in American history, and in 1916 the first person of Jewish heritage to be appointed to the Supreme Court. Born on Louisville's Broadway in 1856, Brandeis was devoted to his native city, even after he resettled in Boston and then Washington in his career. His ashes are buried under the steps of the Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville. And our Hall of Justice at Sixth and Jefferson streets also bears his name. Even so, naming the bridge for him would make great good sense, and it wouldn't be politically divisive either.

Another distinguished Louisvillian for whom inadequate memorials exist is civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr., who in 1961, at age 40, became president of the National Urban League. A native of Shelby County, he was a graduate of Kentucky State University in Frankfort, and under his guidance, the Urban League was transformed from a relatively passive organization to the vanguard of the Civil Rights movement. He frequently consulted with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Johnson on issues of race. His life was cut short by a heart attack that he suffered while swimming in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1971. President Nixon sent a plane to Nigeria to bring his body back to America, and then he traveled to Kentucky to deliver the eulogy at Young's funeral.

Others have suggested Thomas Edison, who spent part of his boyhood here and made his first major display of incandescent lighting at the Southern Exposition in Louisville in 1883.

This just in: As I was writing this, I read on the Courier-Journal's website that Sen. Seum has entered another bill, this one naming the tunnel leading from the Gene Snyder Freeway to the eastern bridge for Abraham Lincoln. I suppose he considers this a sop to the people who tried to scoff at his notion of naming the downtown bridge for Reagan.

It's not a compromise. Far better, if something must be named for the 40th president, to name the tunnel for him. It runs through some of the most Republican territory in our city -- Prospect -- and it is not on the major north/south route from Chicago to the Gulf of Mexico. I'd prefer to honor Kentuckians with our big infrastructure projects, though. And I'm hoping Indiana will name the eastern bridge for longtime U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, who was a distinguished congressman from our area and remains, in retirement, one of the nation's leading lights in foreign policy.