7/17/11 – Louisville is very impressive with its lively street life and beautiful middle-class neighborhoods. It even has Cherokee Park which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. On a slightly cooler overcast morning I photographed the Western branch library. It is a formerly segregated Carnegie library. When Andrew Carnegie built his libraries in the early 20th century Southerners refused to share their libraries with African Americans. So Carnegie had to build separate libraries for blacks. This is one of the few formerly segregated libraries left. The Portland branch is unusual because it was built on a corner and has two entrances with a curved wall. Across the street was a memorial to a man recently killed on that spot. After photographing a third Carnegie library in Louisville we headed through the Daniel Boone National Forest to Shelbyville. It had a Carnegie built in a cemetery. We continued east and entered the foothills of the Appalachia Mountains. We are astonished by the rugged beauty and pockets of extreme poverty of the area. Some of the counties we drove through were some of the poorest parts of the country.
The infrastructure was better here than in Mississippi. People were more isolated due to the extremely hilly geography. This was white poverty as opposed to the black poverty that we saw in the South. The government has obviously put a lot of money into building good roads. Boonesville, KY is located in Owlsley County , one of the nation’s poorest. The library is nice and new. It was set against one of the tall, pine covered hills typical of the area. A very dilapidated car was parked in front with a Dollar General store next door. Dollar General stores are trying to be the Walmart of poor communities. Being such a poor region we were surprised how well kept most of the this region seemed. The poverty was more tucked away into the hallars and back roads of the area. We stop at several small towns and the infrastructure, including libraries was in pretty good shape. We arrived in Harlan, KY and came to their library. Two curious local guys came by and posed for me in front of the library. It was one of the best shots of the day. The day ended with a much needed swim in the indoor pool in our motel. We then had dinner at a very good Mexican restaurant. We were surprised to see one here and happily chatted in English and Spanish with the staff who were all from Mexico. We told them that we felt almost as foreign as they did to this place .
Clip from 1970s documentary, “Harlan County, USA”
7/18/11 – This morning I photographed in the wonderful genealogy room at the Whitfield Library in Harlan. An old guy was curious about what I was doing and we started a nice conversation about Harlan. Fairly quickly he launched into a rant about Obamacare, the Democrats and taxes. After a while I stopped politely saying “uh huh” and quietly finished my photography and left. We drove east and visited many small libraries along the way. We made it all the way to Williamson, WV before turning back to Kentucky. In Williamson the library is combined with the Mungo County Health Department. After we went through a security check the library itself had some interesting photos and displays on coal, the main industry in the area. We had earlier seen an endless steam of big trucks and rail cars carrying coal. Inez, KY was again in a very poor region of the state. President Johnson launched his War on Poverty here in 1965. Since then, the government has spent billions of dollars in eastern Kentucky on transportation and education, including libraries. The poverty rate has been halved here since 1965 showing that focused government help can make a difference. We leave the Appalachia region and returned to regular America in Ohio. Portsmith had a beautiful, domed Carnegie in what seemed like a pretty depressed town. An amazing display inside was of suitcases for homeless people set up in the lobby. It was an interesting contrast with the picture-perfect library. The beautiful Ohio farmland led us to our last library in Lucasville. To better blend into the surrounding farm country the new library was built like a farm including a silo. Extraordinary. We push ourselves and finally reach Cincinnati. We spent the night with photographer/educator Barbara Houghton and her partner Keith. Although exhausted, we stay up until 1 AM talking with these fascinating friends.