By Steve Kelman

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A (possibly) narrow-minded northeasterner visits Kentucky

Lexington Ky.

Yes, it's (possibly) true. Many who like me have lived more or less our whole lives in the large cities of the Northeast feel we are sophisticated and global, but sometimes we may know and understand London, Paris, or even Beijing better than we understand parts of our own country outside the coasts.

I have been reminded of this inconvenient truth the last few days visiting the Martin School (public administration and public policy program) at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. I realized that this is only the second time I have ever visited Kentucky at all –- I was in Louisville once around 25 years ago to look at the GE Appliances customer call center -– and that my knowledge of Kentucky culture or traditions is minimal. The University of Kentucky is an important part of the city, but this is not a university town –- its population is around 300,000 (three times the population of Cambridge, Massachusetts).

I guess a lot of my impressions fall under the rubric of seeing that many of the elements of coastal "sophisticated" urban culture have made their way to a mid-size city with a substantial base of highly educated people that is in Kentucky, not on the coasts. Two dinners to which I was invited by faculty colleagues at the Martin School were truly superb. One was at a wine bar outside the city that served its own local wine, where the rare duck was actually some of the most tender and flavorful I've ever had. (I will confess that the wine was only a good try, but still.) The other was at a bistro downtown, quite crowded on a weeknight, where I ate -– again superb -– seared tuna with a chile plum sauce. In addition to that, the downtown and campus areas had at least one Thai and at least one Mexican restaurant.

So what else? Longtime faculty members told me that over the past 25 years the regional accents of their Kentucky students (half the class) had softened noticeably. The public administration program is now filled with Asian students, mostly from China and Korea, and the university now does a training program for Korean mid-level government officials. I was surprised to see the airport gift shop prominently advertise their selection of New York Times Bestsellers, with the Times logo. A last surprising similarity with my own area of the country was that housing prices were not cheap, perhaps only 20 percent (if that) below those in the nice Boston suburbs.

So is anything different? Yes. There are horse farms everywhere. The most famous house in the city is owned by the university basketball coach. The downtown -- Lexington is a very old city -- had a strange feel to me, with old buildings (both commercial and residential) that were neither renovated and yuppified, the way similar buildings often are in old midsize northeastern cities, nor dilapidated and collapsing, like so many urban cores 30 years ago. They were somewhere in the middle, and downtown did not hang together but rather seemed more like a collection of random structures. (It didn't help there was a grassy empty area in the center of town, the result of some historic buildings having been torn down for construction of a Marriott Hotel, which then got waylayed by the 2008 economic crisis.)

And -- on the nice side -- it seems as if the large majority of public administration students go to work for government or nonprofits. Often to the state government, but sometimes to federal agencies where the school has connections (mostly GAO it seems).

Oh, and by the way, I felt a lump in my heart when I saw flags at half-staff at the entrance to the university, and even at a local McDonald's, in honor of the Boston victims. Yes, we are one country.

Posted on Apr 19, 2013 at 12:09 PM


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