I spent last weekend in the small Indiana cities that share the banks of the Ohio River with Louisville. Like many small towns along the river, the settlements have surprisingly long histories, with founding dates reaching back into the late 1700s. Over these some 200 years, the Ohio repeatedly left its imprint on the cities. To contemporary eyes the clearest marks are ripples from the Ohio River flood of 1937. The flood affected nearly every settlement along its banks, from its origin at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh to where it meets the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. In the Kentuckiana region, the Louisville Ohio River gauge reached a record height of 52.15 feet, nearly 30 feet higher than flood stage. For context, the highest the river has reached in recent years was just over 31 feet in 2011, and at time of writing, it is currently at 12.74 feet.
Since the record flood, the cities along the river constructed a mix of earthen and concrete flood walls above the 1937 high water line. Given how prominent these features are in the cities’ histories and built environment, I wanted to spend the few free hours I had to glimpse the cities’ connection with the Ohio. Perhaps some day I will return and start to develop a project that connects to my work upriver in the Pittsburgh area. But for now, that meant I often photographed near the flood walls, but also through sites with connections to the river, like the EZ Food Mart, which is open late to serve the Jeffboat shipyards or Clarksville’s Falls of the Ohio Liquor Store, that takes its name from the nearby waterfalls along the Ohio River.
I recently visited Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to present at the International Visual Sociology Association‘s annual meeting and explore the region. I particularly enjoy working in Pittsburgh, but my time photographing the end of an era in Johnstown instilled an interest in the region’s smaller towns. When I visited Pittsburgh in 2011, I made sure to spend a little time in neighboring borough of Braddock, but I wanted to go farther afield this time. In part motivated to see the borough of Donora, whose 1948 environmental catastrophe raised awareness of the need for clean air regulations, I visited more than a dozen towns in the Monongahela River valley, and then several more along the Ohio River.
Wedged between the rivers and the hills, the towns are similarly caught between the remaining industrial operations and the otherwise increasingly derelict industrial landscape. For every resident who boasted to me about her town’s architecture or community, another would offer warnings about the “bad” part of town or lament the moribund central business district. Braddock continues to capture headlines for its attempts at creative revitalization, but it is easy to see how many residents interpret continuing depopulation and unemployment as foretelling a more desperate future.
There are reasons for some optimism. Pittsburgh is undergoing a renaissance, a few towns are successfully capitalizing on their historic character, and the rivers offer an undeniable beauty. Still, as even the power plants wind down their operations, it’s easy to see how so many are dispirited about the future of the outlying towns.
The following images are selections from my excursions along with a few Pittsburgh images. As always, you can view more photographs on flickr.