Before sociologists defined it, East End lived 'new urbanism'

September 1, 2013 

Ed Holmes in front of the Chestnut Street house he owns. Holmes, an urban planner, worked on the East End Small Area Plan and remains involved in the neighborhood.


I have enjoyed the East End neighborhood since I moved to Lexington in the late '70s.

It was not only located close to things I valued — like churches, basketball, clubs and other social activities — but also offered other social and physical amenities that I wanted as I transitioned from college to my first job.

I was moving to a city where I knew no one, and this neighborhood offered me the sense of a community and the ability to interact with people of my own race.

The East End was a haven that reminded me of some of the neighborhoods we had worked in as students at the University of Cincinnati in our urban design studio.

It was a neighborhood in transition with the same problems most black urban areas were experiencing: public and private disinvestment, the perception of high crime, blighted housing and deteriorating infrastructure.

I met my wife, Brenda, who was born and raised in the East End. Once married, we found an abandoned structure that had character and represented the people who exemplified what the East End was in its heyday.

Our house on Chestnut Street was known as Dr. Jones House, for a black doctor in Lexington. Before him, a lesser-known black jockey named Christy lived there.

The East End was where families were raised; Charles Young and the Chestnut Street YWCA were where you could go for recreation; Third Street was the retail core of the neighborhood with grocery stores, barber shops, insurance, hardware and ice cream stores. Race Street was our entertainment district. Chestnut and other streets were where doctors, teachers, attorneys, principals and others lived. Families and friends looked after each other.

The East End evolved into a mixed-use neighborhood more by accident than by design, because several pockets of non-conforming land use were allowed to exist, such as auto salvage yards, scrap yards, incompatible housing and some extreme substandard housing.

Yet the neighborhood thrived and, with a strong base of churches like Shiloh and Greater Liberty Baptist, a foundation for a neighborhood with "good bones" existed.

Today planners would call it a "new urbanist neighborhood," but I called it a neighborhood where everyone co-existed and worked to instill a level of community pride and social cohesiveness. East End was way before its time in the evolution of neighborhood planning and design.

It was home for us and our two kids for nearly 17 years. As the years went by many of our older neighbors died. Gradually their homes became rental property and the nurturing neighborhood that had embraced us and our children changed into one where transient residents and, sometimes, less than desirable activity were more common.

Although we made a decision to move out of the neighborhood, I applaud and deeply respect those who remained and continue to work for the betterment of the community, as well as new residents who have taken up the enormous mission of moving the neighborhood forward.

Those efforts include the Roots and Heritage Festival, which grew out of the Ohio Chestnut Street Neighborhood Association and its desire to shine light on the cultural and historic contributions of the African-American community.

Significant changes, both positive and negative, have taken place in the East End the past several years. The Williams Wells Brown community school, Charles Young Center, renovation of the Lyric Theatre, Art in Motion bus shelter, Equestrian View housing development, Community Ventures Plantory, Urban League housing and office development, Elm Tree Lane Housing, University of Kentucky Clinic, East End Small Area Plan and other investments have been accomplished against the backdrop of increasing crime, drugs and a continued lack of sustainable retail development.

Design does not create successful neighborhoods, people ultimately make a neighborhood great.

In the East End, form really does follow function. That can probably be attributed to the social and cultural dynamics of black and African-American communities, which may not work in other neighborhoods. These are the things that initially attracted me to this neighborhood, and continue to capture a great deal of my time to help it regain some of the magic that made it successful.

It will take more to rebuild the East End than it took for it to decline. We must work much more aggressively to reverse the decline and create an environment where positive things can grow and thrive.

The small area plan calls for redevelopment that encourages the historic pattern of mixed-use and mixed-income development. As we work toward those goals we should do everything in our political and persuasive powers to minimize displacement of existing residents and businesses.

We need champions with a vision of creativity and entrepreneurship to continue the vision.

Recreating the past of the East End is not what we are striving for, but it is not acceptable to say that a community located less than three blocks from Main Street in Lexington cannot succeed.

Urban planner Ed Holmes worked on the East End Small Area Plan.

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