As change moves in, Irishtown residents treasure history, hope to preserve neighborhood

Kathy Rutherford stood outside the Barrel House Gardens, which sit on the site of a late aunt's home and near a former church she attended as a child.
Kathy Rutherford stood outside the Barrel House Gardens, which sit on the site of a late aunt's home and near a former church she attended as a child.

Irishtown, the neighborhood just west of downtown Lexington along Manchester Street, has long been criticized.

"Valley of Neglect," a series of articles published in a 1980 issue of the Lexington Leader, describes the area bluntly as, "the worst pocket of poverty in Lexington."

To its residents, however, the neighborhood is more than a place to live; it is the place they proudly call home.

Cousins Roland Taylor and Kathy Rutherford are two such folks. They have spent their childhoods and much of their adult lives living in Irishtown. In case their red hair doesn't give it away, both are descended from some of the original Irish settlers of the area, Samuel and Jane Ritchie, who immigrated to Lexington from Dublin in the late 1700s.

Rutherford concedes that the area has not always seemed attractive from the outside. She said, "This has been a poor neighborhood; there was a lot of trouble and a lot of, you know, violence and stuff when I was a child."

Taylor is equally as open. "I'm not going to sit here and blow smoke. We've had our ups and downs," he said.

In 2007, a Distillery District was proposed in the area. The idea was to "turn a series of industrial warehouses and buildings along Manchester Street, immediately west of Rupp Arena, into an arts and entertainment corridor — boosting downtown's revitalization efforts and paying homage to Lexington's bourbon heritage," an article in the Herald-Leader stated.

While developers, nonprofit workers and city officials have wanted to help assuage the problems of poverty and neglect in the area, the question in residents' minds is whether the new ventures are doing more harm than good.

Kelly Bakehorn and her partner, Jill Bakehorn, are the owners of The Barrel House, an event space on Manchester Street that faces the Irishtown houses.

"It was very dirty, overgrown, with piles of rubble everywhere," Kelly Bakehorn said of the spot where her business now resides. The decision to locate a business there wasn't, at least at the time, part of a bigger vision of revitalization, she said. "We made the choice (of location) primarily because of the proximity to downtown and the space available," Kelly Bakehorn said.

The business has grown considerably in the last three years as the duo has added event spaces called The Grand Reserve, and The Barrel House Gardens, adjacent to the original Barrel House space on Manchester Street.

When asked about nearby residents, Kelly Bakehorn said, "They pretty much keep to themselves."

Unfortunately, residents cannot always say the same of party-goers who frequent Manchester Street businesses. Taylor told this story: "One night Sister Jo White (his neighbor) was up reading her Bible, and a young man who had been drinking across the street decided it would be funny to go up and take a pee off her porch.

"A couple of neighborhood men saw him and put a stop to it. You can bet he didn't try that again."

Habitat for Humanity has invested resources in the area. The first house the organization ever built in Lexington was in Irishtown, on Willard Street, 25 years ago. This month, ground was broken on two more houses on the same street — one of which will be dedicated as a "25-year anniversary house" to commemorate Habitat's work in the city.

Ben Woodard, one of Lexington Habitat's original board members, remembers the first house built in Irishtown.

"A lot of neighbors didn't want it, and there was a race aspect to it. Irishtown was a primarily white neighborhood, and we were giving the house to a black couple," he said.

Rutherford and Taylor disagreed with Woodard's recollection.

"It's not a race issue," Rutherford said. "We have nothing against people of different color. At the time, it was that people didn't understand why the new houses weren't being given to Irishtown families who desperately needed them and already lived there."

The Habitat house now under construction is not for a current resident of Irishtown but for a refugee family from the Congo. But integrating Irishtown is not the goal of Habitat, said Lexington Habitat CEO Rachel Childress.

"We didn't set out to do that. Our mission is that everyone has a decent place to live. We just focus on that," Childress said.

Discrimination based on ethnicity is something Irishtown residents have long been subject to. Taylor remembers his elementary schoolteachers making disparaging remarks about his relatives and him.

"'The Irishtown Special' is what they'd call our school bus," he said.

He also recounted a story told to him by his Aunt Berthie Travis Hulett. "Aunt Berthie would walk to town for errands and get stopped by police. They'd say, 'You're from Irishtown, ain't you? Well, don't walk up Main Street. You walk up Vine.'"

Taylor also remembers his mother, who was from "outside," telling him how people were upset when she was dating Taylor's father, an Irishtowner.

"They'd say to her, 'Why are you dating someone from down there?'" said Taylor. "I don't live 'down' anywhere," he said. "I live right here."

"Right here" is where Taylor and Rutherford intend to stay as far as they can see. The only fear they have for the neighborhood is that many of the houses will be torn down in the wake of new developments or go the way of many before them and be reconstructed into businesses, such as the old Manchester Community Center, which is now Dogtown Lexington — a boarding and grooming facility for pets.

"It's really gone to the dogs now!" joked Rutherford, with a half-smile. Taylor laughed.

Deborah Hensley, who was an Urban County Council representative for the area from 1986 to 1992, knows the challenges that face the neighborhood and those who'd like to help it. She suggested that those who want to change the place should put "down your briefcase" and really get to know the residents there first.

"I'll never forget this one (Irishtown) woman," she said, "who looked at me and said, 'Don't come down here with your rose-colored glasses and think that you can change the world.'"

That approach of getting to really know the residents seems to be working with a couple of local churches in the area. Rutherford, for one, has been a long-time volunteer at the Irishtown Baptist Ministries Center. The churchlike building is almost as old as the community itself at 140 years. Every Sunday at 3 p.m., services are held for Irishtown residents, and on Mondays, food is delivered and handed out to the needy.

Another nonprofit in the community is the nearby Nathaniel Mission, which serves members of Irishtown and Davis Bottom.

Pastor David MacFarland of Nathaniel Mission said "most emphatically" that the mission's work was respected and well-received by the community. He credits this to the fact that the mission is "woven into the fabric of people's lives" and noted that Nathaniel Mission had been serving the area since 1940, providing everything from church services to doctor visits for the residents.

While ministries like these are helping residents of Irishtown, what will happen to the neighborhood's identity as a historically significant part of Lexington remains to be seen. There are no pressing development issues, but some residents are resistant to the idea that the neighborhood somehow needs to change.

In the past, outspoken Irishtown residents such as Margaret Davis and Mildred McCullough, who have been credited by Hensley and Taylor as key in preventing the Newtown Pike extension (now Oliver Lewis Way) from being routed straight through Irishtown, helped the area maintain its identity in the public eye. Both were politically active, and McCullough was even affectionately referred to as "the mayor of Irishtown." Both women have died. It's unclear whether the next generation will fight for their roots in the same fashion.

Taylor's platform is simple and clear. "I would like to see the name preserved," he said. "Zoning for the houses to be kept. I don't think the city's going to do that ... I doubt I'll ever get this wish, but I'd love to see a sign extending over Manchester Street saying 'Irishtown.' Not a banner, not something plastic, not something that would fall apart."

Rutherford noted a desire to see improved housing with priority going to needy Irishtown families who don't want to leave their neighborhood, instead of consistently giving new housing in the area to families from other neighborhoods. Both agree change is inevitable, but they would like the city to be conscious of how.

Hensley might have put it best when she said in reference to the changing neighborhood, "These people have deep roots and have left a long and deep impression on me — one that is overall very positive. This is a neighborhood with a long history, and it is not to be forgotten."

Some historic details about Irishtown

Shamrock Club: A group of men from Irishtown would meet together to discuss business, politics, and pass down stories and traditions in order to preserve their Irish heritage. They called themselves "The Shamrock Club."

Billy Goat Stretch: At the end of Perry Street, which is now a vacant lot, there used to be a watering well for livestock. Town folk would bring their goats, sheep, cows, and chickens down to the spot to drink — hence earning it the name "Billy Goat Stretch."

Lincoln Elementary School: Irishtown used to be home to the Lincoln Elementary School, situated where the Versailles Road viaduct now exists. The school was torn down to make room for the viaduct, and also as part of an "integration initiative." Kathy Rutherford was once a student there.

Stone walls in Lexington: Many of the limestone fences seen around the Bluegrass were the art of Irish stone masons who settled here in the 1800s. Many of them lived in Irishtown.

Bootlegging industry: During the Prohibition era, Irishtown was a famous source of bootleg liquor. It was not uncommon to see expensive cars roll through the area to stop at a designated speakeasy house to obtain booze from the Irish.

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