Change is coming, but not to memories

For nearly 40 years, there has been talk of building the Newtown Pike Extension through Davis Bottom, sometimes called Davistown, one of the poorest communities in Lexington.

So for nearly 40 years, as other neighborhoods with substandard housing received upgrades, the possibility of Davis Bottom's being razed because of the road project kept conditions there deplorable.

Walls of homes were slanted, indoor plumbing was suspect, and landlords were unconcerned.

It has long been the community Lexington forgot.

Despite that, about 16 families live, overlooked, in the long shadows cast by Rupp Arena and the newer developments planned for downtown.

But what those families lack in amenities is more than trumped by a community cohesion other neighborhoods sorely lack.

"I am impressed with how connected the people are and the networks," said Juliana McDonald of the University of Kentucky department of anthropology. "There have been a lot of comings and goings, but there is a core group of people still there.

"They remember a coal yard down there and the junk yard. There is all this connection that people would not realize about that community. It is a neighborhood that has been there about 140 years."

Despite the poverty, the history is rich. And despite the lingering neglect, McDonald and others want Davis Bottom to be remembered for that richness.

She is working with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government to piece together an oral history of Davis Bottom that will complement the archival one.

She is asking residents and former residents to recount their memories of growing up in or visiting Davis Bottom, or their recollections of stories their parents or grandparents told.

If there are pictures, news clippings, cards, letters or other memorabilia of bygone days in the Bottom, she would love to see them.

McDonald wants to make an audio recording of those memories and copy the artifacts for a manuscript that will make Davis Bottom unforgettable in the future, despite the drastic changes that are afoot.

The oral history project is yet another aspect of the Newtown Pike Extension that is totally unlike any other road project that has been undertaken in Lexington and maybe the state.

Instead of bulldozing homes without regard to the lives of residents, local, state and federal agencies are taking great pains to preserve the community aspect of the Bottom.

Bureaucrats began reaching out to residents more than six years ago, listening to their concerns, and formulating ideas and projects to preserve the cohesion and sense of connectivity that has kept some residents living there for decades, albeit in substandard conditions.

Project members came to realize what residents already knew: There's something special about Davis Bottom.

According to a history that Tanya A. Faberson wrote two years ago for the project, in 1865 Lexington attorney Willard Davis owned 43 lots in what is now Davis Bottom. He sold several narrow lots — each big enough for a shotgun-type house — to blacks after the Civil War ended.

By 1873, the city directory listed several African-Americans as residents of Davistown.

It was one of the slowest black communities to develop in Lexington, perhaps because of its location in damp, poorly drained lowlands near railroad tracks.

About the same time, a poor white neighborhood called Irishtown developed north of Davis Bottom. Most of its inhabitants were working-class Irish who had fled the potato famine in their homeland.

There was conflict between the two communities as residents of both competed for the same jobs, but they shared a bond: They both were looked down on by others.

As people prospered and moved away, Davis Bottom became more racially integrated with people who moved to Lexington from Appalachia.

Economic standards didn't improve, though, because the mountain immigrants were stereotyped as well.

For decades, study after study revealed substandard housing, higher dropout rates and increasing crime in Davis Bottom, but little was done to help residents.

So finally in 1970, residents of Davis Bottom, Irishtown and nearby South Hill went before the City Commission and asked for upgrades to their neighborhoods.

That was the same year, however, that a Newtown Pike Extension was proposed.

Eventually, Irishtown received improvements and some new housing units. But Davis Bottom got only a resurfaced road.

Now, 38 years later, with many of the same residents still there, Davis Bottom will be revitalized.

"As one can ascertain for the historic context of the community, Davis Bottoms may have always struggled with poverty, neglect and even racial divides, but the neighborhood has always been rich in community ties," Faberson wrote in "An Archival History of the Proposed Newtown Pike Extension."

"The residents may have changed, businesses and schools may have come and gone, and houses may have been razed, but rather than being a reflection of how a community failed, Davis Bottoms is a reflection of how the cityscape has transformed over time and how living, breathing people have had to adapt to and negotiate with those transformations."

It is those "living, breathing people" that McDonald wants to talk to. She wants a history of the Bottom that only those who lived or visited there can provide.

"It's been a warm experience getting to know the people down there," McDonald said. "They are proud of their community, and I want everyone to see that. I just think it is a good thing to do for a good bunch of people."