Tom Eblen

Transy class introduces students to North Limestone neighbors

Transylvania University and the North Limestone neighborhood sit side by side — and worlds apart.

Kurt Gohde, a Transy art professor, and Kremena Todorova, an English professor, are trying to do something about that. For the past three years, they have taught a class called Community Engagements Through the Arts. It's not an art class or an English class. The dozen or so students each year have come from a variety of majors.

"The original idea was that at Transy we needed to be better neighbors to our neighbors," Gohde said. "We don't have a lot of windows on that side of campus — just a lot of fences."

Both the university and the neighborhood have been there for two centuries, and both have had good times and bad. The neighborhood, one of Lexington's most racially and economically diverse, declined in the 1950s and '60s as residents moved to the suburbs.

But in the past decade, many young people have been attracted to the neighborhood's rich diversity and affordable stock of old homes worth restoring — from once-elegant brick mansions to Victorian frame shotgun houses.

An active neighborhood association has worked hard to clean up the area while embracing the many poor people who live there. Three new community gardens are being planted on city-owned lots along North Limestone. Once-seedy Al's Bar at North Limestone and East Sixth Street is now one of Lexington's coolest places. Duncan Park has a new summer concert stage.

Still, most North Limestone residents are much different culturally and economically from their neighbors at the private liberal-arts college.

"We want the students to gain an awareness of people who are very close to them that they know so little about," Todorova said. "We want them to learn how they can connect with people who are not like them. It's not easy."

The Community Engagements class started meeting at Al's Bar, moved to a community center last year, and has met this year in a commercial building being restored at North Limestone and Loudon Avenue.

The first year, the class put together a film exploring misconceptions about the neighborhood. Last year, students organized a show of residents' eclectic collections at Transylvania's art gallery.

This year, students worked with residents and others to make nearly 50 colorful quilts that are on display at X Furniture, 760 North Limestone, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Sunday.

The quilts will be donated to Build A Bed, an organization trying to gather 2,000 volunteers in Frankfort on May 8 and 9 to build 500 twin-size beds and prepare "bedtime bags" with linens and toiletries for Kentucky children who need them. (For more info: www.build-a-bed.org.)

The class held five "quilting bees" this winter with neighborhood residents and other Transy students. The project's energy was contagious: One student's family made several quilts, as did Arturo Sandoval's art students at the University of Kentucky and children at James Lane Allen Elementary School.

"We found that it was a great way to spend time with people and tell stories," Gohde said. In addition to making quilts, the students interviewed residents about neighborhood history and lore.

Some students come to the class wanting to "help" the neighborhood, but that's not the point. "We're looking for ways to connect with and understand the neighborhood," Todorova said. "If anything, we're helping ourselves by educating ourselves."

Resident Archie Turner has faithfully attended each class, as has neighborhood association president Marty Clifford, a candidate for the Urban County Council's 1st District seat.

"It has been not only a good thing for the community but for the students," Clifford said. "It has given everyone a different perspective. There are a lot of hidden jewels in this community that have been covered up by some of the negative things in the past."

Student Austyn Gaffney, a sophomore from Bowling Green, said she will always remember the 98-year-old African-American lady she met who has told her stories about how the neighborhood and Lexington have changed over the decades.

"Without this class, I don't think I would have been challenged to do that," she said. "It's a start toward building better relationships."

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