Tales from the bottom

The new issue of Denison Magazine is arriving at homes all over the country next week, so we thought we’d give you a little sneak peek. Here’s an excerpt from one of our feature stories, written by Linda Vaccariello, executive editor at Cincinnati Magazine.  A few months ago, she headed down to Kentucky to visit Doug Boyd ’92 and get the scoop on a Frankfort neighborhood that has long-since perished … but its stories live on.

On a gray winter day, Doug Boyd ’92 is in Frankfort, Kentucky, the state’s compact capital city. He knows this place well—or at least, he knows what it used to be. He’s the director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky and author of the new book, Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community, which details the history of a 19th-century Frankfort neighborhood wiped out by 20th-century urban renewal. He heads downhill—north, away from tree-lined streets and handsome brick homes with bronze plaques that mark spots where great moments in Kentucky history took place. When he crosses the railroad tracks that border the historic downtown, he stops. Before urban renewal, “The contrast must have been great,” Boyd says. “We are literally on the other side of the tracks. In fact, some people attribute the phrase to this town.”

What’s on the other side of the tracks these days is the Capital Plaza Complex—a broad plaza, a slender office tower, a hotel and convention center, a YMCA, state office buildings, and a park tucked behind the levee that keeps the Kentucky River from sluicing through the streets when it floods.

What used to be here, in this low land along the Kentucky River, was the community called Crawfish Bottom. The city began clearing the area for redevelopment in 1958—a long process that continued into the 1970s and ended when the last vestiges were replaced by the Kentucky Transportation Building in the 1990s. “Fifty acres were wiped out,” Boyd says, surveying the scene of concrete and glass. Wild tales about the raucous lives lived here have piqued the interest of Kentuckians for years. But there’s universality to that curiosity—or at least there should be, says Boyd. “Almost every city had a place like this and razed it.”

French dramatist Jean Cocteau once wrote that history is a combination of reality and fable. “The reality of history becomes a lie,” Cocteau said. “The unreality of the fable becomes the truth.” For Boyd, both the “reality” of the historical record and the “fables”—the memories of those who lived in a time and place, and the folklore about that place—are all important if you want to understand history.

And that’s what he has tried to do in Crawfish Bottom. “This book is … about the process of balancing memory—the different tensions in creating the story that people came to know,” he says. Crawfish Bottom was, in its time, a spot notorious for crime and poverty. That was a reputation that persisted long after the land was transformed by concrete and steel. But in 1991, Frankfort historian Jim Wallace located and interviewed former residents of the neighborhood. The oral histories that he collected painted a picture of a functional, tight-knit community that was broken apart—and never mended—by urban renewal. In his new book, Boyd has used those interviews, along with traditional historical sources, to create a deeper understanding of a complicated place.

For more on Crawfish Bottom and Boyd’s work, keep an eye out for Denison Magazine, arriving in mailboxes this week.

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