Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Just Finished Reading

What's better than reading history about your local community? Well, the only thing I can of is reading history about your local community that has largely been forgotten because it has been removed. That is the story that author Douglas A. Boyd tells well in Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community.

If you visit Frankfort today there in not much of anything left of Crawfish Bottom, aka Crawdad Bottom, aka Craw, aka The Craw, aka The Bottom; Frankfort's most notorious neighborhood from after the Civil War until it was wiped away by urban renewal in the late 1960s. Where there used to be streets, houses, bars, businesses, civic clubs, brothels, and community, there is now a concrete high-rise tower, a concrete plaza and parking garage, a hotel, a civic center name for the man who spearheaded the renewal, and a federal building. Now long gone is the crime and poor housing, and flooding, but along with all of those undesirable things also went many of the relationships and the sense of community that bonded this close knit neighborhood together.

Craw started in the years after the Civil War when Kentucky African Americans newly freed from slavery began to flock to urban centers in search of economic opportunity, solidarity, and group protection. But, not only former slaves lived in Craw, poor whites that couldn't afford better locations in town also called the flood prone area home. Added to this integrated mix were the families of those incarcerated in the Kentucky state penitentiary, which was only a few blocks away. Many men when released stayed in Frankfort and made Craw their home too.

To frame his book Boyd used a plethora of oral history accounts that were conducted by Jim Wallace in the 1990s for a graduate history project. To supplement these oral histories Boyd also used numerous newspaper accounts, police records, and photographic evidence, but it is the oral histories that stand out.

It was interesting to read different people give diverse stories and differing accounts of their experience in Craw. When asked for what they remembered as the boundaries of the neighborhood some agreed with each other, but others didn't. When asked about violence in Craw, some interviewees said they didn't remember it being a dangerous places, but others declared that it often was. What the people seemed to remember the most though were, in fact, the people and places that made it a unique community. They remembered Underwood-Mayo school, the neighborhood segregated school and the care and attention the teachers provided. They remembered the Tiger Inn Cafe and the good times shared there with the owner. They remembered the white Ida Howard, who ran a brothel, but was a cherished member of the neighborhood because of her kindness. They remembered African American James 'Squeezer" Brown, a WWI veteran, and how he played the guitar and banjo and gave away any extra money he had to neighborhood kids in the form of candy and treats. And, they remembered the temperamental John Fallis, "The King of Craw," who had a shootout with the city police in 1921. Sadly, many of the relationships formed in Craw went away when the buildings were leveled.

This book was a real page turner for me. I only wish Crawfish Bottom would have explored more the years of the Civil Rights Movement - the years when urban renewal was changing an already mixed neighborhood. I would have liked to have read more about the politics involved in erasing this community and replacing it with a modern concrete monstrosity.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in local history, oral history and community stories. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give Crawfish Bottom a 4.75.

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