In Paducah, Artists Create Something From Nothing

Aug 9, 2013
Originally published on August 9, 2013 12:06 pm

How do you fix a neighborhood? What do you do about crime and drugs and the once-lovely old houses that are falling down? The answer in Paducah, Ky., was to turn it into a special place for artists to live, work and sell.

Paducah, already home to the National Quilt Museum, is far west on the edge of Kentucky, on the Ohio River. Lowertown, so-named for being downriver from downtown Paducah, was once quite elegant — 25 square blocks. But in time it became a difficult place to admire.

Bill and Patience Renzulli came to Paducah from Maryland for the first time in 2001 after seeing an ad in an art magazine for the neighborhood's Artist Relocation Program. At first glance, Bill says the scene of the neighborhood was awful.

"But I don't know... I felt something," he says. "There was a spark and I thought that something good could happen."

On their visit, The Renzullis were dismayed by condemned buildings, grand Victorian homes chopped up into apartments, drug use, crack sales and prostitution. But in 2000, the city decided this would become the Lowertown Arts District. The message: "We'll sell you an empty lot for a dollar. If there's a house worth fixing — try that — same price." The Paducah Bank agreed to help.

"Within a year there were about eight people that signed up and the next year it was 16 and it just, it grew geometrically," Bill Renzulli says. "It was unbelievable."

Bill Renzulli, once a doctor, is now a printmaker, with a studio and gallery in back of his house. When Paducah started this movement the town was aggressive. Extra policing. Houses demolished. Foreclosures almost immediate. Vacancies became opportunities, and so the new people came.

The idea for the Arts District was simple: You can live here, you can work here and you can sell your art here.

Opportunity Awaits

Freda Fairchild used to teach costume design in San Diego. When she moved to Lowertown, she's converted a former plumbing shop and became a print maker and fiber artist. Her studio epitomizes the sexiest word for artists everywhere: space.

"Most people who come here from other states, other places and they walk into my studio they start drooling. It's 28-by-34 feet," she says. "The tables are on wheels. It's a wonderful studio space."

Many of the Lowertown artists sell their work out of town. Freda Fairchild deals with several galleries, even some in other countries.

"If I make something, eventually somebody buys it," she says. "I think that's a cool way to live. I love it. I just do what I want to do. But surprisingly, since I moved here I've sold a lot of work locally."

Artist Paul Lorenz had been looking for a challenge. He drove into Paducah not knowing anything about the city, and happened upon a movie theater that was playing the Mexican film, Y Tu Mamá También, which is one of Lorenz's favorite films.

"And I'm in this little town in Kentucky and they're showing an X-rated Mexican film," he says. "You know, it's like 'I could live here, this is kind of interesting.' "

Now, Lorenz sells his oil paintings and drawings from Lowertown. Originally from Chicago, Lorenz then moved to Berkeley, Calif. where he owned what he calls a tiny condo. He sold the condo for enough money to move to Paducah and built a studio, gallery and his house next door. He even built a guest studio out back.

That sort of equity is often what makes a move to Lowertown work out.

But Shand Stamper and her husband Mitch came with only a trailer full of stuff. Both now teach high school art. They have a new baby. They've bought and redone a small house. The city gave them the adjacent lot for a studio and wood-fired kiln.

"I feel very safe here," Shand Stamper says "I feel helpful. I feel like I have something to offer. And we have a Lowertown Neighborhood Association, which is primarily artists, and it feels like an extended family."

The new Lowertown does seem friendly and is said to be safe. Kids play outside, dogs run around happily, retired couples relax on porches. Six years ago, Allan and Johanna Rhodes drove from a different neighborhood to Lowertown to take a walk. Afterwards, Johanna wanted to move to Lowertown.

"And I said, 'What is it we're going to do in Lowertown?' Since we're not artists, we thought you had to be an artist," Allan Rhodes says, "And we walked a little bit and she said 'Well, we'll have a coffee shop, 'cause we like to drink coffee and we'll have a student art gallery, a place for students to hang art.' And I said, 'Well, at sounds like a great idea,' thinking this will never happen."

They now live upstairs over their coffee shop.

Steve Doolittle, a Paducah city planner, is pleased that new money is coming to Lowertown. Much of it not related to the arts.

"It is now a neighborhood where local people are happy to invest," he says. "We've seen some of the most expensive housing in Paducah has now been built in this neighborhood. That would not have happened but for the Artists Relocation."

Paducah spent nine million dollars over 13 years to clean up Lowertown, Doolittle says on things like new lighting, sidewalks and keeping the empty lots mowed. But he pointed out the private regular people investment in Lowertown now exceeds $40 million.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

How do you fix a neighborhood? What do you do about crime and drugs and the once-lovely old houses that are falling down? The answer for Paducah, Kentucky was to become a special place for artists to live and work and sell their work. NPR's Noah Adams has the story as part of our summertime series on Comebacks: People, Places, and Things that are once again doing just fine.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: Paducah is far west on the edge of Kentucky, on the Ohio River. And if you get there at lunchtime - stop by Kirchhoff's Bakery and Deli and line up to order a sandwich. When it's ready - they'll call your number.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ninety-four.

ADAMS: This bakery goes back to 1873.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ninety-five. Chicken salad sandwich.

ADAMS: And in those early days at Kirchoff's, they'd hear the whistle of the approaching riverboats and send a runner down to the dock to take orders for bread.

Downtown Paducah is full of frontier business history and the merchant class back then - the bankers, store owners, riverboat captains - they all lived a few streets away in Lowertown. It was an elegant neighborhood, 25 square blocks. But in time it became a difficult place to admire.

BILL RENZULLI: We came here in 2001 for the first time to look at it, and it was awful. But I don't know, we saw - I felt something. And I just - there was a spark and I thought that something good could happen.

ADAMS: Back in Maryland, Bill Renzulli had seen an ad in an art magazine. It said we'll help you come to Paducah; we've started an artist relocation program. On their visit, Bill and his wife Patience were dismayed by condemned buildings, the grand Victorian homes chopped up into apartments, drug use, crack sales, prostitution.

But the city in 2000 had decided this would become the Lowertown Arts District. The message was: We'll sell you an empty lot for a dollar. If there's a house worth fixing, try that - same price. The Paducah Bank agreed to help.

RENZULLI: Within a year there were about eight people that signed up and the next year it was 16 and it just, it grew geometrically. It was unbelievable.

ADAMS: Bill Renzulli - once a doctor - is now a printmaker, with a studio and gallery in back of his house. Paducah, when all this started was aggressive. Extra police. Houses demolished. Foreclosures almost immediate. Vacancies turned into opportunities, and so the new people came. The idea for the Arts District: you can live here, you can work here, you can sell your art here.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS)

FREDA FAIRCHILD: I'm Freda Fairchild. I'm a print maker and a fiber artist.

ADAMS: Freda Fairchild had been teaching costume design in San Diego. In Lowertown she's converted a former plumbing shop. And to see it brings up the truly sexy word for all artists everywhere - space.

FAIRCHILD: Most people who come here from other states, other places, and they walk into my studio, they start drooling. It's 28 by 34 feet. And the tables are on wheels. It's a wonderful studio space.

ADAMS: Many of the Lowertown artists sell their work out of town. Freda Fairchild deals with several galleries, even some in other countries.

FAIRCHILD: If I make something, eventually somebody buys it. I think that's a cool way to live, I love it. I just do what I want to do. But surprisingly, since I moved here I've sold a lot of work locally.

PAUL LORENZ: I drove into Paducah not knowing anything about it and I drove downtown.

ADAMS: The artist Paul Lorenz had been looking for a challenge.

LORENZ: And there's a movie theater, and on the marquee is the Mexican film "Y Tu Mama Tambien," which is one of my favorite films. And I'm in this little town in Kentucky and they're showing an X-rated Mexican film. You know, it's like I could live here. This is kind of interesting.

ADAMS: Paul Lorenz now sells his oil paintings and drawings from Lowertown. He's from Chicago, then Berkeley in the Bay Area, where he owned what he calls a tiny condo. He sold that for enough to come here and build a studio and gallery and his house next door, even a guest studio out back. That sort of equity is often what makes a Lowertown move work out.

But Shand Stamper and her husband Mitch came with only a trailer full of stuff. Both now teach high school art. They have a new baby. They've bought and redone a small house and the city gave them the adjacent lot for a studio and wood-fired kiln.

SHAND STAMPER: I feel very safe here. I feel helpful. I feel like I have something to offer. And we have a Lowertown neighborhood association which is primarily artists, and it feels like an extended family.

ADAMS: The new Lowertown does seem friendly and is said to be safe. Kids out playing, dogs happy, retired couples on porches. Six years ago, Allan Rhodes and Johanna were walking in Lowertown - they lived in a different neighborhood - and she said let's move here.

ALLAN RHODES: And I said, well, what is it we're going to do in Lowertown since we're not artists? And we thought you had to be an artist. And we walked a bit and she said, well, we'll have a coffee shop because we like to drink coffee and we'll have a student art gallery, a place for students to hang art. And I said, well, that sounds like a great idea, thinking this will never happen.

ADAMS: Allan Rhodes and Johanna now live upstairs over their coffee shop. And we sit with Allan at a shaded table by a fountain out back. Steve Doolittle - a Paducah city planner - is with us. He's pleased that new money is coming to Lowertown - much of it not related to the arts.

STEVE DOOLITTLE: It is now a neighborhood where local people are happy to invest. We've seen some of the most expensive housing in Paducah has now been built in this neighborhood. That would not have happened but for the artists relocation program.

ADAMS: Steve Doolittle says Paducah spent $9 million to clean up Lowertown - new lighting, sidewalks, keep the empty lots mowed - nine million over 13 years. But he liked to point out the private regular people investment in Lowertown now exceeds $40 million. Noah Adams, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.