Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community. By Douglas A. Boyd. (2011. Pp. 220. $35.00. Hardcover. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 663 South Limestone Street, Lexington KY 40508-4008. www.kentuckypress.com) ISBN: 978-0-8131-3408-6.
As a former resident of Craw (‘Craw’ or ‘The Bottom’ – we never called it ‘Crawfish Bottom’), I ran the whole gamut of emotions when I read this book. I had hoped the book would tell a different story than the one it told. The first part of the book shows in scholarly detail, using maps, quotes, newspaper accounts, police reports, etc., how Craw gained its reputation as a dangerous, disgraceful place where the residents were former prison inmates, prostitutes, bootleggers or murderers. I won’t dispute the reputation of Craw. There were unsavory characters and activities in Craw, BUT from the title, Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community, I expected that the “other side of Craw” would get equal time.
In a very small section of the Introduction, the author gives recognition to the struggles and hard work experienced by the residents of the area. About past published accounts of Craw, the author writes: “…documentation mostly focused on the numerous criminal incidents that occurred, the dreadful poverty of the residents and the repeated flooding of the neighborhood. The residents of this neighborhood observed the same extraordinary events and individuals presented by these narrowly focused newspaper accounts; they knew the long history of civic and moral sins committed within the neighborhood. However, residents perceived Craw from a perspective different from the view shaped by the reputation imposed upon them. Residents witnessed firsthand the unfolding of everyday life combining in the routine formation of community. They raised and educated children in Craw; went to work to earn their survival in Craw; passed the time with friends and family in Craw; worshipped, laughed, loved, and died and mourned together in Craw.”
Along with the “bad” neighbors, I wanted equal recognition for the people who went out to work every day – some to work as domestics in others’ homes, some as laborers, educators, cooks, servers, railroad workers, distillery workers, etc. They married, raised families, owned businesses, attended church, taught or attended school, used and supported a library, belonged to benevolent societies, etc. What about Mayo-Underwood High School, Corinthian Baptist Church, the Oddfellows Building and the Tiger’s Inn that were the educational, religious and social centers of the community? What of Jackson Robb, Professor Mayo, Dr. E. E. Underwood, the ministers at Corinthian Baptist, First Baptist and St. John A.M.E., the teachers at Mayo-Underwood and other well respected members of the community? Even though they were mentioned repeatedly by the residents, only a couple of pages in Chapter 3-Contesting Public Memory- gave recognition to these people and institutions and what they represented to the community. [ii]
The references in Chapter 3 come with the implication that the interviewer framed questions in a manner that would lead the interviewee to only give a positive answer, i.e. ““When you remember Bottom, what comes to mind?” – is framed in response to his [former] declarative preface to the question; Gill immediately and adamantly refuses Craw’s bad reputation and addresses only the closeness and cohesiveness of her community, despite its poverty.” The author states, “Still, although the interviewer’s question is framed in a leading manner and clearly reveals a bias, certainly influencing Gill’s choice of possible answers to the question “What comes to mind?” her response conforms to those given by the overwhelming majority of individuals interviewed about the neighborhood. This is no surprise, since a generally nostalgic, neighbor-centered historical tone commonly pervades community based oral history projects.”[iii]
Regarding race relations in the area: “Throughout the project, former residents consistently claimed fairly harmonious race relations. Further investigative research could surely have identified numerous incidents of racial discord and perhaps undermined public memory as expressed by former residents…”[iv] Why not accept the residents’ word on this? There was certainly no problem accepting their word concerning the bad activities in the area. Special emphasis was put on the interviewees’ comments about violence and lawlessness while comments about closeness, neighborliness and safety were downplayed or made to appear like a false memory. For example: addressing the comments made on feeling safe in Craw: “On some level, the memories of former residents of Craw are caught in what historian Stephanie Coontz terms the “nostalgia trap”, remembering a safer past reality than ever actually existed.”[v] Thus consigning all positive comments to nostalgia or poorly framed leading questions by the interviewer.
Photographs used in the book, which were taken in 1913, hoped to demonstrate that houses in this area were the worst of the worst[vi]. Admittedly, most of the houses in the area were in poor condition and needed to be torn down, but there were some decent houses in Craw. “In 1958, the Slum Clearance and Redevelopment Agency of the City of Frankfort, Kentucky contracted Jack C. Hulette, real estate appraiser, of Jack Hulette Reality Co., Frankfort, Kentucky, to conduct property assessments of several blocks located in North Frankfort, Kentucky. Donald C. Hulette, Jack C. Hulette’s son, was the photographer of the property photographs.”[vii] These pictures were available at the Kentucky Historical Society at the time the book was written, but only one of those pictures[viii] was used in the book and it was from one of the worst looking areas. These houses shown below, while not ideal by today’s standards were rated by the assessor as “good” or “fair”. They each had indoor plumbing and adequate heating sources. They were also included in the Kentucky Historical Society collection, but none were used in the book. To show decent houses would not have advanced the case that all of Craw needed to be erased.
I am from a different generation than the people who were interviewed by Jim Wallace and whose words were quoted in the book. Most of those people are gone now and are not here to defend the way their words were used to further the bad reputation of Craw. Those of us who are still living owe it to those people to speak to “the other side of Craw”. I didn’t know John Fallis, “the King of Craw” or Ida Howard, the “neighborhood prostitute” but the interviewees did know these people. When you live side-by-side with people, because other areas are not open to you, just like in all neighborhoods, while you get to see the bad side, you also appreciate the good side of your neighbors.
For me and for other former residents in my age group, this account in no way gave recognition to the full picture of life in Craw/Bottom. My conclusion was that the author started this book to truly tell about the two sides of Craw and give equal coverage to the positives in the community. However, when one is trying to sell books – there is, for sure, not as much interest in a community that was close and caring as there is in a story featuring prostitutes, boot-leggers and infamous outlaws.
[ii] Ibid, 87,88.
[iii] Ibid, 82.
[iv] Ibid, 84.
[v] Ibid, 114.
[vi] Ibid, 20- 23, 50- 52.
[vii] Jack Hulette Realty Co., North Frankfort Redevelopment Appraisals, (Frankfort, KY: Jack Hulette Reality Co. 1958) http://khscatalog.kyvl.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?bibId=41331.
[viii] Doug Boyd, Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community, (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011), 36.
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