PADUCAH AND THE RIVERS OF TIME
PADUCAH, KY -- Befitting an artists' town, Paducah hides early and sleeps late. Arrive just after dark, as I did, and you walk the streets alone. Avenues lined with galleries and antique stores are as quiet as the Ohio River which rolls, silent and dark, just beyond towering flood walls. Most restaurants are closed, and some post their hours -- 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Artists' hours.
Mornings are equally tranquil, letting me stroll along the sunlit Ohio and admire Paducah Wall to Wall, the murals that stretch for blocks, celebrating this unique confluence of water, history, and art.
Paducah's past is pervasive and proud, especially for a town that almost died. Despite occupation during the Civil War, despite floods that three times put downtown underwater, Paducah promotes its history in abundant signs and heritage markers. You don't have to be William Clark of Lewis and Clark, who laid out the town in 1827, to merit a plaque. Alben Barkley earned one by being another forgettable vice-president. Ann Baker started the Paducah Business and Professional Women's Club!
But if the Ohio River put Paducah on the map, a rare vision has kept it there. "Suburban sprawl almost killed this town," said Fowler Black of the Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau. Pointing out the window to a huge parking lot, one of many open spaces here, Black recounts how "urban renewal" tore down whole sections of Paducah in the 1970s. Even the 1827 market building was slated for demolition. Art and the eccentricity that flourishes along American rivers saved the town. But first, credit the river -- rivers, actually.
Throughout the 19th century, the Ohio made Paducah a regular stop for steamboats, and later for the Illinois Central Railroad. Additional credit goes to the Tennessee River which flows into the Ohio here.
Together the rivers made and unmade Paducah. And you can't stroll downtown without seeing the flood walls. The walls date to 1938, after the Ohio crested at 60 feet above its banks. Imagine rowboats floating beside second story windows. But the walls just stood, dull and gray, until 1998 when New Orleans muralist Robert Dafford began Wall to Wall.
The murals start with the native presence in Paducah, said to be named for a Comanche Chief Paduke. Moving on, you stroll past steamboats,Civil War scenarios, news headlines, and more. The stream of time flows to the 1950s when Paducah became Atomic City, home to a uranium enrichment plant that still operates at a safe (?) distance from downtown.
But Paducah only recently became an arts and crafts town. The crafts came first. In 1991, the National Quilt Museum opened here, spawning conventions, quilting shops, and quilted patterns hanging on brick walls. Artists came later, drawn to a town that turned cement into canvas.
By the time the murals were finished in 2008, Paducah had an Artist Relocation Program. To revive Lower Town, 20-plus square blocks of decaying homes, Paducah Bank offered low interest loans to artists. They came by the score, buying up dilapidated houses, some for just A DOLLAR, and turning urban blight into an arts district. "What fired me up about moving down here was to be a part of something bigger than myself," said ceramic artist Nathan Brown. "The first few years were just so exciting, watching this thing grow up around me."
The Lower Town Arts District now abounds in studios, restored Victorians, and people who sleep late. There's even a fire hydrant painted with a portrait of Chief Paduke. Chris Black, who runs the restoration company started here by his grandfather, explains why history must begin at home. "If a community does not believe its history is important," Black said, "it's not going to be an outsider that decides it is important."
In the decades before revival, Paducah lost a quarter of its population. The population has now stabilized at 25,000, making Paducah one of the highest artist-per-capita towns in America. Paducah also has a thriving theater, a symphony orchestra, and the cool chic now common in American cities -- craft breweries, tattoo parlors, a cigar shop, vintage clothing stores, street fairs...
So even if it hides early and sleeps late, Paducah is on the arts map. In 2013, UNESCO stamped it there, naming Paducah a UNESCO Creative City.
Art has spared Paducah the twin blights of rural America -- nostalgia and decay. Packaging its past but facing the future, Paducah, like its rivers, rolls on. "Yes, Kentucky and arts and crafts and bourbon and horses, everybody gets that," said Paul Lorenz, an early arriving artist who came from Berkeley. "We don't need to move down that road again. We get it. Now let's move forward and surprise some people."