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Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community by Douglas A. Boyd (review)
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Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community. By Douglas A. Boyd. (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2011. Pp. xvi + 220, foreword, acknowledgments, list of illustrations, notes, selected bibliography, index.)

Urban renewal by 1984 wiped away nearly all the physical evidence of a once well-known neighborhood in Frankfort, Kentucky, that had existed near the state Capitol building. Yet, as Douglas Boyd demonstrates, the memory of Crawfish Bottom or “the lower part of the city” did not disappear, and the image of the community remained contested. Indeed the preferred name of the place differed for outsiders who called it “the Craw” or simply “Craw” and the neighborhood residents who preferred “the Bottom” or simply “Bottom.” The reputation of “the Craw” for external observers, especially in the newspapers, centered on crime, drink, and prostitution. Often perceived publicly as a dangerous, poor black section of town, former residents remembered, when asked, a place of helpful neighbors, personal safety, and little overt racism.

These inquiries were important in terms of how the questions were framed. Was the negative or positive view anticipated? When Jim Wallace conducted an oral history project in 1991, a more positive, yet complex, multilayered representation of the past emerged. Wallace’s 25 interviews formed the core of his master’s degree research at the University of Kentucky. As Douglas Boyd explains, Wallace, who made numerous public presentations of his research for the next several years, became the key catalyst “in organizing community symbols that counter dominant perceptions, representing a new version of the neighborhood in public memory” (p. 111). In this respect, Wallace’s efforts in oral history shifted aspects of the public narrative away from the colorfully violent Craw and placed the Bottom on top.

If Boyd’s study of Wallace’s work had concluded with this insight, his book would seem an all-too-familiar discourse on finding the true social history of a place by merely interviewing the people who used to live there. Yes, historians like myself call such efforts “history from the bottom up.” Yet Boyd knows his oral history and folklore very well, and he offers more significant and sophisticated insights to share about the counter-narrative that Wallace helped produce. A feature article on March 2, 1975, in the Frankfort State Journal had focused on fond memories of the Bottom as recalled by James “Pappa Jazz” Berry. So, the counter-narrative already had appeared in print, and Wallace himself stated that he found this “insider’s perspective” of great value. He even referred to the newspaper article in his interviews of former residents, using it sometimes as “a starting point.” Boyd asserts that Wallace’s interviewees who had heard the consistently negative accounts of their neighborhood from outside sources now found “a psychological-emotional space in which they could finally celebrate their sense of place” (pp. 88–9).

Nonetheless, celebrating place is not the same as either certifying public memory or defining local community. Early on, Boyd informs his readers that “public memory is infused with multitudes of individual memories and is therefore inherently complex, malleable, and polyvalent.” And on the same page, he bluntly states: “The concept of a community as a homogeneous human group bound together in time, space, and identity is not helpful and is, in fact, false” (p. 78). Boyd clearly will have none of the simplistic essentiality that can adhere to “sense of place.” In fact, his close reading of Wallace’s interviews and his own follow-up research shows that residents of the Bottom could have their fond memories of people helping each [End Page 350] other survive in hard times while also recounting dramatic tales of violence, crime, and prostitution that characterized popular representation of the Craw. They could have their Craw and Bottom too.

The multi-track of memory and narrative leads Boyd to recognize what he terms “the process of the folklorization of history in the ever-unfolding formation of public memory” (p. 148). This concept shows readily in the stories surrounding two historical figures, Ida Howard and John Fallis. Both were white, although their exploits were well remembered by African American residents. Howard lived in an attractive...