- Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community
Crawfish Bottom, or rather the Craw, was a small section of Frankfort, Kentucky, located north and east of the Old State Capitol building. In the decades before urban renewal projects replaced the small community with a high-rise government office tower and other buildings, the Craw was a largely poor, mixed-race community, made up of family homes, stores, restaurants, saloons, and houses of prostitution. In the eyes of the people of Frankfort, the Craw held two very different reputations. The residents regarded it as a place for safety and community, where friends watched and helped each other, and people survived by doing what they could. For many who lived outside the Craw, it was viewed as a dangerous place, cursed with crime, corruption, and social debauchery.
In Crawfish Bottom, Douglas Boyd attempts to recreate the lost neighborhood by piecing together a colorful portrait based on primary documents and oral interviews of former residents. The vast majority of the oral history, indeed the primary source for the entire book, is a remarkable collection of oral histories collected by James E. Wallace, a University of Kentucky graduate student, in the early 1990s.
Boyd’s reconstruction of Crawfish Bottom reveals the complexity and importance of the small neighborhood. His portrait, given the limitations of his resources, is remarkably complete and full of interesting characters and lively events. Most importantly, his re-creation of the place is balanced and well constructed, allowing future historians a clearer picture of this lost community and restoring it to its proper place in Kentucky history.
Oral history is a difficult research tool because of the influence the interviewer might exert on the narrator. There is also the reliance on memories of living participants which may be clouded by the distance of time or the desire to tell a good story. Sadly, these problems are often compounded when the historian using the interviews is not the historian who conducted the interviews. For example, subtle nuances, such as body language and gestures visible to the original interviewer, cannot be captured on audio tape and are therefore lost to the next generation of historians.
Boyd is keenly aware of the challenge involved in using oral histories. His effort to reconstruct Crawfish Bottom also includes a discussion of the development and the recording of memory. He not only dissects each interview to gain the most of each conversation, but he also analyzes the motives and techniques of James Wallace as he conducted each interview. [End Page 94] Boyd understands, and brings the reader along to that understanding, that reconstruction of the past, any past, is based on a foundation of memory.
Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community is not only a good read for those interested in the past, but also a valuable tool for those seeking to understand the link between community and memory. Douglas Boyd is a historian of considerable talent; we should eagerly await his next work.