Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community

By Douglas A. Boyd. 2011. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 240 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8131-3408-6 (hard cover).

Reviewed by John Bodnar, Indiana University

[Review length: 767 words • Review posted on March 26, 2012]

Crawfish Bottom was widely known as the notorious part of Frankfort, Kentucky. Populated by poor blacks and whites and a center of a raucous nightlife, the dominant population in the town generally looked down upon the neighborhood and eventually destroyed it completely in an urban renewal project that began in the 1950s. The physical demolition of the area, however, did not erase the recollection of former residents. Their memories of life in this seedy part of town draw the full attention of Douglas Boyd in this perceptive book that analyzes the problem of public and personal memories.

Boyd makes it clear that in the century after the Civil War local newspapers and town leaders had very few positive things to say about the “Bottom” and dwelled mostly on its sordid side. He proves that they crafted an identity of this section of town that was not only disreputable but also cast its residents in a highly unflattering light. It was no wonder the prospect of slum clearance proved to be so attractive to Frankfort’s leaders in the era after World War II. And it is not surprising to read that community planners basically ignored the protests of those residents who did not want to see their lives disrupted.

Boyd’s book is notable not so much because it brings to light the memories people had of life in the “bottoms,” however, but because it explores how those recollections were constructed. His project is less about what former residents of the “Bottom” recalled and more about how public or collective memories come into being. He sees clearly that such recollections are the product of a contentious process where various agents attempt to perform and proclaim a diverse set of stories, symbols, and images that reinforce their point of view. In Frankfort the major players included town officials who fashioned the negative image of the “Bottom” in the first place, former residents who staunchly mounted a more positive account of the community that no longer existed, and an ambitious ethnographer--Jim Wallace--who conducted the oral histories in the 1990s that Boyd examined in recent years.

Wallace clearly had an agenda. He was fully aware of the uncomplimentary nature of the reigning public identity of the “Bottom” with its racist overtones, and set out to correct it. Boyd astutely shows how Wallace would offer his respondents special prompts designed to foster a sense of the “Bottom” as a place that was not nearly as violent or corrupt as the prevailing public image made it out to be. Thus, the ethnographer as activist and agent of memory focused a good deal of his interview time on issues of communal solidarity. Residents talked about how they always felt safe in the neighborhood, how many never felt they had to lock their doors at night, and how people would help others in need.

Of course the ethnographer could not control all that was said. The book shows clearly how residents viewed their former home with nostalgia--a sign of how they derived strength from their imagined sense of community to resist the marginal status that had been imposed upon them for decades. And they would even talk about infamous characters from the “Bottom” who ran bootlegging operations or houses of prostitution, with a measure of humor and affection. The fact that these people also stressed their worth by affirming that families insisted on regular church attendance and local teachers diligently worked at educating children reaffirmed the dialogic aspects of remembrance. For it was in the performance and insistence of their non-violent and virtuous ways that these local people reminded us of how much they were psychologically at odds with the dominant majority that demeaned them and took away their homes. They clearly had their own project at remembering who they were--as mythical and symbolic as it may have been--that offered them dignity in a society that refused to grant them as much.

In our times the study of public memory has become more sophisticated and complicated. Scholars in many fields see it as a topic that can illuminate a wide array of key issues such as the continual debate--locally and nationally--over national identity and who gets to control the past. Thus, on a national scale, Americans have both tried to efface legacies of slavery and prejudice, for instance, or to insist that such sordid behavior not be forgotten. Boyd’s book shows that the struggle goes on in local places as well as on national stages. And his work suggests that victimized people also work assiduously to counter attempts to defame them or, worse yet, forget them.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.