A Neighborhood Remembered

Davis Bottom

The Davis Bottom neighborhood once sat on the very edge of Lexington, Kentucky. Today, it is located only one-half mile southwest of downtown.

You might think everyone always wanted to live in Davis Bottom. It would be easy to get to work in downtown offices and to shop in downtown stores. But you would be wrong.

In the early 20th century, buses and streetcars did not come through Davis Bottom. Invisible boundaries made life hard for the people who lived there. Some people were black. Some people were white. Everyone was poor. The City looked down on these working-class people. This isolation helped make Davis Bottom a close-knit community.

A Threat of Destruction

In 1931, downtown Lexington needed a new road. The City wanted to build it through Davis Bottom. The road would have destroyed the neighborhood. The Davis Bottom residents protested, so The City put the plans on hold. For over sixty years, residents lived with this threat to their community. By the late 1990s, however, traffic congestion was worse and the need for new development in downtown Lexington was urgent.

Today, as part of the Newtown Pike Extension Project, The City is building a new road, new houses, and a new park in the low-lying section of Davis Bottom. This neighborhood is called Davis Park. Only a small section of Davis Bottom still remains–the part that sits on higher ground on the eastern edge of the old neighborhood.

It has been hard for Davis Bottom residents to live through the road planning and the redevelopment of their old neighborhood. There was grief, frustration, and fear. Others felt powerless, at the mercy of the Newtown Pike Extension Project, and just in the way. Some people were positive and hopeful about the future.

Everyone was anxious for the construction to end. Residents hoped they would live close to their former neighbors in the new neighborhood. They hoped The City would restore Southside Park. They were unsure how everything would turn out in the end. However, IF everything worked out, they felt that the improvements would be good, and they looked forward to living in a clean, decent place.

The bottom line was this: everyone in Davis Bottom was tired of waiting. And even though the Newtown Pike Extension Project would destroy a working-class way of life with deep history, nobody wanted Davis Bottom to be forgotten. Everybody wanted Davis Bottom’s link to its history to be visible still.

Preserving Neighborhood History

The City and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) had to assess the road project’s impacts to cultural and historical resources and avoid them, if possible, as required by Section 106 of the federal National Historic Preservation Act of 1965. Since road construction could not avoid these resources, in 2003-2004, archaeologists and architectural historians initiated fieldwork, carried out archival and architectural studies, and collected residents’ oral histories. In 2010-2011, as KYTC began tearing down houses and commercial buildings in the neighborhood, archaeologists carried out excavations.

The Davis Bottom History Preservation Project began in 2010. Its purpose was to ensure that Davis Bottom would not be forgotten. It created a website about the neighborhood, its history, and its residents (https://anthropology.as.uky.edu/kas/kas-projects/davis-bottom-project). In 2013, it produced an award-winning documentary on the community, Davis Bottom: Rare History, Valuable Lives, which is shown regularly on Kentucky Public Television.

This year, project personnel completed the last of the educational materials developed to accompany the website and documentary. Investigating a Shotgun House is a case study in Project Archaeology’s nationally available Investigating Shelter curriculum (https://projectarchaeology.org). Using information from multiple data sources (oral history, historical documents, architecture, and archaeology), students examine a single question: what can we learn about the lives of mid-20th century urban working-class people from the study of their homes. In the case of Davis Bottom, those homes were shotgun houses. The curriculum and Investigating a Shotgun House meets national social studies standards and uses an inquiry-based instruction approach. Whether as immersion, intervention, or enrichment, Investigating Shelter is a flexible curriculum, appropriate for students at all academic performance levels.

 

davis bottom wpa image

  1. Black and white wpa photo

A photograph of DeRoode Street from under the West High Street Viaduct/Bridge during the Great Depression.

Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection. Photograph courtesy Special Collections, University of Kentucky, Lexington.

1934 sanborn

  1. Sanborn map

Section of the 1934 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map showing the portion of DeRoode Street in Davis Bottom that was the focus of Investigating a Shotgun House.

Sanborn Map Company, 1934, Insurance Map of Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky (Map 210). Sanborn Map Company, New York.

712 deroode

  1. Photo of 712 DeRoode street

712 DeRoode Street (on right), the shotgun house that is the focus of the Investigating a Shotgun House case study.

Davis Bottom History Preservation Project. Photograph courtesy Kentucky Archaeological Survey/Kentucky Heritage Council, Lexington/Frankfort.

2014 davis bottom

  1. Shot of the new neighborhood

DeRoode Street in Davis Bottom during the first phase of redevelopment (2014).

Photograph (2014) courtesy Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, Andrew Grunwald, Project Manager.

 

A blog by

Gwynn Henderson

Education Coordinator

Kentucky Archaeological Survey

August 30, 2017