New York, Paris, Paducah? Kentucky Attracts Artists

ByABC News
December 23, 2006, 1:22 PM

PADUCAH, Ky., Dec. 23, 2006 — -- They've come from all over America: Artists from Washington, D.C., San Francisco, even New York City have somehow found their way to Paducah, a small Kentucky city on the banks of the Ohio River.

With a population of only 26,000, it's a place where culture meant a trip to the one shopping mall or movie theater -- or at least that's what used to pass for culture in Paducah until a unique incentive program brought the artists, more than 70 in all.

They started coming in 2000 to buy and restore homes in Lowertown, Paducah's oldest -- and most blighted -- neighborhood.

"We had drug houses, and we had crime, and we had ladies of the evening walking the streets," said Paducah city planner Tom Barnett, who helped develop the program. "It was a neighborhood that was essentially abandoned and just avoided by the residents of Paducah."

The city's artist relocation program is the brainchild of Barnett and former Paducah resident Mark Barone. Barone was an artist living in Lowertown, and one morning in 2000 he witnessed a drug deal taking place on the porch of a nearby house. It was then that he had the idea of bringing artists to town in hopes of saving the neighborhood. He took the idea to Barnett, and the two joined forces.

"Artists are the kind of folks who see what can be," Barnett said. "They see potential, and we knew that was what it was going to take when they came in to see the neighborhood in its current condition."

Ira and Charlotte Erwin were the first couple to buy a house in Lowertown. The Erwins owned one of Paducah's only art galleries at the time, but they were barely keeping afloat financially and had decided to close their business and move away. They even found a house they wanted to buy in Illinois. But when the relocation program started, they decided instead to purchase one of Lowertown's dilapidated old homes.

"The first weekend that we were here we were out in the yard, and 18 different people stopped and said, 'Thank you for buying this house. Thank you for saving it,'" Charlotte said.