By WILLIAM RENZULLI
When I saw the ad for an Artist Relocation Program in Paducah, Kentucky, my wife and I were living on a farm in Maryland, contemplating retirement. After 17 years of rural living I was ready for sidewalks and community. We decided to visit Paducah to see what it had to offer. Lower Town was described as a once elegant neighborhood of lovely Victorian homes that had fallen on hard times, and many of them in disrepair were available for restoration. Although the neighborhood was on the National Register of Historic Places, it was zoned for light retail, so artists could sell their work from a home studio or gallery. If property values increased they would be the beneficiaries, all very appealing to an artist.
We chose to visit in January, when urban blemishes are most evident. We drove from the Nashville airport and arrived in early evening darkness. Conversation ceased, replaced by silent anxiety and skepticism as we passed the cement plant and the large fuel tanks on Hwy. 60 just south of downtown. I thought to myself, "What on earth are we doing here," certain that Patience was thinking the same thing. Our anxiety was heightened by a bit of confusion caused by my poor navigating; I thought we were entering from the west side (Park Avenue), and drove through town twice before figuring this out. We had reservations at the Harbor Plaza B&B, and by the time we turned onto Broadway we were both a bit stressed.
A quiet downtown street illuminated by festive Christmas lights and lined with lovely turn of the century buildings greeted us. I loved it! We located the B&B and Beverly, our delightful hostess, led us to our room, a warm and wondrous highly Victorian cocoon that eliminated the last remnants of our anxieties. Next on our agenda was dinner, and for this we walked to the end of the block to Jeremiah's, where we enjoyed our first meal in Paducah. When we asked for a non-smoking section, the hostess said no problem, seating us at a nearby table; she simply removed the ashtray.
We had plans to meet the program director and the mayor in the morning for breakfast, but Patience is convinced that as soon as we drove down Broadway she knew we would be moving to Paducah.
After breakfast we saw Lower Town, as it was in January 2001, and it was not very attractive. Oh there were some lovely homes in a few of the blocks that managed to escape the blight that overtook the rest of the neighborhood, but for the most part I was impressed more by the devastation than by the potential for change. I could not imagine "fixing up" buildings with half their roofs missing. There were indeed some gracious Victorian homes, but they were scattered about between the less than desirable structures. By lunch time the charm of downtown Broadway was being seriously dampened by the tour of Lower Town.
Joining us for lunch at Whaler's Catch were Gerry Montgomery, Rosemarie Steele, and Buz Smith. (It has been too long for me to trust my ailing memory, so my apologies if I've left someone un-named.) Later we met the directors of the River Discovery Center, the Quilt Museum, the Yeiser Art Center, and the Market House Theatre. Everyone's enthusiasm and excitement about Paducah and their vision for the city and the Artist Relocation Program was contagious. I could feel the energy as they spoke about the work in progress on the Carson Center, the new River Discovery Center, and Maiden Alley Cinema. I was convinced that Paducah was blessed with forward-thinking, energetic leaders who were willing to push against conventional boundaries, and that is what sold me on the city. The promise of an artist community in Lower Town was attractive, but in my mind, the selling point was the vision and the energy demonstrated by the people we met. In making a commitment to the Relocation Program, I knew it guaranteed me nothing but the opportunity to pursue my dreams.
Mayor Kaler said it best in a conversation we had shortly after I opened my gallery in the fall of 2002. She described Paducah as "a city that lives larger than it is," and that is still the spirit that makes me proud to say I live in Paducah.
William and Patience Renzulli, and their nine whippets, moved into their home at 803 Madison Street 12 years ago.
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