Urban pioneers have adopted an attitude toward their surroundings and sunk their claim in a house, in a neighborhood, and in a future for their family and friends.
This is the story of a turn-of-the-century Paducah neighborhood consisting of approximately 250 original homes. The Fountain Avenue/Midtown area was envisioned as a working class neighborhood when walking and streetcars were the primary means of connecting to jobs at the nearby Illinois Central Railroad and to downtown Paducah.
Fountain Avenue/Midtown was designed to encourage interaction and community—ideas that were in vogue in the early 1900s. Corner stores like Habacker’s Grocery on the corner of 16th and Madison served the neighborhood. Scale was based on a pedestrian-friendly layout that made Midtown a human-friendly neighborhood of economic diversity.
Sidewalks and front porches encouraged interaction with passersby. Lang Park (the circle on Fountain Avenue and the city’s first park) provided a neighborhood gathering space. Several famous Paducahans lived in the area—most notably Alben Barkley early in his career as a lawyer. Over the years, builders incorporated unique details that prevented cookie-cutter conformity—Victorian homes were built next to craftsman bungalows or beside a camelback shotgun house.
But the neighborhood slowly deteriorated as families joined the flight from urban areas. By 1990, the feeling prevailed that the Midtown area was in decline with housing prices going down as homes aged without major repair. These houses were the casualties of lax maintenance, inattentive landlords, and slipshod conversion into multi-rental units that contributed to the decline of the properties and their values. The Fountain Avenue/Midtown neighborhood was losing its value and community appeal.
The city recognized the family friendly assets of the neighborhood and by 2005 realized the area still had a good stock of homes that could be revitalized—even though 80% of them would require major repair. The desire was to return the neighborhood to an economically diverse, mixed income area, similar to its community character at the turn-of-the-century. But it takes more than city policy and officials to restore a neighborhood. The neighborhood must WANT to be revitalized.
Area pastors from Margaret Hank Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Fountain Avenue United Methodist Church, and Harrison Street Baptist Church first met around 2006 to brainstorm about what was needed to help restore the neighborhood. The Midtown Alliance of Neighbors was later formed and is a collection of residents who seek to provide information and rehabilitation assistance that can improve the physical properties and to help reestablish the “sense of community.” Now there were three important assets in place that are necessary in restoring a neighborhood: churches, an organization of neighbors, and forward-thinking city planners who can see how a neighborhood can be reborn.
In 2007 the city began implementation of phase one of a ten-year Revitalization Plan. Paducah City Planner Steve Ervin and Community Development Planner Charlie Doherty have been in charge of this plan which involved creating a database of every property in the neighborhood and using resident input to formulate the plan. They wisely recognized that restoring older neighborhoods (LowerTown had been Paducah’s first project) is crucial to saving our central cities. They also realized that some houses were beyond restoration and after approval from three city boards began removing these homes.
But the houses that remained were a very interesting assortment with charming details and not-so-charming warts. The city offered incentives to home buyers that included forgivable-deferred payment loans, various fee waivers, and sale of vacant lots and existing city-owned homes for little to no cost. There were also state historic tax credits and other incentives available depending on the type of house and what the owners planned to do with it. A buyer could layer the state tax credit on the city incentives to significantly reduce the cost of the rehab. The Revitalization Plan’s goal was to rehab or to newly build at least ten homes each year of the ten-year plan.
Now the plan is five years into the decade-long program and many people of all ages and economic groups from retiring baby boomers to young professionals have taken advantage of the neighborhood’s affordability, architecture, and friendliness. A Neighborhood Watch program began in 2010 to help maintain the already significant reduction in crime that the city had closely monitored since 2007. This summer the city will implement a Bicycle Police Patrol, a community-oriented policy.
Fountain Avenue activities—summer movies in Lang Park, petting zoos in the spring, cookouts, and the community garden—are increasing every year. The city has worked with i5 Design to have plans readily available for purchasers of vacant lots. Half of the neighborhood was awarded National Historic District status several decades ago and the remainder of the area has recently been nominated to expand the Historic District. Urban Pioneer plaques adorn the front porches of many of the neighborhood homes as they are re-born. There are plans that have been funded to improve the Fountain Avenue median area and plans that are not yet funded to enhance Lang Park. And the ever-present Midtown Alliance of Neighbors and its Executive Director Sharon Poat, operating out of donated office space in the Fountain Avenue United Methodist Church, works daily to encourage the creation and maintenance of housing that is both affordable, code-compliant and respects the unique, historic qualities of the neighborhood. This past summer the Alliance and the city worked with Southern Illinois University architecture students to create possible rehabilitation plans for four city-owned homes.
The resurgence of Fountain Avenue/Midtown is not just a matter of luck. Contributions by a core of public and private committed individuals and residents are turning neighborhood advantages into value for all. But change happens slowly. Urban pioneers who are handy and thrifty and do much of their own work have taken a pioneer attitude toward their surroundings and sunk their claim in a house, in a neighborhood, and in a future for their family and friends. Thousands of tiny details must coalesce to turn a failing neighborhood into a success story. And the pieces are starting to come together.
Residents are beginning to realize that their investments are sound. All the little steps of tearing out the old, injecting the new and maintaining a stake are panning out. And as property values begin to increase, the city hopes that commercial developers will be more willing to invest in the designated commercial areas of Fountain Avenue/Midtown. The city envisions restaurants and other commercial venues with construction that will blend in with the vintage neighborhood’s architectural style.
Fountain Avenue/Midtown is no longer a risky business and is becoming a safe bet. It can even become a trend-setting neighborhood of the turn-of-the-21st-century kind.