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The Lyric Theatre: Does the Past Improve the Present

July 18, 2009

This week construction began on the Lyric Theatre.  It’s an important event for Lexington, so I wanted to re-post an article I wrote for North of Center several months ago.

The Third Street Corridor, which intersects Lexington’s East End Neighborhood, is a place where people are negotiating what it means to commemorate a community’s historical legacy. At one end of the Corridor sits the Lyric Theatre, a derelict structure that operated from 1948-1963 and hosted performances by Redd Foxx, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and other African American icons. Several blocks down Third Street, near the corner of Race Street, sits a vacant lot. A sign tells passers-by that the plot is the future home of the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden.

In the three years that I have lived in Lexington’s East End, I have seen activists, local residents, and council representatives approach the project of revitalizing Lexington’s poorest neighborhood by injecting it with some historical significance. Or, more accurately, we have tried to highlight the significant lives, events, and traditions that have always been attached to the neighborhoods adjacent to Third Street and place them within Lexington’s larger historical heritage.

However, as the Lyric Theatre and the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden suggest, savoring the past may not be the most appropriate way to address the concerns of the present. I wonder at times if these projects really do make the quality of life in the East End better, or if they are merely gauges by which community activists can judge the “progress” of our neighborhood.

Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden

The Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden is an ongoing project made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and it seeks to recognize African Americans’ contribution to Lexington’s thoroughbred industry and the sport of horse racing in general. Not many people realize that thoroughbred racing’s most successful jockeys are black, or that Third Street is but a stone’s throw away from the Kentucky Association Race Track’s original site. There Isaac Murphy, whom the African American scholar Anne Butler calls the Michael Jordan of jockeys, dominated racing more than anyone in any era.

The garden starts the proposed Legacy Trail, which will run along Third Street, continue to cross through downtown, and eventually terminate at the Kentucky Horse Park. The trail is part of a funding initiative geared toward celebrating the lasting legacy of the 2010 World Equestrian Games in ways that will have a restorative effect on Lexington well after the two week equine festivities have come and gone.

I find it remarkable that Murphy’s success mostly has gone unnoticed by Bluegrass citizens who pridefully inhabit the “horse capital of the world.” A rider who revolutionized his sport, Murphy won three Kentucky Derby races from 1884 to 1891 (and so became the first person ever to accomplish a Derby three-peat). He won 44 percent of the time he raced, a rate that sport aficionados say will never be eclipsed. And, Murphy was inducted with the Horse Racing Hall of Fame’s first cohort.

During his career, horseracing fans praised Murphy by calling him the “Colored Archer,” after a successful English jockey who raced contemporaneously. Murphy lived at a time when many sections of society could only recognize him in terms of what his white colleagues could accomplish. He died in Lexington in 1896 without fanfare. Several years ago, after a lengthy search, several historians located his grave in the nondescript African Cemetery No. 2, a few blocks from the proposed garden.

It’s hard to say exactly how or why Murphy’s legacy so thoroughly eluded the collective consciousness of a horse-centric culture like Lexington. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that Murphy is to jockeying what Adolph Rupp is to college basketball coaching or what Man O’ War is to race horses. Yet Lexington’s power elite enshrine the memories of the coach and the horse each time they enter the arena or cruise the boulevard that bears their respective names.

Does this incongruity matter? Is it yet another example of how African Americans and their history have been marginalized in Lexington?

If the answer to those questions is “yes,” it is encouraging to me that the upcoming Equestrian Games has become the impetus to recognize the diverse racial and cultural heritage associated with the Third Street Corridor. The Knight Foundation Center for Legacy Initiatives grant steering committee chose the garden project, one of over 100 proposed ideas, to highlight an African American cultural heritage that the Lexington Fayette County Urban Government has thus far been reticent to value (at least in terms of financial support).

The Lyric

Those interested in the question of preserving a community legacy are all too familiar with the talk, speculation, promises, and gossip associated with the Lyric. Meanwhile, the theatre has evolved into a deteriorating edifice epitomizing Lexington’s general apathy toward African American culture.

The Lyric has a back-story. In the mid-1990s, the Kentucky state legislature gave LFUCG $7.2 million to purchase a piece of property, the Ben Snyder block, from its private owner. The gift, however, obligated the county to construct a cultural center project that would serve as a multi-purpose venue for all community members. Instead, Lexington leaders decided to erect a new courthouse.

Not surprisingly, the Commonwealth filed suit against LFUCG for misappropriation of funds. A settlement, reached by Mayor Pam Miller, established a Memorandum of Understanding, which mandated Lexington fund a range of diverse culture-preserving facilities. Notables on this list are the University of Kentucky Basketball Museum, the Kentucky Theatre, the Downtown Arts Center, and the Lyric Theatre. Except for the Lyric, each of these has been completed.

Since the Memorandum of Understanding fully materialized in 2005, when the county acquired the Lyric property through eminent domain, Lexington council members have dragged their feet in planning its restoration. Now, nearly four years later, Lexington risks a financial penalty, to the tune of $500 per day ($182,500 per year), if the theatre and African American history museum restoration is not completed by January 27, 2010.

In a report on WUKY in September 2007, Third District Councilperson Dick DeCamp, who has since been replaced, explained that he was worried that the theatre would not be able to sustain itself.

“I want it to succeed as a theatre. I want it to succeed as a museum. But at the same time, I want it to be in a position to support itself, and not come back to this community every six months or annually and [ask for more money],” DeCamp said. His perspective is typical of community leadership that does not realize, or just doesn’t care, that LFUCG has both a legal obligation and a fiduciary responsibility to restore the Lyric.

History and the Present East End

So it’s understandable why some people see the Legacy Trail and the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden as signs that a trend of bad faith has been reversed. Lexington no longer cares to neglect the cultural heritage of African Americans. In fact, it has deliberately chosen to honor it, an assertion that each community in Lexington is vital to its collective identity.

However, how does the preservation of a neighborhood’s historical past correspond to justice for those presently living in it?

There are, of course, many complex reasons why the East End is in its current condition. As I’ve contemplated these reasons, I cannot help but wonder whether the contest over whose historical legacy, black people’s or white people’s, gets recognized side-steps more pressing problems—like drug dealers, exploitative food markets, and liquor stores along Third Street.

This question is informed, at least in part, by a conversation I had with Thomas Tolliver, a community organizer who has lived on Third Street for fourteen years. Tolliver appreciates the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden, the William Wells Brown Elementary School, and the Bluegrass-Aspendale Housing Redevelopment. He views them as signs of progress and hope in the East End.

Yet, Tolliver doesn’t see the need to reconstruct the Lyric or even refer to our community as the William Wells Brown Neighborhood. He explains that doing so takes away from the fact that many residents in this community, black and white, are culpable in their non-action.

“If there’s anyone to criticize here,” Tolliver said, “it’s not city officials or council members. It’s the residents and local business owners, the sorry sons-of-a-bitches, who won’t get off their ass and do something about this neighborhood.” Tolliver adamantly insisted that I quote him verbatim.

Pragmatically, Tolliver’s perspective is valuable. It may be hard to justify educating people about William Wells Brown’s place in the American literary tradition (Brown is America’s first black novelist and a native of Lexington), especially in a neighborhood riddled by crime, absentee landlords, and substandard living conditions. A recent East End development plan, compiled by an independent consulting firm, reveals that the neighborhood’s mean annual household income as of the 2000 census was $14,570, or less than one-third of the mean annual income for all other areas in Fayette County. This ratio probably hasn’t changed much in the last decade. Three times as many houses are rented than are owned, and 45 percent of all homes are in substandard or worse condition.

“To be honest, I really wouldn’t care if they demolished the Lyric, as long as they replaced it with single-unit homes that are owned by people who actually live in them,” Tolliver said.

I think that Tolliver values efforts to commemorate histories, but only if doing so does not controvert movements to get all community members involved in the much more difficult, and not unrelated, project of making the East End a healthier and more equitable place to live today. Despite his misgivings about preserving buildings like the Lyric for the sake of historical memory alone, Tolliver has collaborated with Jess Miller, another East End resident, to supervise a historic preservation project.

As we talked, we walked through his back yard and toward his garage, where he stores a set of plaques that annotate the Lyric, Bluegrass-Aspendale, and other landmarks in the East End. At one point, Tolliver stooped over and picked up an empty Lifestyles condom wrapper, evidence of public prostitution. A few paces later, he retrieved a plastic baggie that had been twisted at the bottom (to hold marijuana, Tolliver told me). In the trip from the front porch to the backyard garage, we found signs that a course of action much more radical that historical preservation needs to happen in the East End.

Today, you can see the plaques that Tolliver and Miller constructed around the Third Street neighborhood. They mark notable homes and places along the Third Street Corridor, suggest reasons for the neighborhood’s decline, and offer an imperative for valuing the people who have lived and worked in Lexington’s East End. There’s even a sign where Tolliver lives, the T.T. Wendell House. His home once belonged to Dr. T.T. Wendell, a staff physician at the Eastern State Hospital who worked tirelessly to upgrade the medical care of mentally disabled and black patients. Can factoids like this compel Lexington residents, those who live in and around the East End, to improve the quality of life for those around the Corridor? Perhaps it’s an important first step.

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One Comment
  1. This was worth pulling out again and thanks for posting it. It helps keep the conversation current. It asks the right questions. I look forward to the excitement of an active lyric, a complete memorial garden, an eyepopping arts corridor, a renewed Roots & Heritage Festival and the socio-economic reversal the east end deserves enroute to attaining the high quality of life enjoyed in other parts of lexington that were no more than horse playgrounds when i first came to Lexington in 1979.

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