Beneath downtown Frankfort, in an area that once belonged to an integrated, working-class community, is a neighborhood often forgotten in the city's history.
“It was always either called the ‘Craw’ or ‘Bottom,’” explained Mary Clay, a former resident of Craw. “Never both and never ‘Crawfish Bottom.’”
According to Frankfort historian Russ Hatter, the Craw was confined to roughly 50 acres and was bordered in the north by Fort Hill, the west by Wilkinson Street, the south by the railroad tracks, and the east by St. Clair Street — what was formerly occupied by the Capital Plaza Tower complex, consisting of the YMCA, the since-imploded tower, the Frankfort Convention Center, a parking garage and the plaza fountain.
During the early 19th century, that land was among the least valuable of properties due to recurrent flooding by the Kentucky River. In fact, the neighborhood got its name due to the lowland terrain, which many referred to as the "Bottom" of town.
Following the conclusion of the Civil War, however, many freed men and women searching for affordable housing found this swampy plot ideal for establishing themselves. By the late 1870s, the Craw became an established residential area for lower-income families and minorities.
While many tall tales and urban legends derived from the Craw — some of which ring true — residents remember a home that felt safe.
“There was nowhere else to go if you didn’t live in Craw,” Clay said. “I can remember not locking doors at night. We all took care of each other.”
According to University of Kentucky professor Douglas Boyd, author of the book “Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community,” the railroad tracks served as a barrier between two classes.
“Close to Paul Sawyier Public Library there’s always been a ‘corner of the elite,’” Boyd said. “There are actually myths of the phrase ‘other side of the tracks’ originating in Frankfort. Police would turn a blind eye to crime across the tracks, but it was trouble if you brought it over.”
Formerly located at the corner of Wilkinson Boulevard and Mero Street, Mayo-Underwood High School was Frankfort’s school for African Americans during segregation, but contrary to popular belief, the Craw wasn’t predominantly composed of black people. According to the 1956 U.S. Census, the racial makeup of the Craw was diverse at 60% African American and 40% white.
“It was a place with a lot of balance, and that was an important part of it,” Boyd added.
The neighborhood also held a certain amount of political power in the city. During elections, Frankfort could count on the area to vote as a block.
“You had to come to us to get our votes and we were all right there together. We’re all scattered now. That broke up our voting,” Henrietta Gill, who grew up in the area, recalled in a 1991 interview to commemorate the Craw.
Unfortunately, after the 1937 flood, many buildings were left vacant due to irreparable damages. And this, in Boyd’s opinion, was the tipping point of Craw’s fate. The neighborhood slid into decline. Frequent flooding meant property damage, rodent infestation, water contamination and other public health threats.
A 1955 Frankfort League of Women Voters survey highlighted the poor conditions of the Craw. According to one study, nearly 50% of Frankfort residents treated for venereal diseases lived in the Bottom, as well as 14% of the town’s tuberculosis cases.
One survey found the majority of residents qualified for public housing or government assistance, which led to the creation of the Frankfort Municipal Slum Clearance and Development program — a project aimed to clear the land the Craw occupied to make way for Capital Plaza development.
“All of these studies painted Craw to be a blight on the city,” Boyd said. “They wanted it to seem as not economically productive as possible or like the neighborhood was costing the city more than it could make. A lot of these models were skewed towards scaring people into supporting urban renewal.”
As a result of urban renewal, 345 buildings were destroyed and 369 families displaced. A 1960 news article stated that the largest problems the city’s slum clearance program faced were middle- and lower-range housing for African Americans and the lack of relocation options.
Nearly 200 housing units were constructed. Clay remembers when her family moved into one on Douglas Avenue.
“Everybody was from Craw, so we had a little community there,” said Clay.
It took 14 years and $10 million — $8 million more than originally projected — for the Craw to be replaced with the Capital Plaza complex, which Boyd called a grave marker for a lost community.
“Watching the tower fall,” Boyd continued, “was like watching the tombstone of the Craw crumble.”
No historical marker exists to commemorate the memory of the Craw, its residents or any of its facilities. Even Capital Plaza is on its way to becoming another ghost of Frankfort as a new state office building nears completion on the former tower site and state officials and community leaders work to repurpose the former convention center land and current YMCA building.
The Craw, however, will forever impact the people who once lived there.
“Home is where you feel accepted and have something in common with the people around you,” Clay said. “The feeling of belonging. I feel a loss of that.”