Davis Park: Kenneth Demus
By Nicole Musgrave
One of the experiences that the Lexington Host Committee planned for the community intensive was a historical overview and tour of the Davis Park neighborhood, led by Barbara Navin of the Lexington Community Land Trust. Davis Park, formerly called Davis Bottom, is a neighborhood near downtown Lexington that has recently become a community land trust. As part of this process, the shotgun houses that stood along the streets - most of which were in disrepair - were torn down and new, affordable homes were built. I was really fascinated by this transformation of the neighborhood and was curious about the effect it had on residents, so I talked with Kenneth Demus who grew up in Davis Bottom and who stayed for the neighborhood's transition into Davis Park.
The Davis Bottom neighborhood was established in the 1860s and was historically a working-class neighborhood. Although it was a predominately African American community in its beginning, Davis Bottom came to be known as a neighborhood with great ethnic diversity and a strong sense of cohesion among residents. Demus remembered growing up in Davis Bottom, sharing,
"It's always been an integrated area down here and it really blows people's minds because I was born in the early 60s and...you just didn't see that going on...And everyone down here was raised like a family. If anything happened, you would see us bringing food to each others' houses. If you needed something...we were there. It was like a family. It was just so family-oriented down in this area of town. And it really blows people's minds."
Demus explained that the neighborhood got the name Davis Bottom because
"It was considered as the 'bottom'. This was one of the lowest areas in the downtown Lexington area."
Because it was in this low area, the neighborhood was fairly secluded. It was also prone to flooding. Demus remembers,
"It was the bottom so everything flowed downhill. So it used to flood down here. All the houses sat up like six feet off the ground...When it would flood the water would come almost up to the porches. I've seen a time when my mother couldn't get out and go to work because she couldn't swim and she was scared of the water."
The continual flooding led to the decay of many of the shotgun houses. This deterioration of the housing conditions was one of the factors that prompted the transition of the neighborhood to a community land trust.
Another factor was the Newtown Park Extension that was planned to run through where Davis Bottom stood. At various points in the neighborhood's history, there have been plans made to tear down the neighborhood to make way for new roads or other infrastructure. Each time, residents and supporters have successfully rallied to disrupt these plans. Demus reflects on these periods, sharing,
"You just can't take a neighborhood and just do what you want with it. That road was supposed to come straight through here...and we said, 'No, this is just not going to happen...you're going to take away something amazing'...And the only way for us to keep them from getting this [land] was to turn it into a community land trust because we didn't have enough power and money to fight."
A project began with the Lexington Community Land Trust (CLT) to transition the neighborhood into "a non-profit membership organization that owns and stewards land for the benefit of the community in order to preserve the affordability of housing on the land permanently" (Lexington CLT). The project involved demolishing the remaining housing structures in the neighborhood (deemed beyond repair), raising the ground 14 feet to solve the flooding issue, and consulting with residents about their wishes for their new homes. Demus recalls,
"I wanted to make sure we had brick [houses]...because the moisture is still here and...[I wanted to] make sure it looks like houses in the other neighborhoods."
Demus also wanted to make sure that his house had a front porch.
"For me...growing up, that's where we did most of our living. Even in the wintertime, we would sit on the porch in the wintertime and talk...so the front porch was very important to me."
Demus remembers the day that he moved out of temporary housing into his new home in Davis Park:
"Transitioning into my own home, that was a crying day. I just never thought that it would ever happen...I've been blessed and this is a beautiful home."
While several former residents of Davis Bottom went through the transition, many opted to move away, instead. The project is still in progress, but the neighborhood continues to grow, if slowly. Demus hopes that as the neighborhood grows, it continues its legacy as a diverse community:
I just can't wait until they get more houses built down here to bring more diversity into the neighborhood. That's what I'm looking forward to....I really do miss [that diversity]...We were a forgotten neighborhood but we were still blessed."