Land + Water Project Description
A PROJECT FOR ELKHORN CITY KENTUCKY
CREATED + DIRECTED BY
Suzanne Lacy, Susan Leibovitz Steinman, Yutaka Kobayashi
Respecting people and place, we formulated work ethics that followed their desire for an asset-based approach. We’d take nothing out but memories and friendships, and bring in all we could—money, connections, labor, people, talent—to the civic table.
Joining their momentum, we became part of their process, adding “art” to the work of local place making and their dream of a sustainable tourist economy.
After countless planning sessions, final design criteria centered on EC’s desire to realize “a mural and a riverfront park” to attract visitors, celebrate history, preserve the environment and reflect town pride.
WHAT WE FOUND
In Appalachia, moonshine production and union activism are part of a colorful culture of resistance, a spirit that persists in local lore and humor. Collective organizing brought the region to national prominence decades ago.
Today Eastern Kentucky may face a bleaker outlook, its poverty rate over 25 percent. The tax base is eroded by a history of taxing coal reserves owned by outside corporations at a rate less than one tenth of other real property.
Main Street is visually dominated by vacant lots, degraded historic buildings, and dust-coating coal trucks, but in EC there are signs of positive development: a new library (the town meeting place), pharmacy, and an active live community theater.
ASSET BASED PLANNING
Assets include a visually intact landscape, a beautiful river that runs through town, dedicated people and the Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council (ECAHC).
ASSET #1: The people.
People maintain vital connections to this place—fishing, swimming, kayaking the Russell Fork River; morning fog over lush mountains, and most families have roots that go back more than 100 years. They want development but not at the cost of what they love best—the land + water. Monetarily poor there is a rich heritage of quilting, music making (home of blue grass), wood working (whittling, furniture building), and more.
Elkhorn City sports a strong community life, from ubiquitous churches to civic organizations. Seeing past the gas stations, vacant lots, and trashed rivers, the Elkhorn City that long time residents bear witness to is still possible.
This project was “made on a dime.” What we lacked in money, we gained in human resources. Residents helped whenever, whereever, they could, joining in the art making, community building process.
Asset #2: A beautiful intact environment—THE WATERSHED
EC sits on the banks of the Russell Fork River, a tributary to the Big Sandy, whose watershed starts higher in Virginia, and flows downstream to the Ohio, where its waters join the Mississippi, Gulf of Mexico, and eventually, the Atlantic Ocean. How EC cares for its river affects a wider world.
Above town, world-class rapids cascade through the Breaks—the “Grand Canyon of the South.” A sizeable multi-state audience of kayakers, campers, and hikers visit Breaks Interstate Park annually. The newly built Pine Mountain Trail ends nearby. If EC could connect to these nearby assets, green tourism seems tantalizingly possible.
Asset #3: WATERFRONT PARK SITE
Called “God’s thumbprint” because of the horseshoe bend in the river that envelops Ain Street, the waterfront is an integral part of the town center.
The EC waterfront was a park-in-waiting, hemmed in by asphalt parking lots.
A peeling sign listing native birds and unprotected birdhouses constituted a “bird sanctuary.” Assets were an attractive historic red caboose (an ersatz “visitor center”), river viewing decks, and easy access to the river. With intervention, a revitalized riverfront could become habitat to butterflies, birds, fish, and an inviting site for human recreation and wildlife viewing.