The story of historic Lower Town through the lives and lenses of two of its newest inhabitants
PADUCAH TRANSPLANTS CHAR DOWNS AND DR. JAY DOWNS SISKA, EdD. would have never imagined that they would be the ones to write the story of Lower Town. In fact, just a few years ago, the word Kentucky had never before entered their vocabulary.
The couple was living in their dream home in Alameda, California, in the heart of the San Francisco Bay area. With a breathtaking view of the San Francisco skyline, the home, draped in the ethereal songs of birds in the nearby estuary, was everything they had ever hoped for and thought they’d never leave. But as Char explains, “the muses had something else in mind.”
Char, a gifted artist, was a member of a professional group that helped artists build networking capabilities. It was here that she heard about Paducah’s Artist Relocation Program. “Everyone was abuzz about the program because it was very forward-thinking in terms of the opportunities it offered to artists,” she recalls. She went home and talked it over with Jay, and the pair decided to arrange a visit.
From the moment they stepped foot in Paducah’s vibrant arts district, they began to ponder the prospect of relocation. But it wasn’t long before they arrived at a decision. “Kentucky had never come up in any of our conversations before,” Char recollects. “But all of a sudden, every sign seemed to point to Paducah as the place where we should be. In the airport on our way back to California, I bent over to pick up a quarter at the bottom of the escalator. I never pick up spare change, but something told me to pick it up. It was a Kentucky quarter. When we got home, we decided to rent a movie and what did the main character have on but a shirt that read ‘Get Lucky in Kentucky.’ And all of a sudden, we started meeting people who were from Kentucky or had some connection to the area. It was just amazing how it all unfolded.”
Char and Jay sold their gorgeous waterfront home at the snap of their fingers and traveled over 2,500 miles to the place they now embrace as home. The couple is no stranger to adventure; they married 60 feet below the ocean’s surface in a submarine! “Jay followed me to Saipan while I was an art teacher at the only public high school on the island. Then, I followed him 8,000 miles to Florida and then another 3,000 miles to California. It was his turn to follow me!” says Char chuckling. But this was only the beginning of the convergence of their story with the story of Paducah.
Upon their arrival, they quickly encountered the warmth of a community that drew them in and claimed them as its own. “We’ve lived a lot of different places—all over—but never in any of the other places have we experienced the kind of reception we’ve experienced here.” Char continues, “The community has a real openness to what the artist can bring.”
The first person they met in their new hometown was the renowned local historian John E.L. Robertson. Their friendship blossomed, and one day over a cup of coffee at Global Nomad, John had a proposal for them: why not write a book on the history of Lower Town? Paducahans for only four short months, the couple had certainly never entertained the notion of writing a book about the community they had only recently come to know and love.
After a call from Arcadia publishing, the pair enthusiastically embarked on a new adventure of writing the story of the small section of Paducah now hailed as an art oasis. Their book Then & Now: Lower Town, Paducah was published six months later. Jay was the writer and Char the photographer who also provided invaluable editorial contributions. “Undertaking this book was the perfect way to introduce ourselves to the community,” remarks Char. “Most of the material for the book was gathered by word of mouth. As locals began to overhear about our undertaking, they’d offer us stories, passed down from their family’s oral history, and photographs from their family scrapbooks and memorabilia.”
Locals invited Jay to search their cellars, basements, and attics to piece together the untold story of their proud heritage. Jay compiled all the then photographs, and Char took all the now photographs, and these images, poignantly juxtaposed, tell the story of how the fastest growing arts district in the nation came to be.
When Jay showed Char one particular photograph, she immediately knew that they had found the cover for the book. The 1937 photograph depicts several Paducah residents seeking respite from the unrelenting flood waters that threatened to submerge the home on 403 North 7th Street. On the back cover is a photograph of the same property nearly 70 years later. Artists and Lower Town residents stand in the same spot, now home to Lorrie Cody’s Loco Arts Gallery. “I knew immediately these images would be the material for the front and back cover,” says Char. “They resonated with me because of the history of it and the people and what’s happening now. They just said it all in a nutshell.” The juxtaposition of the two photographs show how historic Lower Town has determinedly reinvented itself, thanks to the support of residents, elected officials, the city, and financing provided by Paducah Bank.
As Jay writes in the introduction of the book, the couple feels “truly blessed to have discovered the place Char has been looking for all her life.” And doubly blessed to have been part of the now—the flourishing arts community they have both come to cherish—while also preserving the story of Lower Town then.
Two roads diverged and two artists took the one less traveled, and, for them, that has made all the difference.