Lexington's East End: A changing neighborhood

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

Story by Bailey Vandiver | Photos by Arden Barnes

Lights shine off a row of houses on Ohio Street in the East End of Lexington, Kentucky, on Monday, March 2, 2020.

A prostitute using the bathroom to wash up. A millionaire and his kids drinking smoothies. A man asking if he can clean the windows to make a couple bucks. A council member sitting in the corner.

These could have been the customers in Wild Fig Books and Coffee “on any given day,” said former owner and current UK English professor Crystal Wilkinson.

That scene in Wild Fig is like a microcosm of the community that surrounds the bookstore: the East End of Lexington.

When Lexington’s black population increased after the Civil War, many settled in the East End, which was then the outskirts of the city. Now it is just north and east of downtown Lexington.

Like its people and its buildings, the East End’s boundaries have changed over time. Today, the East End is generally thought to be framed by Midland Avenue, North Broadway, Main Street and Loudon Avenue.

“It’s a neighborhood where extremes exist,” said Griffin VanMeter, a developer and business owner in the East End and North Limestone communities.

It’s a place where a family can buy a house for the first time after living in substandard housing for 20 years. But it’s also a place where an escaped dog eats a cat in front of VanMeter’s kids, he said.

“I think that unfortunately, the East End tends to get sort of homogenized,” said Kris Nonn, executive director of North Limestone Community Development Corporation (NoLi CDC). “East End is much more complicated than that.”

There are million-dollar houses, and half-million-dollar houses, and houses without plumbing, and people sleeping in their cars. “There’s no consistency to it,” Nonn said.

“It’s a beautiful place because there’s so much going on and it’s all so different,” Nonn said.

A mural reads "The Future is Bright!" on Elm Street in Lexington, Kentucky, on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020.

“It really is a peaceful community,” said Mizari Suárez, who has rented on Chestnut Street for three years and is in the process of buying a home. “And it’s also a community that worries about things, like gun violence, that are constantly happening in the East End.”

That tends to be the perception of East End, said Suárez and other residents: It is a place of crime, and it is a place with residents who don’t care.

Until 60 years ago, streets in the East End like Deweese and Third were centers of economy and culture. But when downtown expansion began to infringe on the East End, many people fled the area.

The population of the East End declined from the 1960s through 2000, the year of the last available census information about the area. Then, the East End was comprised of 387 acres and 3,940 residents.

In 2009, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government considered these demographics in its East End Small Area Plan, a collection of goals meant to drive development in the neighborhood.

Eleven years later, the East End has certainly changed. Liquor stores have become bakeries. Shotgun houses have been refurbished and painted bright colors. Bookstores have opened and closed and opened again. Black residents have moved— or been pushed out—and white residents have moved in.

This has happened, is happening, and will likely continue to happen. The question is how much revitalizes the neighborhood, and how much gentrifies it.

In 2000, East End was 72 percent black, 26 percent white, and 5 percent Hispanic or Latino.

But the racial composition has been changing, said Mike Wilson, a black man and reverend who has lived in the East End for most of his life. Now he lives on the corner of Wilson Street and Elm Tree Lane.

Reverend Mike Wilson

A black man local to the area used to own the three shotgun houses past Wilson’s house, but he sold them to an investor for $20,000 a piece.

Now, the colorful houses— one with red siding and a blue door, another with blue siding and a red door— are all home to white families. They sold for more than $100,000 each.

Wilson said he knew people of color who were interested in purchasing the houses, but he’s not sure if they had the opportunity. But others have even less of a chance.

“You’re displacing persons who have basically relied on this affordable housing area for a place to live,” Wilson said.

Spiking up prices makes the housing inaccessible for some in the area, which can force them out.

With his siblings, Wilson owns another house, a shotgun on Dakota Street. It was his dad’s property, and he’s held on to it for the 28 years since he died.

He had occasionally rented it out, but after 28 years of paying taxes on it, he decided it was time to sell in 2017. He chose a developer he knew, a black man in the neighborhood, and was in the process of reaching a deal.

“I ran into a brick wall,” Wilson said. He found out that one of his siblings had a federal tax loan debt on the house, which made selling more difficult. He and the developer paused their plans.

In April 2019, Wilson received a code enforcement notice about the Dakota Street house.

Soon after, requests to purchase the house began arriving via postcard, sometimes two a month. These come from developers who are trying to get property for cheap, Wilson said.

Somehow, Wilson thinks, these developers find out that property owners have been sent code enforcement notices and may be facing fines if the issues are not addressed. If these issues are too much for the property owner, money from a quick sale to a developer might seem like the best option.

“It’s almost like code enforcement was being used as a vehicle to put this pressure on these persons,” said Wilson, who is a former council member for District 1, which includes the East End.

Current District 1 Councilman James Brown, who is black, has even received one of these postcards at his house, he said.

Councilman James Brown

He has heard community members’ concerns that code enforcement is being weaponized, he said. Some people fear that developers specifically call code enforcement on them in order to turn up the pressure.

“Whether or not it’s happening or not happening, there’s a perception that it’s happening,” Brown said. “So I think we have to make sure that’s not the case and investigate the incidents where it’s happened to make sure that’s not the case.”

“We” is the Task Force on Neighborhoods in Transition, a city task force aiming to “protect vulnerable residents from the consequences of neighborhood redevelopment and transformation,” reads the purpose statement.

Brown is the chair of the task force, which was created in May 2018 by Lexington Vice Mayor Steve Kay, who is white. The group has been holding monthly meetings, which include feedback from the public, to discuss the issues facing the East End specifically.

Most of the neighborhoods likely to see gentrification are located in District 1, Brown said, which made this an issue he “decided to own and to spearhead.”

Not calling it the “Gentrification Task Force” was deliberate, Brown said.

“It just has a negative connotation,” Brown said. “There’s no way around it, and people start expressing their thoughts and what they’re seeing in a negative tone, so it’s hard to have a progressive conversation out of it.”

The task force aims to have several recommendations ready to present this spring, Brown said. One of the main focuses is affordable housing. The city already has an affordable housing fund, but it isn’t a trust fund because there is no dedicated funding source.

“Yet it has been steady for the last few years since it’s been created, it’s always that opportunity for it to get tinkered with based off the city’s budget,” Brown said.

Brown and the task force are proposing a permanent funding source to make it “something that we can depend on and continues to increase as the need for affordable housing increases.”

Another recommendation concerns changes to code enforcement.

“We want the job that they do to be consistent throughout the city,” Brown said. “What we need to recognize or understand is not everybody is of the same means, so there may be different paths to get to the same goal based off of what code enforcement is trying to do.”

Sweeping the sidewalks and the driveway is part of a typical morning routine in Mexico.

Mizari Suárez, who is Latina, said she doesn’t remember much from her childhood in Mexico, but she does remember this.

More than three years ago, when she was looking for a place to live, her friend told her to come look at his new place in the East End. “You’ll fall in love with it,” he said.

When she drove up to his house, he was sweeping the driveway.

“That, to me, was just like, oh man, yeah,” Suárez said. “This is going to be like home.”

She moved into that house on Chestnut Street as a renter, and she did fall in love with it— and the East End. About a year ago, she moved into the next house over on Chestnut Street, but she still held a special affection for that first house.

So when the opportunity to purchase it came up, she said “why not?”

“I knew when I first moved into that house that I wanted to be there forever,” Suárez said.

Suárez and her two-and-a-half-year-old dog Sasha will soon move back into that house. They often take walks around the neighborhood, Suárez said, which allows her to see and know her community.

Mizari Suárez and her dog Sasha sit in front of their Chestnut Street home in Lexington, Kentucky, on Feb. 21, 2020.

Many people view the East End as full of trash, Suárez said, but her friend is not the only one who sweeps. One of her neighbors across the street picks up trash and sweeps every day when he gets home from work.

“I’ve realized for him it’s like a sense of ownership of his community,” Suárez said, “and a sense of like, okay, I’m taking back what people say about the East End.”

Poet, artist and UK English professor Frank X Walker just moved into the East End, on Goodloe Street, and he said he often walks the street to pick up garbage. Sometimes it’s thrown by non-residents who don’t care whether McDonald’s bags and beer bottles are on the street.

“I think also what happens in communities like this is that when there are so many people renting, there’s not a sense of ownership in the community,” said Walker, who is black.

That’s the benefit of homeownership, Walker said. But many people are not ready for homeownership, Councilman Brown said, and renting is not a problem as long as landlords and renters are committed to safe and affordable housing.

Suárez said she was lucky because when she was renting, her landlord was her friend, and he wasn’t predatory as a landlord.

“We understand the awful landlords and the developers that come in places like the East End, and that’s not really what he’s trying to do or I’m trying to do,” Suárez said. “We’re really just trying to build a sense of community between us.”

Her street does have this community, she said— although she can tell that people have moved because last summer included fewer barbecues and gatherings than the one before.

But each summer on Chestnut Street brings beautiful, tall sunflowers, and last summer, Suárez started a new project: a garden in her front yard.

She planted tomato seeds and watched them grow. “And one day, I was out there, and there was a big, beautiful red tomato that I was just ready to eat on a mozzarella sandwich,” she said.

But a woman whom Suárez had never seen before walked up and offered to pay her for the tomato.

“In my mind, I was like, obviously I don’t want to give you my tomato because I’ve been looking forward to it,” she said. “But it hit me that this was probably the only thing that she could afford.”

So Suárez gave the tomato to the woman for free, and she came back several times for more. No tomato ever looked as good to Suárez as that first one did, but she took that as a sign from “whatever you believe in” that she was meant to give away tomatoes.

“People talk about what can we do for the East End, what can we do?” Suárez said. “It’s little things like that.”

It’s a food-insecure area, Suárez said, so resources should be going to things like food and access to food, in addition to mental health specialists and social workers.

A woman pushes a shopping cart through Duncan Park in Lexington, Kentucky, on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020.

“It is a historically very under-resourced neighborhood,” said Griffin VanMeter, who has brought his personal resources to the area in a variety of ways. “There are a lot of social [and] economic issues that are a result of that.”

One place that aims to be a provider of resources for the community is Wild Fig Books. When Crystal Wilkinson and her partner Ron Davis, who are black, decided to sell the business in 2018, a group came together as a worker-cooperative to purchase it.

The Wild Fig was always operating like a community center more than a business, Wilkinson said, but she thinks the co-op model has taken it even further in the direction of being “a service to the community.”

People have been able to come to the Wild Fig for books, or for good food, or for free condoms. They can also gather there and find a safe space.

A man walks down North Limestone toward Wild Fig Books and Coffee on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020.

But at the end of February, Wild Fig had to close in the East End. Sarah Williams, who is black, is one of the worker-owners. She said this is due to a breakdown in communication and agreement with Griffin VanMeter, who is one of the owners of the building as part of Frontier Highway, a company that rents out commercial and residential spaces.

It was VanMeter, who is white, who first invited Wilkinson and Davis to bring the Wild Fig to North Limestone years ago, and VanMeter loaned $25,000 to the worker-cooperative to purchase the business. Discussions between VanMeter and the co-op over the last year or so have included promising options for the co-op to eventually purchase the building, Williams said.

“He never followed through on making that a reality,” Williams said during a Feb. 16 community meeting at the Wild Fig, despite recent talks about avenues for the Wild Fig co-op to purchase the building this year.

Williams said that once she realized that there was no option to buy the building or have the lease extended, the Wild Fig needed to move out of that space.

In a Feb. 25 statement, Wild Fig worker-owners said the bookstore received a large donation from the community so it can reopen in another location, but the details have not yet been finalized.

Williams has often called the Wild Fig a “sacred space” for the community.

Tina Durbin, a worker-owner of the Wild Fig, said that she first walked into the bookstore about five years ago because she had realized “we as white people have to learn more about being white, and what that means, and how we can help break down the barriers for people of color.”

“This space allows me to teach myself,” she said. “Knowledge is through power, and we know… that it comes through books, but it also comes through community and conversation… all of which happens right here.”

Suárez, who is also a Wild Fig worker-owner, said what happened to the Wild Fig is gentrification doing “its awful thing.”

In the 25 years that Thomas Tolliver has lived in his red house on Third Street, the lightbulb in the foyer has never needed to be replaced.

The light hangs from the ceiling, encased in an intricate glass chandelier that Tolliver describes as a beehive. It sheds light on the wall just inside Tolliver’s house, where he has pinned photos and pamphlets and a typewritten letter, all of which showcase black history.

Much of the decorations relate to Dr. T. T. Wendell, a black doctor whose family owned the house for much of the 20th century.

Tolliver, who is black, has a lot of respect for Wendell because he kept pieces of history rather than throwing them away.

“It’s good for black history,” Tolliver said.

Thomas Tolliver holds a recent photo of his home on Third Street next to a photograph taken of the house in 1920.

Tolliver describes himself as an East End activist, but he also acknowledges that his opinions differ from many others with whom he shares a neighborhood. Rather than stopping change in the neighborhood, he wants “preservation amid change.” For example, he believes East End history can be told without its buildings, so saving old, rundown buildings isn’t necessary.

But what really sets him apart is his views toward gentrification.

“Bring it on,” he says.