If you think of a charming, culturally significant, Southern river city, what springs to mind? All the usual suspects, of course: New Orleans, Memphis, Charleston, Savannah.
One that probably isn't on your list but just might be the quintessential Southern river town is Paducah. In this city at Kentucky's extreme western edge, four rivers define the way of life. The Ohio and Tennessee meet here, with the Mississippi (west) and Cumberland (east) just a few miles away.
In Paducah's historic downtown, you'll see elements of the other Southern gems. Courtyards with tinkling fountains a la Savannah. Musical melodies trilling through the night just like in Memphis. And if you stand in front of Market Square, you might think you were at New Orleans' French Market.
But Paducah, at only 25,00 people and pretty much in the middle between St. Louis and Nashville, has something that none of these cities do — designation as a UNESCO Creative City, one of only nine in the United States. Along with Santa Fe, N.M.; Tucson, Ariz.; Austin and San Antonio, Texas; Seattle; Detroit; Kansas City, Mo.; and Iowa City, Iowa, Paducah has been tapped for offering something unique to the culture of its region in one of seven categories: literature, music, design, film, media arts, gastronomy, and crafts and folk art.
Paducah's designation is for crafts and folk art, due in large part to its incomparable National Quilt Museum.
If you visit the museum thinking that this is a journey back to the days of quilting bees and your great-grandmother's patchwork offerings, well you're partly right.
Opened in 1991, the National Quilt Museum does provide insight into the history of quilt-making as a form of American self-expression, but it goes far beyond that. Its three galleries covering 27,000 square feet showcase the finest quilt and fiber art in the world.
With 500 quilts in its permanent collection, the museum has something to suit even mixed tastes — a small quilt the size of a bath mat depicting pop icon Prince or an epic quilt illustrating scenes from Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins' journey in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. Spotting all the intricate details in that one would take a day of standing and staring.
If the quilts have put you in an artistic frame of mind, stroll a couple of streets over to the riverfront to see Paducah Wall-to-Wall, a three-block long collection of murals by renowned American artist Robert Dafford. The backdrop for these colorful displays of art is the protective wall built along the bank of the Ohio following a disastrous 1937 flood. The 50 murals depict the city's history from pre-Colonial days to the mid-20th century.
Creative is a word often used to describe Paducah. But creativity wasn't the first thing artist Mark Barone had in mind when he began petitioning police in the 1980s to remove a phone booth below his window in the city's LowerTown neighborhood. Night after night, Barone watched a steady stream of people stand in line to use the phone.
Based on his observations, he engaged in a one-man crusade to end illegal activities. Successful in his efforts, he then suggested that the city encourage artists to come revitalize Paducah's oldest historic neighborhood.
"Thus, began a partnership between the city, its citizens, and Paducah Bank & Trust which ultimately resulted in the nationally acclaimed Artists Relocation Program," says Nathan Brown, a ceramics artist and musician.
Begun in 2000 when funding for the arts nationwide had been drastically slashed, the program offered qualifying artists the opportunity to purchase a home in the neighborhood at an extremely low rate, sometimes for as little as $1.
Response was immediate. Soon, 50 artists were living in LowerTown's mixed Victorian dwellings. Galleries exhibiting their work popped up. The relocation program became a national model for using the arts as an economic development tool.
Many of the original artists have moved on. Currently, 20 live and work here, including Shand Stamper and Mitch Kimball, who relocated from North Carolina 11 years ago.
Stamper, whose specialties are 3-D design and metalsmithing, and Kimball, a ceramicist, painter and art educator, are enamored of Paducah's river town character in general and their neighborhood's atmosphere in specific.
Says Kimball: "Along with painters, watercolorists, batik and fiber artists, there are a host of other creative types who wanted to call LowerTown home — teachers, small business owners, art collectors, and chefs."
"The Artist Relocation Program cultured the whole population to expect something different," Stamper says.
The city's creativity doesn't stop with traditional artists. There is a robust theater scene, a symphony orchestra, 13 museums, and a rising star chef.
Sara Bradley is also the owner of the Freight House, Paducah's first farm-to-table restaurant, bringing ingredients sourced within a day's drive to dishes that define the flavor of the New South. Her signature dish is Kentucky Silver Carp with bean and mushroom succotash and Nashville hot sauce. She recently took her commonwealth cuisine to the James Beard House in New York.
On my visit, I made a meal of several starters, including ruby beets with herbed yogurt and coriander; deviled eggs with Creole remoulade and parsley; cold golden carrot soup with ginger, Meyer lemon and peanuts; and shrimp cocktail with spicy horseradish, burnt lemon and dill.
The creative dining experience extended to dessert — French toast bread pudding with drunk peaches, candied bacon, and vanilla bean ice cream created by Bradley's mother, Bebe, who is the pastry chef.
The Freight House's bar serves remarkable classic cocktails and in the true spirit of Kentucky, includes more than 300 bourbons.
For simpler fare, don't leave town without stopping for coffee at Piper's or a pizza at the Mellow Mushroom. They are just two of the eight businesses that now occupy the city's former Coca-Cola bottling plant, a landmark of Art Deco architecture and design that includes a rotunda on the 9,000-square-foot terrazzo tile floor below a neon-lighted dome and amid a sweeping double staircase.