I want to move from the house that I live in. Moving brings with it the potential of doing something new, so my brain started chewing on the possibilities. The first thing I knew was that I want to stay in Paducah, Kentucky, where I landed in 2005 after 20 years in Chicago. Before that, I had lived in Brazil for 18 years as a missionary kid and came to the US for an education at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. My life, until I came to Paducah, was embedded in multiculturalism. Our city in Brazil, Maringa, was full of immigrants, a third of them Japanese. I hung out with the international students at St. Olaf and our parties in Chicago were like a fun version of the United Nations.
Then, I came to Paducah and have spent the last 12 years in front of a computer, first selling online and then working with artists and fair trade groups around the world through two projects I launched, TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List (launched 2010) and Artizan Made (launched 2014). I love both of them and am inspired daily by the creative energy they represent, all happening in 44 countries. I don’t want to sit in front of a screen for hours on end anymore. I realized that I could make both of them come alive here through a brick and mortar space, which until recently, I didn’t think Paducah could support. Now I believe that it can. The image of a cultural space with a gallery, events, food, music, dance, and more began to take shape.
My years in Chicago started out in social service but quickly moved to working with handicrafts and local artists in many capacities over the 20 years that I was there. I managed a co-op for four years then ran three different shops, each bigger than the last, always focused on handmade with a global emphasis. The last shop was with Abdul Wardak who recently opened Beads and Rugs here in Paducah.
Soon after we opened, 9/11 happened and we had a tough time selling anything from Central Asia, the bulk of his inventory. Our rent was $4,000/month and after four years, we went back to safer grounds: me online and him on the road, doing bead shows.
I knew I wanted to leave Chicago because of the overhead and we explored several art towns in the Southeast with Paducah winning out because it is a crossroads. I researched where to go for two years and one day, I was sitting at my computer, thinking about these handmade things from around the world and I realized that what I loved the most was the cultural connections it offers. I sat back, put my feet up on my desk, and a vision appeared: The Peace Villa, a ten-acre village of huts from around the world filled with life brought in by travelers, artists and the staff that worked there. I researched the idea for six months and found that it would take 3 million dollars to build but that after 5 years at 30% occupancy, it would be paid off. I tabled it because I did not have the connections at that time to make it happen and I wanted to leave. Green House Paducah has similar elements but on a smaller scale.
My interest in structures probably started as a teenager when one of the youth groups I was involved with helped build a Bible Camp in Brazil. One of my best friend’s father was the visionary who made it happen and we would go out and help lay bricks, do landscaping, paint and watch it grow.
As I grew older, I became more interested in sustainability, materials, and simple living. Abdul bought several houses when I moved to Paducah and in exchange for living in one of them, I set up a shop for him on Etsy and have helped him manage the properties including rehab work on a couple of them. I’ve seen what lies under old carpeting and wallpaper, the quick cosmetics of siding and the sloppiness of builders who don’t care about their work. We have dealt with drunks, thieves and over time, finally found good people to work with. But, my feeling on construction and manufacturing, in general, is that the industries are upside down, which makes me appreciate fine craftsmanship even more.
I am a maker and have been as far back as I can remember. I have a wide range of exposure to all kinds of tools, techniques, and materials, but my biggest personal loves have been textiles and clay. I worked as a professional ceramic artist in Chicago for three years and then moved to sewing and embroidery and now I knit. My interest in the entrepreneurial side of what I do has always been on economic development and in finding ways to help artists and groups access the markets they need to make a living.
My hope is that this new chapter will allow me to use all of the skills I have learned and the relationships I have built into something that is enjoyable for me and invaluable for our community here in Paducah.
Green Roof started out in my mind as a pretty small operation, something that I can handle on my own, partnering with others on what I can’t or don’t want to do myself. As I’ve talked to people, it’s clear that there is great interest in the idea and that it could grow into a large operation. It will evolve, but for my own needs, I am looking at housing, gallery/boutique space, events, and international connections.
In cultural immersion, there are three points of entry that make a trip memorable: hospitality, food and the arts. Who we meet, the accommodations, what we eat and drink, and all of the entertainment that comes through music, film, books, theater, and the visual arts impact our senses and shape our impression of the “other”. I want to explore the cultural riches we already have in Paducah and have them come together in a new way. We pretty much think of Paducah as white and black, but I have seen very few platforms for sharing between colors.
There are many recent immigrants who live here who do not come together very often. Dr. Leila Lindquist of Metropolis is originally from Switzerland and has a yearly international potluck at her house. I have been invited twice and each time there were over 200 people there, bringing food from all over the world! Where are they hiding for the rest of the year? I see an international film night, art activities, bringing in talent from other places for performances, and finding out what these people have to offer, what they would like to see happen.
I want to bring people to Paducah and send Paducahns to interesting places though a creative exchange program. We already have artist residencies here, but we are not sending people out of here to learn elsewhere. I can tap into my connections through TAFA and Artizan Made and we can send our people to some pretty interesting destinations. Some examples:
There are many, many more. TAFA has over 600 members and Artizan has 60. These opportunities are life changing ones. We can bring them to learn from us and we can go there to learn from them. Many wonderful destinations are right here in the US, mostly textile artists embedded in their own creative circles, pushing the boundaries of what has been traditional.
In the same way, these connections also offer a rich source for products which we do not have in Paducah. I would like to exhibit the talent of these two groups as well as buy from those who wholesale. Two sources for ethnic goods as examples:
TAFA’s textile artists include some of the top names in the the field, with excellence in art quilts, weaving, felt, eco-dyeing, and much more. Artizan Made includes more media with representation in ceramics, wood, metal and mixed media. Check out some of the table top offerings:
My criteria in building both TAFA and Artizan has been to look for excellence, originality, and a commitment to the process. Both sites show a healthy selection of work that reflects sustainability, care for the environment and use of materials that might otherwise end up in landfills. In the same way, food interests me not only for its flavor and enjoyment, but in its point of origin. I have no background in feeding numbers of people and am looking for talent that has that same interest who also can support organic foods, local CSAs and growers who have a commitment to the earth. Paducah can use more offerings with cultural roots. As far as I am aware, we have no Indian food here. I would like to see affordable finger food, pastries, and healthy tapas style foods, focusing mostly on plant-based recipes. We have way too many meat based restaurants here!
Why Green Roof?
How we build shapes our perception of the world around us. Many cities around the world have embraced the concept of greening their roofs in order to help clean the air, cool down temperatures and provide habitats for birds and bees. These efforts include bringing food production closer to consumers. Using rooftops is one solution. Chicago has greened the roofs of over 200 buildings, including their library:
Many of the structures I’m interested in incorporate these methods. Living roofs have ancient roots in many cultures, including the sod houses that pioneers lived in as they settled the United States. The City probably would not let me have a cow on the roof, but hopefully they will embrace the concept of green roofs.
Paducah as Prime Location
From the City of Paducah‘s site: “According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 Paducah had a population of 25,024. … The racial composition of Paducah as reported as follows: 71.0% White and 23.7% African-American with the remaining percentages being comprised with persons who reported their races as either American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, Other race reported, two or more Races, or Hispanic or Latino.”
When I first moved to Paducah, people told me, “Be careful of what you say because everyone is related to everyone else…” I thought they meant that all of the whites were related to each other, all blacks to each other… Actually, I have found a great deal of mixed families here. Many of our tenants in Abdul’s houses, along with applicants we met, have been mixed-race couples. We had an African American man who was fixing something for me at my house and he told me he would bring his sons the next day. I was so surprised when I met them and found two big white burly guys! We all make assumptions, even those of us who think we are “politically correct”… At the same time, I have seen very little evidence of mixing on a social level. Churches are segregated as is entertainment. The most mixed arena has to be the public schools, our library, and our tech school, WKCTS. While there is tension between the groups, there is also acceptance. Green Roof can be one more bridge where local residents can interact with each other.
Paducah has a long history as a crossroads both literally and politically. During the Civil War, families were split between North and South. Yet, it is a River City, which means that outsiders have always landed here for work on the river or traveling through to reach another place. We are two or three hours smack in the middle of Nashville, St. Louis and Memphis, all major metropolitan areas. People who live in rural areas and don’t want to deal with their traffic come here. We have two major hospitals, tons of law offices, and almost all of the major shopping chains. (Trader Joe’s… Please, come!)
We are a seven hour drive from Chicago or Atlanta, making Paducah a great weekend destination, apart from the sad fact that almost everything is closed on Sundays…
You can still buy an affordable home in Paducah. It is cheaper to buy here than to rent, which makes it a magnet for retirement and for young families. Check out the MLS listings for Paducah. Maybe you will want to move here, too! I wanted to leave Chicago because I knew I would never be able to afford having a home there and rents were sky high. There are plenty of fixer uppers and empty lots to build on. Parts of the City have gone through major revitalization efforts spurned on by the City, but many other neighborhoods are run down or ignored, meaning that there is still plenty of opportunity for development.
This is what makes Paducah viable for what I want to do. The downtown hosts several institutions which receive great support from the community at large including a huge performance venue, a live theater, an indie cinema, a symphony, tasty restaurants, and much more. Visit and explore the Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau to see their highlights on our cultural life. We are designated as an Unesco Creative City (in jeopardy because of our current Administration in Washington), are known as “Quilt City, USA” because of the National Quilt Museum, and have a thriving neighborhood of artists living in the LowerTown Arts District. We used to have a sister city in Japan, but I don’t know if that is still active. The Paducah Arts Alliance hosts residencies and several members have had wonderful exhibiting experiences in Europe. The Yeiser Art Center predates many of these efforts with a long time artistic voice in Paducah and currently hosting one of the world’s most prestigious textile shows through Fantastic Fibers, a yearly exhibit. The establishment of the Paducah School of Art and Design tops it all off by making the arts a core program of our tech school and it’s located in LowerTown, our arts district.
This video illustrates some of the destinations I’ve mentioned above:
Two of my friends from LowerTown are interviewed in this video and both have connections in Mexico:
In short, the artistic life in Paducah thrives with visual arts, theater, music, the spoken word, dance and more! What is lacking is a cultural center where both local and international roots have a visible voice.
Another key component to making Green Roof workable lies in the entrepreneurial environment that has surfaced in the last few years. Not too long ago, our wonderful public library hosted a presentation by the Musselmans who revitalized a Coca Cola plant building that had been vacant for many years. The building’s structure made it a visible landmark, “Take a left at the Coca Cola building”…. But, it was not much more than that. This young, inspiring couple had a vision and made it work, transforming the neighborhood and local economy by rehabbing it, installing a brewery, creating a lively music venue, opening a restaurant and incubating several other small businesses. Their presentation almost made me weep as I saw that this was the next generation who would shape the city and I loved their tenacity, commitment to sustainability, and transparency. Ed and Meagan Musselman share their story here:
Murray State University, where they met, is about 45 miles from Paducah and has extensions here in town.
The City has banks and an active Chamber of Commerce looking for talent. They offer resources and funding for good ideas. Another friend, Monica Bilak, is spearheading Sprocket Innovation, a Maker’s Space in Paducah, which embraces science and technology with a special focus on educating children and young people.
Imagine bringing their kids into green building and all of the cultural activities Green Roof can develop!
Ever since I sat back and watched that vision of the Peace Villa unfold, I knew that the SouthEast was a perfect place to develop this vision. There are loads of interesting destinations in the SouthWest (and West in general) and in Florida, but the SouthEastern States pretty much have stuck to Victorian or Country as aesthetics for tourist attractions. For people like me, this is not all that inviting…. There are pockets of interest, here and there, but generally, not much in terms of global themes or self-sustaining architecture. The West is running out of water, which drives the search for alternative building and real estate prices have spiked an interest in Tiny Homes nationwide.
The world is a mess and rather than risk whatever unstable conditions might be found abroad along with the annoyance of flying and the expense, traveling to local destinations makes sense for a lot of people. I know that my Chicago friends would enjoy a destination here in Paducah where they could get a feel for the exotic while not having to go all that far.
As this vision started to expand into a larger project, the needs for space changed. There are many sites in Paducah that would accommodate the core programming very well. Here are a few examples of how this could go.
If it’s just me, partnering with others on things like food and programming, this house is ideal:
Visit this link for more photos. The house is only $25K but is not livable. It has 5 bedrooms and an addition would have to be added for my living space (office/studio and bedroom) and the whole house would be dedicated to public space. Another structure would be built for a gallery and workshops. It’s a double lot, very close to Western Baptist Hospital in a safe, treed area. There is room for a food kiosk to the left of the house. It would cost about $100K to make the house livable for guests, including the addition for me.
This street is in the heart of MidTown which has undergone a huge development push in the last few years and is close to LowerTown, where the artists live. There is a strip of neglected/empty lots which are mostly in estates that haven’t been resolved. This is an excellent location as it is close to the arts district, to downtown and very close to a park that the City is working on. The empty buildings could serve as immediate anchors for an eco-Village with quick renovations to house gallery, restaurant and living spaces.
All of the buildings have empty lots next to them, making it ideal for future eco-village structures.
This building is right across the street from the Paducah School of Art and Design, making it an ideal spot for collaborations with them. It is huge, a series of warehouses which interests me because it could become a contained environment with skylights and the structures built inside, along with year long plants. See more images here. It’s almost $186,000 which is a considerable investment, given that a lot of work would have to be done to it before it becomes functional. Yet, it wouldn’t have to happen all at once… It is in LowerTown, walking distance to the artist residences.
There are many other places that would also work beautifully, just depending on what the City would allow us to do in terms of alternative construction and how big of a project would make sense. It all depends on how much interest and support gets generated as word of this gets out. (Hint, hint…)
Check out Paducah on Google maps:
Aside from the many wonderful initiatives I have already mentioned above, my vision is to tap into what is already here and broaden it. Although I personally love international connections, one of the reasons I wanted to move to the South was because I enjoyed the cultural roots I saw there through books, movies and music. I imagined a porch, a rocking chair and good conversation and that truly does happen here. It reminds me a great deal of our neighborhood in Brazil, of neighbors talking over the fence, sharing news, tragedies and heartfelt moments. This Green Roof idea is for the people who live here as well as for those who might come and stay a while. This means working with churches and social institutions that are keepers of the local culture.
My first introduction to Kentucky as an art state was a catalog that was printed by the Kentucky Arts Council, way back in the 80’s. I loved the art that I saw in that catalog, along with the bios of the artists. I don’t remember them anymore, but it embedded into my mind that Kentucky had a commitment to the arts. After living here for 12 years, I realize that it is a state of contradictions, very much in line with my longing for a simple life in some ways, but backward and resistant to change in others, although that is probably true of almost any place on earth. A couple of impressions:
Working at Home Depot:
When I first came here, I worked at Home Depot for almost a year. We were penalized if we didn’t get people to sign up for a credit card. It was a difficult task in a small community as those who want credit, ask for it. I found that the scruffiest, old, hard working farmer types had exact cash, to the coin in their pockets. They paid for what they had and were not interested in credit. I like that. We were also told to encourage people to use the self checkout. One tall, handsome, weathered man said he had no use for it. When I asked him why not, he said, “If I am going to give someone my money, I want to look them in the eye.” I loved that, too! Having self-checkouts means less jobs for real people. There is a fierce and independent spirit here which I admire greatly. Sometimes it drives me crazy because you can start having a conversation with someone about climate change and they may be educated and smart and they will refuse to admit that human activity has anything to do with it. At the same time, they are all about self-sufficiency, hard work, craftsmanship and a good story. Fertile grounds for what I want to do.
I see the Green Roof as an opportunity for revolutionizing how we build things. If the Paducah School of Art and Design, Sprocket and the Tech School get involved and use the structures as experiments in alternative construction, we could affect a whole generation of young people who will make decisions in how things are built, what materials are used, and how building can be an art.
The exchange program offers an immersion experience that will change how people perceive life in the US and how we think of immigrants and other countries. You can’t bomb a country when they are full of your friends. Kennedy’s Peace Corps was genius and we had a semester abroad program at my college that also was transformative. Rich white kids would go overseas for a few months, all rigid and shiny and come back weathered, a bit out of sorts, but full of ideas. They were even richer for that time they were away from their normal comforts and pop culture zones.
Tapping into real life experiences through TAFA and Artizan opens a world of creativity to us that makes me dizzy. Tie a string to me as I might float away!
Berea College is about 4.5 hours from Paducah and a place that captured my attention years ago. Their mission:
Berea College, founded by ardent abolitionists and radical reformers, continues today as an educational institution still firmly rooted in its historic purpose “to promote the cause of Christ.” Adherence to the College’s scriptural foundation, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth” (Acts 17:26), shapes the College’s culture and programs so that students and staff alike can work toward both personal goals and a vision of a world shaped by Christian values, such as the power of love over hate, human dignity and equality, and peace with justice. This environment frees persons to be active learners, workers, and servers as members of the academic community and as citizens of the world. The Berea experience nurtures intellectual, physical, aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual potentials and with those the power to make meaningful commitments and translate them into action.
The campus operates on a commitment towards green technology, grows much of its own food and offers free tuition to all students. It is one of the top craft schools in the US and we can learn from them, possibly even creating our own products for sale, based on Kentucky traditions and available materials.
Glass is not recyclable here, so I have a great interest in using it for both building purposes and for creating products. Artizan Made has two glass blowing members, one in California, Elliott Glass Art, and the other in Mexico, through Sprout Enterprise, Studio Xaquixe. Perhaps they can be brought in to collaborate with the Paducah School of Art and Design to brainstorm about glass products.
There are many resources that are local to Paducah that can enrich what we already have as a cultural asset and apply it to a global audience. The key, to me, is to tap into what people feel is their cultural identity and broaden it to include and enjoy the talents of the other. Awareness, sharing, enjoyment, laughter… these are the emotions that break down the walls of distrust, fear, and isolation.
The videos below show examples of how people are building sustainable structures and include some of the challenges they have found, especially with dealing with city ordinances and local laws. One of the things I found especially interesting in a video on straw bale construction was that the owner had gone through a fire with a home that was half traditional, half straw bale. The traditionally built part burnt quickly while the straw bale side did not burn. Something to consider for all of these areas in the US that are experiencing such tragic fires as we have seen in the last few years.
Tying it All Together
Green Roof Paducah can evolve in many different ways and in this case, it really will take a village to make it happen. The three core programs of housing, food and the arts tap into a needed niche here, an exciting vision for both locals and visitors. I am offering an idea that needs a lot of work, support and financing to make it happen, even at the smallest level. I am committed to make this work, but need others to jump in, too.
Does this interest you? Can you see yourself getting involved? If so, please leave a comment here as your feedback will help me with my planning, financing and potential partnerships. In your comment, give your location then share how you might see yourself in this picture, along with any links, resources, places you have been to, questions, etc.
If you are local, do you have any skills you can offer? Are there any foods you miss that are not available here in Paducah? Would you be interested in the exchange program? Would you like to help build a structure, grow a garden? Do you buy handmade products and art?
If you live somewhere else, would you travel to visit our project? Does the exchange program interest you as either a participant (coming here or hosting)?
Share this post with your people, spread it around so that we can get a wide range of responses.
Any project takes time and money. Your support will help me move forward quickly as I identify how it will be financed and what a team will look like. If it starts out with a house or building, I expect to apply for a loan and that will take several months to process. Meanwhile, I need to keep things running, pay bills and hiring an assistant would be a great help.
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