Passing of The Dame a blow to young people

July 30, 2008

As I watch The Dame on Main Street being demolished, I see a neglected, century-old building that could have been reused to give the proposed CentrePointe development more character and class.

But many others – people the age of my daughters – see something different: They see the loss of an important piece of their culture. To them, it’s almost as if somebody took a wrecking ball to the Lexington Opera House or the grandstand at Keeneland.

The circa 1901 building that housed The Dame is being demolished to make way for the CentrePointe development. Photo by Mark Cornelison

The circa 1901 building that housed The Dame is being demolished to make way for the CentrePointe development. Photo by Mark Cornelison

One of those people is Matt Jordan, 22, a University of Kentucky senior from Elizabethtown. I got to know him last year when he was a student in the journalism class I teach.

Jordan’s passion is music, and last month he wrote a touching piece in the Kentucky Kernel, UK’s student newspaper, about what The Dame meant to him and his generation.

“It was a cultural breeding ground for Lexington that can’t be bought, copied or easily replicated,” he wrote. “This one venue drew together punk rockers, bluegrass purists, Latin dancers, indie hipsters and average Joes … It was a gift while it lasted.”

When I called Jordan the other day, he had trouble putting into words what made The Dame special during the five years it existed. It wasn’t the building or location, although both were great. It was the way the club became a magnet for up-and-coming musicians and their fans, and the way it created a sense that buttoned-down Lexington could be a cool place for young people to live.

No urban planning expert planned it, no architect designed it, no developer built it. It grew organically and became an artistic success, if not always a financial one.

“I don’t want to say The Dame was the Lexington music scene, but it was pretty much the most important spot,” Jordan said, noting the club’s willingness to take risks on emerging bands and artists with limited appeal. “They were willing to book almost anybody once.”

While The Dame was most popular among over-21 college students and young professionals, it also attracted regular patrons in their 30s, 40s – and a few older ones.

The Dame’s owner, Tom Yost, said Tuesday he is actively looking for a new location either downtown or close to UK.

“We haven’t found the right fit yet,” Yost said. “Several landlords have come to us, and the support in the community has been off the charts.”

Jordan said he hopes it doesn’t take much longer for The Dame to reopen or a similar venue to emerge.

Fans standing in line at The Dame braved frigid temperatures to see Kenny Chesney perform in March. Chesney was the biggest act to play at the club, which took a chance on up-and-coming performers. Photo by David Stephenson

Fans standing in line at The Dame braved frigid temperatures to see Kenny Chesney perform in March. Chesney was the biggest act to play at the club, which took a chance on up-and-coming performers. Photo by David Stephenson

“I was in Athens, Ga., recently, and several musicians I know asked about The Dame and said, ‘So where do we play there now?’” he said. “The Dame was something that made people my age proud of Lexington and gave them a reason to stay here.”

Jordan noted that the fire marshal last February closed The Ice House, on Cross Street off West Maxwell, which was becoming a popular venue. It wasn’t zoned as a music club, and there were fire safety concerns. Local officials also have shut down performances in residential neighborhoods. Jordan doesn’t blame the officials; they’ve done the right thing, given the circumstances.

“But it just seems that this city keeps sabotaging itself,” he said.

There aren’t many places in Lexington for twentysomethings – and almost nowhere for those younger than 21 – to go for cutting-edge music.

However, Jordan is encouraged by growing support among city officials and business leaders for creating downtown entertainment venues. Good things are happening at Victorian Square, and ambitious proposals have been made for entertainment districts along Manchester Street and around Cheapside.

When Commerce Lexington took 175 local leaders to Austin, Texas, in early June, officials there stressed the huge role live music and entertainment play in their city’s economic vitality.

Austin civic and business leaders have figured out how to nurture music clubs and other venues, which often aren’t the most profitable enterprises, because they realize they help provide the quality of life sought by bright, creative people – especially up-and-coming young people. Those are the people who power the companies that can become a city’s economic engines of the future.

Many Lexington leaders seem to get it. There has been a lot of encouraging talk, and some good work done by the city’s Downtown Entertainment Task Force.

Matt Jordan is a bright, creative guy – the kind Lexington needs to attract and keep. While middle-aged professionals like me have been fretting about the future of the media business, Matt has been creating it. His blog, www.youaintnopicasso.com, covers popular music and attracts enough readers and advertising to pay his rent.

Jordan graduates from UK in December. He hasn’t decided whether to stay in Lexington, although he would like to. Where else might he go?

“I would love to move to Austin, Texas, which has tons of appeal,” he said.

There are many important questions to consider as we watch bulldozers finish clearing debris from what was The Dame. Here are three of them: Will The Dame reopen or be replaced? Will bright, young people find reasons to stay in Lexington? What more can we do to keep them?

READ music critic Walter Tunis’ reflections on the dame at his blog, The Musical Box.