When we happen upon places with good bones, if we are open to reading our surroundings, we sharpen our mental tools to be better advocates for quality places. Exploring unfamiliar environments with the people who live, work, create and champion their communities is imperative to truly understanding a place. We enhance our understanding of the many layers that make up great places and the work it takes to reimagine them, what needs to be saved, and how we can improve upon the past, not simply create facsimiles of a point frozen in time. We also can start to see synergies between great places and why people should visit them. I found this while reflecting on two trips to Harlan in Eastern Kentucky.

The first trip in September of 2021 began early in the morning with my friend Gill and his friend, filmmaker Felipe Dieppa, who, if you have children might recognize him as the voice of Diego from Dora the Explorer. We talked a bit about the plans for the day as the morning sun glanced off every shiny object into my still sleepy eyes.

About two and a half hours into our trip we made a quick stop at Sanders Cafe in North Corbin, the birthplace of Colonel Sanders’ “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” The site is on the National Register of Historical Places and unfortunately was not open at such an early hour, but worth swinging by if you are in the area.

A stop at Sanders Cafe

A short distance away we reached the Moonbow in Corbin, where we met up with Geoff Marietta, a business partner of Gill’s through the Harlan County Brewing Company and owner of the Moonbow with his wife Sky. This was also the first time I met Danny Seim, artist and director of AHOY at the Portland Museum in Louisville. The Moonbow is a great adaptive reuse building that offers an event venue, gallery and more, situated at the corner of 2nd and Main Street.

Moonbow in Corbin, Kentucky

This part of Corbin reminds me of rural towns I have stumbled upon in the Midwest and Southeast over the years, usually on the way to other destinations. There are two parallel one-way streets lined with low-slung historic commercial buildings that form the heart of the community. The scale of the narrow streetscape creates a perfect pedestrian environment that makes you want to park your car and walk around.

Unlike many of the sleepy towns I mentally drew comparisons to, this section of Corbin appeared vibrant, with repurposed storefronts housing coffee shops, a record store, saloons, barber shops, and great restaurants… but more on that later. This stretch felt more like parts of popular corridors of Austin, Texas than what I pictured in a small rural town in eastern Kentucky.

Main Street in Corbin, Kentucky

After a brief stop at a Folktale Coffee & Bakehouse, we all piled into Geoff’s pickup and headed out on the second leg of our journey to Harlan County. We filled the time spent driving getting to know more about the communities we were visiting and the people that called them home.

Harlan is a town of about 1800 people that once had a population of more than 5,000 in the 1940s when the coal industry dominated the region. The town is tucked into a narrow mountain valley surrounded by Black Mountain, Little Black Mountain and Ewing Spur. The steep geography produces a compact, walkable downtown along the banks of Martins Fork, a tributary of the Cumberland River, a watershed that has inundated the town multiple times forcing the development of a massive, $181M flood wall project that broke ground in 1989 and took a decade to complete.

As we drove south on US-421 descending a channel cut through mountainous terrain, Harlan revealed itself to the left as the floodwall rose on our right.

View of the floodwall as you leave Harlan heading north on US-421

The first thing that struck me as we entered Harlan was that it felt like a movie set. Much of Main Street is still intact. Great buildings and storefronts lined the narrow street with the town framed by lush tree-covered mountains. Though it was obvious that many of the buildings hadn’t seen activity in a while, the bones were strong and I felt a sense of the potential just beneath the surface even before meeting some of the folks that are working to revive the old coal town.

Main Street

Our first stop in Harlan was to grab some more coffee at Moonbow Tipple Coffee & Sweets, also owned by Geoff and Sky, and meet with Cole Raines, the Executive Director of One Harlan County, the non-profit economic development organization for the county. It was clear from the start that Cole was bringing the energy, enthusiasm and care for the community that is needed by anyone who really is trying to improve their community, and the best type of person to connect with when exploring Harlan.

Moonbow Tipple Coffee & Sweets
Great streetscape in front of the Moonbow

As we stepped outside the Moonbow and began our walking tour with Cole, I recalled a conversation I had many years ago while discussing a series of empty historic buildings in another small town. The notion was that the reason the buildings had not been torn down in the name of “progress” was that fortunately during the period of urban renewal sweeping the United States, the city didn’t have the money to demolish them. I wondered if that had been the saving grace for Harlan.

Our walk took us past a solid block of storefronts including a fitness center, a music shop, a yoga studio, a couple of pawn shops, a florist, and a few law offices. As we rounded the corner onto Central Street the road narrowed, but storefronts continued leading towards the courthouse.

In one of the first breaks in the streetscape, at the back of a small surface lot, was an intricate possum mural, by artist Lacy Hale, that looked to have been painted fairly recently, a sign of the efforts already underway to revitalize the community. Public art, particularly murals, have been effective tools used by cities to transform community character, beautify blank walls, tell the stories of place, and improve economic activity.

Mural by Lacy Hale on Central Street

Though the quiet streetscape along this stretch of Central Street was intact, a series of buildings opposite the mural were vacant and two of the storefronts were completely boarded up in an attempt to mothball the buildings for a future investment.

It was at this point in the tour we stopped in the middle of the street to talk with Robert Gipe, Kentucky author and former head of Higher Ground, a community arts organization that focuses on art and creative placemaking. Robert told us a little bit about the Belk building and the gravity of the effort and the importance of the vision for creating a community center in the heart of Harlan focused around healing and the arts.

Conversation with Robert Gipe about the vision for the Belk building. (Left to right: Robert Gipe, Danny Seim, Cole Raines, Gill Holland, Filipe Dieppa, and Patrick Piuma. Photo by Geoff Marietta)

As I peered through the windows into an empty building I tried to imagine the activity and life the future would bring. Consequently, while reflecting on the past trips, I came across a recent news story about how the Belk building is set to officially open in 2024! Here is a powerful TEDx talk with Robert Gripe in Corbin, Kentucky from 2019 that gives some context to the importance of people with the drive and care to make change.

Front of Belk building in Harlan, Kentucky
Interior of Belk building in September 2021

After hearing about the vision and attention the Belk building was receiving, we turned our attention to the four storefronts to the right that were also empty. One appeared to have been a barber shop or beauty salon in the not too distant past. Plaster and wallboard littered the floors. Some of the artifacts strewn about the space offered a sense of what the space was like when it was active.

Empty storefront on Central Street

We then walked over to the two storefronts that were completely boarded up, which turned out to be one building, if you could call it that. The building suffered a catastrophic roof collapse in the back section and the interior had been subjected to the elements for some time judging by the extensive, not-intentional green wall of ivy and carpet of moss. The structure was in really rough shape, but hopefully the work to stabilize it will hold until there are funds and investment interest to rehabilitate the space. The fact that these were originally two buildings would make their loss even more devastating to the great streetscape of downtown Harlan. It is a slippery slope as buildings are bulldozed, along with the bricks and timber so is the history and character of the place.

Interior of two buildings that suffered a roof collapse

The tour of buildings along this block of Central Street felt like a rollercoaster of opportunities and setbacks, culminating with the impressive corner building that has become the Harlan County Beer Company, the first legal brewery in Harlan County. Geoff and Gill showed us around while they reviewed the progress on the 100 year old rehabilitation project with the craftsmen doing the important work.

Harlan County Beer Company under construction 2021

As is evident to anyone that has been to one of the Urban Design Studio's Society of Urban Perambulators events, one of my favorite things to do is experience old buildings that are in the process of being reimagined and restored. I especially enjoy seeing the buildings before the work begins and getting a real sense of the monumental task ahead and getting a better understanding of the amount of risk developers take to bring their visions to life.

Walking through spaces that have been stripped down to their essential bones and trying to imagine what once was and what is planned can be challenging. Even for someone who spends a lot of time thinking spatially, the sense of scale and proportion become difficult to judge. I often find it helpful to actually tape off areas with painters tape to really understand typical room sizes because common reference points are erased as can be seen in the image below. At the time of the first visit in 2021, the floors were reduced to dirt and only the exterior walls that were necessary to keep the building standing remained.

Interior of the Harlan County Beer Company in 2021

Outside, along 1st Street, next to the Harlan County Beer Company, is a vacant space that once was a one story building based on a tar line where once a rooftop met the adjacent building and the lack of windows on the first floor of that wall. This void in the streetwall will become an outdoor beer garden and event space.

Future beer garden space

Across the street is the Harlan County Coal Miner Memorial on the grounds of the Harlan County Courthouse. The memorial is an important remembrance of all the lives lost over nearly 100 years, with more than 1300 names inscribed in its cold stone edifice. An exhaustive list of all of the names on the memorial has been put together by Steve Dunn and can be found on the Harlan County Kentucky KYGenWebsite.

Harlan Coal Miner Memorial

Though most of the buildings in downtown Harlan are still intact, there is a section at the end of this block where at least one, but possibly more buildings (based on the remaining basement walls) have been erased. If my memory serves me, and it often doesn’t, I believe these structures were lost to a fire. What caught my attention looking into the catacomb like basements was how the space could make an incredible sunken garden event space as an interim, pop-up use.

On the southern edge of downtown, along Clover Street, are a group of buildings that appeared to be slated for demolition, including what appeared to be an old auto dealership with interior showroom spaces. Upon further review, these buildings did end up being demolished.

We circled back around and grabbed lunch at Portal Pizzeria, a wood-fired pizzeria that’s name pays homage to the coal history of Harlan, where we heard from Cole about efforts to reshape Harlan as a destination and gateway to the beautiful mountainous outdoor recreations the region has to offer.

After lunch we walked around the corner, drawn in by the string lights strung across the street and great storefronts, stopping by the great shop Sassy Trash to window-gaze because unfortunately for us it was not open at the time.

Sassy Trash!

We then doubled back to check out the JK Hotel. The grand five story building is one of the tallest in Harlan. At the time of our first visit the building had been boarded up. It was used in the movie Above Suspicion and to depict the Pikeville Hotel, with the prop name still adorning the window.

As we wrapped up our trip and began heading out of Harlan County, we took a quick detour and crossed what was once nicknamed "the Bridge to Nowhere" over the Cumberland River, up a wide winding mountain path, towards what appeared to be a vast meadow. We stopped to take in the panorama before us. Off in the distance I could see some large-scale construction development.

I hadn’t realized it at first, but the expansive grassland I was standing on was the result of mountaintop removal. Where there was once a towering mountain, covered with an old growth forest, lay endless fields stretching out in every direction, surrounded by distant peaks. The scarred landscape I had envisioned of such places was slowly being obscured by natures best efforts to heal itself.

As I looked out over the landscape I was reminded of the quote by author George R. Stewart, “Men go and come, but earth abides” from his 1949 book Earth Abides. Nature finds a way. It was heartening to learn that the construction site I could see off in the distance was the beginnings of Boone’s Ridge, a future wildlife refuge with a goal of becoming a destination that will unlock the outdoor recreation potential of this beautiful, if drastically altered, landscape.

On the road back to Corbin, I remember staring out of the truck window ruminating on the beauty of Harlan County and the intertwined relationship between the landscape and the aspirations of a Harlan revival. In an upcoming Field Notes I'll expand on the outdoor recreational activities around Harlan that I got to experience first hand in 2022. My hope is to return to Harlan again this year to witness the growth and renewal of this stunning corner of Kentucky.

As we returned to Corbin, we stopped at what for me is now a must stop place whenever I am in the area, The Wrigley: an Appalachian Eatery. The atmosphere, food and drinks provided the perfect ending to a trip where I had the fortune to travel with some new friends and explore places that have left a lasting impression on me.

At The Wrigley