Blue grass, roving minstrels, fiery potions, peanut-butter breezes, dancing zombies, symbol-encrusted loaves of bread: This is either a hallucination or a day in the park. Specifically, Cheapside Park, the public square in Lexington, Ky.
Sensory overload has been one of Cheapside’s thrills since it was created in 1788. Early on, it gained infamy as the Bluegrass State’s largest slave market. A historical marker beneath a beautiful tree helps me visualize the auction block; at this very spot, thousands of people were sold, including children separated from their parents. In May 1843, auctioneers partially stripped a young, educated servant named Eliza to drive up the bidding. Fortunately, a minister outbid an ill-intentioned Frenchman, spending $1,485 to free the young woman, according to John Dean Wright’s Lexington: Heart of the Bluegrass.
Cheapside’s diverse neighbors included the childhood home of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, as well as slave pens and a brothel boasting mulatto ladies. After the Civil War, Cheapside sellers hawked nonhuman chattel such as horses and hemp, but the rowdy markets were abolished as a public nuisance in 1921.
Wedged between the Old Fayette County Courthouse and a row of pubs, Cheapside has evolved from public nuisance to derelict district to congenial community hub bustling with farmers markets, free dancer-friendly Thursday night concerts and festivals. In recent years, the area has become a hot new entertainment hub thanks to these events, preservation-driven building renovations and new bars and eateries.
Five new venues opened just recently, including the Village Idiot gastropub; Parlay Social, a Prohibition-era-inspired speak-easy; and Henry Clay’s Public House. The last inspirits an 1805 building erected by Clay, the “Great Compromiser” who represented Kentucky in both houses of Congress between 1806 and 1852. Clay advocated emancipation yet had slaves at Ashland, his Lexington estate. A bourbon lover in true Kentucky fashion, he wowed Washingtonians at the Willard Hotel bar with his recipe for mint juleps, later entering said recipe into the Congressional Record as Kentucky’s official drink.
Cheapside is also the endpoint of Lexington’s annual Thriller Parade. Lexington’s not just about horses, says my friend Cindy; its streets flare with one of the biggest Halloween parties anywhere. No surprise, considering that Lexington’s flashmobs have spanned everything from song-and-dance at the local University of Kentucky campus to Handel’s Messiah at shopping malls.
But this visit, I’m haunting farmers markets: There’s one nearly every day somewhere in town. Cheapside’s happens Saturday mornings. (In the winter, the vendors move indoors to the adjacent, exquisitely preserved block of 1880s buildings dubbed Victorian Square.) The market pulses with romping children, roving musicians, tail-wagging dogs and shoppers filling cloth bags and pushing freshly purchased potted plants in strollers.
Pillows of intricately sculpted bread loaves catch my eye. Liam and Valentina craft their sourdough bread from stone-ground whole wheat and herbs, adding raisins, black walnuts, carrots, asparagus, rosemary and peppers. After living in Sicily and Ukraine, the couple, smitten with Lexington’s bluegrass beauty during a U.S. visit, joined a farm co-op where they cultivate heirloom vegetables and artisan bread baked in a solar oven. After Liam explains how the slow-fermentation process helps the body absorb nutrients, I pay for a gently wrapped loaf and slip it into my backpack.
The Sadistic Mistress booth displays hot sauce containing locally grown peppers. But I resist sampling when someone stocking up on the “I Can’t Feel My Face” variety warns me that the concoctions “fry your taste buds.” I opt for organic greens so tasty that they don’t need dressing, as well as herbs, berries and handmade pasta perfect for dinner with my friends.
The market’s bicycle-powered smoothie-maker is absent, so I refuel with farm-made sorbet. It vanishes quickly as I listen to “two old pickers” — their description, not mine — play classic bluegrass.
The stone courthouse, a handsome example of Romanesque Revival architecture, now houses three museums with a variety of local artifacts, from the skeleton of Hanover, a late-19th century Secretariat who won the Belmont by 15 lengths, to race-riot gear, to a reconstructed 1800s pharmacy complete with ancient apothecary jars of opium poppy pods.
At the ArtsPlace building on Mill Street, the Lexington Traditional Dance Association offers dirt-cheap weekend contra dance nights that start with lessons for beginners. Since I’m early, I wander into the complex’s gallery, filled with mixed-media works by area artists. Another short stroll leads to my next fix at the Artists’ Attic in Victorian Square, where studio artists eagerly discuss their techniques. A few blocks away, at Shorty’s Urban Market on West Short Street, folks file in for one of its Cellar 157 wine tastings. Rather than imbibe on an empty stomach, I buy some fresh organic fruit and move on.
Posters filling the windows reveal novel varieties of fall color. One advertises brunch drag shows at Natasha’s Bistro. The windows of Alfalfa, a beloved downtown restaurant, serve as art galleries of superb graphic design. Touting open-mike jams to urban chicken coop tours, the posters include many created by long-ago Alfalfa cook John Lackey, who recently moved his Homegrown Press into a nearby former bakery.
I use a self-guided tour brochure to navigate around Cheapside’s neighboring historic-plaqued buildings and graceful Gratz Park, a leaf-peeper’s delight. The air’s fragrant with brilliant trees, flowers and . . . peanut butter? Yes, confirms a couple sitting on a porch; it wafts from a factory northeast of town. The aroma reminds me that there’s fresh-baked bread in my backpack.
This edible objet d’art should remain unmarred until dinner with my friends. But craving trumps denial, so after running my fingers over the dainty bas relief decorations, I pop a piece into my mouth and drift into dough-induced bliss.