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Jamestown taps fun, art to come back from the brink

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 13 October 2013 at 12:00 am

Favorite daughter Lucille Ball has been part of resurgence

A manhole cover in Jamestown has been turned into a work of art. It’s part of a bigger theme that ties in with the city’s embrace of native Lucille Ball.

Photos by Tom Rivers

JAMESTOWN – It’s been a few years since I was in Jamestown, a small industrial city down the Thruway, a good hour past Buffalo. It wasn’t a place I liked to go visit.

When I heard politicans and other people talk about Upstate New York in crisis, Jamestown always came to mind. Once a manufacturing powerhouse, the city fell on hard times, its cavernous factories largely idled and left in ruin.

I grew up about a half hour drive from Jamestown. The city and community seemed to hit a low point in 1997, when it was in the national news after a city resident, Nushawn Williams, was accused and convicted of knowingly passing on HIV to 13 women, including teen-agers.

The cameras and media flocked to a city that seemed crushed after a prolonged, deep economic downturn.

I was back in Jamestown today to run a half marathon, the inaugural Lucy Town Marathon, with my wife and sister-in-law. Every finisher received a medal with Lucille Ball’s smiling face. Ball, the famous comedian and television star, grew up in Jamestown.

The city has proclaimed its love for Lucy with giant murals, banners along the streets and a The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center for Comedy, a museum that opened in 1996. It continues to grow and hosts a comedy festival and numerous events with funny themes.

Jamestown hosted today’s half marathon and many runners wore Lucy polka dot dresses.

One of today’s runners in a Lucy costume

The city, which looked grimy and gritty in the Nushawn Williams saga, has reinvented itself as an upbeat place to go. Many buildings have large framed artwork on the exterior sides.

I didn’t see too many empty storefronts. There were lots of independent small-town merchants giving the city a try.

Downtown buildings display art on their exterior walls.

One major improvement opened about a decade ago, a new ice arena that seats 1,900. It is home to numeorus hockey tournaments and also serves as a concert venue for stars such as Kenny Rogers and Clint Black.

The city has an “Urban Literary Trail” with 42 selections of poetry and prose displayed on walls and windows throughout Jamestown. There are numerous historical markers that talk about the city’s proud past and industrial heritage.

The Urban Literary Trail highlights the written word.

Jamestown has even turned manhole covers of its sewer system into works of art. Many of them are painted red with white hearts in honor of their favorite daughter, Lucille Ball.

Many of Jamestown’s improvements didn’t cost much, except a coat of paint. If upstate becomes known for a renaissance, Jamestown may be the city that serves as the model.