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story by Terray Sylvester

As a rainy autumn evening settles over Paducah’s north side neighborhood, Mikia’s Place glows with life.

In the back of the bright blue building, beauticians of the Signature Styles salon tend women’s hair. In the front, just off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, homegrown hip hop and R&B artists mix tracks in MBMG (Money Boy Music Group) Studio. In the core of the building, Big Mike’s Barbershop attracts a steady stream of neighbors, old friends and relatives.

"If you come in from out of town, and you haven't seen people for a long time, the barbershop is where you can find people," says Michael Taylor, the barber who opened Mikia's Place – and Big Mike's within it – in 2002, just a few blocks from his childhood home. "The barbershop is a safe haven," adds his friend, Ron Brisbon, another of the four barbers sharing space in Big Mike's. "It's a mixing place."

The barbershop is a hub of Paducah's black community. Stories radiate from it like spokes.

On any given day, the patrons may include high school students preparing for the homecoming dance or plumbers and electricians sharing bits of hard-won, homespun wisdom. Sons and fathers arrive, waiting to take turns under clippers of the same barber. A pastor, dressed to the nines, stops by for a spot of conversation before returning to his ministry a few blocks away, where he offers free hot meals to local children.

"We give back, too," says Michael. "Give haircuts for students who have good grades. Sometimes guys who get out of jail, the first place they come is the barbershop to get freshened up, get a hair cut. The first one is usually on the house."

After all, says Ron, "Everyone sees your hair. You gonna put on a hat, or you gonna walk around with your chin up? A good haircut builds character.”

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Jacoyce Hunt, 16, raps in MBMG Studio at Mikia's Place while Shikeem "Kash" Laflore, 26, awaits his turn at the mic. The two were collaborating, layering vocal onto a song written by Jacoyce. Most evenings the studio hums with activity, as artists from around the region arrive to record and hang out.

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Qu'Marr Mitchell, 2, glances over his shoulder as his father, Quincy Mitchell, leads him and his brother, Quincy Jr., 2, into Care Bears Daycare, a few blocks from Big Mike's Barber Shop. All three are customers of the shop and part of the tight-knit community that passes through it.

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Avery Strayhorn, a sophomore at Paducah Tilghman High School, relaxes while receiving a pre-homecoming trim from Ron Brisbon in Big Mike's Barber Shop. With the football game and dance approaching the next night, students kept Big Mike's barbers working until long after dark. "You've got to look spiffy for your date," Avery says.

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Alicia Ellison, 24, shares a meal with her son, Jaiceeyon, 2, in the Paducah Community Kitchen a couple of blocks from Mikia's Place. Between 200 and 300 people flock to it for its daily free hot meals. "There's a lot of people that depend on it, and it kind of becomes a social hour, too," Alicia says. "I live right here in this area. It's one of my favorite places."

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A full life and a pair of open heart surgeries have scarred Jerome Young, but they haven't dampened his spirit. Jerome, who goes by "Bear," grew up in the neighborhood around Mikia's Place and still lives near enough that he stops in daily to reminisce about his younger days in jail, as a streetfighter and a heavyweight boxer. With all he's been through, Bear says, "I didn't think I'd make it to 30, and now I'm 56."

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Lola Wilks, bottom left, relaxes at home with her daughter, Johnice, right, and her sister, Antonia Harmon, who came to Paducah from Nashville for the weekend.

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Lexi Mayes, left, lingers for a few moments with Brooke Debrakius in Brooke's home before a homecoming dance at Paducah Tilghman High School. Both women are seniors. "It's nice to experience your last homecoming with your friends," Lexi says. "We all grew up together."

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Disco lights and music set the mood as the Wilks kids hang out with friends on their front porch after dark in Paducah.