More and more, community developers are using arts and culture, so integral to the character and identity of a flourishing place, to catalyze neighborhood renewal. In Covington, KY, this kind of creative placemaking has helped brighten and invigorate communities that have struggled with blight, crime and abandonment, particularly the city’s Westside area. Today, Covington has more welcoming public spaces, affordable homes and new businesses than since its 20th-century heyday as the iron fence capital of the world.
"Our past is our definition," wrote the Kentucky poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry. We can escape the bad in it, he says, only by adding something better. Reviving blighted neighborhoods is a perfect case in point. In Covington, KY, residents and activists have been hard at work renovating profoundly troubled parts of their city. Along with investment dollars and bricks and mortar, they're entwining arts, culture and Covington's rich industrial history into the rebuilding of communities. Creative placemaking, as this stragegy is called, is rekindling what had been forgotten—and adding something better.
In the early 20th century, this city of 14 square miles just south of Cincinnati was the thriving commercial hub for all of northern Kentucky and the proud home of Stewart Iron Works. At its peak, Stewart was the world’s premier maker of iron fences, purveying ornate gates, fences and railings to major institutions and public works around the globe, including the Panama Canal, the White House and countless American cemeteries. Even the steel cell blocks of Alcatraz and Sing Sing were forged at Stewart.
The Roebling Suspension Bridge, spanning the Ohio River from Covington to Cincinnati, was named for its designer, John Roebling, famed for building the Brooklyn Bridge. When it first opened to pedestrians in 1866, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Today, it is a conduit between Cincinnati's sports venues and Roebling Point, a popular restaurant and shopping district in Covington.
But by the 1960s and 70s, after a half century of prosperity, Covington and its manufacturing core had fallen on hard times; young people were bolting for the jobs and energy of larger cities in Ohio and beyond, and by the 1990s, the population had shrunk by 30 percent. Blight and high crime followed, and the city reeled under the blows of the Great Recession and epidemics of crack cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin use. Today, nearly 60 percent of households, many with Appalachian roots, are low or very low income, and the city’s foreclosure rate is the third highest in the state.
But residents and community developers have made extraordinary strides, particularly in the Westside area, in invigorating dilapidated neighborhoods rife with crime. And a key to Covington's renewal is the use of arts and culture as tools for organizing communities, revitalizing streets and buildings, and sparking economic development.
Once a vacant lot, the Farney Art Park was conceived and built by local activists and named for Henry Farney, a 19th-century Covington resident who celebrated Native American culture in his work. The circular sculpture by local artist David Rice interprets a Sioux emblem that Farney used as his signature.
The creative placemaking approach has infused the city with a new vitality, preserving historic housing stock and incorporating public art into parks and streetscapes. It also taps community creativity in the service of renovating and repurposing once derelict buildings. They are now affordable homes for low- and moderate-income residents, many of whom are artists and entrepreneurs.
A key to Covington's renewal is the use of arts and culture as tools for organizing communities, revitalizing streets and buildings, and sparking economic development.
A longtime LISC partner, The Center for Great Neighborhoods, has led the creative placemaking charge in Covington with a $1.45 million grant from the Kresge Foundation. The three-year grant is being used to renovate housing and community space and to help transform the city's 19 distinct neighborhood.
From the creative placemaking perspective, culture and community development are inextricably linked; it inspires artists and non-artists alike to become part of improving neighborhoods. “We help discover the talents everyone has,” says Rachel Hastings of The Center for Great Neighborhoods. “We don’t create a divide.” This sort of work has long been part of LISC's holistic strategy. It has been remarkably successful in spurring collaboration between residents, community developers, city officials and police to make neighborhoods safer, healthier and more stable. Faye Massey, who moved here when she was five and stayed on for 71 years, has seen Covington through boom and bust. For the first time, to her eyes, “the city is coming back to life.”
Covington's residents—as well as its rehabbed row houses, spruced up parks and repurposed factories—tell the story best.
Covington, with a population of 40,000, welcomed a large influx of Germans at the turn of the last century. Today, 82 percent of residents, many with Appalachian roots, are white and 11 percent are African American. Recent waves of Guatemalan and other immigrants make up the rest.
The Center for Great Neighborhoods took on a symptom and symbol of the Westside’s dilapidation: abandoned buildings. Many were renovated, like the ones on this block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. A facade program is working with local artists to improve others by fixing up their exteriors.
Using funding and loans from the Kresge Foundation, the city of Covington, and LISC, The Center bought a group of 19th-century shotgun houses (in one, syringes littered an entire basement) and renovated them to create space for creative entrepreneurs and existing residents.
“This was one of the most blighted areas in the neighborhood and in Covington,” says Sarah Allan, director of creative placemaking for The Center. Now, the meticulously remodeled buildings on "Shotgun Row" house artists and longtime residents, and face onto what was once a haven for drug dealers and is now a lush community garden, complete with a chicken coop. Neighbors tend the garden and animals, and harvest the produce and eggs.
Using state and federal historic properties tax credits, The Center is overseeing a $2.1 million renovation of the sprawling Hellmann Lumber Mill, once one of Covington's largest employers. The new Hellmann Creative Center will house eight artists’ studios, an event space, and The Center’s own offices.
“Covington is low-cost so it’s a place artists can live and start a business," says Kristen Baker, a senior program officer with LISC Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky. “Creative placemaking was already happening organically." David Rice, the artist above, is one of many taking part in Covington's transformation.
LISC made a $700,000 loan to help turn a row of buildings on the Pike Street corridor into a 20,000-square-foot, mixed-use project.
Known as the Pike Star, the new complex houses Uptech, a technology incubator fostering small business development and supporting Northern Kentucky residents looking to get involved in the tech industry.
Neighborhood and parent engagement, nurtured in part by The Center, have paid off in a big way for the Glenn O. Swing School. It recently won a "high progress" distinction, an impressive feat for a district with an 88 percent poverty rate, the highest in Northern Kentucky. A teacher stands with her students in front of the vivid mural that envelopes the school.
Another example of adaptive reuse on Pike Street is a former warehouse that now houses CVG Made, a woodworking and restoration business complex. Steven Sander is one of several craftspeople who has opened up shop there.
Drug users ruled Goebel Park until the goats took over. It was urban farmer Gus Wolf (pictured here with his daughter) who thought to introduce goats to graze on the overgrown bushes and vines that had hidden illicit activity. Today, they are a huge attraction for local families, reinvigorating the downtown space.
Covington's iconic Carroll Chimes Clock Tower features a working carillon and a mechanical puppet show that play on the hour. It is one of many reminders of the city's industrial heyday. Creative placemaking constantly draws on local history and culture to celebrate and commemorate the identity of a community.