A walk down Monmouth Street: Celebrating the old and the new

The first thing to know about Monmouth Street in Newport is that, yes, one can still find strip clubs there. The Brass Ass and its sister establishment across the street, The Brass Bull, still provide daily, live entertainment of the scantily clad variety.

The second thing to know is that those two nightspots are just about the only remnants of Newport's infamous Sin City days. Monmouth Street, once lined with gambling clubs and girlie bars, has not only become respectable, the thoroughfare is a fusion of the old and new, where  trendy eating and drinking establishments mix easily with decades-old businesses still patronized by neighborhood regulars.

On a day wandering the street and stopping in wherever our fancy led us, one of our first stops was to see someone who knows as much about Monmouth Street as anyone -- Jerry Peluso. He's the proprietor of Peluso's Market, which sells homegrown tomatoes, candy, canned goods,  soda pop, and sandwiches. In the spring, it does a business in tomato, pepper, and cucumber plants for the garden, and in the fall, the sale of holiday candies picks up -- opera creams, sponge candy, chocolate drops.

Peluso’s used to sell Christmas trees too. "But when I got elected mayor, I had to give it up,” Jerry says. That was in 2008, and he served as Newport's chief executive until 2020, when term limits forced him to step down. But he still serves on the city's board of commissioners, where he's held a seat for the last 34 years.

The candy menu at Peluso's Market.The Peluso name is still gold in Newport politics. His late uncle, Johnny "TV" Peluso, was a legendary Newport figure who was mayor back in the Sin City days in the ‘60s and ‘70s and was elected city commissoner in the early ‘80s. Johnny TV's son, Frank, now serves with Jerry on the city board. Peluso grew up on Monmouth Street, and he recalls as a kid getting hot dogs for a dime at the butcher shop, and gawking at the "go-go girls" dancing in the windows of the live entertainment establishments. Even as a kid, he knew everybody on the street, and they knew him.

A tattooed, 20-something-year-old from a neighboring business interrupts his memories, stopping in at the market for a sandwich. "What kind of meat do you have today?" she asks. "Baloney, ham and salami, " Peluso replies. She orders up a ham on wheat, and Peluso piles it about three inches high, complete with pickles and a sliced, homegrown tomato. "Not bad for $2.50, right?" he says.

Four blocks to the south of Peluso's is the other end of the Monmouth Street dining spectrum. The Baker's Table opened in 2018, a farm-to-table restaurant featuring locally sourced foods, with a two-or three-course prix fixe menu, and an optional two- or three-course wine pairing. Inside, a keyboardist and guitarist play chill jazz. Across the street is the Baker's Table Bakery, with a more moderately priced menu of coffee, tea, small plates, and pizza.

On a recent weeknight, we opted for the genuine Mexican fare at Restaurante La Mexicana, with its giant quesadillas and equally large margaritas. We finished up just in time to make the 8 P.M. show next door at the Falcon Theatre. The Falcon is an intimate, storefront theater that moved to Newport temporarily in 2003 and then decided to stay, investing tens of thousands in improvements since then to the space. In August, it presented the regional premiere of "Bourbon at the Border," a play that dwells on the lives of Freedom Riders decades after their summer of civil rights activism. This month, it opens its regular 2022-2023 season, presenting five works “focused on strength, resilience, and the endurance of the human spirit.”

Early mornings on Monmouth, the place to be is the Cookie Jar Bakery. It opens at 3 A.M. serving its signature cookie jar rolls and a variety of doughnuts and cookies. But the main attraction is the tea rings, the icing-covered coffee cake shaped like a ring. Barb Juengling was on her way to visit her daughter in Nashville and stopped there first to pick up the hometown treat. "It's the only place to get a good tea ring," she says.

Sue Hudson has worked at the Cookie Jar for 41 years “off and on." Church members from around Newport will buy tea rings to bring to after-church coffee hours, she says. 
Hudson is 79 and recalls an era when people never had to travel very far from their neighborhood business district to get what they needed.

"When I was a kid growing up you could find whatever you wanted on Monmouth Street," she says. There were shoe stores, clothing stores, furniture stores. Juengling chimes in, remembering the "merchant's bus" that would bring shoppers from Dayton and Bellevue to spend their money on Monmouth. "It used to be you came to Monmouth Street to shop," she says.

Albert's is one of those old department stores. Back in the day it sold fine clothing, much of it sourced from the old Palm Beach Company's operation on nearby Washington Street, says Jan Ball. She owns Albert's, which now specializes in selling uniforms and protective clothing to police, fire, and EMS departments. She feels the ghosts of the Sin City past in the old department store, where she believes a full basement and a second floor may have hosted after-hours card games, and the bulletproof front doors protected the occupants.

"I'm sure there was some kind of stuff going on in here like gambling and the Mob," she says.

The rise of the indoor shopping mall in the ‘70s contributed to the demise of the neighborhood stores, but Monmouth Street and other neighborhood business districts are reimagining themselves. Today, Monmouth is home to an architecture practice, a coffee shop that specializes in fair trade and organic beans, a fitness center, a record store that also sells coffee, a bicycle shop (where coffee is also available), a high-tech medical lab, and a tienda, a Hispanic grocery.

There are also businesses that seem transported from the pre-mall days, like the pawn shops, the gun shop, a mattress and appliance seller, the antique stores. And the chili parlors. Dixie Chili and Gourmet Chili, which used to be Crystal Chili back in the day before the Stavropoulos brothers bought it. George, Theo, and Kiri took it over it from their father, Steve, who passed away in 1999. He was an immigrant from Greece and worked at Skyline before opening his own place. Gourmet Chili is open from 7 A.M. to 11 P.M., and you can get breakfast all day. Monmouth today is “a lot better” than in his father’s day, George says, with the influx of new businesses.  

Ebert's Meats opened on Monmouth 125 years ago, but it may need to move soon, the rent's gotten too high. Greg Steffen has owned it for 23 years. "Quality staff and good service" is the key to staying in business so long, he says.

In May of last year, Pensive Distilling opened at the site of the former 27 Bar. Pensive (named for the winner of the 1944 Kentucky Derby) offers a full bar, a full menu, Sunday brunch, tastings, and tours of its budding distillery. It has bourbon in the barrels, and a master distiller, Corbin Arrasmith. Esco Escamilla is the owner, and he recently opened up a party room upstairs with photos and memorabilia of Newport’s bootlegging and gambling days.  

Easily the most unusual Monmouth Street business we happened upon was Urban Chick Boutique, which sells women's jewelry and accessories. But we were drawn in by the chalkboard sign out front: "$1.50 domestics $2 seltzers Sip & Shop." At Urban Chick you can come for the t-shirts and stay for the full bar. Owner Terry Smith-Zemanek also offers hair salon services in the back room to those in the know. And upstairs is a boutique hotel that her husband Jeff Zemanek manages.

"All these businesses kind off feed off of each other," Zemanek says.

The hotel houses guests in town for Reds and Bengals games, concerts at Riverbend, visits to the Creation Museum in Boone County, the Newport Aquarium, "anything that brings people to Cincinnati and they prefer something quiet," he says. Terry's father operated a pawn shop in the building back in the day and it already had parking in the back and the right kind of zoning.

Monmouth Street's renaissance did not happen overnight, and it was no accident. Peluso recalls a time when there were more than two dozen adult businesses lining the street. He and his fellow local legislators began passing laws outlawing nudity and pressuring those businesses with other restrictions. Newport's citizens began to speak up for change, and the environment became a little more unfriendly to the X-rated bars.

Other changes helped. An aquarium once meant for downtown Cincinnati was built in Newport instead. It became a destination. An out-of-town developer built Newport on the Levee at the northern terminus of Monmouth, bringing shoppers, diners, and moviegoers from all over. The city invested in improving the street's infrastructure, the sidewalks, landscaping, and burying the utilities underground.

Through it all, Monmouth Street managed to keep its hometown, small-business vibe, recognizing its past and moving into the future.

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