Soapbox and NKY Thrives were On The Ground in Covington late spring to early fall, 2017. You can read an archive of stories from the #OTG Covington series here. With more community stories to tell celebrating growth and change in Northern Kentucky's largest city, we're back with another series of On the Ground.
For years, Covington's Eastside and Westside were largely segregated and had areas of poverty and decay. Since desegregation, they have been slowly rebuilding and uniting as residents.
Some may see Covington as a reviving urban oasis of bars, coffee shops, eateries, and quaint little stores.
But to those who have called the city of Covington home for a lifetime, an underlying echo of separation sounds in the distance. The city’s Eastside and Westside neighborhoods, which have been traditionally separated by race, are working to redesign their stories.
Officially incorporated in the early 1900s, the Eastside neighborhood has produced area leaders — physicians, politicians, teachers, social workers, and business leaders — who helped advocate for civil rights and changed the landscape for generations of African Americans.
The Eastside neighborhood is located between the Licking River and Madison Avenue and from Eighth to 16th streets.
Dr. James Randolph, a pioneering physician, became the first African American to professionally give medical aid to generations of African Americans in Northern Kentucky before and after desegregation.
And Reverend Jacob Price, a Baptist minister during the turn of the 20th century, advocated for educational opportunities for African American children.
The community has celebrated their efforts by naming a major city park and housing development, respectively, after them on the Eastside.
Early in Covington’s history, as it grew, many African Americans settled this part of the city because of inexpensive properties and its close proximity to downtown Cincinnati.
Like many lifelong Covingtonians, Pam Mullins, an Eastside resident, grew up meeting few people from across the railroad tracks but actually saw a greater division in the late 1960s.
“The division came, in my opinion, when Lincoln Grant closed down,” she says.
In 1866, the Lincoln School was established in Covington to educate African American children in primary education. In 1874, the Kentucky legislature passed a law providing education for the Commonwealth, mandating that “white and colored schools shall be forever kept and maintained separately.” In 1876, Lincoln William Grant High School was established to provide secondary education.
“It was when you then saw the African Americans,” Mullins explains, “who lived predominantly in the Eastside, obligated to interact with kids from the Westside, which was predominantly white. There was always a division of the neighborhoods, but it became more visualized when we had to interact at school.”
William Grant High School closed in 1965 and students transferred to Holmes High School. After integration, Lincoln Grant remained an elementary school until it closed in 1976 because of dwindling enrollment.
A few neighborhoods are in the midst of a grand effort to revitalize their urban areas. Some have turned to repurposing old infrastructure to breathe new life. One such effort is underway in Covington’s Westside neighborhood, where redevelopment has presented an opportunity for change.
In recent years, along with many small businesses and nonprofit organizations, the city of Covington and Kenton County have invested heavily in the Westside neighborhood, which, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, was riddled with crime.
Operation: Fruit Farm, so named for the neighborhood’s surrounding streets of Orchard and Berry, was where the city planned to redevelop.
“Parts of the Westside were the worst,” says Paul Haines, a 71-year-old Covington Westside native. “Growing up as a white guy, I didn’t really know any of the black residents who lived on the Eastside; we were that separated. But I used to come in contact with them at school after desegregation when I was attending Holmes High School.”
“Growing up and living in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Orchard Street was prostitute row and gang member haven,” he says. “Where the chicken coop is now, there was a home to a notorious clan of drug dealers, and most of the homes were in various stages of decay, and people were moving in and out all the time. One house was so crime ridden that the police were there every other night.”
But, for the last two decades, the Center for Great Neighborhoods, Covington Police Department, and the City of Covington have worked together to capitalize on the assets of the Westside neighborhood while reducing crime and building trust with and between neighbors.
Starting in 2004, in response to intensified concerns about crime, the city aggressively acquired 25 vacant and blighted homes in order to better manage the Westside’s future. Since then, the Center has fully rehabilitated and sold several dozen homes.
The Center — which redeveloped the dilapidated Hellmann Lumber Company building into its headquarters — created Shotgun Row, a series of five renovated homes with help from a grant.
It was aided by a MetLife Foundation Community-Police Partnership Award, which includes a $20,000 grant to the Center to support public safety work in the area.
The redevelopment effort has been facilitated by the addition of St. Elizabeth Hospital, the expansion of the 12th Street corridor, the relocation of the Kenton County Building that sits right on the edge of the neighborhood, and the recent announcement that the city’s expansion of its efforts to serve the homeless population will be moved to an improved facility in the neighborhood.
In the past, residential segregation between black and white Americans in Covington was strikingly high, deeply troubling, and a major source of unequal educational and economic opportunity for African Americans.
In the past few years, there have been efforts to help bridge this historic divide. Festivals specifically targeted to bring the two neighborhoods together have helped to facilitate the progress.
Surveys handed out during the events were designed to determine where the interest was, such as establishing a neighborhood association or formal neighborhood group to help bridge the gap.
From the surveys, it was gathered that there was interest in additional youth and adult activities, especially in the Eastside neighborhood.
Gradually, the optimism generated during desegregation has led to redevelopment and unity efforts that are helping mend the divide.
The On The Ground: Covington feature series is made possible by a grant from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. / U. S. Bank Foundation.