The historic neighborhood of Latonia is reimagining itself as a 21st century walkable community

Once its own city, the Covington neighborhood of Latonia has developed an eclectic collection of amenities any urban dweller would love.

An example of this is found in Latonia’s historic five-way intersection, Ritte’s Corner, which is surrounded by beautiful, preserved, historic buildings that remind us of a time gone by.

Latonia has long been associated with horses because it was home to the Latonia Race Track. At the height of its popularity in the early 1900’s, the Race Track rivaled Kentucky’s Churchill Downs, with a lake and beds of flowers in its infield.

The track was also home to the popular Latonia Derby, a premier thoroughbred race that attracted top-of-the-line owners, jockeys and horses.

In some ways, the modern story of Latonia can be summed up by what replaced the race track, which was closed in 1939 and eventually torn down; a virtually vacant shopping center where acres of parking goes unused. The few businesses that remain include a couple cell phone stores, a Subway, and a liquor store.

Though horse racing’s hold on the neighborhood is long gone, it helped to facilitate the neighborhood’s development ... then and now. Unique small businesses have started to repopulate the community.

Just four years ago, Billie Mocabee, a neighborhood business owner, started to become involved with the neighborhood and then took a risk to open her entrepreneurial venture in Latonia, The Roost Latonia.

“Our involvement in Latonia started four years ago with small things,” says Mocabee. “Small things, like volunteering at music festivals on a side street, planting new trees, painting murals on storefront windows, becoming involved in neighborhood groups, witnessing the community efforts, and helping other small businesses open their doors. And as all those great things came together, I came up with the idea for a gathering place.”

Located at 3616 Decoursey Avenue, The Roost Latonia, located in the heart of Latonia at Ritte’s Corner, contains art, coffee, cocktails, and "a whole lotta quirk," it advertises. It's currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Passersby enjoyed watching the construction progress over the past year,” says Mocabee. “The entire building was lovingly overhauled and restored from front to back. We tried to pay homage to past businesses like Holian’s Hardware by reusing the original sign and adding neon. We installed a front garage door to open our gathering space and welcome the outside in.”

Today the budding neighborhood business district is almost unrecognizable from years past.

Before businesses were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were lines out the door in the mornings for Bernhard’s Bakery and in the evenings to get a sweet taste from Moonrise Doughnuts and gourmet hamburgers from Bard’s Burgers.

The neighborhood around Ritte’s Corner has become a walkable and bikeable destination.

“Business and residents were excited to see new bike racks installed throughout the community last year,” says Mocabee

Years ago, as homeowners moved out to places such as Florence and Erlanger, they fled from older neighborhoods like Latonia. In the process, some properties deteriorated and a portion of the population became more transient. But some never left, and now, people are moving back.

Maggie Soard, a longtime Covingtonian, has lived in Latonia for the last 15 years and has no plans of leaving the neighborhood.

“Growing up in Covington, I had a friend whose family lived on Ashland Avenue here in Latonia,” says Soard. “And I always loved the street when we would visit. It turned out when my husband and I were looking to buy a house, those same friends were selling theirs … so we bought it. A lot of our neighbors have lived here since we have. But also, several new families have recently moved here too.”

Like many other inner-ring communities, the rise of the big-box shopping centers affected Latonia. And the flight of homeowners to the greener, landscaped yards of the outer suburbs has left an abandoned eyesore, the Latonia Plaza, longing for attention.

“The Latonia Plaza definitely needs to be rebuilt with new tenants,” says Soard. “Don’t get me wrong. I mean, I love Big Lots, but we need non-dollar store and furniture rental shopping in our neighborhood, and Covington in general. There is literally no retail shopping area in our city. It's a shame that in order to buy something other than groceries or hardware, we have to leave the city we reside in to shop.”

The Latonia Plaza, not to be confused with the Latonia Shopping Center currently anchored by a Kroger grocery store, has aged past its prime. Its most recent anchor, Burlington, has been closed for about a year.

In recent years, Covington’s riverfront has been the recipient of a lot of attention. The popularity of places like Braxton Brewing, Hotel Covington, and plans to redevelop the recently closed IRS building have caused many to overlook the importance of the redevelopment of Covington’s southern core, some Latonia residents believe.

“I grocery shop in Covington but find for most other things I have to go to Fort Wright, Newport, Cincinnati, or farther out to Crestview Hills, Erlanger or Florence,” says Soard. “While I applaud the city for the revitalization of Covington's downtown area and involvement with a national Main Street improvements program, the residential neighborhood of Latonia also has a main street that largely gets ignored, it just needs to be developed.”

There has long been talk among the redevelopment community of plans for the plaza, which is a central piece of the Latonia Small Area Study, completed by the city and partners in 2011. Hub+Weber, a local architecture firm, recently weighed in on how many opportunities empty big-box stores present by saying, ”While vacant spaces have a negative aesthetic impact, they present huge opportunities for redevelopment. Retail must evolve to compete with the walkable, pedestrian-oriented urban areas. Creative thinking is required to re-establish the social network required for successful redevelopment.”

Judging from its residents and business owners, Latonia has both of those elements in place as it looks to shape its future.

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.

 

Read more articles by Kareem A. Simpson.

Raised in the inner city of Covington, Kentucky, Kareem Simpson is an author, innovator, community enthusiast, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, foodie and lover of all things creative.
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