The name “Latonia” is nearly synonymous with horses.
The Northern Kentucky community’s horse racing history, now largely forgotten, defined the neighborhood for decades.
“Two things created Latonia: the race track and the railroad,” says Latonia historian Lisa Gillham. “Those two things still have an effect on us even though the race track closed in the ’30s.”
In its day, the Latonia Race Track is said to have been even more pastoral than Churchill Downs, with a lake and beds of flowers in the infield. It was the home of the Latonia Derby, a premier thoroughbred race that attracted top-of-the-line owners, jockeys and horses. VIPs, dignitaries, including presidents and senators, came to see and be seen. And, of course, so did gamblers.
“The cream of society came and the dregs of society came,” Gillham said. “And everything in between.”
But those days are gone. Closed in 1939, it was demolished a few years later. In some ways, the modern story of Latonia can be summed up by what replaced the race track. On the site where thoroughbreds raced, cheered on by crowds dressed in their finery, now stands a tired, nearly vacant shopping center.
At Latonia Plaza, acres of parking go unused. The few businesses that remain include a couple cell phone stores, a Subway, and a liquor store.
Like many other inner-ring communities, the rise of the big-box shopping centers, with their asphalt fields of free parking, took a toll on Latonia. So too did the flight of homeowners from those inner-ring suburbs out to the greener, landscaped yards of the outer suburbs.
Keith Bales grew up there in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and like others, remembers that time with nostalgia. “It sounds idyllic, but it was actually a place where kids could go out and run and just come home when the streetlights came on,” he said.
“You knew each other’s families. You shopped here, went to school here, went to church here. It was a great way to grow up.”
Latonia enjoys 150 years of sometimes colorful history. It was an independent city until 1909, when it was annexed. Since then, it's been part of the city of Covington.
As homeowners moved out to places such as Independence and Fort Wright, home ownership in Latonia declined. Single-family homes were converted to rentals, and some of them deteriorated.
“With urban flight, you see a higher percentage of properties that are rental,” said Bales, who is the building code enforcement director for the city of Covington. “Sometimes, they’re below market-rate rental.”
With the increase in low-rent homes came in increase in crime, some of it fueled by drug abuse, and rundown properties.
Paul Patton has lived in the same house on Lincoln Avenue for almost 50 years. For at least 15 of those years, the house next door stood empty and unkept. A photo he keeps shows how bad it got – two raccoons sticking their heads out of holes in the roof.
But the decline that many other neighborhoods have experienced is turning around in Latonia. An active group of committed residents is working to restore the community ambience that long-time residents remember.
They’ve had some notable successes. On a Saturday last July, the Northern Kentucky Chamber’s Leadership Class organized “Unlock the Block,” a music festival meant to support the “emerging community” of Latonia. Organizers say 5,000 people showed up.
Someone bought the house next to the Patton’s, thoroughly rehabbed it and is getting ready to sell it.
Unique, small businesses have popped up on or near Ritte’s Corner, the center of the Latonia community.
Jordan Stephenson started Bard’s Burgers, adopting the name and the location of a Latonia diner that closed a few years ago. The fresh-grilled burgers have made it onto some “best burgers” lists and Bard’s was featured on the Food Network’s “Ginormous Food” show.
Randy Kelly left a corporate job a few years ago and started dabbling in the family business – antiques and collectibles. A few months ago, he and a partner opened Half and Half Antiques and Collectibles in what was once a square dance hall and, before that, an Alber’s grocery store.
“We thought we’d come in and we’ll start a business and hopefully other businesses can come in and grow around us,” Kelly said.
Keith Bales is honoring Latonia’s past by opening his evening-only Moonrise Doughnuts.
Latonia Bakery, which is no longer, is etched in the memory of longtime Latonians. When the bakers showed up at night to make the doughnuts for the next morning, in-the-know customers could buy warm, nighttime doughnuts right out of the fryer from the bakery’s side door.
“It’s basically an homage to what they did back in that era,” Bales said.
All of those businesses are on or near Ritte’s Corner, the heart of old Latonia. It’s a natural community center where five streets come together and historic buildings still stand and are occupied.
It can be a great place to walk around, linger, shop and eat lunch.
Lots of friends warned Jordan Stephenson against resurrecting Bard’s, the first version of which closed in 2013. But he had a vision that included his own chili recipe, deep fried Oreos and Twinkies and something called the CinciNasty Burger (which involves, naturally, goetta and chili).
And word is getting around about the Bardzilla Challenge, a test of endurance and consumption that includes 11 burger patties, 22 slices of cheese and two pounds of fries. Only four have survived the challenge to see their photo posted on Bard’s Wall of Fame.
Community happenings like Unlock the Block are designed to encourage that and make people aware of Latonia’s assets.
A Halloween party on the block attracted hundreds and echoed the costume parties that took place in the old days. Light Up Ritte’s Corner is planned for the Christmas season. Next spring, the Latonia Business Association will honor Latonia’s horse-racing heritage with a Derby party.
But like many other old, historic neighborhoods, Ritte’s Corner has been inundated by the increasing speed and volume of cars and trucks.
Winston Avenue, a five-lane road that leads right to the five corners, is heavily traveled, including by trucks, and is not friendly to pedestrians.
In 2013, an elderly woman was struck and killed while crossing Winston at 39th Street near Ritte’s Corner.
A detailed study of Latonia’s housing, parks, streets and businesses was completed by planners, consultants and the community and published in 2011. Among its main recommendations was to put Winston Avenue on a “diet.”
About 20,000 vehicles a day traverse Winston – that’s not exactly conducive to a leisurely walk. The study recommends a diet that would slim down the road’s five lanes to one lane in each direction, plus a lane of street parking on both sides and a landscaped median that could be a sanctuary for pedestrians.
The goal is to slow the traffic and make it easier and safer to walk. Doing that, it’s hoped, would increase the likelihood that Ritte’s Corner will be destination for shoppers and diners.
The plan is in line with Kentucky transportation department policy, but so far it lacks funding. The state lawmakers who represent Latonia should push for that money. It’s a neighborhood-friendly plan that has been researched, vetted and approved and would be a significant step in Latonia’s re-emergence.
“If we can slow traffic down going through Ritte’s Corner, people will notice what’s going on there,” Patton said.
That will help restore the sense of community in Latonia, a feeling that has remained despite the decades of change.
“That feeling of community never left,” Gillham said. “That feeling of a special identity of Latonia. That was there to build on when times began to change.”
Other stories in the Our Forgotten Neighborhoods series:
You can find David Holthaus on Twitter: @dgholthaus