A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Weekender: How Covington’s Westside ‘Fruit Farm’ became Orchard Park thanks to community policing

Neighbors in Orchard Park plan an urban farm, a sculpture garden, composting and a couple dozen more chickens in coming months. (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

Neighbors in Orchard Park plan an urban farm, a sculpture garden, composting and a couple dozen more chickens in coming months. (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

By Mike Rutledge
NKyTribune reporter

There’s now a peaceful calm in the part of Covington’s Westside neighborhood that once was among the city’s roughest places.

Residents offer two main reasons for the improvement: dedicated community policing, and a decade-long effort by city officials to level or rehab former crime-haven buildings. Meanwhile, a surprising amount of praise goes to the small flock of chickens that quietly grazes near the site of two murders that happened within a week of 2004.

Back in the 1990s and 2000s, “You had this little pocket in the middle of the neighborhood where everyone felt unsafe,” says Rachel Hastings, director of neighborhood and housing initiatives at the Center for Great Neighborhoods of Covington.

Drugs and prostitution were rampant. One man set several fires. A couple of families “were really strangling the neighborhood, and people were very afraid,” Hastings adds.

 Rachel Hastings of the Center for Great Neighborhoods of Covington explains how five chickens have helped create a community in the Orchard Park area of Covington's Westside neighborhood. (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

Rachel Hastings of the Center for Great Neighborhoods of Covington explains how five chickens have helped create a community in the Orchard Park area of Covington’s Westside neighborhood. (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

After the back-to-back homicides, the Westside Action Coalition neighborhood association urged Covington to tear down the adjoining buildings where they occurred. Neighborhood leaders pointedly reminded city officials that Covington had loaned the former owners money for home repairs and the loan was not repaid.

“You have a lien, you need to foreclose on these people,” Hastings recalls neighborhood people telling the city. “They are making our lives hell.”

The police agreed those and other buildings should be razed. Quietly, under then-City Manager Jay Fossett, the city and non-profit Center for Great Neighborhoods started buying properties with plans to redevelop them for combined artists’ studios and housing.

At the time, Fossett did his best to obscure the exact location of where the artisan housing might be, because he feared speculators would step in and boost building prices, raising them beyond the ability of artists to afford them.

Covington knocked down some houses “because the criminal activity in them was so bad,” Hastings says. When a landlord who owned several dilapidated properties died, the CGN bought a couple and the city bought several more. Through the years, CGN bought properties from Covington and rehabbed them, some with city funds and others with privately raised money and grants.

In all, more than two dozen properties were purchased. The Westside Action Coalition created a list of the area’s very worst properties.

“When you go look at those, almost all those buildings, the really, really bad ones were torn down, others have been fixed up, a lot of them by us,” Hastings says. “A couple of them have become community gardens, vacant lots. Community development is long term work. You don’t stem 50 years of disinvestment in a couple of years.”

The center has spent about $8 million from various sources over eight years to remove the buildings that were bad teeth and restore the ones that could be salvaged.

Here’s how the investment helped the area’s property values: The combined tax-assessment values of the homes before they were restored was $309,146. The combined sales prices of the same homes was $3.65 million – a 1,179 percent increase. That has encouraged others to invest in nearby properties.

Slowly building trust

It took years for police to build trust in the hardened area that then was known as the Fruit Farm, apparently because an orchard once stood there. One local street is called Berry; another, Orchard.

Many in the neighborhood didn’t believe police were on their side. Others feared they would endanger themselves by offering tips about criminal activity.

Because federal money was used, the city was required to do what it can to preserve some of the historically significant buildings in the neighborhood, like these. Officials are working with companies to map the interiors of these buildings, along with their current floor plans, as well as alternate floor plans that can be used.(Photo by Mike Rutledge) 

Because federal money was used, the city was required to do what it can to preserve some of the historically significant buildings in the neighborhood, like these. Officials are working with companies to map the interiors of these buildings, along with their current floor plans, as well as alternate floor plans that can be used.(Photo by Mike Rutledge) 

As it turns out, today’s police chief, Michael “Spike” Jones, was the Westside’s first COPPS (Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving) officer, and Hastings credits him with helping improve the gap between the area and police.

“Because Spike was getting to know folks, he would just come after hours, and he would pass out candy and play games with the kids,” during Halloween events, Hastings says.

“And people got to see, ‘OK, I know this person’s a police officer, and I’ve been told my whole life that I shouldn’t trust police officers or be afraid of them, but here’s this guy, Spike, who seems really personable, and I like him, and he grew up in Covington, and I feel like I can trust him.”

“For residents to see officers without their uniforms on? That’s a huge deal sometimes,” Hastings says.

One way residents were allowed to confidently report crime was by creating “hot-spot cards,” which allowed them to make reports anonymously through the CGN. The center’s staff helped some illiterate residents regularly in filling out the cards, which were passed to police.

“It was a rough neighborhood,” Jones says. “Now to go over there, it’s really peaceful, neighbors are networking, talking to each other, there’s chickens over there.”

“I mean, it’s a cool area that’s still developing, and I’m excited about the possibilities,” he adds. “And the folks are going to want to move in there – set up shop and live there.”

The change has been dramatic in the past decade, says nearby resident Mark Young, who recalls prostitutes breaking into a property he was renovating and smoking crack inside.

“This used to be a dangerous neighborhood,” Young says. “There were some pretty rough things.”

Now?

“We’re running out of houses to renovate here, actually,” Young says.

Award-winning turnaround

The turnaround was significant enough that the city last year was one of 11 cities to win awards from the MetLife Foundation and Local Initiatives Support Corporation for success in reducing crime and blight. With the award, Covington received $20,000. More than 560 police departments and community organizations had been nominated.

Two newly remodeled homes stand next to the one owned by Steve Huss, which should receive a matching facade this spring. (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

Two newly remodeled homes stand next to the one owned by Steve Huss, which should receive a matching facade this spring. (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

From 2004 through 2013 there was a 50 percent drop in calls for police service from the Westside, compared with a slight increase in calls citywide. Meanwhile, arrests in the neighborhood dropped 23 percent through that period (from 146 to 113), while total charges were cut by 34 percent (250 to 166).

In 2004, 54 percent of all Westside calls about suspected drug activity came from the several-block area then known as Fruit Farm. Residents today prefer to call it Orchard Park.

Also in 2004, there were 51 arrests for drug possession or trafficking throughout the Westside. In 2013, that number was 18. Part of the solution in strangling prostitution and drug-dealing from the area was changing several streets in the area to one-way, to make the area more difficult to enter and leave quickly from Interstate 71/75.

Also helping quell problems in the Westside – and Fruit Farm in particular – was when the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet moved ahead with the widening of 12th Street, now Martin Luther King Boulevard. In the process the state leveled many blighted and vacant houses along 12th that had fallen into disrepair since the mid-1980s, when the widening efforts began.

“If you drive over there and you look around, you’ll see it and you’ll feel remnants,” Jones says. “You’ll look at some of the buildings and go, ‘I bet that used to be a rough place.’ But you can say ‘It used to be,’ because it’s not that way anymore. And it’s kind of rewarding to see the turnaround.”

Very old homes are new again

A cornerstone of the Orchard Park renaissance is a series of six adjacent shotgun wood-frame houses along Orchard Street that were built in the 1880s as living quarters for workers at a nearby quarry. The sturdy buildings were so narrow and long that many in the neighborhood mistakenly thought they were trailers. Five of the six buildings were purchased, and renovated into single-bedroom dwellings that also include studios that receive the northern light many artists appreciate.

The wood-frames of the homes date to the 1880s, but the feel of the completely renovated artisan studios (this one still under construction) is distinctly modern. (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

The wood-frames of the homes date to the 1880s, but the feel of the completely renovated artisan studios (this one still under construction) is distinctly modern. (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

Gone from the 1,000-1,200-square-foot homes are the several small rooms that used to fill each. Each home now has the feel of a newly-built loft space, and each has sold for about $90,000.

Hastings says the dwellings make sense for artists and other creative people: “If you’re an artist and you’re renting a studio space somewhere and you’re renting an apartment or you own a house, you’re paying two payments. With this, you have one payment for the entire space.”

Working recently on the interior of one home still under renovation, Sean McDonald of Don Altevers & Co. general contractors shared his first impression of the buildings when he saw them: “I’ll be honest, when I first looked at these, I said, ‘These have got to be torn down.’”

But today, with some finished and the rest purchased as their makeovers continue, “I think they look real good,” McDonald adds.

Peggy Munson, who moved in Dec. 15, likes their look, too. She liked hers so much, she bought it, and plans to teach yoga inside, and out on a nearby lawn in the summers.

“I love it,” Munson says. “Covington anymore has a good feeling, good energy with all the construction going on.”

“I feel the energy,” she adds. “I go by energy.”

One of Munson’s neighbors is Steve Huss, who has lived in one of the shotgun houses since the mid-1980s. The retired antique seller didn’t want to sell his home, but the CGN decided they had to put a new façade on his home this spring, so it will match its beautified neighbors.

Peggy Munson moved in to one of the artisan studios in December and will be teaching yoga both inside her home, and when summer arrives, outdoors, as well. (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

Peggy Munson moved in to one of the artisan studios in December and will be teaching yoga both inside her home, and when summer arrives, outdoors, as well. (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

“They had a bunch of dopers over there,” Huss says of one leveled property. “’High-crime area,’ they called it. It didn’t bother me much. I stayed away from them. This old house here, it ain’t bad, especially when they put the siding on it.”

Along the way, Hastings and the police increasingly worked together, especially after copper kept being stolen during construction a few years ago. In one house, even “the temporary security system got stolen,” Hastings says. Police investigated and learned a man who had been watching the construction workers’ comings and going was responsible.

Police have given the CGN tips about how to build homes that don’t offer lots of hiding spaces where criminals can hide. Police also have inventoried the area’s street lighting and suggested improvements. Hastings, meanwhile, has kept police updated about the progress on renovations, and let them know when the buildings are occupied again.

Chickens liven the neighborhood

New Orchard Park resident Gus Wolf says he knew the chickens that now live on a plot of land would work to bring people of the area together.

“What I knew the chickens would do is they engage people, and people get interested and start asking questions,” says Wolf, who not only lives in a home that overlooks the fenced-in chickens, but who also owns a 150-acre farm and nursery in Carroll County.

Wolf runs a nursery business and last year helped run the Covington Farmers Market, which runs May through October. He also has been involved with Covington’s urban forestry board.

These chickens run to visitors, and people in the Orchard Park area of Covington's Westside neighborhood also flock to them. Turns out, there's a lot to talk about, when it comes to chickens, other than just their eggs. (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

These chickens run to visitors, and people in the Orchard Park area of Covington’s Westside neighborhood also flock to them. Turns out, there’s a lot to talk about, when it comes to chickens, other than just their eggs. (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

Neighbors who didn’t speak to each other in years suddenly found lots to talk about when it came to the hens. City ordinances were changed to allow the hens, but no noisy roosters.

“I love them,” says Munson, the yoga instructor, who can look out her large front window at them. “They’re penned up, but one got out and everyone was so concerned.”

It’s a bit magical, the way the chickens prompt people to do unexpected things: One recent afternoon, Phil and Carol Winters, who also live in the Westside, but on the opposite side of MLK Boulevard, drove by just to see the chickens , and feed them.

Carol stayed in the car, but Phil did something he called “The Chicken Dance” – but with more hoola-hoopy hip-wiggling than most chicken dances.

His wife later explained she prompted her hubby to do the dance: “I grew up in the country, and I told him, ‘Just say chick-chick-chick, and they’ll come.”

Hastings calls the hens “a way to connect folks. We don’t want these people to buy the house and then we never see them again. For us, building the neighborhoods is all about connections between folks. It’s connecting residents to each other, having residents connect with local businesses, connecting with the police department and other artists, and other stakeholders.”

She believes some new small businesses soon will appear along MLK Boulevard to serve area residents, and motorists using the newly widened gateway to the city.

Spreading the success elsewhere

Jones has continued the monthly police chief’s meetings with business owners and residents that his predecessor, Lee Russo, started several years ago, to reach out to the community. Jones, in fact, expanded it to add the city’s fire chief to the meetings.

Jones says the community policing efforts in the Westside have been so successful that Covington is expanding it to include other parts of northern Covington.

Policing, Jones says, can be a community-development tool: “When people feel safe coming over and shopping here and dining here, and we can make public spaces safer for folks to traverse, that’s good for us, and it’s good for the city, it’s good for everybody,” he adds.

A mural in the Orchard Park area of Covington. (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

A mural in the Orchard Park area of Covington. (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

“We realize that we’re the police department, but we’re not an island in the city – we’re a part of the city as well,” Jones says. “And when the city succeeds, good economic development will help us reduce crime.”

Jones’ department has been working with Larisa Sims, the assistant city manager for development, who updates police about proposed developments. Sims did not return calls for comment.

Two officers now are on foot patrols, funded by community development block grant money, says Jones, who would love to expand the program to include Gateway Community & Technical College’s urban campus area.

“Part of the instructions – and we hand-pick the officers that work this – is we want you out walking and we want you stopping in businesses and saying hi to folks, and getting to know who’s coming and going,” Jones says.

“Basically, it’s just good old-fashioned police work. Walking the beat, getting to know folks. That’s the sense of ownership that we’re trying to encourage, not only in the police department but across the city as well, and I think it’s working.”

The U.S. Department of Justice was impressed enough that it chose Covington, along with Milwaukee and Providence, R.I., to help teach other departments around the nation how to approach the work. No money came with that distinction, only national prestige for the city.

“I think when people feel safe they’re more apt to invest money in a community, and our goal is to create an environment where people feel safe and feel like they’re making a good investment in Covington,” Jones says. “We’re hopeful that more fruit bears from these efforts.”

Hastings thinks the efforts also help officers feel better about the community, and their jobs: “The police feel they’re part of something positive,” she says. “If you can imagine you’re a police officer for 25 years and most of your interaction is with the bad guys? It’s a pretty unfulfilling job. Because you never get to see the folks in the neighborhood who are happy about the work that you’re doing.”

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One Comment

  1. Holly Young says:

    Just one year later, after the writing of this article, The Catalytic Fund has suggested a proposal that would tear down four of the historic buildings (that the City of Covington was supposed to *protect* because federal funds were used to buy these properties). The proposed development would be to install ten single-family townhomes and a 20 space parking lot over Orchard Park. This proposal will be presented to the public on March 1st, 2016 at the Center for Great Neighborhoods at 1650 Russell Street at 6:30 PM. I think this deserves a follow up story, don’t you?

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