The Future of City Heights: Covington’s City Within A City

Jasmine Cumberland – If you take Benton Road in Covington all the way to the top, past townhomes and child care facilities, past a church and a convenient store, you will stumble right into the heart of one of the few public housing communities that remain in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area.


A lifetime home for some, a stepping stone for others, City Heights is a public housing development located in Covington, Kentucky. Built in the 1950s and originally called Ida Spence Homes, this community has been home to generations of Kentucky families. With 366 units, it makes one wonder how such a large housing project could be so widely unknown.


I had never heard of City Heights, and I must say when I first arrived, it felt otherworldly. I have seen many housing projects before, but something about City Heights stands apart. Perhaps it was the location. One way in. One way out. Perched atop one of the highest points in Covington. Separated from the world by an abandoned guard booth still strewn with bullet markings. Or maybe the condition of the buildings, scarcely updated since their construction, showing every bit of the $51 million of needed renovations recently estimated for the property. Whatever it was, I immediately knew I had never been anywhere like City Heights.


However, it did not take long to realize, this neighborhood, with all its distinctiveness, was also every neighborhood in which I had ever lived. People shuffling back and forth to work, trying to catch a ride from a friend when necessary. Kids of all ages running around in giggling, bickering packs. Neighbors yelling from windows, doors, and sidewalks, sharing the community happenings like a living, breathing newsletter.


Today’s headline? We were there to help clients enroll for free phone service and set them up with free devices as a part of our Community Partner Program. Brendan Goth, Program Coordinator for Brighton Center’s City Futures, had invited us up for a one-time event to help introduce the resource to the community. City Futures is a workforce development program designed to connect the residents of the City Heights community with employment opportunities. These days, that mission is virtually impossible without first equipping the job seeker with reliable communication, making our partnership with City Futures vital.


Just like in most neighborhoods, word began to spread, and soon we had a nice size group assembled on the sidewalk in front of our tent. One by one, they approached the table for their turn at applying. There were young adults whose parents stood to the side and coached them through the process. There were injured residents, whose caregivers did all they could to help things along. There were mothers trying to wrangle their small children while answering all our questions. A vibrant array of people with their own stories and struggles flocked to our tent.


As different as they were, they were still united by their need. Whether it was for access to education and employment opportunities, or a way to stay connected to resources in their community, the need was apparent. However, each client took the opportunity to express it explicitly. They thanked us for coming and shared why it meant so much to them specifically. In these moments, you are quickly reminded where the Lifeline program gets its name. Lifeline, a thing on which someone depends, or that provides a means of escape from a difficult situation. That is what this resource is to these individuals, and that is what makes this work so rewarding.


We were there for hours in the often unforgiving heat of a late summer day, and yet the time flew by. I would credit its pace to the constant stream of applicants entering our tent, and also to the conversations taking place around it. I was able to hear people’s stories firsthand, learn about the difficulties they face, and even complain to some fellow fans about our ill-fated Cincinnati Bengals. I came onto the property feeling as if I had stepped into another world, but by the time I left, I realized it to be just an extension of my own.


And not only did I realize how short-sighted the otherness I had draped around this community, I realized it was a very toxic outlook that is part of the issue City Heights faces today. On that hill, out of view of the rest of the city, the buildings fall apart, resources run dry, and no one pays attention because out of sight so often means out of mind.


I am prone to Wiki holes and losing myself in research. After I visited City Heights, I was beside myself with curiosity. I had to know everything about this city within a city. As I did my research, I found article after article about incidents on the property. It seemed that was all anyone ever wrote about this corner of the world. Until recently, as the Housing Authority of Covington has been informed that not only was the community unsafe, but it would take $51 million to bring it to that standard. Now everyone wonders what will become of City Heights.


Residents fear the property will be demolished or privatized, displacing hundreds of families, some who have called their units home for 35 years or more. Atop this Covington hill, one can enjoy some of the most incredible views of the skyline, a priceless value to developers who may hope to acquire the property. But the view, as beautiful as it is, is not the most valuable thing on that hilltop. By in large, that honor belongs to the people who make up this community and the potential they hold.


Brendan and the team at City Futures are doing what they can to help the residents of City Heights transition out of the grips of poverty. They offer employment resources as well as financial literacy programs and family resources. They even have a program specifically geared towards 14 to 17-year-olds to prepare for future opportunities.


The residents of City Heights interact with Brendan as if he is from the neighborhood himself. They laugh and joke. He seems to know all the resident’s stories and tendencies. He helps them gather their documents when they need it and assures them that he will be continuing to help people enroll long after we are gone. Another staff member hands out snacks to the kids of the neighborhood, and by the way they call out for their favorites, you can tell this is probably a daily ritual.


These are the people who are helping to secure the real future of City Heights. Not the fate of buildings and land, but the promise within the people who call it home.