Southgate losing piece of its soul

Thursday, October 15, 1998

BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

SOUTHGATE -- If cars could make decisions -- if they could design shopping strips, for instance -- they might come up with something like Alexandria Pike in Southgate.

A garage here, a quick lube there, a discount auto parts store in between. This is mecca for anything with four cylinders -- and a testament to our dependence on cars.

Too bad we humans have eyes in addition to coupes and sedans. This stretch of Alexandria Pike may be useful, but it's also blindingly unattractive, and it's only going to get worse.

Any time now, Southgate will be losing a little piece of its soul: The former Dinner Bell restaurant near St. Therese's Church. Within weeks, the Italianate-style building will be demolished to make way for an expansion of the car wash next door.

Years and years from now, what will we say?

"Gee, ain't it great that we got more self-service bays at the Mister Car Wash?"

Or, "Gee, whatever happened to tall, brick buildings with iron balconies and intricate window details?"

Oh, well. Maybe by that time, we'll all be propped up in some squat, blocky saloon that used to be a Dairy Queen. Alexandria Pike has one of those, you know. It's a few doors away from the Dinner Bell. Away from its main drag, of course, Southgate is a charming town. People think of it as Mayberry, and they tend to stay for a long, long time.

The elementary school looks like a set for Sesame Street. The houses are alternately grand and quirky. There are Italianates, Tudors, Queen Annes, bungalows, Cape Cods and shotguns. Each is different from the next, and each offers an interesting face to its street.

But Alexandria Pike? Mercy. What a dreary indictment of the accident known as "growth."

I don't blame the owner of the Mister Car Wash. I don't blame Larry and Thelma Rust, who ran the popular Dinner Bell for years, raised their seven children on the second floor of the building, put five of them through college and deserve a nice retirement.

I do blame our collective lack of vision. Government makes rules for property owners all the time -- rules about minimum setbacks from streets, about the height of fences and the size of signs. Why are these rules always about taking measurements, never about simply assessing the beauty of a thing?

Communities ought to set some standards regarding beauty, because ugliness is contagious.

Take, for instance, the matter of those tacky signs -- the ones with the black, pull-off letters announcing concerts or bingo games. If they're considered portable, they aren't even allowed in Southgate. But I saw a bunch of them along Alexandria Pike this week. One carried a message about the Southgate Optimists, of all the organizations.

Rescuing the Dinner Bell wouldn't have made much difference, of course. But Margo Warminski, a Newport preservationist, went to this week's meeting of the Campbell County Planning Commission anyway. Knowing it was useless, she spoke against the car-wash plan; she hopes somebody will think twice about the next old building.

When I stop by the clerk's office in Southgate, several residents cringe at the news.

"Oh, is that what they're going to do?" one woman says of the car wash expansion. "That's terrible."

Sylvia Thomas looks depressed. "You're kidding," she says quietly. "You're kidding."

She has lived in this town for 40 years, and she has seen some of its buildings go. An old house that had been the El Greco restaurant, for instance, was torn down to make way for parking space at St. Therese. Ms. Thomas flips through Southgate's Bicentennial booklet, hoping to find a picture of the Dinner Bell in its horse-and-buggy days. As town legend has it, the place was once a carriage stop for travelers along Alexandria Pike.

Nostalgia is one reason to save old buildings, but it's not necessarily the most persuasive.

Take Jeff Rust. The third oldest of the Rust children, he has fond memories of the place where he grew up -- but no desire to preserve it. More important, his parents' future depended on its sale.

Years ago, the Rust kids played in the field next door -- where the car wash now sits -- and helped their parents bread fish or carry food to parties. When his catering business took off, Larry Rust closed the restaurant except for Fridays, when he sold fish sandwiches. These were legendary in Southgate. During Lent, Mrs. Rust started answering the phone at 8 a.m. on Thursdays and would sell out of fish in two hours, Jeff Rust says.

He loves the old place, but his parents had to get out. Mr. Rust is 81 now, his wife 74. They had been living in the building all these years -- didn't move until this summer.

"It was a historical building because it was an old building," their son says. "If it was registered or anything like that, my understanding was you could never tear it down.

"We wanted mom and dad to sell. We didn't want them dying in that restaurant, because they worked too hard for it."

Now Thelma and Larry Rust are building a house not a mile from Jeff's place. He is looking forward to cutting their grass. His mother is looking forward to her first new home.

Of course they were right to leave.

Between a car wash and a saloon is no place for people.

Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at ksamples@enquirer.com

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