Sunday, June 29, 2003

Monmouth reborn as eclectic strip

Historic Newport street adopts new, but still offbeat, incarnation

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Lisa Ohl (left) and Nicole Kuhlmann, both of Alexandria, look over a scooter in front of SoHo Scooters, 625 Monmouth St.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
NEWPORT - Let's say you:

• Need your gun fixed.

• Are craving a goat burrito.

• Love Elvis.

• Like to heckle comedy troupes.

• Simply must rent leg warmers for a Flashdance party.

You would not go to the suburbs to do these things. Nor would you visit Newport on the Levee - too upscale, too mainstream. But four blocks south of the riverfront complex, in the heart of old Newport, a different kind of world is unfolding.

It's odd. It's artsy. It offers all of the above and more.

The challenge, as for any urban enclave, is persuading you to check it out.

Newport's South of the Levee business district is working on that, and its timing couldn't be better.

The Levee, which opened in 2001, has repositioned Newport - or at least its riverfront - as a safe and even trendy place to be. To the east, the city's Mansion Hill neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying. And on a hillside to the south, developers are building luxury homes with skyline views of Cincinnati.

In the middle of all this activity is Monmouth Street, which stretches for about 10 blocks south of the Levee. Decades ago, it and surrounding streets were home to 23 strip clubs. Now three remain, and one is about to close.

Vacancies dropping

Monmouth today is a street in transition.

"Six months ago, we had 13 vacant storefronts. Now we have four," says Tom Beiting, a lawyer and president of the Newport Business Association.

Some newcomers have been drawn by the street's relatively low rents. The inexpensive digs are particularly appealing to artists, who can't afford and don't need space at the mall.

The New Edgecliff Theater, for instance, moved last year from the Aronoff Center for the Arts to The Artery, an intimate, loftlike space at 913 Monmouth St.. With the switch, production costs dropped 80 percent, which allows the company to continue offering the thought-provoking, noncommercial shows for which it is known, artistic director Michael Shooner says.

Also last year, the Monmouth Theater opened at 636 Monmouth St. It offers its own productions, such as the currently running play, Dead to the Last Drop, but it's also rentable for about $350 a weekend.

The Friends of Lucy comedy troupe uses the space. So does the Cincinnati Puppet Guild. Its first "puppet slam," held this spring, was a sellout hit.

These artsy venues complement the York Street Cafe, one block to the west. It's gained a reputation as Bohemia Central, with local artwork on the walls, live concerts on the second floor and improv comedy on the third.

Along Monmouth, other new businesses include SoHo Scooters and Reser Bicycle Outfitters, where it is possible to buy a $7,000 Italian bike. In October, a new restaurant will open in the 900 block of Monmouth: Washington Platform Oyster House, a spin-off of a well-established eatery in downtown Cincinnati.

Quirky meets newfangled

The new places rub shoulders with some of Newport's quirkiest institutions.

The Thing Shop carries handcuffs, whips, prom dresses and lingerie. Peter Garrett fixes guns. La Mexicana restaurant serves goat and other authentic cuisine. The Costume Gallery has 10,000 items for rent, including all things 1980.

And at Jewel King Jewelers, owner Steve Chuke moonlights as an Elvis performer. Ask nicely and he'll sing you a song, but don't call him an impersonator. Those guys are crazy, Chuke says.

"It's so good to have people come in here and look at Monmouth and admire the street," says Richard Deaton, owner of Richard's Variety Store, which has been around for 25 years.

Deaton is starting to see a new clientele, he says, with a few "yuppies" venturing south from the Levee and others sitting at tables outside the Monmouth Theater on weekend evenings, waiting for the doors to open.

City officials and the Newport Business Association are determined to keep the momentum going.

The city recently finished an eight-block, $4.5 million makeover of Monmouth Street, complete with new sidewalks, curbs, trees and street lamps.

An analysis of each building's facade is available to help guide businesses in making improvements, and matching state grants help cover the cost. Newport lies in an enterprise zone, so sales tax breaks and other incentives are also available to encourage business expansion.

This summer, Northern Kentucky University will conduct a marketing study to help identify the street's future customers.

'Perception has changed'

Monmouth should cultivate its uniqueness, says Aretta Baumgartner, president of the Cincinnati Puppet Guild.

"You can go to someplace that looks like the Levee anywhere," she says. "The more artistic group of folks, I guess because work is so personal, choose to spend their free time in places that are more personal."

That sounds good to Joy Galbraith, owner of the Costume Gallery, which specializes in building wardrobes for high-school theater productions across the Tristate. Her parents own the Monmouth Theater next door.

Galbraith is the networker of the business district, always looking for tie-ins. Example: Residents of the East Row Historic District, which includes Mansion Hill, are gearing up for Tall Stacks, so Galbraith set up a class to teach them about period dressing.

She's also encouraging businesses to participate in the "First Fridays" gallery hop that starts in Covington's Mainstrasse and includes a shuttle ride to Monmouth. For the next one, as many as eight stores around Monmouth may be open to showcase local artwork.

Galbraith is thrilled by the possibilities.

"When (the theater) first opened, I'd get calls and people would say, 'Is it safe?' With the Levee opening, I never get calls like that anymore.

"The perception of Newport has really changed," Galbraith says. "Now if we can just get people to come up the street."


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