from the Good Ideas File: using what you got in Covington, Kentucky

My parents were Depression children who learned early on that things that other people abandon can have value.  I wrote about my dad’s penchant for curb-picking in one of the most personal essays in the book — and I described his tendency to show me some piece of foundry casting or industrial leftover, describe a plan for making something out of it, and declare, “I see usability!”  By the time he had started making that statement, he had apparently realized that seeing usability in castoffs wasn’t always the norm.

Big and small cities natonwide are pocked with vacant houses that are commonly assumed to be too old, too small, too drafty, too weird to find a market reuse.  And if your definition of the market is 2 parents and 1.75 kids, maybe you’re right.  But too often we fail to see that there might be a valuable niche for them, after all.

Covington, Kentucky, is currently working on proving the potential for a niche market for some of its hardest-to-reuse properties: the tiny shotgun houses that you find in center cities throughouth the Ohio River Valley.  When I say tiny, I do mean tiny.  I’ve seen closets bigger than some of these.

Five houses in Covington are being rehabilitated for artists-in-residence. The houses, located on Orchard Street, are all one-story shotgun houses, with one bedroom and one bathroom, and the space for a studio.

“Historically, this is one of the worst areas in Covington, and neighbors wanted to do something about it,” says Sarah Allan with the Center for Great Neighborhoods. “Everyone thought the buildings should be torn down, but instead, we’re redoing them and creating value.”


Artists can be a valuable segment for testing market demand because they’re often willing to take riks and often have a higher level of skills in terms of making physical improvements, but too often communities rely on creating an artist community as an end-strategy.  In Covington,  they’re apparently thinking about this prudently:

“Stemming from this project, we’ve had a lot of interest from older people who want to age in place in a urban setting,” Allan says. “They want a one-story house in an urban setting as opposed to one in the suburbs. There are shotgun houses scattered all around Covington, and in the future, we might remodel them for those that are interested in the product, but aren’t necessarily artists.”

Nice going, guys!

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