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How Racial Tensions Manifest in Cincinnati Today

Racial segregation is a reality across our country, but what does that look like in Cincinnati?

Story and images by Abby Shoyat

As Cincinnati approaches a generation without the first-hand experience of the 2001 civil unrest, are we doomed for more riots or are the issues materializing by new means? Over the Rhine (OTR) has been ground zero for racial tensions in Cincinnati to come to a head. It was the site of the police shooting of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas and the subsequent boycotts in 2001 which captured international attention.

Image courtesy of Sean Hughes
Image courtesy of Sean Hughes
Image courtesy of Sean Hughes

It was the largest riot the country had seen in nearly a decade and caused over 3 million dollars in damage to over 120 businesses and public spaces, according to independent historian Samuel Momodu with Black Past.

With this blemish on its record, OTR ousted Compton as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the nation in 2009.

In June of 2016, Politico published an article “How Cincinnati Salvaged the Most Dangerous Neighborhood in America” and hailed 3CDC for their work and highlighted the new businesses that were flooding in. Although the article gives a nod to some of the disapproving voices, it does not give weight to the neighborhood that many people had called home and the businesses that had helped define their community; and it only perpetuated the stigma of which the neighborhood had been trying to rid themselves.

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Residents of Over the Rhine adjust to the revitalization which has largely been at the hands of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC). “3CDC is a 501(c) 3, tax-exempt, private, non-profit corporation. Its mission and strategic focus is to strengthen the core assets of downtown by revitalizing and connecting the Central Business District and Over-the-Rhine (OTR),” according to their website.

“Over the Rhine is no different from no other neighborhood… To me. It’s not where you live, it’s how you live,” says longtime resident Georgia Keith, who has called OTR home for over 50 years. “Here, we are thriving individuals. We might not have the money, but we have the love of each other and the care for each other and the livelihood is just as strong here as it is anywhere else.”

Mary Burke Rivers, executive director of Over the Rhine Community Housing, has been an ally for those facing displacement due to the revitalization of OTR.

“It’s part of not understanding, not appreciating, not valuing people who have lower incomes or even people we interact with every day,” says Burke Rivers. “There are many, many jobs that just don’t pay a decent wage and those folks are struggling to find a decent place to live.”

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Mary Burke Rivers began her work in 1993 at Cincinnati at the Housing Network before they merged with Restock in 2006. She has spent 25 years working with the residents of Over the Rhine and providing a wide array of housing.

3CDC views their work as revitalizing the urban core, according to Joe Rudemiller, vice president, marketing & communications. According to Rudemiller, most of the buildings that they renovate are previously vacant.

Burke Rivers argues that the buildings weren’t vacant until 3CDC and others in power made them that way.

“At one point, 3CDC and others were shutting down a lot of the corner stores. There was some coordinated effort that we weren’t engaged in where police, fire and the health department were meeting with others in power about commercial spaces in Over the Rhine. And one day [they] raided Bang’s Market, a corner store that was in one of our buildings, and there wasn’t anything illegal going on there,” Burke Rivers added.

“Things they found were like problems with the ice machine and building issues that were our issues, not theirs,” says Burke Rivers. “But that was the atmosphere at that time, just that any amenity that was serving the community was labeled a problem- even if it wasn’t.”

In March of 2000, a group of OTR merchants released a pamphlet advertising the unique organizations and the faces behind them. The piece was called “Come Visit our Main Street” and featured 18 local businesses. Today, all 18 have closed or relocated.

“When the development started here, a lot of us wasn’t considered. A lot of us felt threatened, and I still feel threatened, even though I’m stable right now. You know, I never know what’s going to pop up,” says Keith.

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Georgia Keith and her husband stand outside their home in Over the Rhine.

“Community control of housing is critically important today. Our 423 households in this neighborhood wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for us, they would’ve been pushed out with what has been happening,” said Burke Rivers of Over the Rhine Community Housing.

“Over the Rhine Community Housing, they have always thought about people. The human beings. What it takes to move people forward, to help them,” says Keith.

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“These are the two areas that my husband and I take care of. Way before the Timothy Thomas shooting, we would clean it and my husband started the Republic Street Block Club. When we came home from work we would clean, and the days that Mary Johnson was off work, she would clean while we were at work,” says Georgia Keith.

“When you gentrify a community and you’ve uprooted people, you’ve destroyed an existing community, and what happens to poor people and black people is that every 20 or so years, they’re moved,” says Pastor Damon Lynch III who had lived in OTR for 23 years before relocating to Roselawn. “So it’s already happened in OTR, it’s happening in Avondale and Madisonville and the West End with FC Cincinnati- and we know what’s going to follow. You can’t build strong healthy communities if every 20 years you’re shuffled.”

“And gentrification never happens without first heavy-handed law enforcement. We understand where the real power is, the person making decisions in city hall, but you’re the ones they send out to enforce it.”

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Pastor Damon Lynch III, the senior pastor at New Prospect Baptist Church, delivers his sermon on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019. Lynch resided and worked in Over the Rhine for 23 years before moving his congregation to Roselawn.

Despite the ongoing struggle of displacement, aspects of the relationship between the police and the African American community has markedly improved since 2001, according to Lynch.

“Our measures, what we call the Collaborative Agreement, have made a big difference. Not only here, but we’ve actually taken it across the country. When the unrest happened in Ferguson, we were there. We were there to share with them what we had done here,” says Lynch.

This collaborative that was created 17 years ago was also used as a model in the “stop and frisk” joint remedial process in New York City. The Court considered, “[t]he Cincinnati Collaborative Procedure and subsequent DOJ consent decrees and letters of intent [in other police reform cases could] be used as models,” according to Hon. Ariel E. Belen.

“I think our work was historic in the sense that it was truly collaborative,” says Lynch. “Our filing a class action lawsuit was nothing new, the justice department coming in was not new. But what other cities got out of that was a decree that said ‘police you have to do this, this and this’ but they didn’t get the community buy-in.”

By hosting a meeting with the Black United Front representing the class action, the chief of police, the justice department and with the police union, a truly collaborative agreement was created with the input of over 6,000 residents, according to Lynch. “We found that there were at least five or six things that we could all agree upon. And that agreement is what still guides this city, so I do think it has made it better,” says Lynch.

The culmination of the class action lawsuit filed on behalf of police misconduct including over a dozen shootings, the 2001 Timothy Thomas shooting, and subsequent unrest spurred the Cincinnati Police Department’s reform that started in 2002.

On the financial side, Cincinnati tourism took a hit after the unrest and the impending tarnished reputation.

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Jason Dunn, University of Cincinnati alumnus, took part in the civil rights movements in the early 2000’s as a student and continued his work through his professional career at CVB.

Jason Dunn, vice president of community sales and inclusion of the Cincinnati USA Conventions and Visitors Bureau (CVB), was a student at the University of Cincinnati during the civil unrest. During his time at UC, he participated in the boycotts and met with community activists to align campus groups with the movement.

“As we got involved, there is no separation [between the campus and OTR] except Jefferson Avenue, Calhoun and MLK (Martin Luther King Drive) that really separated us, if we crossed that line we could’ve been Timothy Thomas and that really was a conscious piece of me,” says Dunn.

After graduating, Dunn began an internship with the CVB where he was asked to align black leadership from the community with the opening of the Freedom Center in August of 2004.

“During the unrest, or the boycott, all of the tourism, at first, was affected and all of the conventions stopped coming to Cincinnati,” says Dunn. “I began to bring people together from the local community and the bureau brought in people nationally to bring folks together to talk about how we move forward under the umbrella of the freedom center.”

Eventually, Dunn and the CVB were able to bring all of the conventions back to Cincinnati. They had done so by embracing the racial issues in Cincinnati and appealing to conventions that were founded to deal with civil rights issues. “That kind of stood us up as a city that has recognized its issues and is trying to curve what the realities are for the people of color in this city,” says Dunn.

“Tourism, in my mind, is an empowerment tool, so as I look at tourism, I look at how many African Americans are in leadership. We now have a program that focuses on bringing African Americans not outside of traditional roles of cooking and cleaning but also managerial roles so we started a group called the Institute of Hospitality Leadership that delves a pipeline for people of color and women of color to expose them to other opportunities in hospitality,” says Dunn.

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Children play in Washington Park during an event hosted by 3CDC on Saturday, April 13, 2019.

“It’s not complete when I say as far as the whole thing of togetherness or conjugating the cause. I don’t think we’ll be perfect because no one is perfect. But I think we could make a little more improvement in both neighborly and listening to how we feel and paying attention to what we do,” says Keith.

Although some of the hardships that OTR residents had endured have been bettered, there is still more work to be done according to many of the community leaders.

“We still have those in us and among us who just hold these racist views. Part of the problem is that it is part of the foundation of our country, and how do you dig up a foundation and plant a new foundation? I don’t know,” says Lynch.

“If you’re not doing something that’s substantive what are you doing in this country, or in this world frankly. What’s your purpose?” says Dunn.  “As a corporate town, a lot of things are transactional and not relational. If you take the time to find ways to be equitable in your relationships, things will manifest and I think we’ll be a greater city.”



Not A Store to Spare: The Walnut Hills Food Desert

The Walnut Hills Kroger closed, leaving the neighborhood a food desert. Now, the neighborhood is trying to stop the gap – and look to the future. 

Story by Leyla Shokoohe, Briana Rice, and Abby Shoyat; photos and video by Abby Shoyat

The Walnut Hills Kroger closed on March 8, 2017, and with it went reliable, full-service grocery access for the neighborhood’s 10,709 residents. The corporation, headquartered in Cincinnati, cited in multiple local publication’s the store’s lack of profitability as the reason behind the closure. The nearest Kroger is now a mile away, in neighboring Corryville. Walnut Hills is, now, a food desert, a region with a serious problem accessing a full-service grocery.

“It’s a hardship for all the folks in the neighborhood,” said Gary Dangel, healthy outreach coordinator for the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, a non-profit entity.

Gary Dangel, healthy outreach coordinator for the Walnut Hills Redevelopment
Foundation, walks around the garden with the students of the Frederick Douglass
garden club on Monday, April 30, 2019.

He pointed out that a “substantial” number of Walnut Hills residents are elderly, have difficulty walking, or don’t have personal transportation.

“… for them to go to Corryville or Norwood, even though it doesn’t seem like it’s that far away, if you have to get on the bus, and it’s the middle of winter or the middle of summer, maybe you got two little kids with you, no one to watch them? That’s a hardship,” said Dangel.

“‘How are you going to get your groceries? How’s this going to affect you? How did you use the Kroger in the past?’”

Gary Dangel, Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation healthy outreach coordinator

“It’s a half a day, and it’s a hassle. You know, really, it takes you away from other things you want to be doing in your life. Now the alternative [is] that some people will stay in the neighborhood and go to the Dollar General, and buy food that is expensive, and doesn’t have any nutritional density. So they’re getting poor quality food that costs them a lot of money.”

When the closure was announced in late 2016, the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation knew they had to take action.

Understanding Walnut Hills’ impending grocery access needs

“Even before Kroger shut down, we were doing food choice outreach to understand preferences,” said Emily Ahouse, executive director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation.

Executive director Emily Ahouse interacts with the children of the Frederick Douglass garden club at a vacant lot by the school that the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation has turned to a garden that serves as an experiential learning activity for the students on Monday, April 30, 2019.

Ahouse said the RDF knew Kroger’s closing “may be on the horizon,” potentially leaving swaths of Walnut Hills’ residents without reliable fresh food access. That’s where Dangel comes in. A longtime resident of Walnut Hills, Dangel’s role previously entailed taking vacant neighborhood lots and planting gardens in them (something he continues to do.)

“RDF got a grant to fund me for two years to do that. In the interim, before I started, Kroger announces they are leaving, and so my job got diverted into being more of the food access coordinator,” said Dangel.

“The first 90 days or so of my job here was to do grocery town halls, do listening sessions, talk to residents, go to apartment buildings and ask people, ‘How are you going to get your groceries? How’s this going to affect you? How did you use the Kroger in the past? You know, all that fact finding.”

Frederick Douglass Elementary School children plant flowers in the garden with the help of one of their science teachers Jewel Dixon. All students have an opportunity to explore and interact with the garden during their science classes and those in the garden club participate in activities in the garden weekly.

Dangel’s work had a few primary conclusions: residents cared about getting more bang for their grocery buck than paying extra for organic, and they were willing to trade brand choices for affordability and a smaller store. Meetings with chain grocery stores like Aldi’s didn’t bring anything to fruition. The lot size of the former Kroger building is just under four acres (3.4) which doesn’t quite meet Aldi’s stringent guidelines for new stores. It’s located on a number of bus lines, but not near enough to immediate highway access.

“If the residential area has a higher income, like Hyde Park or Oakley neighborhood, they have more options. The Oakley area has seven grocery stores.”

Alican Yildiz, University of Cincinnati-DAAP PhD Candidate

The varied elements that contribute to the creation of a food desert were the focus of University of Cincinnati DAAP PhD candidate Alican Yildiz’s thesis. He examined physical, environmental and financial aspects of Cincinnati, specifically, to better understand how the city’s climate can lead to food deserts in some neighborhoods and several grocery stores in others.

University of Cincinnati DAAP PhD Candidate Alican Yildiz sits in the studio where he has
worked on his thesis about the causes of food deserts in Cincinnati and how they may
be remedied.

“If the residential area has a higher income, like Hyde Park or Oakley neighborhood, they have more options,” Yildiz said. “The Oakley area has seven grocery stores.”

There are, according to Yildiz’s research, two key factors that contribute to a neighborhood’s food desert potential: the income and wealth of the area, and as he said, some amount of coincidence.

For Walnut Hills, the former is an area that is seeing an uptick. Both Dangel and Ahouse repeatedly mentioned the ultimate hope that Kroger or another major grocery store chain might resettle in Walnut Hills with the next five years, as the population continues to grow – and shift.

“”Who knows, in five years? We have 125 units or apartments going in down the street, there’s all this new development,” said Ahouse. “We’re not looking for large-scale demographic change, but with new residents coming in, it could be a more viable or more attractive place for a grocery store down the road.”

If you park it, or build it, or code it, they will come

For now, the RDF is working with what they have. They’re renting the former Kroger building out to a different business to get it occupied for a few years (and earn some revenue) while they continue to tackle food access. There are plans currently underway for a 750 to 4,000 square foot small-scale grocery storefront, too.

“We have three different spaces that are currently under development, that I’m personally working with the developer on that,” said Ahouse. “Basically, we need to come up with an operator who’s going to run the grocery store.”

There’s the Healthy Harvest Mobile Market, a 24-foot truck outfitted as a mini grocery store, stocked mainly with fresh produce and some shelf-stable items.

“I come here every week, every week that I can. I love it, it’s convenient. It’s got the fresh produce that you need and it’s cheaper than you could find at a grocery store,” said Charmaine Robinson, a Walnut Hills resident who shops at the Mobile Market. “It’s really important for the seniors here [in the community] and it helps them a lot and it’s very convenient for them.”

“The purpose is to provide food for neighborhoods where people have food insecurity, and there’s a lack of food and access.”

Gary Dangel

The market is open on Fridays from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. in the parking lot of the former Kroger. Presented by Tri-Health, the Mobile Market serves a number of other area neighborhoods with tenuous food access, as well.

“They don’t mark up the prices. In some cases, they the prices are a little bit lower than what they pay for it. So it’s not about revenue. They’re not doing it to make money, that’s not the purpose. The purpose is to provide food for neighborhoods where people have food insecurity, and there’s a lack of food and access,” said Dangel.

Another option Ahouse and her team are looking at is using technology to provide that access. The foundation has been working with Food Forest, creators of an app for ordering groceries through the mobile interface, picking them up later from a central location.

Employees of Food Forest, a grocery delivery mobile app, perform a dry run to gauge the flow of pickup for future potential customers in front of the now-vacant Walnut Hills Kroger building on Monday, April 30, 2019.

“We’re trying to not be too prescriptive moving forward. Like just to see how these different things and how the technology and the small scale store, everything, works together,” said Ahouse.

Solving a societal problem

This is not just a Walnut Hills problem – other neighborhoods in the city are also considered food deserts – and Alican’s perspective is that it’s a planning issue that will only have a permanent change once the city’s policies have changed.

In his thesis, Yildiz said local governments have the ability to plan to guarantee an equal distribution of food sources into the city neighborhoods. As corporate food retailers continue to relocate and resize to increase profits, poor neighborhoods are left with limited service and heavily processed food stores, such as convenience and corner stores without affordable, high-quality options. Alican says that U.S. cities need solutions for the outcomes of profit-driven land-use changes and alternative planning interventions to implement the concept of food justice over urban space.

“This is a social concept, social structural issues,” said Yildiz. “If you are talking [about] food as a human right, then we need to discuss it differently. If your people, the city residents, cannot reach the food, go to bed hungry, you need to do something for them.”