Over the Rhine: "For the Kids of the Neighborhood"

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The students that I pastor live in a small, suburban town of 1300 persons just outside of Rockford. Each year, I plan short-term, service-oriented trips for my high school students to places that, well, are not like their own. Places with trajectories far different than their place. Places whose people invite them to think differently. 

This is the view from the LeBlond Boys & Girls Club in Cincinnati, one of several organizations we partnered with during a recent trip to the City.  Having taken Central Parkway in from the West, we didn’t catch a glimpse of the larger neighborhood we were serving in. This was our first impression: Vacant buildings, empty lots, no street life…at least at nine in the morning, that is.

But there was more to this neighborhood. As we were walking to a nearby park later that week, one of our Club students pointed out the new bike lanes and asked if we had any of those where we live (Answer: Not enough.)  Signs of life continue: Retail, public art, decorative houses, and more.  Minutes later, we arrive at Washington Park, an eight-acre oasis in the heart of the  Over the Rhine neighborhood. 

If you are an aesthete, there is much to love about Washington Park.  Beauty is everywhere you look.  Perhaps the most beautiful thing was how the park became a shared space for a variety of different people: Different ages, genders, occupations, and more.  It was a place where toddlers Otto and Flora (hipster names if there ever were any) could throw the football around with Club students Jobari and Chester.  And it was good. 

So which of these students’ parents calls this neighborhood home? Otto and Flora’s, or Jobari and Chester's?  Clearly, a large number of people are investing here.  And for good reason.  It’s one of the most intact urban neighborhoods in the country, and located just minutes from downtown.

Later on, I asked the Boys & Girls’ Club Director to tell me more about the neighborhood.  “Mr. Sanders”, as the students were instructed to call him, has been the Club Director for the past eight years.  When he first assumed the position, the neighborhood was generally unsafe.  To paraphrase, Mr. Sanders had to stake his claim on the street among dealers, gang members, and the homeless, declaring that this block is "for the kids of the neighborhood.”  

Has the neighborhood improved?  “Depends on who you ask”, says Mr. Sanders.  That week, the Club was leaving their facility in Over the Rhine and moving one mile West to another location.  Again, to paraphrase: The families of these kids have now been priced out of the neighborhood.  Rents are as high as $1800 per month in some places.  Instead of the corner store, you have the restaurant that wants to sell you Crab on a Biscuit for $12.  My kids don’t eat that stuff, says Mr. Sanders. 

So which of these students’ parents lives in the Over the Rhine?  I’m guessing it’s Otto and Flora’s parents.  And I suspect that Jobari, Chester, Malcolm, Maylani, and the many other Boys & Girls Club students live in another neighborhood.  Farther away from Washington Park.  Farther away, arguably, from other public assets.   

The word here is Gentrification.  Is it a good thing?  Mr. Sanders really says it best: “Depends on who you ask.” 

There’s a reason my Instagram feed is populated with OtR photos throughout our stay.  It’s beautiful.  It’s photogenic.  But there’s also a reason why Mr. Sanders responded to my question the way he did.   As I’m writing this, Mr. Sanders, Mr. Marvin, Mr. Moses, and the other Club employees are moving to another facility, and will have to start the place-making process all over again, “for the kids of the neighborhood.” 

Throughout our conversation, one of my students stayed back to listen.  I asked her afterwards what she thought.  All she could comprehend was the $12 Crab on a Biscuit, which did not sound appetizing.  Gentrification is complex; it’s messy; it’s comprised of movements that high school students cannot fully comprehend in one week.  But we talked about it throughout the trip.  We discussed its effects, how it impacts neighborhoods, and what it might look like in our neck of the woods.  This is why I do what I do.

Let me ask: Does the word Gentrification have a positive or negative connotation for you?  What does gentrification look like where you live?