Fall 2007 was the second occasion for the Miami University Over-the-Rhine Residency Program. And like last year, it was very successful. I have to confess that I didn’t think success on par with that first year was possible. But the worries that Bonnie Neumeier, Community Liaison to the Program, and I had at the end of the 2006 Program, that we had already reached the high-water mark the first time around, were proven wrong. The experiences of the Fall 2007 group were equally as compelling and life-changing, as you can read below.
The Over-the-Rhine Residency Program continues to be an exemplary model that integrates community engagement and active citizenship. Students are transformed by this program in powerful and long-lasting ways. As students live in the “school of social life” they experience the spectrum of “community service” from charity to social change. They come to see their privilege as a barrier that must be overcome in order to open their hearts and minds to the experiences swirling around them. They learn the skills to analyze current reality, welcome complexity, and to engage in productive conversations, all of which are vital to a theory of citizenship that fronts the questions, citizenship for what? Whose interests matter? And what value-laden theories of society do forms of community engagement presuppose?
This year eleven students immersed their academics in the full experience to live and work in Over-the-Rhine. Five were architecture/interior design majors and the others came from business, teacher education, family studies and social work, and interdisciplinary studies.
We had the same administrative team as last year except for two new additions. Annaliese Newmeyer, an alumna of last year and who remained in the neighborhood with a job in childcare at the Peaslee Neighborhood Center, was the Resident Coordinator. In this role she helped students acclimate to the community by holding weekly common dinners, inviting guests for the students to meet, and encouraging the students to volunteer and attend meetings. Professor Alfred Joseph joined the faculty and taught FSW 362 Family Poverty as part of this year’s core of three courses offered at the Center for Community Engagement. Like last year Sister Alice Gerdeman taught her course in Service-Learning and I taught my ARC 427 The American City Since 1940.
Beyond this core, the architecture majors (and two interdisciplinary majors) completed a three-bedroom apartment unit for a moderate-income extended family of four, and completed permit drawings for a renovation of a vacant storefront that will become the new home for Cornerstone Community Loan Fund. John Blake coordinated the Design/Build Studio and these experiences.
Other students engaged in service-learning in various neighborhood institutions that serve the under-served, totaling 24-27 hours per week. They worked at the Drop Inn Center, Venice on Vine, Peaslee Neighborhood Center, the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, and Over-the-Rhine Community Housing. The teacher education major worked full-time as a student teacher at Rothenberg Preparatory Academy.
Bonnie Neumeier, a long-term resident and part of the administrative team of the whole program, again held weekly sessions for journal writing and was involved in all aspects of the program. She supervised the service-learning experiences, attended classes, and took the lead in organizing the students’ engagements in community-based campaigns.
I always knew the Over-the-Rhine Residency Program would facilitate a much deeper way for students to learn about a community. I did not anticipate the extent to which the students would fall in love with the community. As they bonded with the community, opening their hearts and intellect to the citizens—a process that is not automatic and can only be characterized as hard work—they transformed from passive to active citizens. Their bond affected them deeply, resulting in relationships that for many will be long-lasting. For those who went through the Program in 2006, three now work at Peaslee and two of them now live in Over-the-Rhine. Currently, one student from this year’s group continues to live in Over-the- Rhine. A senior in her last semester, she commutes to Oxford to finish her course work as she continues to do social work with Over-the-Rhine Community Housing.
It would be wonderful to absorb all the students back into Over-the-Rhine who graduate through this Program. But that is not likely. However, I am confident that as students take up residence in other cities they will seek out neighborhoods similar to Over-the-Rhine to add their voices to those fighting homelessness and the inequities of gentrification. They will join the movements for social justice in their new locations.
As I did last year, I asked the students to reflect upon their experiences in Over-the-Rhine in light of the course readings. I wanted to know how the reading material came to explain their experiences, if it did at all. Again the responses were powerful. What follows are excerpts from those final papers.
Wow! My whole Over-the-Rhine experience was not at all what I expected. When I first heard about the Over-the-Rhine Residency Program, my attention was drawn to the design-build aspect of the experience. I thought that I was coming down here to get some practical experience learning how my designs would become reality. I knew that the apartment we were working on was somehow connected to a non-profit agency that was working with low-income people in the neighborhood. This looked like a win-win situation for everyone involved. I would get experience, the non-profit would get free design work and free labor, an Over-the-Rhine resident would get a cool place to live, and I would get my “thematic sequence” knocked out in one semester! I had no idea what I was in for.
I probably should have investigated the Thematic Sequence courses before signing up for them, but if I had I may have changed my mind. You see, these courses are much more than history courses. You don’t simply learn about the subjects by reading books and having classroom discussion. You are forced to interact with the community and learn through first- hand experiences. You are forced to look beyond the surface of the issues that face the urban poor in America. You are forced to delve into the underlying factors that shape today’s urban culture. As you do this you want to get involved. Once you are involved, you begin to question everything you thought you already knew about life. This is what I was not prepared for.
I am not your average college student. I am in my mid 30’s. I’m married and have a teen-age daughter. At this point in my life, my belief system was pretty well set.
I’m not going to tell you that all of my beliefs have changed. I am not going to tell you that I am now 100% politically correct. I will tell you that this semester has caused me to look at many issues from a different perspective. It has caused me to realize that my point of view was formed by my experiences and my life circumstances.
My time in OTR has given me a brief glimpse into the daily lives of people whose circumstances and environment are much more foreign than I would have ever imagined. Low- income, urban America is much different than the America I thought I knew. I have seen how little value we place on poor people. I have learned that racism still lives. I have seen how public policy (billed as helping people) can cause more harm than good. I’ve learned that I didn’t know the whole story.
I started by saying that I should have investigated the classes here better before I signed up for this program. I’m glad I didn’t. If you would have told me four months ago that I would write a paper such as this, I would have laughed at you. I would have told you that this was a bunch of “bleeding-heart, liberal, hippy shit.” Throughout the semester I, in fact, often thought that. I would have not knowingly and voluntarily set myself up to deal with all this hippy crap. Had I known what I was getting into, I would not have signed up for what has turned out to be the most meaningful time I have spent in school. My eyes have been opened to new perspectives on life. I have been given knowledge that can help me to become a better designer. I have been given knowledge that can help me become a better person. But as some hippy once told me, knowledge alone means nothing. I am now challenged to couple my knowledge with action. I am challenged to incorporate my new awareness into what I do in my everyday life.
Throughout my college career, I’ve had many classes that once they were over, I forgot about them. This semester does not fall into that category. The things I have learned here will be a part my future designs, my future career choices, my future life. I’ve learned more than I thought possible in one semester.
I began this semester feeling concerned, hesitant, and skeptical of the Residency Program in Over-the-Rhine, unaware of how I would respond to the conditions or gain anything from the experience. With little knowledge of the area, other than it’s “hear-say” reputation, it was difficult to reconcile the issue of safety for the sake of learning. After some internal debate, as well as convincing of my parents, I decided that stepping outside of my comfort zone and experiencing a new culture was necessary to grow and mature as an individual. With hopes of meeting new friends and learning a broadened perspective, I packed up, moved out, and uneasily settled into 1324 Race Street.
That unsettled feeling is no longer, as I sit in my apartment completing my final reflection. Filling that void of uncertainty is a new sense of understanding about myself and my world, others, society, architecture, politics, history and the list continues. The total submersion of this semester, learning in class about the factors that shaped the community I was experiencing, provided a cohesive and heightened educational experience. This experience has provided me with a new kind of knowledge, not a knowledge of texts, names, dates or software skills and drawing conventions, but a life enriching knowledge of awareness, open-mindedness, and compassion.
Integral to the development of this knowledge were in- class discussions on major issues such as globalization and the privatization of our economy, poverty and homelessness, the construction of the urban ghetto, as well as institutionalized racism and classism. As I began to learn of these deep-seated issues, recognizing and experiencing the effects they had on many of Over-the-Rhine’s residents, I began to question the world I had grown up in and the factors that shaped my current situation.
Doubt, anger, frustration, resentment, and guilt all became part of my daily routine, as I worked though the issues of privilege, ignorance, prejudice, and suppression. Feelings of social responsibility and rebellion challenged the comfortable suburban childhood and the last four years of college that I had held in such high regard. What was it that I really new about myself, my world, family, friends, experiences, and education? What beliefs are ingrained into my conscience that aid in the degradation of people less fortunate than I? The resolution of these questions matter less than that fact that for the first time in my life, I was concerned with the answers.
Looking back at my initial reservations and concerns I now recognize my lack of understanding about what the Over- the-Rhine Residency Program is really about. What I failed to recognize or consider when planning my last semester of school was the greater purpose that I would be contributing to over my five-month stint. I failed to recognize, as a human and a privileged individual, my social responsibility to others and I failed to weigh the potential impact of my contributions. I’ve grown to understand the beauty of symbiotic relations, providing skills to those in need, and gaining a greater understanding to continue to better others lives in return. I now recognize depth and potential in this program and am thankful for the opportunity of this semester. I am hopeful that others will be able to embrace a similar experience, and I am looking forward to taking this new “knowledge” with me into the next phase of my life.
Last year I had the opportunity to hear prior residents speak about their experiences in Over-the-Rhine. After listening to them, I felt inspired and began to seriously consider this option for my student teaching experience. I called my parents and informed them of my plans to join the Residency Program for the upcoming semester. That night I lay awake, my thoughts flooded with both real and imagined fears. After a restless night, I concluded that anything worth doing has risks.
Once I moved into Over-the-Rhine, I was no longer a part of the majority. Simply walking down the street made it apparent that I was a newcomer to the community; but before long I had forged friendships and trust with my new neighbors. These relationships were formed easily while teaching. Seeing my students both in and after school allowed me to build close ties, while also allowing for an enhanced understanding of their daily struggles and challenges. I was the only teacher who did not scold Brendall for sleeping through class, because I knew that his neighbors played music all night long. Without having to ask, I knew Ta’Ron was absent because his mother was too proud to send him in dirty clothes.
As an education major, I have read a great deal about the holistic learning. This experience provided the perfect opportunity to put this theory into practice. So I volunteered at an after school “art in the park” program and had the rare opportunity to interact with my students outside of the school setting. By showing this commitment, I gained the trust of parents. In particular, Mr. Hamilton stands out in my mind. He would beam when I told him how proud I was of his son’s achievements. One day, Mr. Hamilton told me how his father had walked out on him as a child. As he placed his arm around his son, he vowed that he would be the father he never had as a child. Mr. Hamilton challenges every stereotype. He is not out on the streets selling drugs or smoking crack. The truth is he is a hard-working man trying to be there for his family while supporting them on minimum wage.
Before this experience, I was the woman who didn’t make eye contact with homeless people. I would clench my purse as I walked by a group of African American males.
These actions were done subconsciously. This experience forced me to confront my own deep-rooted assumptions. It was a struggle admitting to myself that I held such biases. Inner reflection allowed me to become conscious of my actions. I also began to observe unexpected similarities between my white, suburban hometown and Over-the-Rhine.
I grew up in what many would call an ideal place to raise a family, complete with fresh cut lawns and white picket fences. But this idyllic setting is not without its troubles. While the suburban housewife hosts a luncheon, her daughter might be snorting coke on a toilet seat, and her husband serving time for money laundering. Over-the-Rhine and my hometown are more similar than anyone would like to admit. But there is one major difference, Over-the-Rhine is real; the community does not have the luxury of hiding its flaws.
Throughout this experience, I have been challenged to re-evaluate and question my own deeply rooted assumptions on race, poverty, and urban life. During the process my eyes began to see the injustices in society. I witnessed children displaced from their school, which was demolished to make room for a parking lot. I taught students who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. I know that this experience changed the person I am. I have grown more compassionate, but more importantly I have grown more empowered. I have seen how organizing and mobilizing people works. I will close this chapter of my life with the tools to combat the profound economic, social, and political inequalities that I have witnessed. Many times this semester I was simply immersed with sadness, but I was buoyed by the hope I saw in the eyes of my students and in the belief that they would come to see a more just world. I have come to appreciate the importance of acting now and I believe in the power that individuals possess to change their world.
I have tried to put writing this paper off for as long as possible. I knew that writing final reflections meant this semester was truly ending, and that was a fact I’m not ready to accept. I sat down and re-read my journal, from the very first entry to our last journaling session. I cried, a lot; I laughed out loud; I realized how much I have seen this semester and how much I have grown and changed.
People come to Over-the-Rhine and see crumbling buildings and homeless people drinking in the park and drug dealers on the street. They think oh, how ugly. They see Music Hall and Gateway Quarter and yuppies walking dogs, shopping at their upscale stores and think, oh, how lovely! I look around and see the consumerism, the corporate capitalism, the selfishness, the deluded lives these downtown types are living and it is ugly. I see the people in the park and on the corners and society would want me to be afraid of these people. They would want me to hold my purse a little tighter, avert my eyes, and hold my breath as I walk past, hoping for the best. That is ugly.
I learned more this semester than I have any other semester at Miami. While class readings and discussion did provide a framework with which to evaluate my experiences, the real learning came from people I met, conversations I had, local events, and my volunteer experiences.
The theme for most of my semester could be summed up as “serving others.” I experienced the good and the bad of this. Volunteering at Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center (IJPC) was a fabulous experience. The work they do is exactly what I would like to do post-college. I’d like to do non-profit work, I’d like to help others, I’d like world peace. I think my goals are admirable, but they were not grounded in any real life experiences. I also had not seen any openings in the “Help Wanted” sections of newspapers for world peace makers. Working at IJPC allowed me to see what working for peace and justice means on a small, local scale. I got to see the day-to-day activities that make up life at a non-profit. I also got to see that people actually do have jobs that they enjoy. Sister Alice, Julie, and Kristen all obviously love the work they do. Their excitement about the issues they are working on is contagious, and I was soon getting excited about anti-death penalty news, immigration work, and peace issues. I was able to work on a proposal for the Cincinnati Public School system to limit military recruitment in high schools, was able to attend a national anti-war march and an anti-death penalty rally, in addition to many other things.
In October, I started working at Peaslee Daycare Center, as Annaliese’s assistant. My only regret is that I couldn’t start this earlier. Some days it is really frustrating to have 14 three, four and five year olds all running around, screaming, hitting, biting, kicking and not listening to a single thing you say. But then, when one of them crawls up into your lap and snuggles their head into your neck, or you hear them yell “MISS EVA, MISS EVA!” so excitedly when you walk in the room, or you see how proud they are when they have finally written their name on their own, it is all worth it.
The tough front that these kids put up really amazed me and also saddened me. Sometimes, it was hard to believe I was looking at a four year old and not some little thug on the street. Then, the tough-guy front melts away when they get pelted in the face with a building block and come running into my arms, looking for a few kind words and a big hug. I get worried about these children because I don’t know what the future holds for them. Will they get a good education? Will they avoid life on the streets? I stress myself out about those questions a lot, but I guess the only thing I can do is give them as much love and praise and encouragement as possible. I try to teach them new things and be a positive influence.
The people on the streets are the ones who enriched my experience. They have made me feel at home, made my morning walk to work a little brighter, and allowed me to get to see how wonderful the residents of Over-the-Rhine are. I have been blessed to see these faces and to hear these stories. These are the beautiful people.
I came into the Over-the-Rhine residency program knowing that it was based on community engagement, but I don’t think I anticipated just how deep the engaging would go.
Over-the-Rhine Community Council meetings were one avenue I used to learn more about neighborhood struggles. These meetings helped me connect with community members on local issues. Council conversations about the Washington Park redesign, led me to spearhead a petition drive to save the deep-water pool and basketball court on behalf of the neighborhood. Collecting signatures for the pool petition led to another portal of engagement, and perhaps the most direct form. I approached individuals on street corners, in the park, and at local businesses and organizations. I would introduce myself as a Miami student and then I would start a conversation about the park. These conversations would take on many different forms. Some people would sign the petition automatically, and others would want to discuss the issue at length. By taking the time to exchange dialogue with people who live or work in Over-the- Rhine, I got a true feel of the community’s sentiment to maintain both the pool and basketball court.
My involvement at the Drop Inn Center affected me the most. I volunteered twenty hours a week at the Men’s Recovery program there, and met some of the most inspiring people. The residents in the program are dedicated to changing their lives, and overcoming the disease of addiction.
While I knew each of the men in the program, I got to know one man particularly well. His name is Chris, and I would like to share his story.
I met Chris the first day I started volunteering at the Drop Inn Center. Chris is a middle-aged, black man from Chicago. He has been living in Cincinnati for the past four years and came to the Drop Inn Center to recover from a crack cocaine addiction. Chris was in his first month of treatment in the Men’s Recovery Program when I met him.
Chris holds a special place in my heart because he was still new to the program. The timing of our semester, and Chris’s personal treatment plan coincided, so I observed his transformation from a scared man seeking help, to a man full of confidence.
Chris grew up in a two-parent household, and described his family as “well off.” Because his parents worked a lot, Chris spent much of his childhood at his aunt’s house, enjoying the company of his cousins. In their teenage years these cousins became gang members, and Chris shares “it was only a matter of time before I fell into it.”
By the age of nineteen, Chris was a full-fledged gang member himself. The “thug life” introduced him to many things, including camaraderie, violence, money, drugs, jail, addiction, and finally prison. He served a total of 16 years in prison. He has two teenaged children who stay in Chicago with family members.
Chris desperately wants to clear up the troubles of his past and provide a better future for himself and his children. He has followed all the program guidelines precisely. Two months into the program he began working full time. He will graduate from the Men’s Recovery Program at the end of December, and then move into transitional housing. From the sincerity in his eyes, and the passion in his voice I have full confidence Chris will never again use drugs or alcohol in his life. He will not spend one more day incarcerated. He will be a productive member of society.
Chris is just one example of the people that I have met this semester at the Drop Inn Center. I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to get to know people who are dedicated to improving their lives. I cannot describe how much the men in the recovery program inspired me. They each come with their own story, their own tragedies, and their own fears. The Drop Inn Center provides them with the tools to change their life, and they often do.
Coming to Over-the-Rhine I was confident in the permanency of my beliefs, beliefs that had never been thoroughly challenged. Thankfully I was not unwilling to be altered, I just didn’t think that it would happen. My libertarianism made perfect sense; personal freedom, personal responsibility, little government interference. My privileged life left me ignorant to the realities of injustice, and therefore it was not included in the equation.
Our three classes provided a crucial theoretical base without which the semester would have been far less poignant, but it was the community interaction that made the experience truly unique. I found it astounding how much cultures could vary in a matter of city blocks. My twenty-four hours a week of community engagement were divided between three different projects, each of which offered me something different.
The largest of the three was Choices Café. I was in search of a project that would combine my major, Interdisciplinary Business Management with an Entrepreneurship track, with Over-the-Rhine life. Early on I was introduced to Mike Rogers, a very important figure in my OTR life. Mike resides on Elm St. and spends his free time with the older residents who inhabit Elm. He grew to understand their needs, wants, and way of life. Mike’s dream of opening a small, non-profit community coffeehouse was to serve these people. Not only did I think it was a great idea, but it was a perfect opportunity to marry OTR with entrepreneurship. The only problem I had with working on Choices, is that it allowed for very little direct community interaction. However, it allowed for a great deal of interaction with Mike, who in retrospect was the first person to shatter some of my preconceived notions. Anyone who spends five minutes with Mike knows he is one of the sweetest human beings to inhabit this earth. But it wasn’t until much later in the semester that I got to know Mike to the extent that I learned about his past. When I learned about these things I wasn’t upset, my image of Mike didn’t even change. What did change was how I looked at criminals and addicts. If Mike, this unbelievably gentle and kind man, went through these same trips then it is completely possible that criminals and addicts are perfectly good people (whatever that may mean). Shame on me to become indoctrinated to believe that anyone who has seen the inside of a jail cell should be feared and shunned as a pariah.
A couple weeks into the semester, Bonnie expressed some worry that Choices wouldn’t sufficiently fill my days. She suggested that I work with Over-the-Rhine Community Housing to help in the creation of a new marketing plan. This seemed reasonable to me. It mixed OTR and business, while also allowing me to support an organization whose mission I felt strongly about. In order to assess the condition of Over-the- Rhine Community Housing (OTRCH) properties I had to see them with my own eyes. To accomplish this, I spent about four days walking around OTR looking for streets I had never heard of and jotting down notes on a form I had generated. During these days of exploration I got a better feel for Over-the-Rhine. I saw all of its subsections and met people from all over.
Soon after I began working on OTRCH’s marketing plan I got an email from a Miami student asking for volunteer tutors at Venice on Vine. So I began tutoring on Mondays and Fridays. This experience opened up a whole new realm of understanding. An understanding of the people of OTR. Before tutoring at Venice on Vine, all our social activism had been for an abstract group of people. All of our learning about social injustice had been about an abstract group of people. My Venice on Vine experience crystallized the group of people that the semester was about. It also gave me a look of the reality of their situations. I helped women in their fifties grasp the multiplication tables. I worked with men in their forties who couldn’t read. I aided in the creation of resumes. Taught how to use the internet. Helped fill our job applications. I was shocked that there were people without these skills that I have taken for granted throughout my life. It was incredibly strange to have to explain what a computer mouse is and how it works. I’ve been surrounded by computers since I was in kindergarten. My time tutoring others taught me a great deal about understanding, patience, and empathy.
Those are some of my major experiences in Over-the- Rhine. Every single day provided me with something to ponder. All my thoughts, emotion, and reactions have been preserved in the journal that I’ve kept for the last fifteen weeks. Living and learning in OTR has been the most significant event in my life. I am the different person I never thought I needed to be. Now the real challenge will be returning to Oxford.
Remember when you thought that Santa Claus was real? When I was a little girl one of my favorite holidays was Christmas. In my family, Christmas is full of sugar cookies and cheerful songs praising Santa. We even left him our best cookies and milk.
I remember feeling cheated when my parents told me the truth that Santa Claus is not real. I was crushed. Everything that I believed in for my entire childhood was a big fat lie.
My experience with Over-the-Rhine was like learning the truth about Santa Claus. I felt cheated because most of my information sources—school, family, media—were false once again. Until now, I never questioned why my small hometown is predominantly white. I realized that I was living a white suburban façade too. Before college, I learned history like it was a cheesy romance novel. My history books romanticized the “freedom” of black people—the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement were the two major landmarks that created equality, Harriet Tubman created the Underground Railroad, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the black Jesus.
Over-the-Rhine this semester was life, real life. It is not romantic by any means. At first I did not know how to deal with the reality being pushed in my brain. I was confused, like a child that did not believe her parents about a fake Santa. I could not stop believing in the system. I thought, “What do you mean that jails do not solve crime? There are too many regulations in food stamps? Cities build defensively against poverty? Globalization takes away jobs? Black people are not created equal? What?” Unlike the Santa theory, I started believing this new reality because I could see it happening everywhere I went.
In my first few weeks, I had conversations with homeless people. I learned about how hard it is to get a job when you’re homeless, poor, or black. And I couldn’t help but notice all the blue-shirted police that crept around daily looking for reasons to arrest homeless and poor people. Until Over-the- Rhine I never had to challenge my beliefs. Even when I lived in New York City this summer, I chose to ignore people sleeping on the street and the gentrification issues in Brooklyn and Harlem. In OTR these issues—gentrification, globalization, poverty, racism, homelessness, corporate capitalism, and poverty—all exist.
Living in Over-the-Rhine showed me the truth behind the United States government. In short, poor people and black people are being shat upon. One of my greatest realizations this semester was seeing how black people are considered under white people in mainstream culture. When I first learned about gentrification last year, I learned that it is a process in which architects and urban developers take a city’s poverty-stricken area and improve the conditions. What I did not realize is that gentrification pushes out poor people, especially poor black people out of their homes. In my opinion, gentrification is cover for corporate capitalism. In OTR many corporate businesses are investing money into Washington Park and market-rate condos in hopes to make the area full of rich urban professionals.
This semester I came to question who benefits from the American Dream. I mean the Dream in which anyone can raise themselves by their bootstraps and become a millionaire. In Over-the-Rhine I learned how residents have much difficulty finding jobs that will pay enough. Many of these people do not have college degrees and rely on manual labor jobs for survival.
My experience in Over-the-Rhine has taught me to shoot down the stereotypes that have been ingrained in my head. I realized that being homeless does not mean that you are any less of a person. And as people we have the moral responsibility to ensure that people have homes, food, and shelter. We have a moral responsibility to not let a few people with power control social, economical, and political racism and classicism in this country and the world.
This semester has been a life-changing experience. Even though I know Santa Claus is not real, I still love Christmas because of the hope it gives people. I still have hope that society can learn that “difference” is not bad. As Bonnie taught me, it is okay to be different as long as you know who you are. The friends I made in Over-the-Rhine have taught me the true essence of community. Before I came to Over-the- Rhine, I had an itch to do something different. Having the opportunity to be a part of this tight-knit community let me see the other side of difference. In Over-the-Rhine I was the one who experienced something different. And it has changed me for the better.
I decided to study in Over-the-Rhine because, ever since high school, I had been interested in urban issues of redevelopment. When I was in high school redevelopment projects happened all around Baltimore. I remember reading how the city kicked families out of their homes using eminent domain and then handed their property over to private developers and businesses.
I found a huge ethical dilemma in all this. On the one hand, Baltimore was in need of redevelopment of areas left blighted and abandoned as the city’s population shrank from the 1960s through the 90s. But on the other hand, the city’s claim to use eminent domain for the public good in no way helped those who were in need, the people who lived in those blighted neighborhoods. The developers always benefited and the politician got to look good for bringing back the economy (and maybe they did help revive the economy of the city in some way). But it was unfair. People lived in those neighborhoods, and if the city wanted to improve them the residents should have benefited. Rather, they had their homes taken and were compensated next to nothing because their homes were in “blighted” neighborhoods.
Since living down in Over-the-Rhine all of this has taken on a much greater personal meaning to me. I see things much differently now.
America had this concept of Manifest Destiny, which was the rationale for conquering the west and displacing the Native American to reservations. This is the same sort of mentality I see in urban planning and redevelopment. The economic and political elite must feel it is their god-given right to take back the city. They look at the people already here as savages. They see the current population as a threat and are trying to move them out onto the modern reservation, preferably prisons but anywhere else that the new population won’t have to encounter them works as well. This is absurd. The poor who have stuck it out in the city are now having their own tax dollars used against them as the city sells itself to corporations that only work to serve themselves and those of privilege.
“Each day, we are becoming more ourselves.” My microcosm of change makes itself apparent to me in Enzo’s and on Race St…I’ve finally noticed myself change in the past few weeks, and I feel I’ve all of a sudden jumped into being a product of my surroundings in Over-the-Rhine. I think writing the final papers did it, meeting “Black Frank” did it, and getting to know the guys at Enzo’s well enough to find out that I used to be closer to the views held there, and now I’m not. I wish I had another semester left to develop this, because it’s developed by talking to people I won’t get to see very often anymore. Enzo’s can really serve as the hub of my metaphorical growth, since I became a regular this semester, lacking a Shriver or a Bell Tower for energy drinks, and was constantly bumping into people there or taking people there.
Enzo’s has two owners: Al and Nancy. Nancy’s husband is an architect who works next door and has been working in OTR for at least twenty years. One of the theories brought up early in the course—which is constantly tickling at my brain—is that architects are responsible to their client, but simultaneously responsible to society as a whole. Considering the reach of this, it’s likely impossible to ever be a well-liked architect in a neighborhood this controversial. I really want to get into architecture in this area before I go to grad school. As an intern, I’m concerned that all the choices will be entrenching me in the soulless machinations of gentrification.
The project I did for Sister Alice’s class actually made me think about this a good deal more: I actually do like that the government gives incentives to corporations for urban renewal. I like that Cornerstone has been making it work in Over-the- Rhine. The reason it does work is because it’s local, and can meet the personal needs of people in Over-the-Rhine. People are under the poverty line for different reasons. Black Frank is under the poverty line for so many reasons, but on the surface it’s because he doesn’t care about life, although he’s proud to have quit drinking seven years ago. Now he drinks coffee, or hot chocolate, the times I took him to Enzo’s. Jacqueline is under the poverty line because she probably has an alcohol and drug problem. If you think about it, these all have to do with the availability of jobs. Black Frank seems not to care too much about being employed—although his right shoulder and arm seem to keep him from it—he cleans up at the church because he can. They give him a bit of money out of goodness. It’s so interesting that his philosophy about money is that if he had $36 in his pocket, he’d better have something to show for it; he’d better be wearing something new. Jacqueline isn’t stable enough to get a job.
At Enzo’s, I ran into people of all different crowds. I had a long talk with Barbara Wolf there; I’ve seen Darrick Dansby. I’ve talked with a guy who writes for City Beat and covered the meeting two weeks ago, and three guys representing different media who said they could be considered a 2CDC, though I didn’t get their joke. They were insulted I thought they might be from 3CDC. I’ve even talked with a woman who thinks that the Internet will be entirely taken apart and remade to be high-security and accessed only with a stated and validated purpose. I would have talked with Black Frank there, but the cop made him nervous, even though he hadn’t done anything wrong. So Black Frank and I talked in the park instead. “The oppressed have a double awareness, but oppressors don’t have to in order to exist.” I can sympathize: cops make me nervous too. I’ve talked to bike cops about mac computers, and we touched on the subject of downloading music. Enzo’s is only a small part of my life, it’s mind- boggling how much has happened, and how many people I have started conversations with. When people start them with you on the street all the time, it doesn’t seem so abnormal.
I sit here at my computer staring blankly at the keys not knowing what to type, but having so much to say. I think back about all my experiences being in this city and I can’t help but get emotional. In fact, I have never been more emotional in my entire life than I have been in one semester. Sixteen weeks isn’t that long and I never thought I would be impacted so much in this short amount of time. As I struggle to find a way to formulate a reflection of my time here, I hear the sounds of Bob Dylan echoing in my head. “The Times They Are A-Changin” is a common phrase that has been a part of my life from August until December. Before I came here I thought I knew what the world was like, but now I realize how much I didn’t know. Growing up in an area that had little to no diversity; I never knew what it was like to be the only white girl walking down the street until now. I find myself left with so many more questions now than when I arrived.
I remember when I first ventured to Over-the-Rhine my freshman year. I saw people congregating outside of the Kroger, rap music blaring from cars with flashy paint jobs and huge silver rims, and people yelling from across the street. I remember thinking to myself that I would never be back. This thought is so ironic to me because for the past four months I have been living here, taking classes, and walking back and forth from studio day in and day out. Two years later, I found the street with the most life is the street that I once feared driving through.
There were certain days when I couldn’t sleep because of the extreme heat in August, when I wouldn’t want to get out of bed because my mind would be so exhausted from thinking about events that went on in the community the night before, when I was so physically drained from putting in baseboards and hanging drywall in studio, and when I would be so enraged to hear the sounds of jackhammers pounding away at the concrete on the platform of what was once Washington Park School.
The truth is, I am going to miss the loud rap music, breathing in the city air, eating cheeseburgers at Tucker’s, the conversations that occur in Washington Park, the men who sit on the stoop and talk to me, the children who dance and giggle as they cross the street, and the people who work tirelessly for the well-being of their beloved community. I have never had a better learning experience in college than I have had this semester. I have learned a lot more being in the real world and dealing with real-life issues in Over-the-Rhine than I have learned in any class I took in Oxford.
I would be lying if I said that I never felt an ounce of fear throughout this experience. However, I can say that I am less afraid now than I ever was in any place I have ever lived. There are all these stereotypes about what Over-the-Rhine is and people are afraid of what they don’t know. My parents told me I was out of my mind when I said I wanted to live here. They thought I was trying to go in and “save” the neighborhood. I know you can’t change an entire neighborhood in years, let alone weeks. I didn’t want to change it; I wanted to feel it. I wanted to be a part of it. This program is one that Miami students need to consider because it opens peoples’ eyes as to what happens beyond Patterson Avenue and High Street.
Being in Over-the-Rhine has been such a huge part of my life. This little treasure in the city has helped me grow in so many ways. I never knew what it was like to feel such a love for people and such a passion for causes. It scared me that I became so in touch with my emotions and I learned that it is okay to recognize how you feel. I don’t think I have ever cried more in the twenty years I have been alive than I have in less than one year here. I cried because I was overjoyed at the sight of children smiling, people saying hello on the street for no apparent reason, and the love I feel for my friends and my family. I became enraged about certain community issues, like why does the Vine Street Kroger sell expired food? Why were the construction workers throwing perfectly suitable school furniture in a pile of rubble after they demolished the school it was in? Why were the police harassing the man sitting on the stoop and not me? Why does the Park Board want to get rid of the Washington Park pool? Why are they disguising their motives by saying it will be for the good of the community? Why do I have this privilege of going to college that children here feel like they don’t have?
Don’t fear what you don’t know because a good learning experience should leave you asking more questions. You need to be just as cautious here as you are in Oxford. Don’t listen to people when they say you are going to get shot here and you are crazy for wanting to move here. Those people have never done this program. Keep your mind as open as you can and your heart as open as your mind. Lift up your eyelids and see what is happening all around you. Use your voice to speak up when others may not be heard. Let passion motivate you and remember to let yourself feel. If you find yourself struggling with the decision of whether or not to step out of Oxford, remember the wise words of Bob Dylan when he sang, “you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone; for the times they are a-changin.”
I have been trying to pin down in my mind what made this semester so wonderful. I can’t separate all that I learned and participated in and therefore, I don’t know if it was working at Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, class, or forming new relationships with friends and community members that made my semester what it has been. I know that all of my experiences have each uniquely contributed to my semester and for that I am grateful. I have fallen in love with this community and the work that is being done here and I don’t know when this happened or why really. I can’t pinpoint a moment or day when I felt that connection to this community, but it has happened.
This connection grew more intense as the semester moved along. Every time I drove back into Oxford for a class or to see my friends, I felt more and more uneasy. Uneasy about being away from whatever meeting was happening in Over-the-Rhine, the discussions that were that afternoon, or what new adventure my friends were cooking up without me. Most of the time I felt torn in two. I missed my friends (my family really) in Oxford when I was in Over-the-Rhine. I think about what I am giving up by staying in Over-the-Rhine for the rest of my senior year. But (and this is a huge but), I miss Over-the-Rhine so much more when I am in Oxford. Once I determined where my passions and thoughts most often fell, I knew where I had to be. I have to stay in Over-the-Rhine. I know full well that I am giving up some valuable last months with my family in Oxford, but I would not be able to move away from this community that has completely flooded and enveloped my heart and soul.
I look forward to the growth that will continue to happen for me. I know that this paper was supposed to be a wrap up of the semester, but I can’t get the future out of my mind. This semester has most definitely been a foundation that will support whatever comes next. It is this “next” part that I am ecstatic about right now. I look forward to using the skills and knowledge that the classes and community engagement have given me. I look forward to the adjustment of being in this community without my classmates. I am looking at this next semester as a time for me to realize if I love this community as much without many members of my Over-the-Rhine family here. I know full well that any experience can be made good or bad by the people you experience it with, and as I love my fellow students I am curious to see what my experience next semester will be like without their constant presence and support.
I take this shift in focus from college worries to life worries as a sign that this semester’s Over-the-Rhine Residency Program worked on me. “Worked” in the way that it was designed to work on students. It has overwhelmed my mind and senses and I can’t get away from it. I think about issues like gentrification, city life, urban education, business development, racial tension, class conflict, police presence, and community activism all of the time. All of the time. And the best part about it is that I want to be thinking about these issues all of the time. Unlike so many classes at Miami I don’t shut off the material when I leave the class. I can’t shut it off here, and I don’t want to.