Thursday, June 4, 2015

In with the new, out with the Community

When I was a kid, my Dad always loved to drive up Elm on the cobblestones in front of Music Hall.  I always looked at the small urban park on my right and always wanted to go in there.  It always looked shady, cool, dark and delightful. Little did I know that park would become the focal point of a crisis of conscience I would suffer from for years later on in my life.

Music Hall, in all its beauty and glory!
Taken standing in Washington Park.

In both high school and college, I did a lot of volunteer work at the Drop Inn Center (a homeless shelter that takes anyone, in any state of sobriety or intoxication), located catty-corner from the Park.  We were told to walk and park on the opposite side of the street from the Park for safety. 

Then I stayed down there, for about 1.5 mos total and visited friends who lived down there, multiple times.  We were housed in OTR, facing the Park both before and after our Service Learning trip to Ghana, W. Africa.  We still followed the rules: don't walk or park next to the Park after dark.

What was wrong with this park, you ask??
Washington Park was originally a cemetery for the good people of Cincinnati until Spring Grove Cemetery was built in the mid-1800s and all the remains were moved there.  At that point, it became a park and eventually an elementary school and pool to serve the neighborhood were built.  Overtime, as the neighborhood changed and the Germans moved out to the suburbs, Washington park became home to many homeless Cincinnatians and a refuge for drug dealers and drunks.  The Park was full of grand old trees, winding walkways and a fabulous, old, grand bandstand. 

Jo-Momma and me at the Grand Opening of the "new" Washington Park.
You can see the Bandstand behind us.

While I had been away in Ghana, Hamilton County Sheriff's office had been busy kicking all the bad guys out of OTR.  Drugs were much less of a problem and that reduced the amount of shootings.  However, as 3CDC began to buy up more buildings, many families were displaced from their homes.  The children who used to play on the playground and swim in the pool and go to the school were now living in different neighborhoods.  The apartment building next to ours, that had grill outs every weekend and would offer you a hot dog as you walked by, was vacated, it's inhabitants sprawled.  Soon enough, there was no need for the Washington Park School because there weren't enough kids to go there.  The school and pool were razed, a parking garage was built underground and those huge, luscious trees, planted by the neighborhood's first inhabitants, were thinned out.  The people who called Washington Park their home were thrown out to find underpasses and bridges to live under.

Washington Park was completely redone and is a gorgeous place to be.  The war memorials and cannons are still there, as is the bandstand.  You can just sit there and soak up the beauty of Memorial Hall and the grandeur of Music Hall while you listen to kids play in the splash park where colors change in mesmerizing patterns as the fountains spray highly-chlorinated water to the delight of young and old alike.  The park hosts musical, craft, food, alcoholic, family, workout and movie events nearly every night of the week and also features a cute, but too-small dog park full of city pups.  It is truly a glorious place to be and I can't keep myself away.  Whenever I go there, I just feel the love that I've always had for my city bubbling up.  Washington Park is just as magical as I always imagined it was as a child.

Washington Park from an awesome window in Memorial Hall on Opening Day.

However, every time I'm down there, people are conspicuously absent.  There are absolutely no homeless people at all, in-part because of the armrests that are strategically placed in the middle of every park bench, white kids tend to out-number black kids playing on the playground and in the fountains, and some days it is difficult to find a StreetVibes (Cincinnati's Homeless newspaper) vendor to support.  When I walk the streets around the park, the inhabitants that I used to serve and tried so hard to understand are gone, replaced by transplants from suburbia.  Do I feel safer and more comfortable? Yes.  Does it make me sad that all of those people have been pushed out of the old OTR, the one I originally fell in love with, the one with all the stigma attached to it?  Yes.  The community that used to exist here has been slowly chiseled away, one vacant apartment building and park bench at a time.  Every time I cross the threshold into Washington Park I have to take pause and think of all those people whose lives were disrupted so I could have a fun night with my friends, drinking a few local beers and enjoying some bluegrass music. 

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