Uses and Users in The Gated District

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Written as the final to a urban sustainability class I took in my spare time this fall. I republished it with slight modifications here.

It’s not just us keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Besźel and everyone in UI Qoma. Every minute, every day. We’re only the last ditch: it’s everyone in the cities who does most of the work. It works because you don’t blink.-China Mieville, The City & The City.

The buildings, parking lots and alleys in the northern half of the block between Cincinnati’s Republic and Vine, 12th and 13th streets, offer a unique perspective to look into issues of race, class and the way that we understand and talk about history in a changing urban environment. It’s not an uncommon block in the neighborhood, Over-the-Rhine (OTR): on the Vine street side, a row of three and four story buildings with storefronts below and housing above sit adorned with the vestiges of their Italianate style. On the Republic side, a single housing development is all that’s left of what were probably similar buildings all constructed in the late 1800’s.

This is the heart of the Gateway Quarter, the ideological entry point into a revitalizing OTR. This is OTR with all its romantic heritage of german, beer loving, culture. On the corner of Vine and 13th, the Lackman, named after the brewer who paid for the building over 120 years ago sits with its big open doors welcoming crowds into the cramped bar. Lackman’s operation would be sold to Hudepohl, a mainstay of Cincinnati brewing history, in the 1930’s, but today the bar harkens back to the turn of the 20th century, even using the old winged-L logo.

South of the Lackman is the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, then the Masjid AsSahaab, then the Contact Center and finally, before a parking lot, the Recovery Hotel. Aside from the Mottainai Lofts on Republic Street, the rest of the northern half of the block (hereafter referred to as “the block”) is parking lots and an alley running North-South between the rows of buildings.

This alley is of particular interest, and allows for a more recent historical situating of the space. On an early morning in April 2001, Timothy Thomas, a 19 year old black man was evading police who were pursuing him after a traffic stop. After ten minutes Thomas ran down that alley and was killed at close range by Officer Stephen Roach, who claimed that Thomas’s movements to adjust his pants looked like he was reaching for a gun. The result was an uprising that lasted a week and disrupted earlier efforts to gentrify OTR, then centered around Main Street three blocks East. The city government’s ineffectiveness and sometimes belligerence in the face of angry protesters only made the situation worse, and Roach’s eventual acquittal on the manslaughter charges that Fall, were just the latest cause of racial strife in the heavily segregated city. OTR is a poor black neighborhood today, but that might not be immediately apparent when walking around this block, and certainly not if you read what is written about it in the press. More than just being the location of Thomas’s death, this block offers a fitting ground to explore the gentrification of the neighborhood and these tenuous relations in the city as a whole.

A closer look at this block exposes the racial and class divides that mark gentrification in the places it occurs. In the Mottainai Lofts and the Lackman, 1,000 square foot condos selling for at least $150,000 contrast with the affordable housing of the other buildings, with their renters paying a few hundred, at the most, a month. Individually numbered parking spots sit behind electronically triggered gates for residents of the lofts on this block and the next. The cars sitting in these spaces offer some more suggestions as to the class makeup of its users: porsches, jeeps and others, mostly late models, come and go in the district which is always sold as walkable space.

The users of the spaces come from disparate groups as well; a walk down the block is again useful. The Lackman is host to a generally well dressed white hipsters and young professional crowd who may be inclined, after a few drinks, to buy a fifty-five dollar bottle of bourbon whisky exclusive to the bar. In the Worker’s Center, there is more likely to be a multiracial group of staff, immigration and food justice activists and a modest stream of workers needing assistance in job disputes. At the Masjid, an Islamic temple and community center with a black and West Asian congregation, calls to prayer interrupt the bustling OTR every few hours. The Contact Center provides support for, and organizes with, local families, mainly black, on issues related to economic justice and civil rights. And the Recovery Hotel offers transitional housing for homeless people in the process of coming off the streets and suffering from addictions.

Quite a clear line can be drawn between the users and uses of the Lackman and the remaining four storefronts. While the Lackman is a bar and social space, the other four are social service agencies without a business-customer relationship. The rhetoric of mixed use, ever important to OTR’s boosters, might seem to be relevant here, but examination of the users is also important. It’s unlikely that a regular and maybe even a one time customer at the Lackman would ever need to use the services of the agencies. And it’s almost impossible that the residents of the lofts would ever have a reason to set foot inside those doors. This also works in the other direction: certainly the faithful mosque-goers, and (we can only hope) the Recovery Hotel’s residents wouldn’t ever find themselves as patrons at the Lackman. What role does mixed use have if the users are so divided?

The Mottainai lofts are named after a Japanese concept meaning to reduce waste or not to let things go to waste. Marketing material for the lofts boast of bamboo floors and recycled materials in the bathrooms and kitchens but most notable is the mention of a bike rack for residents in a building which also has a dedicated parking lot. What does this say of Mottainai’s mottainai, if half of the surface the property sits on is for carbon guzzling vehicles? No one is without contradiction, certainly, but like other aspects of sustainability related to gentrification, the claims seem to be a facade, a selling point, greenwashing the lofts to make up for something else. These lofts are best used as a metaphor for the general approach to sustainability under neoliberalism. Will sustainability come through conscious consumption? For many in OTR, as in many of Cincinnati’s poorest neighborhoods, riding a bike isn’t a matter in preference, but affordability.

The gates and barred windows separating resident and outsider aren’t uncommon in OTR. But while older establishments aim to keep out burglars, here 6 foot tall fences protect parking spots as much as they do the possessions in the vehicles. These aren’t fences so much as hedges.

Finally there is the conception of the history of the block. as much as marketers would like, it’s impossible to talk about the history of OTR without mentioning the death of Timothy Thomas and the ensuing uprising. But they do try to avoid it, or prioritize other stories. The website OTRLiving.com tells of the rumor that corners were the preferred location for bars like the Lackman, so that law enforcement could be seen coming. Timothy Thomas, on the other hand, may have never seen Officer Roach as he rounded the corner before he was shot. A plaque on Republic reminds visitors of the street’s original name–Breman–renamed during the anti-german hysteria of World War One. And what of the name given to this section of OTR—”The Gateway Quarter” a recent marketing move likely meant to, in some small way, untaint what OTR had come to represent in Cincinnati’s popular culture in the years after 2001. Where is the plaque remembering Timothy Thomas’s untimely death? This historical space matters as much as the real thing and, as we see, the same kind of re-imagination occurs in the physical and ideological world.

The Struggle Against Racism Continues

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A meeting will occur on Thursday December 18th, at Christ Emmanuel Christian Fellowship, 2324 May St. in Mt Auburn at 6:00 PM, unfortunately too late for readers of streetvibes. And a teach-in organized by local activists on Saturday, December 20th, in the Main  Library Room 3A at 11:00AM.

On Saturday tens–maybe hundreds–of thousands demonstrated across the United States in the National Day of Resistance against the racist police state. The protests were only the latest in a movement that has been steadily growing since 17 year old Mike Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, just outside St. Louis, this August. Courageous residents of Ferguson have taken to the streets almost every day, standing up to heavy policing in their neighborhood to fight against systemic racism which is embedded in the core of our society. When Wilson was let off without an indictment in November, and just a week later, when the New York police officer who killed Eric Garner in a chokehold wasn’t indicted either, regular protests have occurred in every major city in the country. Some have called this a new civil rights movement, while others have gone even further, suggesting these actions are revolutionary in nature.

Locally, a grassroots group of organizers, loosely organized as part of the Black Lives Matter campaign, called a solidarity protest, at least the 4th action since the night after the Mike Brown decision. Cincinnati and Ohio’s place in this movement is incredibly complicated–13 years ago, when Timothy Thomas was killed by Officer Roach, angry protesters took to the streets for a week in the largest uprising since the Rodney King uprising in LA in 1992. The protests came after 15 black men had been killed by police over the course of the previous several years. Though the police and city claim to have made changes, these are aesthetic only–today, some 3 or 4 blacks are killed each year by cops locally, and the feverish public relations work of the powerful institutions tends to be effective in sleepy Cincinnati. But a new movement forming as part of the national cause hopefully points in a new direction in the fight for liberation.

Elsewhere in Ohio, the recent memory of the shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, killed by a cop when he was playing in a park with a BB gun in November, and the similar case of John Crawford killed in a Dayton Walmart while holding a toy gun, have provided tragic rallying points for the movement statewide.

In Cincinnati, the protest set off from Fountain Square and headed north on Vine Street. Chants of “Black Lives Matter,” “I Can’t Breathe” (Eric Garner’s final words), and “No More Timothy Thomases, No More Mike Browns” filled the air, disrupting the dull Saturday morning downtown. The march moved into OTR before stopping at Washington Park for a die-in. Protesters laid for several minutes, with many choosing to stand in solidarity, as an act to remember the lives of all who are killed at the hands of the police. Half way through the die-in, names were recited by march leader Christina Brown, and the crowd responded “Your life mattered!” When Timothy Thomas’s name was read, it was a poignant reminder of the his killing that occurred just about two blocks in 2001.

A speak out followed, allowing members of the crowd to express their thoughts and feelings, and to discuss what needs to be done. Many spoke of the need for getting children involved in this historical movement, to produce art and music to capture the spirit of the times and asked that white people to think about one’s individual place in this system and movement. Alexander Shelton, a student with UC students against Injustice, spoke about the need to build a better education system at every level and to hold administrators accountable for a more just system. Others played on this education theme: a principal spoke of how students need mentors, a teacher talked about how blaming parents misdirects away from the unequal way that the system is organized.

After one member of the crowd spoke of the need for black men to stop shooting each other, Brian Taylor, wearing a Malcolm X shirt reminded the crowd that the protest is about the state killing blacks as part of a generally racist system, and pushed back against the notion that white allies need to “stay in their lane,” saying “when it comes to the system, we’re all in the same lane.” Taylor went on to remind the oppression of other groups throughout American history: women, immigrants, latinos and how powerful movements were required (and are still required) to break down that oppression.

Another protester took the history a bit further back, tying the current racism at the hands of the police back to the founding of America, which was “set up to benefit a small group of people, by an even smaller group of people.” One of the final speakers reminded the protesters that black on black crime is horizontal violence that happens among all racial groups, with blacks being no different, only appearing to be because of the portrayal of blacks in the media and society at large.

Protesters join arms to recite Assata's chant

Protesters join arms to recite Assata’s chant

These protesters remind us of the need to build a big diverse movement that is active on a number of fronts and educated about a number of issues. Many have spoken about the moment we’re living in as revolutionary, and sometimes it does feel that way. After the speak out, marchers proceeded back downtown, ending at the Federal Courthouse, the site of the first rally following the non-indictment of Darren wilson, and a large protest following the innocent verdict of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013.

Tying it to the revolutionary spirit, the protest ended with a recital of Black Panther Assata Shakur’s chant that has been embraced by Ferguson protestors: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

This will appear in the upcoming edition of Streetvibes

Politics Minus Zero/No limit: Electoral strategy when it doesn’t matter.

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By Ben Stockwell and Mark Grauhuis with help from Kyle Galindez and Mark Lause.

Democratic candidate For Ohio Governor Ed Fitzgerald trails incumbent Republican John Kasich by some 20% in the latest poll. This gap has widened over the course of the last year and shows no signs of reversing, especially not in the month before election day. Kasich is going to win this year.

Building a strong, radical movement from below is the only way to force the system to meet the needs and desires of the people. More and more, it’s becoming clear that this system may not even be able to meet our basic demands at all.

This is an appeal to Democratic voters to vote for the Green party candidate, Anita Rios, instead of Fitzgerald.

In 2012, a UC professor hosted a dinner party with members of Occupy Cincinnati and others in the professor’s union. Every half hour or so, the guests would converge in the same room to talk about what Occupy meant and how it might be active in the future. In one session the debate took a turn toward the coming presidential election. While admitting the limitations of, and even their utter disappointment with, the Democratic party, people in the room made it clear that a Republican presidency would be much worse. “This year,” one professor insisted, “it is a zero sum game.”

This is the refrain every year. The Biden thesis – “we’re not as totally bad as the alternative” – is admittedly seductive in the face of the waking nightmare of what’s to come (Hillary, Portman, Kasich, Ron Paul, etc.). Democrats in Ohio are consequently positioning this year’s election as a referendum on Kasich and other Republican policies like SB5, but Fitzgerald’s electability has been reduced to near-zero by a number of scandals involving himself and his running mates. Still, the meme “remember in November” is circulated ad nauseum among Ohio liberals: remember all the terrible things Kasich has done or tried to do when you enter the voting booth.” This is passive, cynical, negative politics at it worse, which begs the question “When do we get to vote for what we want?” — This year, certainly.

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This year, Fitzgerald is the throw away vote.

Sure, we can remember what Kasich did and does, but voting for the Fitzgerald is not the proper response to that memory. We must keep in mind not only what Kasich did, but the realities of what voting for Fitzgerald will do or not do. Putting aside whether or not Fitzgerald offers an actual alternative to Kasich or could support resistance to a system bent on austerity (i.e. making us pay for a system in crisis), if the question is simply about expressing dissatisfaction, there is a non-Republican vote that is much more effective in the long term.

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Cincinnati Rallies for Justice in Palestine

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Last Sunday, 300 activists came out to protest the continued Israeli assault on Gaza, the second such protest in 2 weeks. It was one of hundreds of similar actions across the world over the last month, including demonstrations in the tens and hundreds of thousands from New York to London to Cape Town. Chants of “Free Free Palestine” and “Hey Israel, what do you say–how many kids did you kill today” filled downtown as protesters stood on the corner of Fountain Square. Many in the crowd were Palestinians themselves, unable to return to their homeland, drawing attention to the ongoing occupation of Palestine and the horrible conditions that refugees face today.

The protests come after weeks of brutal military action in the Gaza strip following the kidnapping and murder of 3 Israeli teens earlier in the summer. The Israeli state responded in its usual way: collective punishment of the Palestinian people, launching a massive campaign that included constant bombing, a military incursion and the destruction of hundreds of buildings, including hospitals, schools, mosques and the only power plant in the strip. It ultimately took the lives of over 1800 palestinians, most of them civilians, including many children and rendered 40% of the already crowded Gaza strip uninhabitable. As this article is written, a cease fire has more or less ended the violence and “peace” now occupies the ruins.

Throughout the conflict, Israel claimed it was protecting its citizens, who were forced to take cover from an apparently constant barrage of rockets fired from the Gaza strip by Hamas militants. Even so, the rockets killed relatively few, and the vast majority of the losses on the Israeli side were Israeli Defense Force soldiers killed by gunfire, including many killed by friendly fire. Moreover, the rockets fired by the Qassam Brigades are extremely weak, and are reflective of the comparatively low military prowess of the Palestinian people (who have no official army) compared with the IDF, which receives billions in aid from the United States each year. When Israeli troops finally moved into Gaza, under the auspices of finding and destroying tunnels into Israel, the civilian bloodshed was taken to a new level.

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