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Participatory Budget

By Dr. Mark Mussman

When you look around your neighborhood, what do you see? Do you focus on the people, going on about their day? How about the buildings and the businesses in them? We rarely take time to look deeply at the publicly owned assets that make up our community, but when they are in disrepair, we notice that someone needs to do something about it. But, who? And when?

Former brewery under stabilization.

I want to feature the 4 or so blocks between Liberty and McMicken on Vine Street. The Vine Street Corridor is known as the main street between the east and west sides of the city. As Vine Street snakes its way up from the urban basin, it passes main institutions, such as the University of Cincinnati, the hospitals, the Zoo, churches, schools, and parks. Of course, many neighborhoods and housing is also located on, or near, Vine Street. I don’t know the exact origin of the name “Vine” for the street, but my theory is that it was named Vine Street because of Longworth’s hillside vineyard that spanned the hillside from Fairview to Reading Road. Therefore, a trip up Vine Street would bring you to the Vineyard before anything was built beyond the hillside.

Utility pole placed on top of streetcar pole from the 1800's.

Local governments who struggle to fund necessary things like sidewalks, sewers, utility poles, and lighting, while at the same time finding funding for millionaire pet projects, should be ashamed of themselves. On this stretch of Vine Street, which is the most important street in our entire city, you can feel the shame of disinvestment. Broken sidewalks, crumbing curbs, rusty lights, and bootleg utility poles, all line Vine Street between Liberty and McMicken. A crumbling infrastructure greets the residents of this stretch when they walk out of their doors each day. The amount of pride someone takes in their neighborhood is probably affected by disinvestment like this. Yet, residents are blamed for not taking care of the neighborhood when litter is visible, or grafitti covers a wall. So many of the buildings are boarded up, yet many families are raising their kids along this corridor.

A participatory budget is a type of governmental public input process. Essentially, when residents get to have input on the city’s budget, the values of the people are expressed. Our current budget process could be described as a “sham” because it is all about political posturing. The City Manager proposes a budget that outrages everyone just so the Mayor can come in and “save the day.” The community input sessions are shameful displays of inhumanity as people have to argue not to have their projects or positions put on the chopping block. The sessions generally last hours, with only some City Council members in attendance. It’s important for people to show up, but it all just seems like political theatre to me. What if we started with the budget of the people, and then approved slight modifications from politicians? Do you think we would give the majority of our budget to the police? Or do you think if the people chose where our money went, that we might put more than a paltry 1% of our budget into human services? A participatory budget would allow for us to tip the scales towards equity, rather than having an administration with no vision squander our money on things that do not affect our quality of life.

Streetcar Pole Retrofit into Utility Pole.

Heading back to Vine Street, I want to point out something that blew my mind when I noticed it. Back in the 1800’s we had a robust publicly funded and run streetcar system. The streetcar was electric, so electric lines followed each route into the suburbs. Today, there are only a few remnants of the system: the turtle-shell lights you will see behind Music Hall, on Reading Road, and throughout the city; the random tracks busting through the road on Highland Avenue; the Car Barn on Vine Street; and the old electric poles. Some of the electric poles have been converted into light poles downtown. But there’s something unique about these poles from the 1800’s along this little stretch of Vine — they are holding up pieces of wood that hold the live utility lines. This is the most bootleg thing I’ve seen in years, which is just a reflection of how much the city values the residents of this part of Over-the- Rhine.

Sidewalk deteriorating.

I believe this is something that should cause outrage in our community. Not only has the CRC decided to close Findlay Playground without true public input, not only has the city allowed the sidewalks and lights to deteriorate, but we have probably the most unsafe and cheapest utility poles in the nation. The fact that they are from the 1800’s and were made for the streetcar, not for Duke Energy, should be a real concern to everyone. How can we allow this type of disinvestment continue? I guess we’ll see what happens as 3CDC storms up Vine Street over the next few years. They have already started working on the old brewery building, and many smaller developers have already started to set their vision on creating expensive market rate housing along the corridor. Once the low-income families are pushed out, and their apartments become condos, do you think the city will keep these bootleg utility poles? Or do you think somehow, now, after 150 years, they will find the money to upgrade the poles to a safe condition?

Dangerous metal pole cut and left jagged.

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