Stuck in the Middle

By Dr. Mark Mussman


“Should we still go out to bars and restaurants in Over-the-Rhine?” asks a participant on a recent Alternative Break trip with us at the Homeless Coalition. Our Alternative Break (AB) program is one of the most robust and educational programs in the country. Over-the-Rhine provides us with diametrically opposed perspectives on the simple question: “Who belongs here?” On the surface, participants see an amusement park with pedalwagons, scooters, outdoor drinking, ax-throwing, arcades, sports, arts, music, and did I mention drinking? But as we get deeper into the complexities, they begin to question what impact they themselves are having on the neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine.



My experience in advertising has taught me that first impressions last forever, and that consistency must persist throughout a relationship to be successful. I have long said that “Over-the-Rhine is a neighborhood: OTR is a brand” as a way to distinguish between the many perspectives on this area. While the neighborhood has been abbreviated as “OTR” for many years, delineating between the two is an important first step in seeing the divide between those who claim ownership in the neighborhood and those who yield to a common voice.



Our Alternative Breaks have a different effect on local participants. People who have never been to Cincinnati, who have never heard of Over-the-Rhine, look at the situation with an almost unemotional gaze, as if they are taking it in, comparing it to their own experience, and tucking it away as a memory in a scrapbook. I have been contacted by many former participants who said they have been able to apply what they experienced in Cincinnati to their own communities. Local participants tend to have more difficulty understanding the power dynamics in the neighborhood. Often they have a common historical knowledge of Over-the-Rhine: “It was bad, but now it’s not.” But reconciling their own, often entertainment-based experiences, becomes more difficult.

Don’t get me wrong, our AB program is intense and often demanding, but when students become so emotional that they are in tears in the room with strangers, I realize there is something else going on in their lives. During a trip last year, one of our community speakers simply opened up the discussion with “What is gentrification?” One of the participants broke down in tears, because they were having a difficult time reconciling their own experiences and, in essence, their own identity. They explained that they often go to bars in “OTR” and that they feel guilty for contributing to the displacement of residents, businesses, social service agencies, in the name of profit. The student was definitely on to something — and this was just the first day!



The question of who belongs in the neighborhood is examined because gentrification is displacement, and displacement has consequences. For example, when people are displaced from a park, whether it Washington, Zeigler, or Findlay, once the parks have been privatized, should people who enjoy the park before feel comfortable and able to use the park after the investment is made? And if they do feel comfortable enough to use the park, should their enjoyment be impacted by knowledge (and experience) of exclusion? Shouldn’t all people in the neighborhood be able to use something that is available to all of the people in the neighborhood without judgement of fear? How can this even be measured?

When your neighborhood changes right in front of your eyes, and indirect gentrification has removed your schools, your neighbors, your play spaces, your stores, your laundromat, your hardware store, your post office, your family and friends, but you still must survive, you will likely still participate in your community, but in a different way, with a different lens. Life becomes complicated and burdensome. Being able to flow freely through the neighborhood becomes impossible.



Another example of this is the removal of the Kroger grocery store from the neighborhood last month. Many of our neighbors depended on that store to have basic staples and we have spent a lot of time with our neighbors shopping — even in that small, over-priced store. Once the new downtown Kroger opened, creating a food desert for many in northern Over-the-Rhine and the West End, should people who shopped at the old Kroger feel different about shopping at the new “fancy” Kroger downtown? Will they feel included or excluded by the security and staff at the new store? What choices do they have when the corner stores that sold cleaning supplies and other items not found at Findlay Market have been closed down? When you are simply trying to survive, not only is closing a neighborhood grocery story difficult on the community, especially the most vulnerable, the elderly, people with disabilities, people who have to walk up many flights of stairs and cannot carry all their groceries at once, but it also forces our community connections to be altered. These are the social fabric changes that people facing displacement must deal with every day.



The effect of indirect gentrification is the same as direct gentrification — displacement. Eventually, the bottom falls out, and you are forced from the neighborhood. The zip code that covers Over-the-Rhine, Downtown, and Mt. Adams has been found to be the most expensive rental market in the entire state, which is partially why the question of “who belongs?” persists. Clearly, there are power dynamics in the neighborhood that are tipped in favor of those who have more resources, coming from generational wealth, and who enjoy privilege due to their color of their skin. Many times AB participants are resistant to the message that racism even exists, and they exert their fragility by becoming quiet, afraid to speak up. They want to believe that their are only two sides, and that things can be painted as either “good” or “bad” unless the “bad” somehow includes them or the decisions that they make. Some participants break free by critically thinking and they start to unlearn racism through the experiences they have on the trip. In either case, the memories they make in Over-the-Rhine will be carried with them throughout their lives.



Whether or not they are able to answer the questions they pose about their own actions and choices is not something that I would ever be able to measure. If they go out in Over-the- Rhine in the same manner as before the trip doesn’t mean that the trip failed. Their AB experience should enable them to see how they can be supportive in their own communities. Hearing from community leaders and residents, people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity, gives them the opportunity to take those voices with them to answer the most pressing questions about homelessness, poverty, hunger, displacement, housing, and gentrification. It should also give them the tools to organize and become advocates for affordable housing.



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