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The Battle for Imagination Alley

By Dr. Mark Mussman

“The first step out of oppression is expression” is a quote that Peaslee Neighborhood Center uses to emphasize the importance of the voice of the community. I have seen it attributed to long-time community changemaker, Bonnie Neumeier, who continues to educate and inspire people within, and outside, of our community today. The quote becomes more and more important each day, as the voice of the people is pushed to the side by powerful elites, such as 3CDC, the Mayor and City Manager, the Cincinnati Recreation Commission (CRC), and the Park Board. Not to mention the many developers and urbanists who are trying to craft a market-rate neighborhood at breakneck speed. It is difficult for community members to find a voice while all these powerful people are putting pressure on the neighborhood, changing it from a neighborhood of people into a profit.

On the front battle lines are the public spaces that are dwindling before our eyes. The loss of Washington, Ziegler, and Findlay Park (Playground), the places in which community members cross paths, share stories, and express themselves, have hit us hard. Displaced from one park to another, community members are renegotiating their identities, while the fences go up around spaces used for conferencing and relaxing. The “squeeze” continues to push people out and into turf battles beyond the borders. The chaos that is created from displacement can’t be measured, but the body count continues to increase as factors such as poverty, homelessness, and loneliness push people into desperate situations, such as drug use and depression.

One such public space that is currently under attack is Imagination Alley. Imagination Alley sits on the 1300 block of Vine Street, up the street from Venice on Vine, and across from buddy’s place. In early 2002, according to the Over-the-Rhine Community Art Collaborative book, published in 2008, Suzanne Fischer, a local artist, saw an opportunity to reclaim the space for the community, after already working on the Peace Bench mosaic for Washington Park. The CRC site would be transformed into a bright, colorful, safe space for the community to enjoy. The arch, with artwork designed by community children, was completed and installed in 2004 and the colorful ground mosaics, “The Long and Winding Road,” were designed by neighbors in drug rehabilitation programs.

The collaboration that took place involved the Art Academy, Peaslee Neighborhood Center, and hundreds of Over-the-Rhine residents. Participants were encouraged to be creative and express themselves in the mosaics, and it’s worth taking a few minutes to look at the messages and images portrayed in the mosaics around the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the CRC rented out Imagination Alley for a couple of years to 3CDC so that they could park their construction equipment on it. The lease expired a couple of years ago, yet the conditions of the lease (that they would return it to the condition that it was in before the lease started) haven’t been upheld, as many lights are still not functioning in the park, and the concrete and tiles remain damaged in many locations. In early 2018, 3CDC came to the Over-the-Rhine Community Council asking for approval to sell the land to 3CDC so that a business could use it for outdoor seating. The council’s membership strongly opposed a full sale of the land, but was open to leasing part of the land. Ultimately, however, the process was muddied and unclear, and 3CDC essentially dropped the issue.

Fast forward to late spring of this year, and we have a visit from Nino of Panino at the Over-the-Rhine Community Council. Now, between the first 3CDC visit and this one, Panino has added a permanent barrier, outdoor seating, along the sidewalk. Panino never came to the council with the idea of a permanent barrier blocking the sidewalk, but want our support for their take-over of Imagination Alley. As I am just a member of the community council, this is my perspective on what is happening, and I may be wrong, especially since I missed the last council meeting, where Nino returned asking for a vote for the privatization of Imagination Alley.

At the first council meeting, where I was in attendance, Nino and his father came with food to soften up the crowd. Nino made a plea that could be summed up like this: “3CDC promised us that we could have a patio on Imagination Alley, we already know who uses the space, and they are criminals (but we help people there who are in need), so it would just be better if we took over the space for our patio.” And then they continued with “if we don’t have a patio, our business will close, and we have expensive products, so the farmers who make our high-end food will go out of business and people will lose their jobs if we don’t have a patio.” There was another level of self-sacrificing going on, where Nino claimed he is paid minimum wage. They even brought drafted plans for the layout of the space. It was clear that they felt burned by the promises of 3CDC, but their lack of communication with the community council was clear by the disconnect they had in their conversation. After several questions were asked about the price points and communication with people who use the space, they ended by reiterating that they brought free food on the back table.

The second council meeting didn’t go well for Panino either, but I was not at the meeting so what I am recounting is from several sources who attended. Once again, the pitch to privatize Imagination Alley for Panino’s gain was made and the council had questions. Panino representatives made the argument for “good guys loitering” which is a racist and anti-poor perspective that is often taken in the backdrop of gentrification. The idea is that if “good guys” use a space, it will displace the “bad guys” to other places. The concept of “loitering” was created to push Black people out of the sight of the powerful by using police resources instead of having community conversations and mutual understanding. So to add another layer to that by adding “good” is just another level of racism and classism. Community council members pushed back on the good/bad dichotomy that was being pushed.

Panino also said they would do free food events in the alley if they were able to privatize it. Members asked why they didn’t do this already, what is stopping them? They promised to do free-food events whether or not they received the positive vote. Observations on the spike-lined fence behind Panino were made, questioning their true desire to be embraced by, and embracing of, the neighborhood. In the end, a vote was called to support Panino’s takeover of Imagination Alley. The vote failed. The Over-the-Rhine Community Council voted to keep Imagination Alley public.

I do not believe that this issue is completely settled. 3CDC acts like they o w n the space today, by placing their garbage cans across the entire back line of Imagination Alley. I feel that placement of smelly 3CDC garbage on Imagination Alley is disrespectful and is intended to reduce the quality of life and use of the park. Considering the amount of time and energy that was put into Imagination Alley, to turn it into a center for profit does not abide with the community expressions that make it what it is today. It is the microaggressions, such as placing garbage cans, putting up spikes, using terms like “good guys loitering,” and making promises without public input, that solidify that 3CDC is not for the community, but only seeks to increase their own wealth.

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