OVER-THE-RHINE - Ryan Messer was just steps away from Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine when he saw police surround a group of young boys – kids who looked to be 10 or 12 years old.
Messer walked over to a Cincinnati police officer who showed him why: a fake gun that the officer said was one of the most realistic he had seen.
The boys had been using it to terrorize people at the park.
“The parents were nowhere,” said Messer, who lives near the park. “It’s almost a lawless society of kids.”
Several recent high-profile shootings have been big news in historic Over-the-Rhine, the neighborhood just north of downtown where some of the region’s poorest residents live near wealthy homeowners who want to be part of the community’s revitalization. But what worries residents like Messer even more is what’s happening with the neighborhood’s kids.
“It ain’t like it used to be,” said James McQueen, who has lived in Over-the-Rhine most of his life. “It’s like nobody don’t care no more. So many young people are doing unsafe things because there ain’t no guidance.”
That’s why Messer and McQueen have teamed up to lead an effort they’re calling The Over-the-Rhine Youth Project. Their goal is to organize fun, constructive, positive events for the children of Over-the-Rhine this summer and ask the kids to help the neighborhood in return.
Skating Party Could Host As Many As 200 Kids
Their first event is a skating party from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Over-the-Rhine Recreation Center on Republic Street. The Over-the-Rhine Kroger is donating healthy snacks for the kids, Messer said. The whole event will cost about $350, which Messer and McQueen are funding themselves. McQueen expects as many as 200 kids to attend.
For future events, the two men envision outings to Reds games or maybe the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden – after the kids help with a neighborhood cleanup project or some other type of community volunteering.
“They would learn they have to earn something instead of giving it to them all the time,” McQueen said.
As closely as Messer and McQueen are aligned in this mission to help the neighborhood’s children, the two men couldn’t be more different.
Messer, 39, grew up in Rising Sun, Ind., and works as a senior sales manager for a pharmaceutical division of Johnson & Johnson. He lives in a meticulously restored historic house near Washington Park with his partner. His partner’s 5-year-old son lives there sometimes, too.
Messer has lived in the neighborhood for about a year. He had lived downtown near the Taft Museum of Art but wanted to move to Over-the-Rhine to be part of the neighborhood’s revitalization.
“I have something in my blood that likes to be part of building something,” he said. “Here it just seemed like there was such an opportunity to be part of something.”
McQueen, 35, is a janitor and father of three boys. He has custody of his youngest son, who is 3 years old. They live in an apartment several blocks from the park. McQueen said he sees kids as young as 8 or 10 smoking weed, stealing and hanging out on corners with older men and women involved in dealing drugs or prostitution.
“A lot of them are left unattended,” he said. “It ain’t no supervision no more – not only with the parents but also with the neighborhood.”
McQueen started his own “Stop the Violence” program in the neighborhood about five years ago, where he stages community events that feature inspirational speakers. He sees this work with Messer as an extension of those efforts to help the community he calls home.
Police Are Concerned With Youths Committing Violent Crime
Over-the-Rhine neighbors aren’t the only ones who are worried. Cincinnati police are, too.
“One of my big concerns from a public safety perspective is the growing number of young people starting to engage in violent crime at ages far younger than we’ve ever seen before,” said Capt. Gary Lee, commander of the Cincinnati Police Department’s District One, which encompasses Over-the-Rhine, the West End, Queensgate, Pendleton and Mt. Adams.
Violent crime in District One is up only about 3 percent this year over 2012, Lee said. And the most violent crime is usually targeted at people who regularly engage in criminal activity, he said.
Still, Lee said his officers routinely see kids as young as 12 and 13 who have guns and are using them to rob people.
“Anything that would help curb any of that behavior or trend would certainly be helpful,” he said.
He noted that the police department has its own youth programs, too, where officers spend time with kids from inner city neighborhoods to try to build relationships with them.
But, he said, more must be done.
“It’s troubling,” he said.
Residents spending time at Washington Park on a recent afternoon said they welcome the effort by McQueen and Messer.
“In the downtown area, there’s a lot of people that are underemployed or unemployed,” said Kai Brown, who lives in the West End.
Those parents can’t afford summer camps or activities for their children, she said.
“The children are left to resort to the streets,” she said. “It’s all about the dollar at the end of the day.”
For his part, Messer said he knows there are children all over the Tri-State who need help.
“You could probably make this argument for kids everywhere,” he said. “But I don’t live everywhere.”
And if he and McQueen have their way, their Over-the-Rhine neighborhood where they do live will be a much better place for kids by the end of the summer.