Editorial: Our forgotten neighborhoods need attention

WCPO.com series brings them to light

In Downtown, the sidewalks once rolled up at 5 pm.

Now, the center city often buzzes into the early morning hours. Over-the-Rhine, once a place to avoid, is now a destination for hip restaurants, bars and shopping. Covington’s 19th century German neighborhood of Mainstrasse is now home to 21st century dining. Young families are moving into -- not out of -- Northside, even as property values rise. Walnut Hills, once blighted by empty storefronts, is reaping investment in housing and businesses.

The stories of urban rebirth in this old river city have even gained attention around the country.

But many communities haven’t shared in the urban renaissance, and not much attention is paid to them.

We aim to shed light on that with a WCPO.com series: Our Forgotten Neighborhoods.

We’ll examine one neighborhood at a time that has suffered from long-term disinvestment and decline. We’ll listen to what the residents have to say about their community, what they like about it, what they don’t like and what they need to make it better. We’ll try to capture the neighborhood spirit and history through text and video.

Then we’ll speak up for their needs, whether it be a street that needs paving, a sidewalk rebuilt or a park fixed up. We’ll advocate for the community and try to bring some positive attention.

These are places like North Fairmount, South Cumminsville, Covington’s Lewisburg neighborhood and California (the neighborhood, not the state).

You could call them forgotten neighborhoods. Forgotten by many, but home to thousands. Some have been neglected for decades. Historically, they’ve lacked the wealth, power, and often, the voice to bring about real change.

Sr. Barbara Busch

Forgotten neighborhoods “tend to be smaller, poorer and minority communities,” said Sister Barbara Busch, executive director of Working in Neighborhoods, a group that assists residents in several Cincinnati neighborhoods.

Signs of a forgotten neighborhood

Jobs declined over the years as nearby factories closed or moved. Builders don’t eye these neighborhoods for new homes or condos. Most are populated by old homes, some of them 100 years old or more. Some have fallen into disrepair or have remained vacant for years.

Sedamsville, for example, lost 20 percent of its population in a decade. In West Price Hill, lenders have foreclosed on more than 1,000 homes since 2006. Covington’s Lewisburg neighborhood has been stuck in limbo for years as legislators dither about a new Brent Spence bridge.

The city of Cincinnati is proud of its neighborhood heritage. Some began as towns or villages that were then incorporated into the bigger city. They have their own sense of place, identity and even a form of self-governance through their community councils. That same sense of place is true outside of Cincinnati too. Covington, for example, a city of only 40,000, has 19 distinct neighborhoods.

Impact of The Great Recession

Some have made progress over the years, but it was typically slow, small and incremental. When the Great Recession hit, many of the gains were thwarted by the wave of foreclosures and job losses it brought.

Robinson-Benning

“You had people leaving, businesses closing up, people that owned homes lost them,” said Gwen Robinson-Benning, CEO of the Cincinnati Hamilton County Community Action Agency. “It was major. We haven’t fully come back from that.”

In Over-the-Rhine and Downtown, city-supported developer 3CDC infused hundreds of millions of dollars, jump starting the renaissance of those neighborhoods and spurring other private investment. But it’s unlikely that others will see that kind of focused, high-dollar investment.

What to do?

So how can community leaders, politicians, activists and neighbors begin a rebirth in our forgotten neighborhoods?

“Every neighborhood has an asset of some sort,” Robinson-Benning said. “We need to pay attention to all of our neighborhoods and pay attention to the assets.”

Sister Barbara has been an advocate for neglected neighborhoods since the 1970s, when she started the community-building organization Working in Neighborhoods. The group saved the beautiful, 90-year-old St. Pius Church, an anchor of South Cumminsville, by purchasing it and renovating it for the organization’s offices. The group has renovated hundreds of homes in surrounding neighborhoods.

Sister Barbara knows change needs to start small. And it can take a long time.

“If you’re really going to make a change, you’ve got to focus,” she said.

Our Forgotten Neighborhoods series will focus on one neighborhood at a time, give voice to its residents and advocate for what they tell us they need to make their neighborhoods better places to live.

Tomorrow: Our Forgotten Neighborhoods -- South Cumminsville

If you have a neighborhood story to tell or would like to nominate a community for the series, please email Managing Editor for Opinion and Engagement David Holthaus at david.holthaus@wcpo.com.

David Holthaus is on Twitter at @dgholthaus.

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