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Honoring OTR's 'island of misfit toys' identity

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Oct 12, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-12 05:00:27-04

CINCINNATI — Jai Washington remembers falling in love with Findlay Market and Over-the-Rhine when she was just a kid.

It was the first place in Cincinnati where she felt authentic diversity and a genuine mixing of people of different races, income levels and backgrounds — all of whom lived, worked or shopped in the historic neighborhood. Some did all of the above.

So when she started to see Over-the-Rhine changing — with its renovated buildings, upscale apartments and trendy restaurants — Washington couldn't help but feel a little uneasy.

Jai Washington

"I often say we're an island of misfit toys converting to Disneyland," she said. "As wonderful as Disneyland can be, that island of misfit toys matters."

That's why she jumped at the chance to have a storytelling series at Findlay Market called Findlay to the People.

The goal of the series is to celebrate what is special about Findlay Market and its people. Each month through December, the series focuses on a different theme with panels that feature a market merchant, a shopper and other members of the community sharing their stories.

The theme for the next event – from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 25 – will be "Global."

Karen Kahle and Kate Zaiden approached Washington with the idea.

Kahle is communications and program director at Findlay Market. Zaiden is the second-generation owner and operator of Dean's Mediterranean imports — a shop at Findlay Market her father started 30 years ago.

They wanted to find a way to help preserve the history and dynamic that has made Findlay Market what it is for the past 160 years — that meeting place and melting pot for all kinds of people.

Fighting to Preserve the Feel of Findlay Market

"We'd heard those comments that, 'Oh, it doesn't feel like it's for me anymore,'" Kahle said. "There's a lot of people who hung in with this neighborhood. I feel like Findlay Market has to respect that. Otherwise the market wouldn't have survived."

The series also presents a chance for merchants to stress the important connection they have with their customers, Zaiden said.

"Every year, there are less shoppers and more people there to take in the vibe," Zaiden said. "You have to sort of celebrate that on one hand, but we don't want to lose the character of Findlay Market."

For the September event, the theme was "Organic." The first half of the discussion revolved around organic food and included Megan Gambrill, the crop production manager for Turner Farm, and Nyah Higgins, founder and operator of JameriSol, a new business at the market.

Higgins talked about how much better she felt after she started cooking with organic food and how she uses organic ingredients in the food she makes to sell at the market.

One woman asked if it would be possible for Findlay Market vendors to post more information about whether they sell organic produce or use it in the products they prepare.

But Gambrill said it's better for shoppers to get to know the farmers who are growing the food they are buying, like they can at Findlay Market.

"The really important thing is to talk to your farmer," she said.

The second half of September's event revolved around the word organic as it relates to communities.

Panelists included Michael Zaretsky, an associate professor in the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. The other two were arts consultant and Over-the-Rhine resident and activist Margy Waller and Megan Trischler, program director for People's Liberty, the new philanthropic organization located across from Findlay Market.

All three talked about the importance of listening and working with community members rather than imposing ideas upon them.

"Often there is this inherent power dynamic," Zuretsky said. "The approach should be: 'I have a lot to learn from people.'"

Washington described it as the difference between "support" and "saving."

The long-time residents of Over-the-Rhine, as poor as many of them are, don't want saving. They want to be part of the neighborhood's future while staying true to its past.

"I sometimes get a little annoyed with the hipsters who walk around like they've made this place," Kahle said. "I'm like, 'No, you're sharing it now with people who maintained it before you.'"

Sharing stories, she hopes, will be an important way to give some Over-the-Rhine newcomers the history lesson they need to better appreciate the neighborhood.

For more information about Findlay to the People, click here or go to http://www.findlaymarket.org/events/findlay-storytelling-series.

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Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.