Westwood Works harnesses the power of positivity, teamwork to revitalize community

Posted at 12:00 PM, Feb 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-13 12:00:32-05

CINCINNATI -- Positivity. Hopefulness. Neighbors who know each other.

These intangible resources are keys to community revitalization, said Elizabeth Bartley, executive director of the Westwood Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation.

Bartley said the fact that Westwood, the city's largest neighborhood, has these resources in spades is one of the revitalization efforts coming to fruition this year, as the city invests $4 million around Gaines Triangle and new shops open in the business district.

Before the money and investors come, Bartley said, you need positive thinking and people willing to imagine and work together -- and in Westwood, much of that positivity, teamwork and good feeling emanates from Westwood Works

The nonprofit organization puts on the Westwood Art Show and a variety of other community events each year, but it also coordinates everything from a collaboration with churches to stuff backpacks for kids in need to pop-up beer gardens. On Feb. 17, Westwood Works will present “Zootopia” at the Gamble Nippert YMCA as part of its Free Family Movie Nights series.

Westwood Works co-founder Leslie Rich said getting kids involved in the organization and its events is a key part of encouraging families to get invested in their neighborhood. Photo provided

Sarah Beach, children's minister at Westwood United Methodist Church, works with Westwood Works on a variety of events and community projects. 

“(Westwood Works) creates a positive atmosphere for neighbors to come together,” Beach said. “When people know each other and serve alongside each other, good things happen.”

Westwood Works was born out of necessity. In 2009, co-founder Leslie Rich, a 37-year-old Westwood native, John Eby, and a few community leaders wanted to bring an ArtWorks mural to their neighborhood. The problem? They needed an organization to sponsor the request.

“We looked at each other and said, 'Well, we can be an organization. We can make this happen,' ” Rich said.

And they did.

The question then became: What's next? That's how the Westwood Art Show, now in its ninth year, was established.

The first art show, which also marked the dedication of the ArtWorks mural, had a few hundred attendees and a couple dozen artists. Last year, the event showcased more than 50 artists -- mostly local, from Westwood -- and attracted more than 2,000 people to the Westwood Town Hall.

When Rich first started working for Girl Scouts of America 14 years ago, she began starting troops in low-income neighborhoods. She now applies the lessons learned in her day job to Westwood Works, a key tenet being to draw out parents by getting their kids involved. Being willing to try new things and take on new projects is another.

“We're not afraid to fail,” Rich said.

Four years ago, Westwood Works began working with the Cincinnati Recreation Commission on the Deck The Hall event at Town Hall. When the organization took on the holiday event, it was a small meet-and-greet with Santa attracting about 75 people. This year, more than 1,500 people came to Town Hall to see Santa, do holiday crafts, hear choirs and see a performance of “The Nutcracker” by Westwood-based AVO Ballet

“It's really just about connecting more of those families and keeping them connected to the neighborhood, and making them know that their voice matters,” Rich said.

When people in Westwood talk about Westwood Works, they talk about the events, of course. Who doesn't love a pop-up beer garden? And then there was Pop! Goes Westwood, a series of free events and pop-up shops last summer, sponsored by the Haile Foundation, that gave people the ability to see what a revitalized business district would look like, a vision that's beginning to be a reality as shops like Lillywood and Carriage House Screen Printing Co. open. 

But making connections across the community, Cincinnati's largest, is the other thing Westwood Works excels at. Events bring people out and get them talking to each other -- and when you get people talking, you can get them working together, too.

“We're going to help you find your spot in this community,” said Westwood Works executive director Kevin Tolan.

With a background in redevelopment and an urban planning degree from University of Cincinnati School of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, Tolan is Westwood Works’ first and only paid staff member. He works part-time for the organization, focusing on management and fundraising for the events that are vital to its mission.

“There are people passionate about a lot of things and just giving them a place to talk about it is important,” said Westwood Works board member Jess Thayer.

The Pop! Goes Westwood event last summer gave the community a chance to see what a revitalized business district would look like. Photo provided

Westwood is filled with organizations, each trying to make the community better in a specific way: Westwood CURC, Westwood Civic Association, Westwood Historical Society, Westwood Coalition, not to mention politicians and churches and businesses. Whether it’s through community-wide celebrations or its monthly meetings, Westwood Works helps connect people to the organization that most needs their skills or fits their interests.

Thayer is one example of how this process works. A potter, she began as a vendor at the Westwood Art Show and knew the original organizer, who lived in her neighborhood. When her neighbor moved away, Thayer stepped in to help with the art show and now is helping Westwood Works grow and change with its community.

“We want Westwood to have some light shined on it,” Thayer said. “There's lots of good people in Westwood and lots of good energy, and we want to get people to meet each other and not be afraid.”