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OTR residents, Urban League work together so people 'don't have to fear walking down the street'

Posted at 5:00 AM, Nov 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-10 18:50:57-05

CINCINNATI — An uptick in gun violence in Over-the-Rhine is bringing with it an uptick in worry over safety in the community.

“You’re constantly hearing gunshots or you don’t know if you’ll walk up on a body that was shot," said Alisa Berry, executive director of Cornerstone Renter Equity, which helps with affordable housing in the area of Green and Republic streets. "That’s pretty fearful.”

She said the crime in the neighborhood is traumatizing to her residents -- especially those with young children.

“The residents are really concerned about a lot of the activity that goes on up and down the street,” she said, referring to loitering, drug dealing and other illegal activity happening right out in the open. “And that they have to walk through that. They have kids that have to walk through that. We had one resident describe how there was a gunshot victim and she was there with her child walking to her gates and had to walk around that.”

Shootings and other violent crimes aren’t just happening in OTR. It’s an issue across the city.

According to city data, 76 people have been shot dead in Cincinnati so far this year. There have been 352 nonfatal shootings reported. On one August night, 19 people were shot, with three of the four incidents happening over a 90-minute period. Of those, four shootings were fatal, and 10 of the people hit were shot near Grant Park in Over-the-Rhine.

The surge in violence has sparked action from all areas of the city, including law enforcement, community advocates, outreach organizations and residents. And while policing is often a major focus during these situations, some argue it also takes a little “tender, love and care” to help reduce crime.

“What needs attention, loving attention, as a neighborhood?” Andria Carter said.

Carter is a community engagement specialist with The Urban League of Southwest Ohio’s Community Police Partnering Center. She’s been working with people in Over-the-Rhine, as well as other neighborhoods, to pinpoint what the issues are and where the solutions lie.

“They are very stressed, they are very frustrated,” said Carter, referring to those neighbors.

One of those solutions is an initiative called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED.

“It’s a very subtle way of saying people in this neighborhood care about where they live," Carter said. "For the longest time people have taken advantage of people not caring or their voices not being heard enough. Now you’re finding their voices are being lifted up and they’re speaking what we call the moral voice. Now it’s about action. CPTED helps initiate that action.”

To launch this, Carter and other community engagement specialists lead groups of residents on walks throughout their neighborhood. Each person is given a checklist, which includes questions about the person’s reaction to the neighborhood and how comfortable it makes them feel. They’re then instructed to take note of things like lighting, ownership spaces, entrapment spots, loitering, littering and more. At the end of the walk, the group discusses what environmental issues can be addressed to make the area safer.

“Is it lighting," Carter said. "Is it litter? Is it trimming the grass along the edges of the building?”

Berry attended one of the CPTED walks in Over-the-Rhine, along with other business owners, a member of the OTR Recreation Center and several police officers.

For her, a big issue was the litter.

“We talked about trash cans a lot, which may seem like a small thing, but when there’s so many people hanging out and doing whatever, something as simple as keeping the streets clean and having more trash cans are important,” she said.

The Urban League is currently using CPTED in its 10 target neighborhoods. Those are the neighborhoods where the most crime is occurring and include Avondale, North Avondale, Westwood, Roselawn, Evanston, West End, Over the Rhine, Winton Hills, Price Hill and Mt. Airy. Engagement specialists are also working on side projects in Bond Hill, Carthage and Walnut Hills.

“(Crime is) a big issue," Carter said. "There are pockets all across the city. Some pockets are bigger than others, but it’s about quality of life. And if your quality of life is impacted you need to address it."

She noted that CPTED does work and that the group has seen success with it in the Mt. Auburn and Walnut Hills areas.

A group there spent the last three years bettering the neighborhoods, specifically targeting loitering around the Shell Gas Station on Reading Road. The Urban League was awarded the Special Project Award by the Ohio Crime Prevention Association earlier this year for that work.

“Neighbors, if they band together, they can find solutions and see success," she said. "It just takes a little time because these issues didn’t get started overnight and they’re not going to find a solution overnight."

For Berry, this gives her hope.

“I do think that those things start to make a difference safety wise,” Berry said. “But, I also think there has to be other things.”

She feels that more social services also need to be brought into the neighborhood, like services for addiction, mental health and homelessness. Together, she imagines the neighborhood can become a family-friendly place for all people.

“It’ll be a place where kids can come out and play and enjoy themselves. That (Findlay Park) will be activated,” she said. “Where it’ll be just like any other neighborhood where you can walk down the street and you don’t have to fear walking down the street.”