COVID-19, development drying up summer hot spots for kids in OTR

Posted at 3:33 PM, Jun 26, 2020

Many have found relief from the bedlam of 2020 by seeking outdoor green spaces in which to socialize and safely enjoy recreational activities from a distance.

For some, Over-the-Rhine has a few viable options for this as a result of the bars, restaurants and tidy parks catering to professional crowds who have recently moved to more affluent areas west of Race Street. However, it is the children -- particularly those from low-income families living further east around Vine and Green streets -- who now have fewer options in terms of spaces for activities and play time.

Two prominent locations that children in these parts of Over-the-Rhine have heavily used for recreational activity in years past are currently closed off from the public as a result of development and the COVID-19 pandemic. In late 2018, the city of Cincinnati shut down Findlay Playground, a site that was once commonly used by kids after school and during the summer, for renovations and to eliminate the high incidence of crime on its grounds.

“It’s kind of sad that it shut down,” said Shirly Jones, the mother of an infant who lives Downtown. Jones said she feels more comfortable taking her child to Washington Park and supports Findlay Playground’s shutdown. “It was a lot of drug using in the park. And it was just an unsafe place for children to see things like that or even to play in that area.”

More recently in March, the city also repurposed the Over-the-Rhine Recreation Center to house homeless COVID patients. The space was once frequented by local families for birthday parties, gatherings for field trips and camp outings, its indoor skating rink and other sports activities. But until further notice, it is off limits as the city dedicates the space to those who are sick with COVID and have limited or nonexistent resources for recovery and shelter.

The decision came as a surprise to coordinators of a youth athletics program, Cincinnati Golden Gloves, which shares a building with the Recreation Center. They say that students and parents were alarmed to know that COVID-19 patients would be in the area while coming to the building for training sessions, and that the strains of the pandemic have cut down their program’s attendance by almost half.

“I wish that they had not closed the Rec Center for this purpose,” said Cincinnati Golden Gloves Executive Director Christina La Rosa. “The children in this neighborhood already don't have a park, and haven't had a park for going on two years. And then the Rec Center is really the only nearby Recreation Center...Now the kids are just on the sidewalk or in this parking lot instead of being able to go inside…”

However, Daniel Betts, the director of the Cincinnati Recreation Commission (CRC), the municipal entity that oversees operations for the rec center and Findlay Park, explained that city officials’ choice to use the Over-the-Rhine Recreation Center to house COVID patients was a highly strategic and justified decision. He explained that repurposing that space as a shelter was an opportunity to support needy people in an area where homelessness and struggles with substance abuse are more pervasive and visible in public than in other Cincinnati neighborhoods. He also said that protocols for housing and intaking COVID patients at the recreation center were carefully devised so as not to risk the safety of other people in the area.

“When this was brought to my attention some four months ago, this was an easy thing to do,” Betts said. He explained that creating this kind of safe space for homeless people was common for emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic. “We're part of the fabric of the community ... CRC supports not just a specific group of people. Our goal is to really support all walks of life in our city to improve their quality of life.”

Betts also points out that the Over-the-Rhine recreation center was already grappling with how to engage adults and generate more activity in the building while children were away during school hours. He recognizes the challenges of having to commute farther distances for resources that locals are accustomed to having in their own backyards. In any case, he said, there are still multiple recreation centers and parks such as Washington Park, Grant Park and Imagination Alley that are accessible in surrounding neighborhoods.

“Every community is very passionate about their local neighborhood rec center and I'm empathetic to that,” Betts said. “I get that. I grew up in rec centers.

“These disruptions were meant to be temporary at best, not to be permanent, and I stand by that.”

Even with the rampant criminal activity such as drug dealing and prostitution, locals say they regret that Findlay Park had to close, and that its shutdown left a cultural void in the community. Many children still used the space to play during the summer and after school.

Long-time locals we spoke to recognized that some parents may not want their young children to travel long distances to places like Washington Park that have better security. They say that in their pocket of Over-the-Rhine, there currently is little else for young children to do other than attend the Golden Gloves boxing program. The fact that long-time residents’ options for local activities have been curtailed by COVID and development adds to their frustration of being economically challenged by the gentrification happening in their area.

Newer residents have picked up on the unintended consequences of development and fact that the neighborhood’s children have fewer places to play, as well. Eric Rutherford said the back of his apartment overlooks the park, which was shut down shortly before he moved in.

“I'd rather it be closed for a little bit so they can figure out how to do it right, versus just opening it to open it,” Rutherford said. He also said he would like for the park to be made available to the public again, noting that it could be a nice asset to the area. Still, he recognizes the crime, drug deals and violence that occurred there before it was closed.

“I wouldn't want to see it open back up only for it to become what it once was,” he said.

Due to the ongoing waves of COVID-19 cases, Betts said it’s unknown exactly when the Over-the-Rhine Recreation Center will be able to resume its normal activities. On July 1, city officials are set to have a public meeting in which they will discuss plans on how to resume improvements for Findlay Park. Prior to the pandemic, the CRC had compiled surveys of people in the Over-the-Rhine community asking what kinds of changes they would like to see made to the park. Betts said organizers now have to devise a course of action on how to carry out the improvements after the city did not specifically allocate funds for the playground in its recently passed budget.

“Can we open it up and make it safe? What does that look like?” Betts said. “The devil is in the details.”

Officials are still planning how to conduct the meeting in accordance with COVID-19 safety guidelines; the public can expect to be able to tune in through Zoom if they are unable to physically attend board meetings at which decisions over the park will be made.

Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.