CINCINNATI — As workers repaired and repainted parts of the jungle gym at Findlay Playground this week, Cincinnati Recreation Commission staffers met with about two dozen community members to discuss the details of reopening the park.
City officials are set to reopen the Over-the-Rhine park, which has been closed for almost two years, on Saturday, July 18.
CRC Director Daniel Betts told the group about the department’s new initiative to issue small grants to community partners that would bring programming to the park. For the first time, the recreation commission will give out grants totaling up to $10,000 to local individuals, nonprofits and for-profits to host activities in the park to engage families and nearby residents.
Because safety was an issue the community had with Findlay Playground when it was still open, Betts outlined rules intended to make the park safer.
Officers present said the Cincinnati Police Department will assign direct patrols to the area, which will come to the park a few times a day to walk around and make themselves visible to potential bad actors. Their aim is to discourage the varying forms of illegal activity that had originally led to Findlay Playground's closure.
“If crime ticks up in this park, we’re not opposed to re-evaluating what we’ve done,” Betts said during the meeting. “I think we need to get this right. I also think we need to be practical that this is not going to happen overnight.”
Prior to being closed down in 2018, Findlay Playground was notorious for the drug deals, fights, prostitution, open consumption of alcohol and illegal substances, as well as other indecent activity. However, the area was also frequently used predominantly by Black, low-income residents and families as a recreational space for activities such as parties and performances.
Officials closed the park down to eliminate the crime in the area and to make renovations. However, after being closed for almost two years, no significant changes were made to the layout. Also, the illicit activity and people who once gathered inside the playground moved over to other parts of Over-the-Rhine.
The bulk of that activity moved over to the nearby intersection of Republic and Green Streets, a once quiet residential area that is also home to the Over-the-Rhine Recreation Center, an urban youth center, and some small businesses.
“I'm hopeful that with the opening of the park, we will be able to see some people migrate up here that want to use the park for what it's intended for," said Alisa Berry, the executive director of Cornerstone Renters Equity, an affordable housing program that has residential buildings in the area. "And then it gives us a better sense of who down on Green and Republic is still hanging out for purposes that are not necessarily positive or in the light of what we would like to see there.”
“I think everybody is really invested in making sure that that space is cleaned up and that that activity changes,” Berry said. “I think the property owners are all now talking and working together. So I think that's positive, that we have a working relationship with the police.”
The CRC and city officials organizing the effort said they had hoped to make dramatic changes to the park when it was closed. Despite taking their case to the state to garner funds for new amenities and improvements, officials learned last December that they were denied capital for the project. Their plans became even further disrupted when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shutting down the city and forcing the CRC to prioritize other measures to curb the spread of the virus.
For months, the officials had to table discussions about the playground but were able to resume their plans in a public virtual zoom meeting in late June. Views on when and how to reopen the park were strongly divided; some attendees wanted the park to reopen because the lack of recreational space in the area had caused other safety issues and inconvenience to people in the area who could not easily access other parks that were farther away. Others were opposed to the park yet, arguing that the city and local police needed more time and a definitive plan to block crime and obscene activity from recurring in the park. The city ultimately announced it would reopen Findlay Playground last week, with officials saying they would make small practical improvements to the park for maintenance to alleviate longtime locals’ frustrations of not having their green space for the summer.
Officials have been conducting beautification efforts in the days leading up to the reopening on Saturday; attendees can also participate in some of those efforts on the big day. In addition to power washing, some of the fencing that kept the public from entering the park will be taken down.
Dead trees and low-hanging branches will also be removed, while mulch will be put down around the trees that are left behind. Some of the railing will be repainted. There are plans to replace broken lights, in addition to installing more lighting in the park to make it safer. A port-a-potty will stay in the park for public use through the fall and winter.
“I am still a little bit concerned to see how much of the trees they take off, because there's not a lot of shade in Over-the-Rhine, especially in this park,” said Emily Stant-Kelly, who lives nearby and hopes to use the park as an outdoor space.
A number of meeting attendees like Chenelle Jones, the manager of administration at Elementz, were from organizations interested in the CRC’s new grants to foster community programming inside the park. Elementz works with inner-city youth to use music and performance art as a tool to develop their social and emotional skills. Her team plans to volunteer their services inside the park until they might be able to receive a grant to enhance their services.
“We believe that the programming and those social-emotional skills learned would help [youths] make better decisions instead of just, you know, kids continuing to do what they see on the streets, which is selling the drugs or, you know, just making wrong decisions,” Jones said.
Kick Lee, president of the Cincinnati Music Accelerator, is interested in partnering with the CRC to create programming for the park as well. He envisions using a transportable stage that his organization recently received funding for to hold performances throughout Cincinnati and at the park. He said that the developments and unintended consequences of gentrification in Over-the-Rhine “weighs” on him as a Black man, but that he wants to be a part of the positive change.
“We talk gentrification, but what are we as Black people actually doing to mobilize ourselves into the gentrification?” Lee said.
Toward the end of the meeting, Betts said he was interested in building stronger relationships with community figures in Over-the-Rhine who can influence disadvantaged locals who participate in the loitering and drug sales. He also said that that after reopening Findlay Playground, the CRC will redirect its cleanup efforts to Green and Republic streets to discourage people from congregating outside of the Over-the-Rhine Recreation Center.
Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.