OTR residents say Findlay Playground’s prolonged shutdown drove crime to their streets

Posted at 5:00 AM, Jul 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-27 10:57:40-04

CINCINNATI — Vickie Watkins has been living in her cozy Over-the-Rhine apartment for nearly two decades. The affordable housing unit near Green and Republic streets is where the 63-year-old plans to spend the rest of her days, kicking up her feet after working for years as a Payless Shoes saleswoman.

But now that she's made it to retirement and living in the home she cherished and curated for so long, Watkins said she now lives in a constant state of stress and detests being inside her apartment. She and other residents on Green Street complain that large numbers of people from outside the neighborhood congregate on the road and engage in various forms of illegal activity, tormenting the residents from right outside of their homes.

“In this little bit of space, it’d be hundreds of people here,” Watkins said. “They ride through here like they’re on the strip. The music is so loud. It’s like this is an abandoned building and nobody lives here.

“We live here."

Residents said the people who now gather on Green Street used to hang out in Findlay Playground and migrated onto their street after the playground was shut down for renovations in an effort to curb crime in 2018.

Instead of migrating to other OTR recreational spaces like Washington or Zeigler parks, they ended up on Green and Republic streets, where there are shady sidewalks and a relatively low police presence. There is also virtually no traffic because the newer, more affluent residents haven't yet made it this far into the neighborhood.

Neither the Cincinnati Police nor the people who congregate in this area would talk to us about this story.

This narrow, single-lane one-way street had generally been quiet, clean and peaceful, Green Street residents said. The Over-the-Rhine Recreation Center sits on the corner that intersects with Republic, while a day care center once was located at the other end near Race Street. Elementz, a chic youth urban arts center, sits across the street and neighbors the affordable housing units where a considerable number of Black, elderly, working class residents reside. Findlay Market is two blocks away to the northwest. On the other side in the direction of Vine Street are St. Francis Catholic Church and the Mary Magdalen House, a support center for the homeless.

There have been small, disorderly crowds known to frequent Green Street before, particularly because of a now defunct bar that once sat on Race Street. But the loss of green space from Findlay Playground (now soon set to reopen) attracted people to the residential street in droves.

These days, residents and local business owners refer to the area as “Skid Row” and “the living room,” and compare the area to a “carnival,” or an “outdoor pharmacy."

People who do not live on Green or Republic streets can be seen almost every day huddled in groups outside of the apartment buildings and the Over-the-Rhine Recreation Center. They say the loiterers usually start to gather around 5 p.m., and will stay as late as 4 a.m. the following morning. There are a reliable few who lounge in lawn chairs on the sidewalk, even shuffling from one part of the street to the next to dodge the sun’s blaring rays as the day goes by. Social distancing guidelines are rarely, if ever, followed, the residents said.

On particularly hot, crowded days, the smell of alcohol and plumes of marijuana smoke flow through the air. The streets are often littered with trash in the mornings after these gatherings. The night before it was announced Findlay Playground would reopen, a shooting broke out in the area that left one woman injured and a bullet hole in the window of the common area of one of the residential buildings.

But it's the music that residents say is the straw that broke the camel's back.

“In the middle of the night, we got to call the cops to say there are people making noise," said resident Patricia Howard. "People sitting in their cars, jamming their music so loud I can feel it in my chest."

Jerry Sedgwick, another resident, lamented about how disruptive the booming, expletive-laden music was to one of his at-home prayer sessions.

“Through that whole half-hour I don’t know if I can count how many times I heard the [n-word].”

As a spiritual person, Sedgwick said he worries about the impact the activity on the street is having on him and the other residents.

“We absorb that stuff,” Sedgwick said. “That’s negative energy. It’s darkness ... That’s why people can’t be at peace.”

Howard, who lives with asthma and respiratory problems, said she struggles to breathe because of the marijuana smoke and can’t open her windows.

“I can’t get any type of air except for the air that’s regurgitated in my house,” Howard said.

Many of the residents we spoke to lament their inability to sleep. Watkins is one of a few who have resorted to taking refuge at relatives' homes in other parts of Cincinnati. For the first time, she has had to take medications for depression and now suffers from anxiety attacks and high blood pressure.

“Sometimes I just sit in the yard so discombobulated,” Watkins said. She said she talks to her doctor about the activity on the street, and that the constant stress is changing her personality-- distancing her from her more jovial, active, sociable self. She says she is so unhappy she struggles to do basic things like go to the market.

“I wouldn’t even go to the doctor last week," she said. "I get so I won’t even go outside. I hate to go outside. I won’t go outside because I know they’re out there.”

Another resident, John Hancock, said he is embarrassed when people ask him where he lives.

“I don't allow my grandkids to come over as much,” Hancock said. “It has taken a toll. You have to constantly remind yourself that what is going on outside is not what’s going on inside. And you just kind of try to avoid as much as you can. But it's really hard when it never lets up.”

Before city officials announced last week that they would reopen the park, all of the Cornerstone residents we spoke to said that they wanted Findlay Playground to be made available to the public. They were frustrated that a recreational space so heavily relied upon by longtime, Black and low-income people in the part of Over-the-Rhine that had yet to be gentrified had been closed off from the public for so long.

Many residents were convinced that the crowds of people outside of their homes would go back to socializing in the park once the playground reopened. In their minds, Over-the-Rhine’s disenfranchised, poor, diverse communities who have been losing places to socialize and live affordably deserve to be accommodated, too.

But the residents who live directly across from Findlay Playground have been staunchly opposed to it being reopened without making massive changes first.

“We need this park back, but we need this park back without drug dealers,” said Peter Howe, also an Over-the-Rhine resident. “We need the park back without open container, prostitution. How to achieve that? Well, that's what we need to work towards.”

Howe has owned his home neighboring the park since 2015. Despite what others say, he said he did not see families come to use Findlay Park, because it was unsafe. When asked, he said he was unaware of the activity that has escalated onto Green and Republic Streets since Findlay Playground’s shutdown.

Whether or not reopening Findlay Playground will successfully disperse the displaced people looking for a recreational space to spend time, what is almost sure to remain are the tensions that have now intensified for the area’s Black, working-class residents in Over-the-Rhine.

Green Street residents spoke freely of their disdain for the people who wanted to keep Findlay Playground closed. They remarked that while they understand other locals do not want to deal with the dangerous conditions that had led to the playground’s shutdown, they are angry that they have been left to deal with those conditions on their street instead. The most cynical believe they are passively being pushed out of the area by stakeholders who could benefit from redeveloping their corner of Over-the-Rhine. They suspect that wealthier, professional class residents could move in and eliminate the small, remaining crime-ridden population of low-income people there altogether.

But not all of the residents condemn those gathering on Green Street. Some said the loiterers are just severely disadvantaged and have nowhere to go, noting that a considerable number of the people are homeless and struggle with substance abuse and mental health problems.

“Most of the people probably are very good people,” Sedgwick said. “They’re just caught up in stuff.”

Even as he remarks on the problems that the crowds on his street have posed for him and his loved ones, Hancock said he has a certain level of understanding and empathy for the people who socialize and sell drugs outside his home. He said that as a Black man, he understands that the people on the street are there because they have been shortchanged by society. While he does not condone what they do, he said he recognizes the immense pressures on the drug dealers who have stationed their business in the area. He thinks he could have easily landed in their position because he shares the color of their skin.

“People come and they look at us as if we’re subhuman,” Hancock said. “You got to treat people like they're human. You got to have a heart of humanity. When you have a heart of humanity, you don't look at the drug dealer and say he's a drug dealer. You look at somebody and say the system has failed them. You look at a person that is homeless and say, ‘How is this person homeless when this earth houses all?’”

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