CINCINNATI — Robert Killins wants to be a part of the change that is happening in his neighborhood. That's why the West End resident is an organizer for WE Speaks, a plan to help make sure residents of all incomes have a voice in developments and investment in the area.
“There always has to be oversight," said Killins, who is also a member and former president of the West End Community Council. "And so what I think it'd be incumbent upon the community is to watch the process very closely to track it very carefully. If we see deviations from the plan as it's laid out, then that would be a time to say, 'Hey, the plan says X. We don't see X occurring. We see Y occurring. Why is that?’”
Killins joins scores of residents and community stakeholders joining forces to update development plans and neighborhood goals for the West End.
They're also hoping the West End Speaks Plan can set a new precedent for a historic neighborhood weathered by demolitions, urban renewal and displacement.
WE Speaks outlines residents and community partners’ goals for quality of life in the neighborhood. Areas for improvement include housing, business, employment, uplifting the youth and more. Organizers say they are fixated on getting as many residents as possible to share their feedback through public meetings and surveys.
“Having people engaged in the community always makes a difference,” Killins said.
Leaders of this project include the city’s planning department, Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses and the West End Community Council. Other entities like The Port, the Community Building Institute, and LISC have also been providing support. Kristen Baker, the executive director of LISC, says organizers have the challenge of uniting people with conflicting priorities for the West End. Despite this, she says they are trying to still impart onto residents that they are more alike in their wants than they may readily recognize.
“Everybody wants a neighborhood where they feel safe, where they have housing that meets their needs, where they know their neighbors, where they have access to jobs and to the services,” Baker said. “We all want those things. And so that's what these planning processes can really help us get to.”
The effort is a local iteration of HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods program. A hallmark initiative for HUD, Choice Neighborhoods restores communities, maintains affordable housing and fosters opportunities for residents. The WE Speaks plan was first drafted and approved by the city’s planning department and city council back in 2016. However, major events in recent years that have impacted the neighborhood drew organizers to revise the initial plan.
“A lot has changed in the neighborhood since 2015,” said Tia Brown, Community Engagement Director of Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses.
The plan is being renewed this year to account for unprecedented events like Seven Hills and the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority receiving a grant through HUD Choice Neighborhoods, the findings in a 2019 housing study and the arrival of TQL stadium.
Organizers say they’re pushing for a collaborative agenda that better informs future redevelopment while safeguarding against the pitfalls of gentrification.
“There are lots of really wonderful outcomes for a neighborhood when big investment comes in,” Baker said. “There's also, I think, an important note to pay attention to those who might not be directly benefiting from those changes, but that are part of the neighborhood, too. And so their voice needs to be heard.”
Upcoming meetings to update WE Speaks will be held monthly through November at the Seven Hills office on Findlay Street. The next meeting takes place Sept. 27.
“It's your neighborhood and you have a say," Brown said. "You have input. You have firsthand experience about what it is to live in the neighborhood or work in the neighborhood or own a business.
“These efforts need your voice and we need to hear from you so we can make sure the things that you're most concerned about are addressed.”
Organizers encourage residents and stakeholders who want to take part in WE Speaks to visit the project’s page on the city’s website, or contact the city’s planning department or Seven Hills to share input and get more information.
Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.
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