Tuesday, February 18, 1997
Only crime is ruling out Commons

BY PAUL DAUGHERTY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Yesterday, I took a walk in the belly of the beast. I put my wallet in my front pocket. I told co-workers that if I wasn't back in an hour, call the cops. I left the office, mumbling quietly, ''9-1-1. 9-1-1.''

I was going - dum-de-dum-dum - to visit the neighborhood closest to Broadway Commons. You know, the heart-of-darkness place that has caused many people to push for a new Reds stadium on the river. Because we'd never take our families down to that neighborhood after dark, doncha know.

I wasn't sure I'd live to see tomorrow.

Instead, I met Wheelchair Charlie Smith, taking in some sun on the corner of 12th and Pendleton. Charlie has been living in the same apartment in the neighborhood since 1969.

''You ever been robbed, Charlie?'' I asked.

''Nah, man,'' he said.

''You ever been mugged?''

''No.''

''Beaten, bothered, harassed? Any of that?''

''No way.''

Now this is strange, I thought. All these people, some of whom might even know a few things about a few things, saying what a terrible place this almost Over-the-Rhine area was.

Stately, not scary

I walked down Pendleton to where it meets Reading Road. Looking south, Broadway Commons stretches before you like a dream. (Actually, what stretches before you is the Greyhound station and a big ugly parking lot. I did say ''dream.'')

At that corner sits the Verdin Building. It was St. Paul's Church until Jim Verdin saved it from demolition 15 years ago. Now it is magnificently restored, with 150-year-old stained glass windows leaping 60 feet to a ceiling adorned with century-old murals.

During the week, the church and its adjacent buildings house nearly 80 different types of business. Accountants, lawyers, research firms, artists, tradesmen. On weekends in the Verdin Building, people throw parties and wedding receptions.

Oooooh. Scary place. If you're a groom.

Jim Verdin's company supplies the world with bells. Church bells, carillons and the like. Across the street, Ray Carr runs Tile and Stone. He says, ''We've been here 15 years. On weekends, we forget to lock up. I don't lock my car. This is a neighborhood. No one does bad stuff, because everyone knows everyone else.''

Crime? What crime?

Now, I'm really confused. ''Surely, you've been beaten a few times,'' I say to Ray. ''Of course, you've had your wallet stolen, your car windows smashed. Little kids must have called you really bad names.''

''Never,'' he says.

OK. These are self-serving businessmen, I figure. They want the Reds at Broadway. I go back up Pendleton, make a right on 12th, go over two blocks. Rick Beck is selling lunch to workers from the back of his truck. He runs a catering business. He has been in this neighborhood selling sandwiches and things for 15 years.

''Surely, you've been held up,'' I say. ''All this money, out in the open.''

''Nope,'' he says.

It goes on like this for an hour, me walking guardedly up and down these allegedly mean streets, looking for bad guys, the criminal element, finding none. All I see is mothers out strolling infants and men with briefcases.

Says Jim Verdin of the rumors of crime, ''When I read that, I'm dumbfounded. I don't know where that comes from.''

Here's a guess: The people who have deemed the neighborhood unsafe likely have never been in it. They see that it is low-income and mostly African-American, and they assume it is bad. This is stereotyping at its worst. It's damned near racist.

As it turns out, Ray Carr's wife was mugged once, three years ago. At the Mariemont Inn. And B.J. Ernest, who manages property in the neighborhood, did have a car window smashed outside a bar on Main Street. Three weeks later, she had her rearview mirrors broken. In, um, Hyde Park.

Crime is everywhere. It's not limited to this place. In fact, it's barely here. It's easy enough to figure that out. Just take the time to look around.