Thursday, January 23, 1997
Rx for city: Add one Lois, stir gently

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Everybody knows people take better care of things that belong to them.

Everybody knows that.

So I wonder why we have spent so many millions - no, billions - of tax dollars putting people into rental housing.

Don't ask Ray Neyer. It doesn't make sense to him either. Of course, he's not really a theoretical kind of guy. I don't picture him in wonky discussions about public policy. He's a man of action, a carpenter, a construction boss, an engineer.

White guy, blue van

People in North Fairmount used to call him ''the white guy in the blue van.'' They probably didn't know he used to help run a multimillion-dollar development company, Al Neyer Inc. Retired from the firm begun by his father, he now specializes in houses in the $50,000 range. He has a new van, eggplant-colored. But it doesn't matter. Now people know him by name.

He was recruited by the soul of this neighborhood's revival, Lois Broerman. If you want to see what I mean, get off Interstate 75 at Hopple Street. Go over the viaduct, left on Beekman Street, up the hill. Turn right at Baltimore Avenue.

Watch for the orange-tiled spire of St. Leo's Church, topped by a verdigris cross. Its glorious stained-glass windows are protected by wire mesh, which maybe they don't need anymore.

Crime here dropped 43 percent after the opening in February 1995 of the new family center on Carll Street. Police from District 3 credit the gymnasium there, saying kids, really, would rather play basketball than break windows.

Makes sense.

And in fact, the rather recent good fortunes of North Fairmount begin with the good sense of Lois Broerman.

Soon after she came to St. Leo's as a pastoral assistant in 1979, the elementary school behind the church closed. She scrounged the money to turn the building into the North Fairmount Community Center, housing a day care center, Head Start program, kindergarten, GED (general educational development) instruction and computer classes.

Senior services, including meals, and many classes have moved to the new Carll Street Family Center, also home to a fledgling library, the books (not enough of them) still in boxes. And the crime-fighting gymnasium, of course.

Have I forgotten anything? Probably.

North Fairmount is on a roll. The center has nursed eight small businesses. It has bought, renovated and sold about 80 houses to first-time buyers. It has acquired about 30 neglected lots and sold them to adjacent homeowners at cost.

This neighborhood is black and white and mostly poor. But not desperate.

Ms. Broerman takes me through the past, present and future of North Fairmount at breakneck speed. She knows it all. She has recruited people like Ray Neyer and Provident Bank's Bill Anshutz, who comes by every other Thursday to qualify potential homeowners.

Bleak outlook

She denies credit, of course, and points to hundreds of volunteers and her board and the residents themselves. But North Fairmount was a dismal place when she arrived. Hopeless, the parish priest said. When she wanted to open the center, she was told, ''Nothing ever opens here. Everything closes.''

Look at them now. There's a new medical center, pocket parks and an auto emissions testing station. And houses. Freshly painted, newly roofed.

When I arrive at her office in the center's basement, she's chewing on a city bureaucrat. I'll bet she has everybody important on her speed dial, and I suspect she's relentless. Remarkably resourceful, she cobbles together money from charitable foundations, donations and grants.

Private money, public good.

She sleeps, she says, in Bridgetown, where she and her husband reared four kids, ''but my heart is in North Fairmount.'' Theoretically, she could have happened anywhere. North Fairmount is just lucky.

Driving back, down Beekman, I saw a young man with two small children. The little girl threw her potato chip bag on the sidewalk. He made her pick it up and put it in her pocket.

This neighborhood belongs to him. And I expect he wants to keep it nice.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.