Sunday, March 19, 2000

Fear and hope in Avondale

Loyal residents live astride neighborhood's dangers and potential

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Avondale wasn't supposed to be like this:

        • A landlord gunned down while renovating his property.

        • Drug dealers lurking in hallways of an apartment building, pistol-whipping, robbing and snatching gold-capped teeth from a victim's mouth.

        • Open gambling and drug peddling on the streets in broad daylight.

        An 86-year-old woman is afraid to open her door or walk in the courtyard in the apartment where she has lived for 33 years.

        Lester Wilson lives in the Warrick Apartments in the 3300 block of Reading Road, where early Tuesday morning robbers pistol-whipped people, ran when police were called and one person was later shot to death by a police officer.

        Mrs. Wilson said she heard shots, but didn't bother to look out her door.

        “We have drug dealers up and down the hallways all the time. I stay away from them, keep my door closed and mind my own business. I don't think I should have to leave because of them. You can't get away from dope addicts, because they are everywhere you go.”

        Mrs. Wilson moved into the Warrick in 1967, the same year a riot ripped apart some sections of Avondale. The Warrick was safe, then.

        “It was a lovely place, but in the last five years, it has been rough,” Mrs. Wilson said.

        By late Friday, Mrs. Wilson received notice that she and other tenants had 30 days to move out of their apartments. Hart Realty, the building owner, is shutting it down and would not comment about the notices. Calls were referred to owner Thomas Denhart. Efforts to reach Mr. Denhart were unsuccessful.

        The Warrick has become a haven for drug dealers and suffered a fire about a month ago.

        Mrs. Wilson said the owners told her they would find her a similar apartment in Avondale.

        This isn't the Avondale that Jerome Manigan, 53, knows and loves. He has lived all his life in the same house on Larona Street, several blocks from where James Edward Hillman was shot to death by loiterers as he tried to get them off his porch to work on his building in the 3500 block of Burnet Avenue.

        “Avondale is not supposed to be like this. Where were we when Avondale began to deteriorate?” Mr. Manigan asked. “We can no longer blame this on the white man. This comes from a lack of self-esteem and self-worth.”

        The Avondale of today is a generation quite different from the Avondale where black people migrated when they were uprooted by urban renewal in the West End in the 1940s and '50s. This centrally located neighborhood, near the main bus lines and major thoroughfares, was the answer for droves of blacks forced to move.

        Former Cincinnati City Council Member Marian Spencer and her husband, Donald, built a home in Avondale in 1954 and have lived there since.

        “I have never had fear living here because it is a good community — sure there are drugs and crime, but no more than in any other community,” Mrs. Spencer said.

        In the 1960s, Avondale quickly became a nucleus for a black power base, which became vocal on neighborhood and racial issues. It was stable, with many businesses owned by people who lived there, Mrs. Spencer said.

        But by the mid-1960s, there was talk of seceding from the city because of injustices and a lack of city support for housing projects, schools and businesses.

        “That wasn't just a threat,” said Bailey Turner, who was president of the Avondale Community Council at the time. “A lot of thought had gone into it, and we could have done it. We were surrounded by small cities that were surviving on their own — Norwood, Reading, St. Bernard and Elmwood Place. We thought, "Why not Avondale?'”

        Threat or not, the fact that the idea was advanced was an expression of the frustration in Avondale. That frustration boiled over in riots that followed shortly.

        Today, a charred community is still rebuilding, 32 years after the last riot. The Avondale Redevelopment Corp. has combined financial packages totaling $13 million with the city and local banks and foundations to develop housing.

        Another $12 million is being spent on projects under construction.

        This Avondale also has a better working relationship with neighborhood police, said Tom Jones, chairman of the Avondale Public Safety Advocate Group.

        “We have been able to form an alliance with the police to work together on crime,” Mr. Jones said.

        Police, working with Mr. Jones' group, made 335 arrests over a three-month period last year. Crime is down this year, with nearly 300 fewer arrests made from the year before.

        There is a different feeling among some over the police shooting of a black suspect who was part of the group in the Warrick robbery.

        Alfred L. Pope, 23, was shot to death after confronting police outside the apartment building.

        “He probably got what he deserved,” said Joseph Suttles, owner of Avondale Grocery, across the street from the Warrick. “I have known him all his life, and I tried to help him. I even sent him letters when he was in jail, trying to straighten him out.”

        Leaders said that although the recent killings damage the image of Avondale, it will not stop the rebuilding.

        “This community is too strong to be stopped by crime and drug dealers,” Mrs. Spencer said. “We have a mecca of talent and opportunities to keep rebuilding. Even though we lost Jewish Hospital, Children's Hospital is doing a lot of expansion in Avondale. It is sad to lose young men such as Mr. Hillman, because he was part of a renaissance in Avondale. And we have to feel bad about losing Mr. Pope. We never know how much he may have been able to contribute had he not been addicted to drugs.

        “Our challenge in Avondale is to stop the addiction before its inception.”

        Mr. Turner sees the Avondale of today as confusing, but even more aggressive.

        “Crime will not stop the rebuilding process. I have been a part of Avondale through times of despair, riots and growth. It will survive,” Mr. Turner said.


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