Monday, April 30, 2001

Former visitors now fear city trip

        The last thing Cincinnati needed was another excuse for people not to go downtown. That excuse came with the riots of 2001.

        The civil unrest began three weeks ago today. Outraged protesters left City Hall and took their anger to
the streets.

        The riots may be over. But the shock waves they created reverberate in the 'burbs.

        People I talked with recently in booming Butler and Warren counties intend — by a 2-to-1 margin — to avoid downtown.

        “I have no interest in going down there,” said Debbie Krzmarzick of Liberty Township. “Crowds at events like Taste of Cincinnati offer too many opportunities for troublemakers.”

        Jamie Steinhauer's daughter wanted to see a show at the Aronoff Center for her birthday. When the riots came, the Mason homemaker “never made the reservations.”

        She feels bad about staying away from downtown.

        “We love Cincinnati,” Jamie said. “There's so much to do there for families. But my family won't be doing it until we feel it's safe.”

        Helen Tanguy, 75, of Mason is one of the few people I encountered ready to go downtown. Riots don't scare her.

        “I have 15,000 guardian angels watching over me.”

        Debbie, Jamie and Helen are the very people Cincinnati needs to lure downtown. They help the city stay alive.

        Suburbanites keep shops and restaurants in business, attend Reds games, Taste of Cincinnati, Oktoberfest and events at Music Hall, the Aronoff, Taft Theater and Firstar Center, as well as the Labor Day fireworks.

        They must feel safe about going “down there.” Otherwise, Cincinnati might as well hang a “closed” sign at its border.

        “Normally I'd be going to Reds games and dinner downtown,” said Joe Bohnert, a credit manager from Mason.

        “Now, I'm thinking twice about everything. If we go to something like Taste of Cincinnati, we'll go right when it opens and leave early.”

Perceptions of danger

        Gilberto Castro cuts grass and lives in West Chester. The Mexico City native steers clear of downtown. “I don't care to get hurt.”

        Lonnie Griffis has been house-hunting in Warren and Butler counties. He lives in Colerain Township. “But the riots were the last straw. I'm leaving down there.”

        The disabled Navy veteran would go to Taste of Cincinnati. But only by himself.

        “I'm not afraid. But I have a 6-year-old daughter and a young wife. I'm not about to put them in danger. So, you won't catch us downtown.”

        Son Nguyen, a West Chester accountant, has no plans to take in any activity downtown.

        The native of Vietnam told me he was glad when the riots forced officials to move his son's high school prom from Cincinnati to Northern Kentucky.

        “That kept him out of that mess downtown. Maybe,” he added, “we'll come back downtown in the fall.”

        That'll be too late, said Rick Greiwe, president of Downtown Cincinnati Inc. “For some small businesses, income is already off 50 percent. They can't afford to lose much more money.”

        When we spoke on Sunday, the Downtown Cincinnati chief was working on a riot-recovery marketing plan. Placed on a fast track to launch in 10 days, ads will be aimed at attracting customers for downtown merchants and arts groups, as well as Findlay Market, and the Main Street and Back stage entertainment districts.

        “Downtown's assets are one of a kind in the region,” he noted.

        “Now's the time to support and protect what makes Cincinnati great. It's safe. ... There's no reason to be afraid.”

"That's fear'

        Cheya Watkins, Miss Ohio 2000, was on her way to Detroit to sing The Star-Spangled Banner at a Tigers baseball game when we met. The Procter & Gamble employee lives on Cincinnati's west side.

        “I was born and raised here,” she said. “I love Cincinnati very much. And I want to say nothing will keep me from going downtown.”

        But she is plainly worried about her hometown.

        “The events that have taken place make me keep looking over my shoulder. That's fear. And Cincinnati is not a place where anyone should be afraid.”

        A group of Warren County moms and their preschoolers spent the afternoon at Mason's Pine Lakes Park.

        Each mom expressed no fear about going downtown.

        “Maybe that's because we just completed a self-defense course,” joked Dana Hecker.

        The moms refused to let the riots ruin their plans to enjoy the city this spring. They just visited the Children's Museum. Plans are in the works for a Reds games and a trip to the zoo.

        “Wherever there's a crowd,” said Kathy Popovich, her daughter, Olivia, wrapped in her arms, “we feel safe.”

Pick and choose

        Across from the playground, on the cool green shore of the smaller of the park's two lakes, sat Terri and Bob Hackman. The Mason couple put their lines in the water in hopes the catfish were biting.

        Terri and Bob watched their poles as they complied a list of downtown events they weren't skipping this summer.

        “Ballgames,” said Bob, who assembles jet engines for GE.

        “Walks around Fountain Square,” said Terri, a homemaker.

        “The fireworks are definitely out,” she added. Oktoberfest is a maybe.

        “By then,” she said, “I hope everyone will have taken a step back, taken a deep breath and let sanity take over.”

        Not far from the Hackmans, another fisherman was calling it a day. Alvin Brown was reeling in his lines and getting ready to head for his Symmes Township home.

        A minor league pitcher recovering from shoulder surgery, Alvin moved here two years ago from Los Angeles.

        “I saw the riots in L.A. about Rodney King,” he said. “I saw the riots here.”

        He feels the riots made downtown safer.

        “The problems have finally been brought to the surface. People are talking. It's going to be a long road. Everyone will have to be open with their feelings, black people and white people.

        “They'll have to be honest. Can't be afraid. They have to talk to each other. And, go downtown.”

        Cincinnati needs more boosters like Alvin Brown.

        Attitudes like his can help determine the city's fate.

        He's not going to use the riots as an excuse to stay away from Cincinnati. To him, they're all the more reason to come downtown.


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