Monday, May 14, 2001

Official takes pulse of OTR

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Anger and distrust greet Cecil Thomas as he walks the streets of Over-the-Rhine, trying to gauge the temperature of residents who live in Cincinnati's most impoverished inner-city neighborhood.

        They tell Mr. Thomas, a former Cincinnati police detective and director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, about developers who raze old apartment buildings to build unaffordable new structures. And of police officers who cite them for sitting on porches, and city council members who rarely show their faces in Over-the-Rhine.

        Many call for change in the form of a conviction of Stephen Roach, the Cincinnati police officer who fatally shot an unarmed African-American teen in Over-the-Rhine last month.

        Mr. Roach pleaded not guilty last week to the mis demeanor charges of negligent homicide and obstructing official business in the shooting death of Timothy Thomas, 19. Mr. Thomas'

        death sparked protests and riots in Over-the-Rhine.

        “The temperature is very unstable,” says Cecil Thomas, 48, of North Avondale. “There's no one that's really come in and committed to an effort that's going to effect change. People are believing that there's not going to be any change.”

        Since last month's shooting, Mr. Thomas has spent several hours a week walking through Over-the-Rhine and talking to some of its 7,638 residents, more than three-quarters of whom are African-American. Mr. Thomas wants to become a better liaison between the neighborhood and city leaders. The human relations commission advises city council members on race relations.

        “You've got to become part of the community that you're trying to serve,” Mr. Thomas says.

        In an hour's walk Thursday, he approaches a young African-African man lying on a car hood. The young man and his friends stare straight ahead as Mr. Thomas talks about an upcoming job fair.

        “We'll get you guys some real jobs,” he says. “We're talking about real jobs and real money, so you guys can get back on track.”

        The young men don't respond.

        Mr. Thomas walks on.

        He has better luck when he talks to Etta Williams, 38, of Price Hill. The former crack addict now works at a hotel in Sharonville and wants to know whether her 12-year-old daughter can get a job at Kroger. Mr. Thomas says yes and tells her whom to contact.

        Then there's Antoinette Allen, 45. She sits on an Elm Street stoop while Mr. Thomas asks how the city can move forward.

        “How are you going to move forward if everything else is in an uproar?” she bursts out. “There is no change because everything is being swept under the rug.”

        She immediately begins talking about unaffordable housing proj ects. Over-the-Rhine is home to a popular bar district, arts organizations and historic brick buildings that many urbanites find aesthetically appealing to renovate.

        These projects are dividing the community, Ms. Allen says.

        She accuses Cincinnati police officers of harassing Over-the-Rhine residents and says she would consider the conviction of Mr. Roach as a sign of change.

        Ms. Allen doesn't consider Mr. Thomas' outreach efforts very effective.

        But, “the first step is the step of a thousand,” she says.

        City leaders are taking notice.

        Mr. Thomas “is welcomed. He's respected in the African-American community. He's trusted. I don't think he's utilized enough. The best thing he can do is be a liaison between the African-American community and the city administration,” says Juleana Frierson of Cincinnati Black United Front, a civil rights group.

        Councilman Phil Heimlich has questioned the commission's $460,000 budget but commends Mr. Thomas' outreach attempts.

        “He has played a positive role in the riots and he deserves credit for that,” he says.


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