Friday, July 20, 2001

City festivals divided along racial lines

Blacks, whites both say they don't feel welcome

By Kevin Aldridge and Randy Tucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For a town that prides itself on summertime festivals, Cincinnati has street parties down to a science: Outdoor fairs attract tens of thousands, food is plentiful, fireworks are spectacular and live music abundant.

        But some city leaders and party planners say Cincinnati needs remedial help.

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        Summertime fests remain largely black or white events. For reasons from marketing methods to entertainment bookings, from fear for personal safety to subtle notions that they're not welcome, many residents are reluctant to cross the color line into events perceived for “them.”

        “Right now, we've got this separate divide,” says Louis Buschle, a white certified public accountant who helped organize a Unity Day lunch Monday on Fountain Square to encourage interracial socializing.

        “The fact is, whites are intimidated by groups of blacks, and blacks are intimidated by groups of whites.”

        The racial divide is expected to be evident this weekend at the Coors Light Jazz Festival, the nation's single largest rhythm and blues, hip-hop and jazz music event. The three-day concert and Ujima Cinci-Bration, a downtown street party, are expected to draw up to 150,000 people, mostly African-American.

        At the same time, mostly whites attend Cincinnati's other big fests — the much larger Riverfest, Taste of Cincinnati and Oktoberfest Zinzinnati — although minority numbers are growing, city and community leaders say.

        No data exist to tell just how wide the divide is. And attendance at this summer's festivals may be skewed by fallout from April's riots.

        Yet interviews with dozens of black and white Cincinnatians reveal a variety of reasons why blacks and whites tend to party apart — from a belief that a festival isn't targeted to them, to fear of bad reactions of other festival-goers.

The search for diversity
        Raymond Buse III, public relations manager for the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, says overcoming racial perceptions through marketing and promotions is difficult. The chamber, which promotes Taste of Cincinnati, Riverfest and Oktoberfest, tries to reach a broad cross-section of residents through advertisements citywide, Mr. Buse says.

        “When I was brought in 10 years ago, I was given one challenge: to make our events inclusive,” he says.

        “There has been an ebb and flow. There have been years where the events have been more inclusive and years they have not been as diverse as they should. Now we're making a stronger effort to be inclusive.”

        The chamber promotes the festivals on African-American radio stations like WIZF and WDBZ, “the Buzz,” and the Cincinnati Herald newspaper, Mr. Buse says.

        “We do it consciously and provocatively,” Mr. Buse says. “But does that change the perception of an event? No, it won't overnight.”

        Lajuana Miller, event coordinator for Ujima, says organizers of that event likewise reach out to whites. Festival ads run on radio stations and newspapers, including the Enquirer, with large white audiences, she says.

        Dollar-wise, “We can't match what the other festivals do, but we do try to reach diverse groups,” Ms. Miller says. “Our best marketing tool is that our event is free. Free attracts people of all color.”

        Sometimes, it's the entertainment that attracts a particular audience and not another, says Deborah Esslinger, a 51-year-old white office worker from Cheviot.

        “I don't come down for the Jazz Fest because I don't like jazz music, but that doesn't make me a racist,” she says. “People just need to become more aware of and respectful of each other and try to work things out.”

        Just as Ms. Esslinger passes on the Jazz Fest, Vivian Kavanaugh passes on Oktoberfest.

        The Kennedy Heights woman says Oktoberfest, which showcases Southwest Ohio's German heritage, has little relevence for her as an African-American.

        “I'm not German, so I'm not interested in going,” she says. “I don't eat sauerkraut, and I don't dance to polka music.”

        The Gold Star Chili Fest, which drew 60,000 for a two-day eatfest last weekend, expanded its musical offerings this year to include Latin, soul and blues in addition to country-Western. The Chamber of Commerce says the more-diverse entertainment resulted in more African-American and Hispanic festival-goers.

Some feel unwelcome
        Even with adjustments for marketing and entertainment, some whites say they feel unwelcome at black-oriented events, and some African-Americans feel unwelcome at white-oriented events.

        “Signs saying, "Whites: Stay Away' might as well be erected,” Barbara Pinzka, 49, a white Mount Lookout resident, says of Ujima. “I've attended anyway, only to be greeted with cold stares and even refused service.”

        Ms. Pinzka says she tried to entice a few friends to come downtown this weekend to celebrate her 49th birthday, but many declined because of recent violence in near-downtown neighborhoods.

        Many black residents say they feel unwelcome not only at predominantly white events — but at some black events, too.

        A heavy police presence and closures by some restaurants made visitors to last year's Ujima and Jazz Fest feel uncomfortable and unwanted, they say. More streets were closed off, too, they say, which made it difficult for festival-goers to get in and out.

        “It's a known fact that Coors Light and Ujima bring millions of dollars into the city every year, but they get the least amount of respect,” says Jomar Hinesmon, a black Price Hill resident.

        Rudy Thornton, 28, a black Avondale resident, says he no longer attends predominantly white events to make a statement about the unequal treatment at black events.

        “Black people are policed differently at black events while white people (at white events) are allowed to get drunk, urinate on the sidewalk and all sorts of things and nothing happens to them,” he says.

        Police won't say how many officers will patrol Ujima and Jazz Fest this weekend, only that the number will be about the same as last year. Their presence is necessary to cut down on cruising that ties up traffic and blocks emergency vehicles, police say.

        “I don't think this event is looked at by the police division as any different than any other event in terms of whether it's white or black,” says Lt. Gary Brown, event planning unit commander.

        “Ultimately, we have to be able to handle the event and make sure it's safe, and we have to consider what has happened in the past.”

        Lionel Brown, a research associate in the College of Education at the University of Cincinnati and an organizer of Monday's Unity Day, says slights, real or perceived, should be taken seriously by city leaders and residents.

        “The questions that people have raised about unequal treatment (at Coors Light and Ujima) are real, and we can't turn our back on the issues that exist in this city,” he says.

        He doesn't know if a complete racial balance and harmony will ever exist at city festivals. But he says it's in everyone's best interests to try:

        “There really is no need for our city to have separate events.”

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