Sunday, October 07, 2001

After the unrest, hope emerges

People reach out, do the little things that heal

        Six months after Cincinnati's worst race riots in 33 years, some people are breaking down racial divisions one fear, one prejudice, one misconception at a time.

        Conflicts still remain. But many Cincinnatians insist they're not insurmountable.

[photo] A flower garden has blossomed in the vacant lot next to the spot where Timothy Thomas was shot while fleeing police. Among those who planted the garden are (from left, back row) the Rev. Jedidiah Blake, Deborah Harris, Denise Heron and Steve Kreimer; and (from left, front row) Jedidiah Blake II, Tabitha Blake, Lonnita McPherson and Patricia Schoettker.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
        People of different colors are talking with each other and living and working side by side. Signs of hope — evident before Sept. 11 — are even stronger since terrorists attacked America.

        Here's what some of our neighbors are doing:

Garden of hope
        A flower garden grows next to the desolate Over-the-Rhine alley where Timothy Thomas was fatally shot, in the incident that sparked April's riots.

        “For days, I grieved for Timothy Thomas, his mother, Officer Roach — the policeman who shot him — and all the police as well as our entire community,” says Denise Heron, a nine-year resident of Over-the-Rhine.

        “I had to turn my grief into hope and something good.”

        So, she got the ball rolling — and was joined by her husband, Steve Kreimer, neighbors, both black and white, children and adults, suburbanites and visitors from as far away as Chicago — to plant the garden.

        Today, marigolds, lamb's ears and black-eyed Susans bloom peacefully beside dozens of varieties of flowers, plants, herbs, decorative vines and ornamental grasses. Six months ago, this vacant lot was a thicket of hip-high weeds, a dumping ground for empty bottles, pilfered wallets and discarded pairs of dice.

        “We must have found 50 dice buried in the ground,” says Patricia Schoettker, a West End resident and treasurer of the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County.

        “Every week,” she adds, “the trash left around the garden is less.”

        She offers this explanation for the growing neatness: “People see us working here. We talk to everyone. We look them in the eye. Everyone gets treated as an individual. And, individuals treat each other with respect.”

        Mary Jane Michel and her husband, Bill, journey most Saturday mornings from their home in Mount Washington to tend the garden.

        “You have to get out of your white suburban living room if you want to help solve the problems in our city,” Mrs. Michel says.

        She marvels at how the garden has grown.

        “We planted thousands of flowers down there,” she says.

        “Nothing died.”

Colorblind neighbors
        On Greg Walden's College Hill street, “people have to ask themselves: Is my neighbor white or black? We just think of everybody as people.”

        Despite the riots, cooperation among his neighbors never wavered.

        “We're a neighborhood,” says Mr. Walden, a stationary engineer for Cincinnati Public Schools. “We look out for each other.”

        As he sits on his back porch, he points to houses where he's helped his neighbors.

        “I cleaned her gutters. Checked his plumbing. Fixed her furnace. Up the street, an older guy throws my paper up on the porch every morning. We talk baseball and the news of the day,” he says.

        He doesn't mention his neighbors' race.

        “We breathe the same air and bleed the same blood,” he says.

        “We have the same hopes and dreams. To make them come true, we have to work together.”

Building bridges
        Maurice Thomas teaches special education in the Winton Woods school district. He's black. Many of his Roselawn neighbors came from Russia.

        Before April 7, the Russian immigrants would walk by his house on their traditional evening stroll.

        “At first we didn't talk at all,” Mr. Thomas says. “But after the riots, I told myself that had to end.”

        He singled out one man and asked: “How you doing?”

        The man looked stunned. Mr. Thomas smiled. The man smiled back.

        The next time they met, Mr. Thomas said hello.

        The man waved. The following night he spoke.

        “We can be friends,” Mr. Thomas says. “We can find out about our families.”

        He and his wife, Carolyn, have two daughters. Their younger girl regularly asks her father: Why can't people get along?

        Her name is Hope.

Promoting peace
        Swastikas were spray-painted on a house. Hate leaflets were left on lawns. Those events prompted Sue Goldberg to help found Greater Anderson Promotes Peace (GAPP) in 1999.

        “How can we call each other good citizens,” says the Anderson Township mother of three, “if, when bad things happen, people don't speak out and say: "That's not right!' ”

        GAPP's activities include raising funds to build a peace pole as well as sponsoring a series of speeches by internationally known experts on human rights.

        Since the riots, Mrs. Goldberg made a point of deepening a friendship with a neighborhood woman originally from Guinea, West Africa. Making friends, she says, puts into practice GAPP's principles of celebrating “our differences and our commonalities.”

Diversity at home
        Steve Dobbins never met a needy project he didn't like. One of his many volunteer efforts finds the Union Institute's Director of Media and Community Relations chairing the Cincinnati Arts Association's Building Diverse Audiences Advisory Committee.

        He's also building racially diverse audiences in his Colerain Township neighborhood.

        “My neighbor, Bill Neal, is a fireman,” Mr. Dobbins says. He is black. His neighbor is white.

        “He invites me over to his house for a beer. And he comes over to my place,” Mr. Dobbins says. “Since the riots, we've talked a lot about race.”

        They don't always agree. But every time they part as friends.

        Mr. Dobbins knows such discussions don't take place among neighbors on every street in Greater Cincinnati. Such frank talk, he notes, rarely materializes in the workplace. “And that just makes me sick to my stomach.”

        So, he savors his neighbor's beers, his openness and his friendship.

Signs of life
        Nia Gadson-Clay sees signs of hope from her second-story window in Over-the-Rhine.

        She looks around her purple petunias and yellow snapdragons to find:

        Strangers on the sidewalk nodding and talking to each other.

        Thirst-quenched passersby tossing their empties in a corner garbage can, not the street.

        New neighbors — recently moved into a building that had been unoccupied for decades — exchanging greetings by calling out across the street.

        Since April 7, she's also seen blossoms by the thousands.

        “Flowers,” she says, “are a sign of life. And hope.”

        The flowers flourish in window boxes across Over-the-Rhine as part of the post-riots Miracle Mile project. The new window boxes join the ones Ms. Gadson-Clay has placed on her sills for past 12 years.

        A nurse at the Hamilton County Justice Center, she lives with her husband, multimedia artist J. Kwame Clay. Their home is four blocks from the garden growing next to the place where Timothy Thomas died.

        Mr. Clay says he noticed more signs of hope — “people talking with folks they haven't ever talked to” — after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

        “Since that happened,” he says, “there's more of a sense of community in urban America.”

        He acknowledges that racial divisions still exist.

        “But they're artificial walls. They're nothing but cellophane anyway.

        “Because, we're all alike.

        “Or, as my daddy and mother would say, we all have to lay down and get up.”

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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