Tuesday, November 06, 2001

Community Center helps reclaim Ky. neighborhoods

Covington nonprofit to mark 25th anniversary

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — When the city's Westside neighborhood faced an influx of drug dealers and prostitutes three years ago, longtime resident Ruby Thornsburg briefly considered selling her home.

        Mrs. Thornsburg said the turning point came the evening a tenant across the street sold drugs to a drive-by customer as Mrs. Thornsburg was holding a cookout for her grandchildren.

        Mrs. Thornsburg and some of her neighbors decided to reclaim their neighborhood.

        They enlisted the help of the Covington Community Center, a nonprofit community development organization that often partners with residents to solve individual and communitywide problems.

        As leaders of the Covington Community Center prepare to mark the organization's 25th anniversary next week, they say the campaign to clean up Covington's Westside exemplifies the group's mission to strengthen neighborhoods through citizen involvement.

  • What: Covington Community Center's 25th anniversary party.
  • When: 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday • Where: The Madison, 700 Madison Ave., Covington.
  • Activities: Exhibit depicting the center's 25 years of service and accomplishments of the past year, presentation of annual Community Leader Awards and complimentary birthday cake and refreshments.
  • Cost: There is no cost. However, donations to defray the cost of the event are welcome. If you wish to attend, call (859) 491-2220 ext. 20 to reserve a seat.
        “That's when we decided we'd have to do something about the criminal activity or put our house up for sale,” the 57-year-old woman said.

        “We'd be the first to say, "We didn't magically solve all of the problems on the Westside,'” said Tom DiBello, executive director of the community center. “But with our assistance, the neighborhood residents took the lead in researching what other communities had done to confront drug dealers. Using that information, they developed strategies for dealing with (criminals).”

        Working together, the Westside Action Coalition and center staff devised new traffic patterns to deny drug dealers easy access from Interstate 75, then successfully sought the city government's help in implementing the new traffic plan, Mr. DiBello said. They also persuaded the city to temporarily increase police surveillance.

Others who care
        Because many residents feared retaliation if they reported drug activity to police, the center worked with residents to devise an anonymous reporting system. Using the “hot spot system” that had proven successful in other communities, Westside residents listed locations and times of drug dealing and other criminal activity on special cards. Then they dropped them off at the community center, where police later picked them up.

        “When residents learned that there were other people on their block who cared about the neighborhood, things really started to evolve,” said Dan Petronio, associate director of the Covington Community Center.

        The neighborhood also developed a list of dilapidated properties and worked with Covington's housing department to tear down, fix up or sell some of the worst ones.

        “Now I'm not afraid to sit outside by myself after dark,” Mrs. Thornsburg said. “It's quieter, too. You don't hear the cars cruising up and down the street all night, blowing their horns.”

        The Covington Community Center can trace its roots to two small neighborhood centers started in the late 1960s and early 1970s by churches: the Downtown Neighborhood Center behind Mother of God Church on Pike Street, and Trinity Episcopal Church's Fourth Street Community Center.

1976 merger

        When the two groups sought United Way funding, the charity recommended that they merge. Since that 1976 merger, the Covington Community Center — initially based in two nearby buildings on Lee and Jackson Streets — has continued to serve low-income youths and families through direct assistance, recreational and educational programming, and partnerships to bring about positive change in such things as housing, leadership development and the arts.

        Evidence of the center's influence can be found throughout the city.

        Growing up in Covington's Mutter Gottes neighborhood in the 1970s, Ron Washington often was exposed to negative influences.

        But at the community center, Mr. Washington and his three siblings were active in after-school and summer recreation programs. Through center trips, they visited farms and places outside of their inner-city neighborhood that they might not otherwise have seen.

        “I think growing up in a part of Covington that had a potential for being very rough, the Covington Community Center gave you a positive alternative,” said Mr. Washington, who now serves as Kenton County Sheriff Chuck Korzenborn's chief deputy. “You had no time to get in trouble. You were always busy at the center.”

        Geneva Jensen, a 32-year-old Covington mother of three, credits the center with helping her complete her education after she became pregnant at age 16.

        “They actually helped me find low-cost child care for my daughter so that I could go back and finish school,” said Mrs. Jensen, who now works as a customer service representative for the Internal Revenue Service. “I feel like they put my life back on track.”

        Since 1996, the center has shifted its primary focus from direct assistance to partnering with individuals and neighborhoods.

        “I really can't say enough about them,” said Mike Hammons, president of Forward Quest, a development planning coalition in Northern Kentucky. “They have fine leadership, a great staff, and they're able to work with the broader community ... to get things done.”

Broaden partnerships

        Forward Quest is one of four partners that worked with the Covington Community Center to establish the Urban Learning Center in 1998.

        More recently, Forward Quest has worked with the community center and residents to develop the Duveneck Arts and Cultural Center and redevelop the Austinburg neighborhood.

        In the future, the Covington Community Center, which moved to larger quarters on Russell Street last December, plans to broaden partnerships.


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