Tuesday, April 09, 2002

Violence part of daily life
in Over-the-Rhine




By Jennifer Edwards jedwards@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        William Johnson is only 10 years old, but he has seen a lifetime of violence living in Over-the-Rhine. A shooting once exploded in front of him as he crossed Vine Street. Police hustled him out of the way just in time. Another day, he watched bullets rip into two men who fell to the ground, twisting, screaming and bloody, before they were loaded into ambulances.

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William Johnson, his nephew Jordan Johnson and his sister Sahara Johnson walk from the Nast-Trinity United Methodist Church, where each Sunday they get a hot meal and some new clothes.
(Michael E. Keating photos)
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        “They need to stop giving guns away to people,” says the Rothenberg Elementary fourth-grader, who lives in a tiny apartment with eight other people. “It would be a lot better around here without the gunshots every day.”

        Violence, poverty, corner drug deals and blight are a part of daily life in Over-the-Rhine. One year after Cincinnati's poorest neighborhood became the epicenter for riots, some say life here is worse than ever.

        Major crime — including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — is up: It increased 13 percent in January and 15 percent in February compared to the same months last year.

        Over-the-Rhine's nine homicides last year were more than any other city neighborhood. And between April 13 and Dec. 31, there were 22 shootings — most of them during an unprecedented summer of violence brought on by drugs and gangs.

        “I shudder to think what will happen if the police don't get a handle on (criminal activity here) soon, very soon,” says Carrie Johnson, president of Over-the-Rhine's community council.

        “It's going to be a mess this summer again,” she says.

10-year-old's home

        William's family lives on Republic Street, perhaps the roughest of the rough.

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        Police confiscated 19 guns on that one street last year, up from 10 the year before. At least 21 buildings on the street's seven blocks are abandoned. Many of the remaining buildings are overpacked with extended families.

        Every Sunday afternoon, William and his brothers, sisters and cousins trek half a block to Nast-Trinity United Methodist Church on Race Street for free hot food and new clothes.

        They never go without William.

        He's the oldest. He makes sure they eat until their bellies are full. He holds their hands as they lug their clothes back to the apartment, bragging about the new underwear they found for their cousins.

        “I worry about them all the time,” says their mom, Pearl Johnson, 48, who is unemployed. “They travel together. I wouldn't dare send them out any other way.”

        There are hundreds of kids like them, and “they're all vulnerable,” says Janice Moore, a Cincinnati Police school resource officer whom William calls his friend.

        “It's devastating to those children, not being able to be at peace from the gunfire,” Officer Moore says. “In the long run, if it's not taught to them that this is an illegal thing to do, they normally wind up doing the same thing.”

        Many residents are afraid to talk to outsiders, afraid of retaliation and repercussions — from either gangs or, they say, the police.

        “The vibrations still feel like there's vengeance in the air,” William's mother says. “It doesn't feel clear yet. You can just be out there anytime, and see the yellow crime tape and not know what's going on.

        “Before I moved here, I thought Republic Street was just an alley,” Ms. Johnson continues. “But it's a real street, and bad things do happen here.”

“Let's keep this clean”

        A 10-by-80-foot alley off Republic Street became notorious last year when Police Officer Stephen Roach shot and killed Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black man. The shooting sparked three days of racial unrest.

        Today, some of the same windows that have been broken for more than 20 years are still smashed on Republic Street. Glass lines the sidewalks in some spots.

        It sends a message to stay out, this is our territory, there is no order here. Drug dealers cluster on corners, as early as 7 a.m., selling mainly crack and marijuana. Crumbling, century-old buildings sit empty, virtually impossible to renovate.

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Danny Williams, long-time OTR resident, fills tea glasses at Nast-Trinity's free Sunday meal.
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        But there has been change, small tokens offering a glimmer of hope. A flower garden has been planted in the corner lot at 13th and Republic. A makeshift memorial still marks the alley where Mr. Thomas died.

        “Let's keep this clean for Tim,” urges a hand-written sign in the alley. “God was hear (sic) that night with him. They left together. Be safe.”

        Flower boxes also were installed on buildings along the west side of Republic Street between 13th and 14th streets.

        “The people who live on Republic want their street back,” says Seneca Herring, 26, who was raised near here and is now chief of staff for Cincinnati Councilwoman Minette Cooper.

        “They've had hardships but are good, caring citizens,” Mr. Herring says. “Many of them are not stuck there. Their family's been there for years. They're making all the effort they can to take back the community.”

        But for people like Carrie Johnson, the flowers are little solace. The community council president often witnesses open-air drug deals right outside the community council's Vine Street office.

        “Flowers are beautiful, but right now they need more than flowers,” she says. “Bricks and mortar, that's what they need.”

        Some who have lived their whole lives in Over-the-Rhine know nothing but poverty and despair.

        “It's just another day,” Will James, 23, said on a recent gray, rainy afternoon as he stood on the corner of 13th and Republic. “Ain't nothing going to change. They can try but it ain't going to change it.”

Crime up, calls for help down

        To improve police-community relations and heighten visibility on Over-the-Rhine and downtown streets, Cincinnati Police re-established walking patrols in March.

        They were expanded to the Main Street business district and Findlay Market April 1.

        While relieved to see the beat patrols return because they break up the drug dealers clustered on corners, some residents say they have only seen the officers once or twice since the initiative began.

        “They may frequent other blocks but I've only seen them once here,” says Georgia Keith, 56, who has lived on Republic since 1994 and is in the process of buying her home. “If they are doing what they are supposed to be doing, they should be seen more than just that once.”

        High hopes also are pinned on rehabilitation efforts in this part of the city.

        Mayor Luken called the 1.5-mile stretch of Vine Street through Over-the-Rhine the most important street in the city in launching his “Vine Street Project” to aggressively clean it up.

        It can't come too soon for businesses that are struggling to survive.

        Over-the-Rhine merchants say that while sales have improved a bit this year, the downturn in the economy combined with the riots, the violence and a downtown boycott have leveled devastating blows to profits.

        Some worry there will be more unrest. They fear if they are vandalized and looted again, they will be forced to close.

        “It's down for everybody here,” says Gary Smith, who for 25 years has managed Albert's Market at Vine and 13th streets. “Every day is just a different challenge. Some days people are happy, and other days people die. It's its own world.”

        Abas Abugawed, owner of Jordan's Carry Out at 12th and Republic streets, says he can't get anyone to work there because they fear being attacked.

        “Everybody hangs outside drinking and doing drug deals,” Mr. Abugawed says. “You never know when a drug dealer or alcoholic will come inside the store and shoot you. They would kill you over a dollar.”

Faces of Over-the-Rhine: How others who live or work there cope

       



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