Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Over-the-Rhine task force needs more involvement

Denise Amos

Driving along 14th Street in Over-the-Rhine can be an exercise in frustration.

On a recent afternoon plenty of men and teenagers hung out on corners - guys mostly in white T-shirts.

A young man who looked to be in his teens counted a fat stack of cash that looked perfectly aligned, like it had been through a counting machine at a bank. The stack barely fit in his hand.

Yet as frustrating as these images are, all is not despair.

On this same Monday, members of a 7-month-old Public Safety and Security Task Force of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce were describing their successes.

Violent crimes are down and arrests are up, they said.

Police made 545 arrests from January through June and confiscated eight guns, two stolen cars, $15,000 in stolen jewelry and more than $10,000 in cash.

Only 20 percent of those arrested were Over-the-Rhine residents. Most of the criminals were commuters, going to Cincinnati's oldest neighborhood as you or I go to a job.

The chamber task force of more than 50 people - mostly business and property owners - recently bought "No Trespassing" signs for their properties and signed waivers to let police arrest trespassers in their alleys, entryways and courtyards.

It also got help from the city, which just budgeted $100,000 per year, this year and next, to fund an extra police unit in Over-the-Rhine, composed of off-duty officers working overtime.

The eight officers, supervised by two retired officers, spend two days a week backing up regularly scheduled officers.

The chamber has pledged to raise $200,000 in 18 months to match the city grant so as to increase the officers' days to three a week.

The task force is trying to involve Over-the-Rhine residents, which is tricky, considering the historic mistrust between those who own buildings and businesses and those who live there.

Over-the-Rhine chamber President Tom Besanceney says the task force has organized the neighborhood into various sectors in a kind of Neighborhood Watch.

"Main Street has different issues than Walnut Street or Pendleton or the Washington Park area," says Mario San Marco, a property manager and task force chairman.

The chamber's efforts are greatly needed in this community that once thrived as the center of the city. Now, the challenge is convincing others that the money will make a difference.

If residents get behind it, that could reassure donors.

Michael Jones, a 50-year-old longtime resident, says more police are needed, but he doubts businesspeople and property owners can rally residents.

"They can't relate to each other. They don't have much in common. Most residents are just struggling to survive," he said.

Thomas Denhart, ex-landlord of some of Over-the-Rhine's most notorious buildings, says more residents are cooperating with police.

Yet the promise of a safe Over-the-Rhine still seems elusive. After the chamber meeting, I passed a young man waving small white packages at passing cars.

The task force is a start. Now, let's also work on cooperation and investment.

E-mail or phone 768-8395

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