Big Thinkers: Damon Lynch III

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Damon Lynch in Ferguson, sharing the positive outcomes from Cincinnati’s collaborative agreement.

Damon Lynch III changed my life.

On the day Timothy Thomas was shot in the spring of 2001 I was living in a four-columned colonial on the top of a hill 7 miles outside the city center.  My mother-in-law called from Italy every day for a week asking, “Tutto bene? Tutto bene?” (Is everything OK?) as she watched Cincinnati burn on the international news.

And for the most part, everything was fine.  In my neighborhood with its well-manicured lawns, life went on as usual, curfew or not.  We watched events unfold much the same as my mother-in-law did, on television.  I had no idea who those people were and why they were so mad.   We just had to wait it out until Cincinnati went back to normal again.

And it would have, too, if it hadn’t been for the Cincinnati Black United Front, an organization founded by Damon Lynch III, pastor of New Prospect Baptist on the corner of Findlay and Elm. Even before Timothy  Thomas died, they’d filed a class-action lawsuit against the city alleging systemic discrimination by the police.  Then the boycott took off and big name entertainers made an example of us for years, refusing to set foot in our town no matter how much it cost everybody.  The organization’s slogan evolved to, “End the Economic apartheid in Cincinnati” in order to focus attention on the underlying reason for the violence.  Not only did the Black United Front want fair treatment from the police, they also demanded a bigger piece of the economic pie.  They would not shut-up about it and there was no hill high enough for a well-intentioned white person to hide.

When I decided to ask big thinkers in Cincinnati about the future of our built environment, I knew I had to talk to Damon.  His church was both figuratively and literally the epicenter of the rupture in our city that eventually – after the sirens stopped and the curfew was lifted – produced one of the most-celebrated examples of urban renewal in recent history.  But when I called to make an appointment, I found out the church wasn’t on Elm St. anymore. They’d moved to Roselawn six months ago, bought the old Jewish Community Center.

Damon has mellowed since we last talked in 2006.  He’s cut off the dreadlocks that used to skim his shoulders, now wearing his salt-and-pepper hair cropped close to his scalp. While he was happy to talk about politics and economic justice, it was only when I asked about his two sons now 30 and 25, well-on their way to successful careers of their own, and his four-year-old daughter that his eyes really lit up.   Regarding Cincinnati’s progress on social justice issues, he seemed tired and more than a little disappointed.

“The energy dissipated over the years,” he said.

The church’s new home is located on 22 acres with tennis courts and a swimming pool in need of expensive repairs before they’re usable.  But as soon as you walk through the front doors, the excitement is palpable. It’s a weekday morning, yet the building is humming with staff and workmen, parishioners stopping in to say hello.  There’s a big parking lot out front that can hold a lot of cars and soon after I arrive Anise, Damon’s long-term assistant, gives me a tour of the children’s Sunday School classrooms, the overflow area with big screen TVs and the commercial kitchen they plan to use someday when they find the money to replace the copper pipes that were stolen while the building sat empty for 9 years.  She even points out a camping area in a clump of trees to the left of the tennis courts.  This is clearly a place designed to minister to whole families.

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A new use for a forgotten community center in what some call a forgotten community. New Prospect Baptist, now at 1580 Summit Road.

As far as leaving the neighborhood that was the biggest part of his life for more than a quarter of a century, Damon’s feelings are understandably mixed.  He talked a lot about the removal of the Drop Inn Center to brand new men’s and women’s facilities as the last piece of the gentrification puzzle, how he’d watched every drug store, every laundromat, every local bar shut down during his tenure.

“it’s not the crowd that it used to be,” he said.

While Damon was trying to decide the best thing to do for his congregation, whether or not it was time to leave Over-the-Rhine, his good friend, Peter Block suggested, “Maybe they don’t need you any more.”  The community has changed permanently, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need you, Damon.

Don’t you see?  Cincinnati is ready to tackle the bigger dream, a renaissance of our first-ring suburbs on Reading Road from downtown to the New Prospect Baptist campus including Avondale, Bond Hill and Roselawn.  As usual, you’re the one out front leading the way.

I don’t live up on that hill anymore listening to sirens in the distance.  I live downtown, a lot of us do, right in the heart of the central business district, within easy walking distance of City Hall and I see my city the way you forced me to see it. The reason I pour over public records everyday and write this blog, the reason I regularly attend Council meetings, schedule appointments with elected representatives and talk to people all over town is because of you.  “What’s good for Cincinnati is good for all Cincinnatians,” you wrote on the 10th anniversary of Timothy Thomas’ death.  Don’t give up on us, Damon.  The actions of the Cincinnati Black United Front didn’t just change me.  They changed a city and it may take a while but we won’t stop until it’s good for everybody.

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