Cincinnati, I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine, Margy Waller.
Margy bought her first home last year, a 2-up/2-down brick in Over-the-Rhine that she affectionately calls The Tiny Row house. After graduating from law school, life carried her to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, but eventually she wandered back to Cincinnati, rolled up her sleeves to help with our renaissance, and decided to commit.
With her impressive resume, Margy could have moved anywhere, done anything. She’s served as a Congressional Fellow to US Representative Eric Fingerhut, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institute with a focus on economic studies and metropolitan policy programs, Senior Adviser on domestic policy in the Clinton-Gore White House, Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and Director of Public Policy for the United Way.
Of course, you’d never know about Margy’s big-name past from talking to her. Until I asked specifically for more information, I assumed the primary focus of her days was on the non-profit she founded, Art on the Streets, dedicated to street-performers and painted sidewalks. I knew she was into bikes from the infamous Margy and Mel Ride Bikes that produces spectacular themed outings like the Tweed Ride and the Bright Ride during the holiday season. Occasionally I’d also spot her on a stool in the far back corner of the Coffee Emporium on Central, typing away furiously on her laptop – but I had no idea she has a full-time job as a national consultant on policy issues.
That’s Margy for you, quietly everywhere, very familiar to everybody who is anybody in town. Last year I asked John Juech of City Hall how to improve my testimony at Council hearings and he said, “Watch Margy Waller.” When I dropped her name while talking to Steve Leeper, he looked impressed and said, “She knows what she’s talking about.” Lots of folks saw her at the front of the room during the Believe in Cincinnati streetcar initiative. Former Governor Strickland appointed her to the Board of Trustees of Cincinnati State, Mayor Mallory to the Board of the Zoo. She’s on the board of Memorial Hall and the Chair of Community Engagement for the Over-the-Rhine Community Council, helping figure out how old and new residents can work together for a great neighborhood.
Last December while I was in Italy, I got a late night email from one of my tipsters warning about Emergency Ordinances added to the Budget and Finance Committee Agenda at the last minute. This is standard operating procedure on development deals at City Hall, so there is no way for the public to even be aware of what’s happening, much less have time to contact Council in order to be a part of the conversation. 5,000 miles away with a 6-hour time difference and a full schedule of already planned activities, there wasn’t a minute to waste. I dashed-off an editorial to the Enquirer for immediate publication.
Unfortunately, this was my first encounter with the vague wording for a Tax Increment Financing Project and I told readers to contact their elected representatives to oppose the “abatement.” Immediately the focus of the conversation shifted from the Ordinances to my credibility. When I figured out what I’d done, I sat on the edge of my bed crying, sure I’d blown months of hard work with a stupid error.
Margy never even broke a sweat. She saw what happened, contacted friends on Council and pushed to include language that requires hearings as soon as the specific improvements for these new projects are made public. Katherine Durack and Margy traded drafts of an announcement, posted it to cincyopolis in my absence and transformed a dumb misstep into a triumph for government transparency, the first time citizens will have a chance for input on development before it’s a done deal. As usual, she did it without any fanfare, without waiting to be asked.
When I hear comments about the “surging white gentrification” of Over-the-Rhine, contentious discussions about whether or not $14 hot dogs on Vine Street are a failure of our society to adequately address social justice concerns, I think of my friend, Margy Waller. And so many other intelligent, caring, politically-engaged residents who have moved into the neighborhood in the last few years, every single one of them working hard to make all of Cincinnati the kind of city we’re proud to call home, diverse and-full of opportunity, where neighbors help neighbors because we all want the exact same things. Meet Margy Waller, Cincinnati, and thank her. Because the only way cities grow is when we let them breathe, when we welcome new passion with fresh ideas and have the sense to be grateful for every single human being who decides to commit.