Category Archives: Big Thinkers

Cincinnati, have you read Granola Shotgun?

I love this blog by my new friend, Johnny, who has been a resident of the oh-so-fashionable San Francisco for decades.  But now he’s discovered Cincinnati – and even bought a “place to tinker with” in Northside – whatever that means. Anyway, he’s fallen in love and is telling the world through Granola Shotgun, stories about urbanism, adaptation and resilience.  Here’s a sample post with lots of pictures that make us look fantastic.

What Are You Willing to Compromise for Location?

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The Amazing and Unstoppable, Bill Collins, Citizen Extraordinaire

The people who participate in Community Councils these days blow me away.  They don’t just plan picnics any more.  These folks educate themselves so that they can help negotiate complicated development deals, lobby elected representatives, and make sure their neighborhood is getting its fair share of media attention.

2008.12.29 Bill Collins color bizcasual (1)Right now Madisonville is especially hot.  The Community Council is smack-dab in the thick of the process – and long-term resident, Bill Collins, is very much involved (along with the remarkable, Luke Brockmeier, president).  Anybody who spends any time on civic social media sites knows Bill.  A former reporter, he’s very well informed and regularly sends me information about the issues in his neck of the woods.

Last week Bill submitted testimony to City Council on a proposed development on Red Bank Rd. but the point he makes about how Cincinnati decides commercial real-estate issues is important for all of us to understand:

The City’s current processes for community input on development and land-use questions are opaque and frustrating for communities.  The processes used by the City today are fundamentally flawed.    They undercut community input, and they favor well-funded developers, many of whom make large campaign contributions to mayoral and City Council candidates.

Public-input processes used by ODOT and CPS  are far superior to the public-input processes used by the City of Cincinnati.  In contrast with our experience with the City of Cincinnati, in recent years, the Madisonville community has had great success when it has engaged in public-involvement processes with other government entities. Here, notably, I am talking about the much more effective community-input process that are used today by the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) and the Cincinnati Public Schools  (CPS).

With ODOT, it is federal law  — as enforced by the U.S.  Department of Transportation and the Columbus regional office of the Federal Highway Administration  — that compelled ODOT to listen to communities like Madisonville, Mariemont and Newtown.   By listening to us and our suburban neighbors via a serious and thorough public-engagement process, ODOT finally reached the excellent decision that it did last week on the Eastern Corridor project to keep the Little Miami Valley intact by not relocating State Route 32 through the valley of this priceless State and National Scenic River. 

With CPS, the school board has not been forced to listen to us by any federal law or state law.    However, because the CPS board has developed a smart methodology for what the board calls ‘fact-finding’ meetings  — i.e,, meetings where the full CPS board meets and dialogues with community people at 5PM on weekdays across a conference room table in open meetings — this approach facilitated the exchange of views with us in Madisonville which is leading to what should be an exciting future for our neighborhood CPS public elementary school.

At City Hall today, there is a lot of talk about best practices, bench-marking and public input, but when will the walk match all this talk? If City Hall is serious about supporting communities the City of Cincinnati needs to appoint a special task force of City staff, Council members and neighborhood leaders  to review what agencies like ODOT, the Cincinnati Public Schools, and other more forward-looking public agencies are doing in order to partner more effectively with taxpayers, parents and citizens.   

Through the work of such a task force, the City can develop an improved community-engagement process with a shared goal of smarter development.  We want developers to make healthy profits  by creating new jobs, building better housing and bringing exciting new family-friendly amenities to the City.    Let’s do it!

Thanks, Bill, for all you do for Madisonville and your city.  Not only do your ideas on community engagement make a lot of sense, your generous spirit and bulldog-determination are the essence of good citizenship.

The Creative App Project starts June 22 (and it’s free)

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Dr. Mark Mussman is the brains behind the Creative App Project, one of the People’s Liberty grant recipients. It’s a ten-week developer training designed to help novices create and market their own mobile applications.  But I met the guy way back when he was just plain old Mark Mussman.

It was January of 2003.  We were in the gym of the Emmanuel Community Center on Washington Park and it was bitterly cold outside, the sidewalks full of ice.  I was terrified nobody was going to show-up for the kick-off of InkTank, a non-profit writing center I dreamed-up to get people together through words in the wake of Over-the-Rhine’s darkest days.  Kathy Y. Wilson of Your Negro Tour Guide fame got the crowd all fired-up. Tracy Walker played a tune or two on her guitar.  Council member David Crowley made an appearance (oh, how we still miss you, Mr. Crowley – your integrity, your patient listening – four years now since your death).  And then there was this cocky young guy in a colorful knit cap with ear flaps, long ties dangling down on either side, his wild hair sticking out from underneath.

Mark and I ended-up team-teaching a weekly writing group for the men’s residential recovery program at the Drop-Inn Center.  He was doing research for his PhD in education and called our group a ‘literacy program.’ I was in the middle of the perpetual process of reinventing myself with no idea of what I was doing, a recent escapee from corporate American success.  Every so often these days I still hear a familiar voice holler, “Miss Kathy!” as I pedal home from Findlay Market.  It’s Tony or Roger. Maybe Ron. The only people who ever called me that – those men whose stories changed the course of my life.

A couple of weeks ago I got a Facebook friend request from Mark.  We hadn’t talked for more than a decade.  He’d been reading my blog and invited me to visit the People’s Liberty offices in the Globe Building.

When I walked in the door, I almost didn’t recognize my old friend.  He’d cut his hair and lost the hat.  But the biggest surprise was how easy it was to laugh together.  Because I remembered Mark always being a little annoyed with me, like he might get up and quit at any time.  He was the one who knew what he was doing in contrast to my, “Let’s just see what happens” approach.  Mark was very serious about teaching people real skills that could change lives.

All of this is a long-winded, very sentimental meander to the reminder that none of us can ever afford to stop learning, It’s 2015.  We’re in the middle of a crazy, new information-based, sharing economy where he-or-she who packages easy-to-access niche knowledge has the power.  Learn how to build an app.  (Yes, YOU, Ladies and Gentlemen – this course is for beginners and it is free so there are no excuses).  Learn how to change the world.  We are all in a constant process of reinvention, are we not?

And if anybody can help you do it, it’s Dr. Mark Mussman. Because at heart he hasn’t changed a bit, still dedicated to teaching people real skills that can change their lives.

(The deadline is June 15.  Sign up at www.cap513.com. )

The Creative App Project starts June 22 (and it's free)

IMG_2074

Dr. Mark Mussman is the brains behind the Creative App Project, one of the People’s Liberty grant recipients. It’s a ten-week developer training designed to help novices create and market their own mobile applications.  But I met the guy way back when he was just plain old Mark Mussman.

It was January of 2003.  We were in the gym of the Emmanuel Community Center on Washington Park and it was bitterly cold outside, the sidewalks full of ice.  I was terrified nobody was going to show-up for the kick-off of InkTank, a non-profit writing center I dreamed-up to get people together through words in the wake of Over-the-Rhine’s darkest days.  Kathy Y. Wilson of Your Negro Tour Guide fame got the crowd all fired-up. Tracy Walker played a tune or two on her guitar.  Council member David Crowley made an appearance (oh, how we still miss you, Mr. Crowley – your integrity, your patient listening – four years now since your death).  And then there was this cocky young guy in a colorful knit cap with ear flaps, long ties dangling down on either side, his wild hair sticking out from underneath.

Mark and I ended-up team-teaching a weekly writing group for the men’s residential recovery program at the Drop-Inn Center.  He was doing research for his PhD in education and called our group a ‘literacy program.’ I was in the middle of the perpetual process of reinventing myself with no idea of what I was doing, a recent escapee from corporate American success.  Every so often these days I still hear a familiar voice holler, “Miss Kathy!” as I pedal home from Findlay Market.  It’s Tony or Roger. Maybe Ron. The only people who ever called me that – those men whose stories changed the course of my life.

A couple of weeks ago I got a Facebook friend request from Mark.  We hadn’t talked for more than a decade.  He’d been reading my blog and invited me to visit the People’s Liberty offices in the Globe Building.

When I walked in the door, I almost didn’t recognize my old friend.  He’d cut his hair and lost the hat.  But the biggest surprise was how easy it was to laugh together.  Because I remembered Mark always being a little annoyed with me, like he might get up and quit at any time.  He was the one who knew what he was doing in contrast to my, “Let’s just see what happens” approach.  Mark was very serious about teaching people real skills that could change lives.

All of this is a long-winded, very sentimental meander to the reminder that none of us can ever afford to stop learning, It’s 2015.  We’re in the middle of a crazy, new information-based, sharing economy where he-or-she who packages easy-to-access niche knowledge has the power.  Learn how to build an app.  (Yes, YOU, Ladies and Gentlemen – this course is for beginners and it is free so there are no excuses).  Learn how to change the world.  We are all in a constant process of reinvention, are we not?

And if anybody can help you do it, it’s Dr. Mark Mussman. Because at heart he hasn’t changed a bit, still dedicated to teaching people real skills that can change their lives.

(The deadline is June 15.  Sign up at www.cap513.com. )

Margy Waller of Over-the-Rhine.

Cincinnati, I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine, Margy Waller.

Margy Waller, looking professional

Margy Waller, looking professional

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.

Margy Al Gore

That’s Al Gore with Margy.

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.

music ride margy

Music Ride

Art on the Streets

Art on the Streets

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.

TEDx_100710_MargyWaller_44 Margy and Jim Tarbell

Margy at a meetingThat’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.

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Margy’s moving day from her apartment across the street to The Tiny Row House. Friends passed the contents of her kitchen from hand to hand.

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.

Real Estate Pros: Zachary Schunn of Berkshire Hathaway

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Like everything else in this fast-paced, blink-and-you-miss-it world of ours, buildings have a shelf-life.  The grand old movie palaces so popular in the twenties sat empty and deteriorating after television took off.  Suburban shopping malls, big box stores, and golf courses aren’t all bringing in the revenue these days that at one time seemed so certain.  As tastes change, somebody has to re-imagine those environments to make them useful again.  Commercial real estate agent, Zachary Schunn, is one of those professionals.

Not that he always thought that’s what he wanted to do with his life.  Zach moved to Cincinnati in 2006 to study architecture at UC’s prestigious Design Art & Architecture program, more interested in the artistic side of the equation.  But he frequently found himself wondering about the “why” of a building’s existence,  economic logic that didn’t often filter down to his level of the process. After he finished his B.A. degree, he shifted his orientation to business and got an MBA in commercial real estate in order to be more involved with economic considerations.

A self-proclaimed introvert, Zach is not an obvious hire for straight-commission-based sales.  He’s quiet with a tendency to stand on the edge of a crowd and observe.  Not at all the pushy sort.  But when he came out of school with (what a Boomer calls) significant loans a few years after the near-global economic collapse, like all Milennials, he could not afford to be picky.  Oddly enough, he found his soft style – he cold calls with the line “I’m a commercial real estate agent and I’m calling to see if I can help you with anything” – and the small-town work ethic he credits to his parents in Marietta, Ohio, a good match.  3 1/2 years into the job, he likes it very much and is confident in his professional future.

Conversations about commercial real estate very quickly turn into discussions about how our economy is changing. He mentions that demand for fashion has really been hit hard in recent years as Milennials put an emphasis on quality over quantity, shun big wardrobes, shop online or hold out for bargains at outlet stores, TJ Maxx and Target.  Most of his leasing work is with restaurants – a perfect reflection of the way he and his friends spend their own money.  In terms of material possessions, he assures me that his generation doesn’t need much more than an Ipad and a cell phone.  But as young people form families and move to the inner suburbs, those Milennials will want the same amenities they wanted when living downtown, and eventually he sees more bike sharing and the streetcar extending not only to Uptown and the University, but Walnut Hills, Price Hill, and Mt. Washington where housing prices are more affordable.

As our city makes this huge transition from sprawl to density, suburban to urban, car-focused to more walkable communities with transportation alternatives – somebody – in this case Zach Schunn and the 40 or so commercial associates in his office – has to figure out what the heck we are going to do with all these big dreams we’ve outgrown – “repurposed community use” as he calls it.

On particularly big projects, the first step is to go to the municipality and ask them what they need.  There’s a precedent for turning malls into medical or general office space, attracting businesses that like locations close to the highway with plenty of free parking.  Teams work for years developing a new concept before they pitch it to the current owner, vying for the right to be the leasing agent on such potentially lucrative deals.  It requires long-term vision and a lot of patience.  Recently, his group came close to locking in such a project, but in the end couldn’t get the older owner to see the structure’s purpose as anything other than the reason it had been built decades earlier.

Talking to Zach Schunn or any of the other smart, informed, self-assured Milennials I’ve met in the course of educating myself about all-things real estate in Cincinnati is fascinating, a lot like visiting a foreign country.  Their world is so different than the one where I grew up; their values less materialistic with a personal responsibility for the bigger, broader community and environment we all share.   Even Zach’s professional life in the cut-throat commercial real estate business is refreshingly responsible to a greater good, his version of our buildings based on the vision of a generation unafraid of change and eager to re-think what our future together can be.

Big Thinkers: the one, the only John Schneider

Pop quiz.  Who is the most influential person in the city of Cincinnati?

a.  John Cranley, Mayor

b.  John Barrett, CEO of Western & Southern, Chair of 3CDC

c.  Margaret Buchanan, President & Publisher of the Enquirer

d.  John Schneider, “Mr. Streetcar”

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John Schneider doing what John Schneider does best: talking-up streetcars

Call me crazy, but my answer is d., John Schneider, even though the vast majority of Cincinnati residents probably wouldn’t recognize his name.  John is a commercial real estate developer, member of the City of Cincinnati Planning Commission and most often in the news lately for his leadership on the streetcar initiative.

I met John in 2005, a short time after I started a non-profit writing center on Main St. in Over-the-Rhine.  Following the 2-1 defeat of his “Metro Moves” ballot initiative to bring light rail to Hamilton County in November of 2002, I have no recollection of what brought us together at InkTank World Headquarters – other than the obvious fact  that John is/was obsessed and would/will talk to anybody with ears about transportation.  He was one of the smartest, most well-informed people I’d ever met in my life and I realized immediately he had a different kind of brain.

Not a flashy guy, John doesn’t tell jokes or turn a lot of heads when he enters a room.  But there’s something about him, not charisma exactly, but a certainty about what he believes, that makes smart, caring people want him to think well of them.  Which must be why I paid good money to go on one of his trademark Portland junkets in the cold drizzle of a typical Pacific Northwest winter, my fingers numb even in gloves as we trekked out past the end of the line while John lectured on streetcar minutiae until our eyes glazed-over.  It was nuts.  Especially considering the fact that I’d ridden those same streetcars on vacation a few years earlier and already counted myself among his mass-transit converts.

Even so, it was only when I sat down to gather research for this profile that I realized how influential he is.  Which was when I finally noticed the obvious. John Schneider has not only been at the center of the streetcar debate, the one person that wouldn’t give up, who refused to take “no” for an answer no matter how many times opponents knocked him down. John Schneider has been smack-dab in the middle of almost every impossible, controversial mega-project undertaken in the city of Cincinnati for the last twenty years.

1.  The reconfiguration of Interstate 71 (Ft. Washington Way) through downtown Cincinnati, closing down west-bound traffic for 9 months and reducing the size of the highway by more than half, recapturing the riverfront and improving access to downtown.  I can’t even remember our city before the remake – but all the changes since then – the beautiful parks along the river, the Banks, the stadiums,  the Freedom Center – none of it would have been possible if John Schneider had not led the charge on a problem almost nobody else even recognized was a problem.

2.  Before the reconfiguration, the area south of 3rd street was located in the middle of a floodplain and was frequently underwater.  Now the area floods maybe 2 or 3 times a year, so that we can ride our bikes along the river or sit in swings to watch the coal barges glide downstream.  Residential units and restaurants have replaced the old warehouses that used to dominate one of our prettiest areas.

3.  John Schneider led the ballot initiative to locate the Reds stadium on the riverfront, going head to head with one of his best friends, Jim Tarbell, who favored the Broadway Commons option.

Known for his long walks through downtown where he has always lived – long before “urbanist” entered the popular vernacular – John is never just out for a little fresh air.  He’s looking.  He’s thinking.  He’s recording observations on his smart phone so he can call City Hall about a cracked sidewalk or glass in the street.  He misses nothing – reminding me more than once to talk to my HOA about the need to get the exterior of my building painted before it deteriorates any further, even going so far as to spell-out the type of paint I should tell them to use.

So when John talks “streetcar,” understand that “Mr. Streetcar” isn’t just talking about transit. That’s just one small part of the puzzle he’s been working on his whole life, quietly studying every detail that is a city, how it all works together, persistently sharing his vision with the rest of us Johnny-come-lately urbanists.  He’s repopulating a city where people want to live, one with low-rise structures, walkable streets with stores at sidewalk level, places that encourage the chance encounters that are the best part of being alive on an average day.  Anybody who is listening carefully can hear John’s three steps ahead of the pack, envisioning the next phase.  With the streetcar battle behind him he’s thinking about turning roads built in creek-beds back into creeks, the value of our old streetcar routes and how to revitalize Reading, Gilbert and Montgomery Roads, how it’s possible that someday trains might run in half the lanes of Ft. Washington Way if driving continues to decline.

 “Ideas rarely start with government,” John explained when I asked about how big development decisions are made.  “They come from citizens who believe in them”  –  a concept both intimidating and inspiring at the same time.

Without ever running for elected office or climbing the ladders of administrative bureaucracy, any citizen with the courage to dream big and learn, rock-solid determination, a thick-skin and the patience to endure can move highways and put down tracks that improve hundreds of thousands of lives for generations to come. Thank-you, John Schneider.  Your greatest legacy lies in all of us who believe we can change our world because of your example.

Big Thinkers: Travis Estell

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Travis Estell: what success looks like in 2014

Travis Estelle is twenty-six years-old, a regular contributor to the award-winning blog, UrbanCincy, and a policy wonk who eats, sleeps and breathes transportation and development issues, reading and commenting-on every internet source that crosses his virtual path.   On his Linked-In profile Travis describes his profession as (take a deep breath and be brave) a Web Content Management System consultant specializing in technical design, architecture, and development within the Adobe AEM (CQ5) platform, CRX/JCR (Java Content Repository), Apache Sling and Felix. Expertise in Java/JSP, HTML5, CSS, JQuery, and ExtJS with a focus on valid, semantic, accessible code, and finding the best solutions for business requirements by implementing the right mix of client-side and server-side technologies.

I, on the other hand, am 59 years-old and a medieval history major.

Millennial-Travis sat down to talk with Boomer-Me at the Coffee Emporium a few weeks ago and the mixture of worldviews was such a conversational adventure that neither of us remembered to eat lunch. Here’s a sampling of observations as to where our city’s future is headed if Travis Estell is at all representative.

1.  I did not have much imagination transitioning to adulthood.  My father was a financial consultant.  I was a financial consultant.  My parents lived in Mt. Lookout.  I lived in Mt. Lookout.  But Travis’ life looks nothing like his parents’ in Goshen on 2 acres of mowed lawn, an hour from the city where they have to drive everywhere and his father worked as a machinist for Ford for his entire career.  Suburbia – devoid of culture, art, history, and diversity – held no appeal and when Travis bought his first condo it was in Over-the-Rhine.

2.  I never had a resume because I didn’t need one and always worked at the same job in the same office everyday. Travis is a consultant with a company headquartered in San Francisco, his engagements “ranging in length from weeks to multiple months.”  Job security doesn’t come from a company but from his particular skill-set, one in demand throughout the world.   The most important thing for him is where he lives, and it has to be the city that can offer him the best amenities in terms of bike lanes, excellent mass-transit, cool apartments and condos, imaginative restaurants, great bars and lots of music.

3.  When I wanted to learn about a prospective client quickly I always asked, “What kind of car do you drive?”  It told me a lot about how they spent their money and everybody liked talking about their cars.  But when I asked Travis 1. if he owned a car (not a given these days) and 2. what kind he bought, he seemed a little sheepish, explaining he played the drums as though he needed a justification.  He never did get around to spilling the beans as to what he purchased.

4.  I always assumed that all streetcar proponents were liberals.  I guess I assumed that because I am politically liberal.  But after talking to Travis for 2 hours, I have absolutely no idea how to label him.  I expected him to be outraged at Kasich’s cuts to Local Government Fund distributions, but he calmly informed me they weren’t coming back.  “Local governments are going to have to figure out how to pay for things on their own,” he said as though it was obvious. Economic uncertainty has been a fact of life during  the formative years of this generation.  They don’t take anything for granted, just dig into the facts with a self confidence that they can eventually figure out the problems.

5.  My husband and I eat most of our meals at home, so I’d always assumed the gorgeous young people I saw waiting in lines for tables on Vine St. were fiscally irresponsible and running up expensive credit card debt.  “Not so,” said Travis.  He explained that his generation prefers experiences to possessions, opting for smaller living spaces and less stuff,  “Which is necessary for the survival of the species,” he added. Climate change is a serious, personal responsibility for people in their twenties.

6.  Travis doesn’t wait for authorities to tell him what to think – Travis turns himself into an authority and then generously shares what he learns through every free electronic medium available.  In addition to his role as Technologist for UrbanCincy, Travis is the organizing force behind their entertaining, informative podcasts.  He also has a blog in his own name, a Facebook page, Instagram, and exchanges observations regularly on Twitter.  City Hall worries about the committed, engaged citizens who live in the urban core because they are very, very well-informed and know how to use social media to build strong, persuasive networks.

Millennials represent a huge shift in expectations from the Boomer preferences we’ve come to take for granted as the right way to live a life and change is always unsettling.  Cars versus bikes.  Urban versus suburban.  But sitting across the table from Travis, it’s impossible not to come away with a great sense of confidence for our future.  This new generation has high expectations for what kind of city we can be and our responsibility to the bigger world beyond city limits.  Let’s do whatever it takes to keep Travis and his friends right here where they belong, making a difference in the heart of Cincinnati.

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.

Big Thinkers: Eric Avner

Eric Avner

Waiting for the elevator to the 11th floor of the US Bank Building on my way to visit Eric Avner, Vice President of the Haile Foundation, I didn’t know what to expect.  On the one hand, he’d been the Associate Director of the Cincinnati Business Committee prior to his current job – an organization not exactly known for its wild and crazy thinking.  But Eric is also the guy who saved the street car last December, putting together an eleventh-hour coalition to cover any shortfall in operating funds and get construction going again.  He was the first person I thought of when I decided to explore different visions for the built future of our city.

Located in what Eric describes as a “nondescript office tower,” I nevertheless picked up on several important clues that all is not philanthropy-as-usual as soon as I took a seat in the Foundation’s reception area.  For instance, the “Innovation must be disruptive” poster taped to the sidelight of the entry.  And a stack of over-sized postcards on the coffee table with the message “Investing in place by investing in people” in a sleek, black font. When I spotted the newspaper flyer, its entire front page devoted to a quote by Daniel Burnham, architect and early 20th century urban designer, I knew for sure I had come to the right spot. “To love one’s city and have a part in its advancement and improvement, is the highest privilege and duty of a citizen.”

It was a crazy morning at the Foundation, the final deadline for the first-ever Haile Fellowships, $100,000 grants awarded to “innovators who have identified a local challenge and have an ambitious plan for addressing it.”  The air was buzzing with infinite possibility as attractive young talent popped from behind one conference room door only to disappear behind another, cellphones glued to their ears, a slightly crazed look in their eyes.

A few minutes later, Eric rounded the corner in his trademark bow tie, hand out-stretched. Let’s face it.  A man who wears a bow tie is only willing to go so far to concede to the conventions of society, especially when he pairs it with a lavender button down.

I didn’t have to listen long to understand that Eric Avner is not just trying to disrupt Cincinnati.   His new community development initiative, People’s Liberty, is designed to challenge the very nature of philanthropy as it has been practiced for decades.  It’s not enough just to cut a check any more. This brand of do-good gets its hands dirty, “investing in individuals through funding and mentorship, creating a new replicable model for grantmakers in other cities.”  The inference of  the program is that if you can get the bureaucracy out of the way – all the forms, professional grant writers, the obsession with providing measurable outcomes in the appropriate format delivered on deadline in duplicate copies and submitted in the appropriate sized font, people with big dreams will take care of what’s really important as long as they know what to do.

“Let me show you what I mean,” he says, jumping up in the middle of our conversation to go get a sample pad of the long, printed check-lists that People’s Liberty leaves in coffee shops and libraries all across town.   There are boxes to check-off for where to go for funding, space, talent, services, media and support with happenings.  More than anything else, the list seems to be a visual reminder of the wealth of resources already available in our community, without worrying too much about the for-profit or non-profit tax designations of who is making it rain.  He sees events as the gateway drug to more meaningful changes that impact the physical environment on a permanent basis.

Avner’s vision for the future of Cincinnati’s built environment is manifesting itself in the Haile Foundation’s first philanthropic lab, the old Globe Furniture building on the edge of Findlay Market scheduled to open in February.  The space will be used to gather civic minded -talent to ” address challenges and uncover opportunities to accelerate the positive transformation of Greater Cincinnati.”  Similar to the one-stop shopping approach to mentors, legal advice and shared co-working space for venture-backed businesses at the new Centrifuse building on Vine St., People’s Liberty intends to put together their own mix  for civic projects.  They chose an urban location close to regular foot traffic on the ground floor in a part of town still in transition..  The plan is to move on to another neighborhood in 2020.  There might even be People’s Liberty branches someday.

Big visions are mesmerizing and one of Eric’s most ambitious ideas involves returning the area north of Liberty to the job center it once was.  He talks about the romantic notion of using those old industrial buildings for industrial purposes instead of converting them to residential, small batch manufacturing for production of locally made products as the economic pendulum swings back from mass-manufactured merchandise featured in big box experiences, completely unrelated to the people or towns where they are located.

“Make no little plans,” is another of Daniel Burnham’s most oft quoted lines.  “They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”  And though attributed to a different man of a different generation, Eric Avner lives those words every day.  He understands that great cities are built by people who love them, not corporations.  He believes in us and invented a People’s Liberty to clear the path for citizens to create magical places that embody a generosity of spirit so contagious it could never be confined to a balance sheet.

Learn more about Haile Fellowships, Project Grants, Globe Grants, and the People’s Liberty Residency program at peoplesliberty.org.