Cincy Summer Streets Opens Roads to Community

Woodburn Avenue and East McMillan Street were closed to car traffic for a mile stretch as they played host to Cincy Summer Streets last month. The next installment of the street festival arrives in Northside on Sunday.

On any other day in Walnut Hills, the streets would have been mostly populated by a stream of passing cars. On July 19, however, hundreds of people gathered to play, walk, run and bike in the open asphalt of the neighborhood.

Woodburn Avenue and East McMillan Street were closed to car traffic for a mile stretch as they played host to Cincy Summer Streets last month. The next installment of the street festival arrives in Northside on Sunday.

“People can bike, walk or run, hula-hoop, skateboard [and] stroll with their kids or dogs,” says Anne Sesler, co-founder and executive director of Cincy Summer Streets. There is also dancing, jump rope, yoga and a climbing wall among countless other activities.

Open street events like these have popped up in cities all over the country, including Atlanta, Chicago, Louisville, Ky., and San Francisco; nearly seven miles of New York City’s streets are opened to the public on three consecutive Saturdays in August. 

Co-founder Margy Waller, director of local public art event Art on the Streets and a senior fellow at Topos Partnership, had seen the beauty of car-free streets firsthand in other cities. She wanted Cincinnati residents to experience their streets being imagined in a new way.

“Margy had been asking me for years if I wanted to do this,” says Melissa McVay, another co-founder and city planner with the Cincinnati Department of Transportation and Engineering. 

The interest was there; it was a matter of finding the time. “I looked at my schedule for this year and finally thought, ‘I could do this,’ ” McVay says.

Still, figuring the logistics of Cincy Summer Streets had its difficulties. The events are expensive to orchestrate — it isn’t cheap to close off streets — and not every business is as keen to cooperate. Finding the right location is also an important factor.

“Part of the point is to demonstrate the vibrancy of Cincinnati neighborhoods,” Sesler says. 

“We needed a long, flat road that wasn’t too hilly,” McVay adds. “We wanted to do Camp Washington, but we couldn’t because of the I-75 construction.”

Organizers eventually settled on Walnut Hills and Northside for the festival’s inaugural summer events. 

“Both have thriving little business districts with cafes, shops that sell clothing — really cool local businesses,” Sesler says.

With encouragement from Eric Avner, vice president of the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation, Cincy Summer Streets found its footing. After adding sponsors Interact for Health and Topic Design, the hard work and fundraising paid off with the Walnut Hills event. 

“There was this Double Dutch jump rope team performing and then suddenly there’s a crowd of 200 people cheering them on,” McVay says. “At the end, they asked if anybody in the audience wanted to try, and I thought, ‘Oh god, nobody’s going to want to do this,’ — then this young, white, yuppie pregnant girl pops out of the crowd.” 

“Everyone was cheering for her — young people, old people, black people, white people — to try something new,” she continues. “And then a guy with pink pants came out and did it, too!”

Cincinnati’s take on this trend of car-free streets has its own flavor. Cincy Summer Streets is more arts-oriented than like-minded events in other cities, and the Northside edition will inspire a lot more “physical fitness” with an emphasis on biking and walking. McVay hopes the Northside event will capture the same essence as the neighborhood’s Fourth of July parade.

By promoting alternative modes of transportation, Cincy Summer Streets reflects the growth of biking in Cincinnati, as bike-shares pop up in locations both downtown and uptown. Bike-only lanes have also noticeably made the city more rider-friendly.

“I think it’s an example of the direction the city’s going in,” says Waller, pointing to the streetcar project and other revitalization projects that have been undertaken. Mayor John Cranley, Councilwoman Yvette Simpson and other prominent figures attended the first event.

“The moment that was the most moving for me was seeing the community come together and really support everyone,” McVay says. “There was such an amazing, diverse concoction of people.”

Organizers plan to make Cincy Summer Streets an annual tradition — everything’s easier after the first time, after all. For Waller, it’s about inviting community members to see their streets in an entirely new light — with painted crosswalks, collaborative art, biking and playing, but mostly just without any cars. 

And one thing is certain for this weekend’s Northside event: “There will be chalk,” Waller says. And with a little help from Dancefix and Pones Inc., there will be dancing in the streets, too.

CINCY SUMMER STREETS takes over Hamilton Avenue and Blue Rock Road in Northside 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday. More info:

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