“How do you preserve the spirit of a changing neighborhood?”
It’s a question that Asa Featherstone, a People’s Liberty Haile Fellow, contemplated in regard to the ever-changing Over-the-Rhine community. The answer came through a series of black-and-white photos, videos and written stories packaged as On Belonging.
People’s Liberty, a five-year philanthropic experiment that began in 2014 and was funded by the Carol Ann & Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation, gave grants to people, rather than organizations, to pursue meaningful projects. Featherstone began his six-month fellowship earlier this year with the task of answering the aforementioned question, specifically about Findlay Market. (Featherstone’s project came to fruition late this summer.)
“One of the things that I thought about in finding ways to preserve this spirit was to first identify what that spirit is, and I feel that the spirit resides in the people that live in the neighborhood,” Featherstone says.
Featherstone says the project’s objective was to re-establish a meaningful relationship with people in the neighborhood who might feel like the Findlay Market area wasn’t a space for them anymore. In physically placing their stories in the market, he wanted to uplift the individuals and families who call the area surrounding the market home and, in turn, create a deeper sense of ownership.
Featherstone hosted a total of four dinners (along two other Haile Fellows, Kyle Ebersole and Brian Yangyuen, who were working on their own projects) for local families with the goals of fostering community and of re-establishing Findlay Market as a welcoming space. It was through these shared meals, and simply by hanging around the market, that Featherstone was able to find families to participate in On Belonging.
“I ended up just kind of hanging out and getting to know a lot of the people that were employees there and also just walked up to them and simply asked them to be a part of the project,” Featherstone says.
With his background in photography and videography, he documented their stories by way of portraits and videos and asked subjects about their connection to the market. The title of his project revolves around a resounding question: “What does it mean to belong?”
“It’s a pretty broad question,” Featherstone says. “It created the space for each of the people that I talked (with) to come up with their own response, but they’ll share their connection with that — their connection to that question.”
Six stories are featured on the project’s website, some from families and some from individuals. If you’ve taken a recent stroll through Findlay Market, you’ve likely seen images from On Belonging displayed on the walls, joined by a quote from the people involved. (Full stories are online.)
“Each portrait that’s around the market will only have one snippet or insert from a larger piece of the story,” Featherstone says. “I would like to encourage others to continue to dig in to the stories and get to know some of these people.”
The project took a total of three months, from contacting the families, interviewing and editing the stories and media to setting up the website and installing the photos around Findlay Market. Each story carried meaning for Featherstone, who says he enjoyed developing relationships with every individual.
“The way I see, each story contributes equally to create one whole story about their relationship to their neighborhood,” he says.
Another point of the project is to make people intentional about the spaces they’re using, Featherstone says, adding that many cities are in a “renaissance.” He says Cincinnati has areas that can be seen as tourist destinations, but we often forget those who live there and create that community. When it comes to Findlay, he wants to recognize the individuals and cultures that have made it a historic spot.
“Understand that the space and the things that you get to enjoy in a city, specifically, don’t just come out of nowhere,” Featherstone says. “It’s really a lot of the love and amazingness that comes from the people that live there — and have lived there — and are continuing to make that place amazing.”
That sentiment is posed on the project’s website, which states that: “For better or worse, neighborhoods and communities everywhere are changing — including Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati. So what keeps these neighborhoods so special? We’re talking about changes to the physical landscape, changes in neighbors, and changes in power — much of which can leave us feeling disconnected — and as people we long for unity.”
On Belonging is one answer to that need for unity. Throughout the project, Featherstone told himself that it wasn’t about him. Though humbled to use his gifts and talents to uplift voices, the project ultimately was for others. He says that Over-the-Rhine is in jeopardy of turning over all of its culture for the sake of money. He says without the people, these spaces don’t have anything else, just “a bunch of buildings and dollar signs.”
It’s been rewarding for him to watch families return to Findlay Market after years of not visiting to see their photo displayed. Featherstone says this makes them feel appreciated being in that space because they can see their value.
Though what he did may seem small, Featherstone says that it will impact future generations and the images, installed on clear vinyl, will be on display indefinitely. Featherstone also has hopes of expanding On Belonging to other Cincinnati neighborhoods in the future.
“It’s a lot bigger than just some portraits on buildings,” he says. “It really is something that just has an everlasting life to it because the people that were involved in the neighborhood were cared for and put as a priority, which hasn’t been the case in recent occasions.”
You can view On Belonging in person at Findlay Market (1801 Race St., Over-the-Rhine) or online at on-belonging.com.