“People are hungry for this kind of interaction,” says Chris Ashwell, creative director and co-founder (with Shawn Braley) of Cincy Stories. What began in 2015 as a live storytelling event — akin to the national Moth Radio Hour — in the basement of Over-the-Rhine’s MOTR Pub is steadily expanding its reach.
Braley explains that Cincy Stories has felt its mission is to come to where the people are, not just wait for them to come to its events. He refers to it as “get(ting) our hands dirty in the neighborhood.”
Last year, it operated a story gallery on East McMillan Street in Walnut Hills. There, Ashwell and Braley worked with the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation and received “creative placemaking” funding from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). That resulted in 21 stories from Walnut Hills residents and workers for its website, cincystories.net. Some are beautifully produced vignettes.
In Price Hill, Cincy Stories is working with Price Hill Will, along with the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation, ArtsWave and, again, LISC. And Price Hill welcomes it, says Samantha Conover, community engagement coordinator for Price Hill Will. “We’re trying to keep everybody here and keep them invested in this community,” she explains.
Cincy Stories complements her organization’s aim to reinvigorate Warsaw, the business district of East Price Hill. Businesses are cropping up on Warsaw Avenue, but storefronts remain vacant or underutilized.
“It’s just not active all the time,” Conover says. “So we’re trying to find people to bring into these storefronts and make them more active, and to get more businesses to be more attracted to our business district.”
The premise for the Price Hill story gallery is simple enough: Make the space comfortable with couches and free coffee and welcome everyone who stops in. Ashwell refers to the space as “grandma’s living room.” Visitors can pop into a story booth, which is a small, private tent complete with an easy chair, a microphone and a video camera. They are encouraged to share their stories in the intimate booth, which Ashwell and Braley can then edit and turn into a three-to-five-minute video that is played on the three television screens in the front.
Already up is one featuring local pastor Kirk Kirkland, of Revive City Church on Glenway Avenue. He discusses his calling to the ministry, issues with city permits for his original choice of location and the formation of the church’s outreach efforts.
Interaction also comes from face-to-face encounters — visitors are encouraged to sit down and swap stories with one another. Prompts are spread throughout the exchange to facilitate conversation. They can be as innocuous as “Tell me a story about the most memorable sports game you went to” and as potentially touchy as “Tell me a story about a time you were accused of something you didn’t do.”
“Our brains need that narrative to actually really connect,” Braley says. “I think we can keep each other at arm’s length when we (just) talk about what we think, rather than about who we are through the stories that we share.”
Both men believe sharing relatable stories can change a community for the better.
“This is something that could actually make long-term tangible action in our communities,” Ashwell says. “All we’re doing is empowering people to believe that they actually matter in the community, and their stories are as important as what happened to any politician or business owner. And when they feel like they’re important to the community, they feel like they want to be part of it. And then they want to help the community.”
PRICE HILL STORY GALLERY is open noon-7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. More info: cincystories.net.