A Drinking Club with a Civic Problem

Westwood Works stresses collaboration, consensus

Apr 7, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Home to more than 35,000 residents, Westwood is one of Cincinnati’s oldest suburban neighborhoods. Distinguished by its historic charm, the area represents roughly 10 percent of the city’s total population within only six square miles, which officially makes it the largest neighborhood in the city.

But is it big enough for everyone — and their concerns?

Some neighborhood groups like the Westwood Civic Association suggest that it’s in the interest of residents to go so far as to consider seceding from the city altogether, which occurred last summer in response to increases in Section 8 housing and a number of other issues that they couldn’t resolve with Cincinnati officials.

The extreme town hall antics of the Civic Association and Westwood Concern have arguably earned Westwood a bad reputation throughout the rest of the city. Moreover, their representation of the community has ruffled the feathers of some Westwood residents who believe that things must be handled differently in order to progress as a neighborhood.

A handful of these residents have banded together to form Westwood Works, a nonpolitical, nonpartisan civic group that aims to revitalize the neighborhood by promoting the many virtues of Westwood as opposed to promoting negativity, exclusion and separatism.

“We need to start telling a positive story about Westwood and that’s what we’re here to do,” says John Eby, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years and helped get Westwood Works off the ground.

“Our mission is to create a positive air about Westwood and create a vision that we can share with the rest of the city that says Westwood is the place to live, work and play,” he adds. “We’re going to do that in positive ways by building consensus and strengthening our community through direct interaction.”

Eby ran for Cincinnati City Council in 2005 and 2007 as a Republican candidate. Also, he served as a board member of the Civic Association in 2002 before leaving to become a member of the Westwood Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (West CURC), which he remains.

Westwood Works was catalyzed by the Civic Association’s decision not to muster support for an ArtWorks mural in the neighborhood, despite the interest of some residents.

ArtWorks is a downtown-based, nonprofit organization that has created 27 attentiongrabbing murals in 20 different Cincinnati neighborhoods, including Over-the-Rhine and Clifton Heights.

“This whole thing started off with 10 or 12 of us meeting over a beer and talking about places where a mural would look good in Westwood,” Eby says. “We ran through the application and discovered that it requires community support, which is defined as support from a civic association, a development corporation or a group of concerned citizens. We fell into the concerned citizens’ category and sure enough we have been selected as a finalist for an ArtWorks mural.”

Although Westwood Works was born out of disagreement with the Civic Association’s decision to turn down the mural opportunity, Eby and other founding members assert that their group is not meant to serve as a reactionary counterpart to any other neighborhood group.

“We’re looking for other ways to engage the community outside of the Civic Association,” says Nicholas Hollan, a Westwood resident who ran for City Council as a Democrat last year and helped organize Westwood Works.

“We are not a response to the Westwood Concern,” Hollan adds. “We have nothing to do with Westwood Concern.”

Unlike the other aforementioned groups, Westwood Works is not politically-driven. Instead, members strive to create a relaxed, informal forum where members can toss around ideas that perpetuate or inspire positive assets of the community.

Along these lines, Eby reflects on the Asset Based Community Development Association’s (ABCD) model as a basis for Westwood Works’ tactical perspective. This model, pioneered by Peter Block and John McKnight, promotes the acknowledgement of assets in a community that can be built upon to strengthen the community. For example, Block hails the collective population of an area as a strength and thus promotes community engagement, which serves as the cornerstone of Westwood Works’ mission.

“Think of us as a community engagement group as opposed to a civic organization or development corporation,” Eby says. “We don’t have a bureaucracy. We’re more from the ground up than we are from the top down.”

Westwood Works doesn’t have a president, vice president or any officers who run the show. Instead, it’s driven by conversation among members who hold one another equally accountable. Eby notes that Westwood Works was created specifically for people who want to be civically engaged without dealing with negativity and bureaucracy.

“The Civic Association and Concern have their own clear agenda of issues they want to talk about and what they want to promote,” Hollan says. “Clearly, they have a following. People want to be involved in what they do. But I think that there’s a need in the community for something different and that’s what we’re providing.”

Despite differences in opinion between some members of Westwood Works and other neighborhood groups, neither Eby nor Hollan feel that there’s any sort of rivalry. In fact, many members of Westwood Works are also members of the Civic Association, including Hollan, who still serves as a board member.

“If the Civic Association needs our help, we’re there for them. If the development corporation needs our help, we’re there for them. We see everyone contributing to Westwood differently,” Eby says. “I just want to be involved in an organization that is concerned with creating and engaging in a community and building that through consensus.”

Since the first Westwood Works meeting in January, the group has organized a number of community functions, including Westwood Up for Grabs — a totally free market that provided neighbors with the opportunity to swap goods with one another without exchanging a single dollar. More than 90 people were in attendance, according to Eby, some from as far away as Batavia.

Future endeavors include pot luck dinners, a Westwood-style version of TV’s Amazing Race and, of course, the ArtWorks mural, which is slated to be featured on the outside of Henke Winery.

Open invitation meetings are held at Maury’s Tiny Cove in nearby Cheviot.

“We’re a drinking club with a civic problem,” Hollan says. “We go out, have a few drinks and discuss what’s on our minds.

“The conversation about Westwood has to change in order for us to develop and grow as a community,” he adds. “We have to change the nature of the conversation. If you only talk about the negative, that’s the only thing that anyone’s ever going to hear. This is an opportunity to shine a brighter light on Westwood so that when people hear of Westwood, they think what we want them to think.”