After Riots, Arts Organizations Are Breathing Life Back Into Over-the-Rhine

The initial warning call came to Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) staff from a friend who works at the Garfield House Hotel. It was Tuesday, April 10, as a violent crowd of protesters made its w

The initial warning call came to Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) staff from a friend who works at the Garfield House Hotel. It was Tuesday, April 10, as a violent crowd of protesters made its way north on Vine Street. They had already smashed windows, and ETC was in their path of destruction.

Earlier that afternoon, ETC Director Lynn Meyers watched the crowd begin its protest outside City Hall. They were angry about teen-ager Timothy Thomas' fatal shooting by Cincinnati Police three days earlier near his Over-the-Rhine home. The crowd wasn't getting any answers, and they decided to take their frustrations to the streets. But Meyers had no idea that eventually she and her staff would be forced to evacuate their theater a few hours later. By 5:30 p.m., Meyers and her staff boarded the windows and turned off the electricity. Rehearsals were relocated to the Playhouse in the Park. A party to celebrate the announcement of ETC's 2001-2002 season was canceled.

A play reading was rescheduled until April 23.

Not until April 16 would the neighborhood settle down enough for Meyers and her staff to return to ETC for a full workday. Until then, ETC staff had to be content watching their front door serve as the backdrop for five days of street rioting.

By April 16, an eerie calm took hold of Over-the-Rhine. On Main Street, broken store windows are slowly being replaced. A crowd of students exited the School for Creative and Performing Arts and headed to a nearby coffeehouse. On the surface, it was business as usual for Cincinnati's arts neighborhood. The immediate need for clean-up was being met. The long-term effects of last week's street violence are still to be determined. What's reassuring is the positive feedback from the artists and art organizations who call Over-the-Rhine home.

Meyers and her ETC board affirmed their commitment to Over-the-Rhine at an April 16 strategic planning meeting. An aggressive spring and summer program schedule is underway, including the opening of Lanford Wilson's A Sense of Place on May 2. There are plans to replace the theater's roof. More importantly, there are no plans for ETC to leave the neighborhood.

"I believe this neighborhood is the heart of the city, and that's not going to change because of a terribly sad incident that sparked a lot of anger last week," Meyers says, speaking from her ETC office. "I feel responsible for the 11 people on our staff, as well as our 1,100 subscribers. I can tell you that I don't feel any fear when I arrive in the morning, and I don't feel fear when I leave at night. What happened is not something for us to run away from. I can also say that there has not been one phone call from a subscriber looking to cancel their subscription."

This same spirit of commitment is shared by Taft Museum of Art staff preparing exhibition space at the Pendleton Art Center for the April 26 preview of the Artists Reaching Classrooms Student (ARC) Art Exhibition. A Taft exhibition forced the long-running student show to relocate to the Pendleton, at the corner of Pendleton and 13th streets, this year. What's unexpected is that ARC lets the Taft make a proactive statement about how art can help address some of Over-the-Rhine's racial tensions. ARC was never intended to be political. But in the wake of Cincinnati's first street riots in 33 years, the racial diversity of ARC's 70 student artists delivers a harmonious message that's loud and clear: Use the multiracial and multi-class ARC artists as an example.

It's possible for all people in Cincinnati to come together and unite for a common cause. The ARC exhibit is open in conjunction with the monthly Final Friday event on April 27. Weekday hours continue until a closing celebration on May 20. The hope is that nobody will allow the recent street violence to prevent them from attending the show. It's impossible to predict the long-term impact the riots will have on people's attitudes and perceptions of the neighborhood. What's clear is that artists and arts organizations are already breathing life back into the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Let's hope city leaders follow their lead.

Contact steve ramos: [email protected]

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