It seems like an impossibly tall order: confront problems around the economy, the environment and racial equity in Cincinnati communities struggling most with those issues.
But some local organizations are addressing those complicated, interwoven challenges in places like South Cumminsville, Avondale, South Fairmount and other neighborhoods, and a groundbreaking initiative in New York might have a number of applicable lessons as they do their work.
Earlier this month, nonprofits like Working in Neighborhoods, the Avondale Comprehensive Development Corporation, the Cincinnati Permaculture Institute, Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative and others traded ideas and inspiration with a group called People United for Sustainable Housing — or PUSH — Buffalo. The exchange highlighted local efforts tying together environmental and economic justice issues in Cincinnati as well as best practices for such efforts PUSH has developed.
Though it encompasses a lot of complex topics, that work comes down to a very simple principle — giving community residents control over their neighborhoods through organizing and solidarity.
“This is a really frightening time, obviously, around politics and the climate and race and inequality,” says PUSH co-founder Aaron Bartley. “The issues that this country is facing, we’re not dealing with them the way we need to. But it’s also a time of great opportunity for communities to provide examples of community control, of new ways of working the economy. The idea that we can block by block create our own economy is a very powerful idea.”
PUSH started 12 years ago with housing rehabilitation and home ownership efforts. Today, it works in a 25-block area in Buffalo it calls its Green Development Zone, leveraging needed weatherization work, green energy retrofitting, urban farming, industrial composting and even work for the city’s municipal sewer department directly into living-wage jobs for the neighborhood’s residents.
The group has been able to leverage funding from private donors, state and federal grants, and support from the city won by its tireless organizing efforts to return a sense of community control to its slice of west Buffalo. Since its founding, the group has gained ownership over more than 110 parcels of land it has converted into affordable and sustainable housing, public spaces or storm water runoff land.
Buffalo’s problems are similar to Cincinnati’s in some ways. Like Cincinnati, the city’s poverty rate hovers right around 30 percent, with a high childhoold poverty rate. Levels of poverty on Buffalo’s west side, where PUSH operates, are even higher. But just like the challenges, there are mirrors to PUSH’s efforts toward solutions here in Cincinnati.
The Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative has taken on similar green-energy initiatives, including its Sustainergy cooperative business, which employs 30 people doing green energy retrofitting. CUCI is a partnership between Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain and the United Steelworkers of America that works to create new worker-owned businesses in Cincinnati communities like Northside. Another of its efforts, called Our Harvest, employs 18 worker-owners in a farming and produce distribution business.
Other PUSH efforts also have deep relevancy here.Like Cincinnati, Buffalo is currently under a federally mandated, large-scale rehabilitation of its metropolitan sewer district to address environmental justice issues. Mostly through community organizing and slow, steady demonstration with about a dozen of its own storm water projects, PUSH has been able to parlay that need into well-paying, full-time work with Buffalo’s sewer district for neighborhood residents.
“They came over again and again to look at our systems, and we showed them we could employ people right out of the neighborhood doing that work,” Bartley says. “Over time, they’ve become convinced that this is the way to implement their storm water control plan with the EPA.”
Currently, residents affiliated with PUSH are working with Buffalo’s sewer district on 220 plots throughout the city.
That approach has drawn attention here.
“We were intrigued” by PUSH, says Dean E. Niemeyer, who works with Hamilton County Planning and Development and helped organize a March 3 panel discussion with PUSH and local organizations. “Buffalo has the same kind of situation we have. They’re under a consent decree and needing to fix their sewers. We wanted to bring Aaron (Bartley) down here, because they have the same problem we have, and they’ve been able to do what we’ve not be able to get the OK to do.”
PUSH’s work also mirrors home-ownership efforts led by groups like Working in Neighborhoods, which is headquartered in South Cumminsville.
“I’ve known Aaron (Bartley) and PUSH and have been terribly impressed with their work,” says Sister Barbara Busch of Working In Neighborhoods. “As we see this economic divide, and as we see our climate changing, it’s certainly wonderful to see neighborhoods that are able to gather people together, work on those issues and to move forward and actually grow.”
WIN has done some of that community-building itself in South Cumminsville and elsewhere. The organization has built or rehabbed 165 affordable units in Cincinnati, and its new builds have all been LEED certified. The group also does weatherization and energy education for low-income homes.
Busch credits old-school community organizing principles for the progress residents have made. The vital need for ground-level organizing is familiar to PUSH members. One of the group’s first efforts in 2006 was a public art installation that put large-scale pictures of then-New York Governor George Pataki’s face on 400 vacant and neglected homes in the neighborhood. Those homes were co-owned by the state and Bear Stearns bank, one of the financial institutions that crumbled during the mortgage crisis.
“What we did very early on was knock on every door in the district, identified community leaders, and then networked those leaders around a campaign to hold the owners of those houses accountable,” says Bartley. It sounds simple, but that kind of empowerment is what makes PUSH able to do what it does, he says. The engagement work goes beyond knocking on doors, however.
Eddie “Icecream” Jones is a PUSH member who started out working on the group’s housing rehab efforts. These days, he’s doing some community outreach and education work as well, literally and figuratively building the neighborhood’s future.
Jones speaks excitedly about a house within the Green Development Zone that serves as a training ground for both ex-offenders reentering society and high school students from a local trade school.
“Our youth are going to help us turn this house that has been abandoned into a beautiful, self-sustainable and economically friendly to low- and middle-income families home,” Jones says of the initiative.
The “economically friendly” part is an imperative, PUSH members say, as communities in cities across the country puzzle over how to address the rapid increase in demand for urban housing. In cities from Washington, D.C. to Oakland, Calif., the increase has led to a displacement of low-income people.
Bartley calls it “the $40 million question” facing cities, and it’s increasingly relevant to Cincinnati as debate continues about gentrification in neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine.
At the March 3 panel, PUSH member Lonnie Barlow shared some strategies for limiting displacement, including land-banking to thwart property speculators and making strategic partnerships with businesses and other groups that share PUSH’s values. But Barlow admitted there’s probably no easy answer.
“Gentrification is sophisticated,” he says. “People have to have a good job, too, to compliment where they’re staying. If we can get people working, the idea is they’ll have some vote; we can get wealth generation going.”
Ozie Davis III, who leads the Avondale Comprehensive Development Corporation, says PUSH’s focus on building wealth within the community and its community engagement efforts are things he sees as very relevant to Cincinnati.
“The work that PUSH is doing is central to what we have to do in places like Avondale to really build practices that are going to incorporate African-Americans, minorities, women — those who have been left out for so long,” Davis says. ©