No thugs in Our House

Inside Music Hall, the concert sounded beautiful. Departing conductor Jesés López-Cobos led the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in a sparkling performance of Anton Bruckner's Symphony

May 3, 2001 at 2:06 pm

Inside Music Hall, the concert sounded beautiful. Departing conductor Jesés López-Cobos led the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in a sparkling performance of Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 9. Outside the hall, the warm April sun was just as stunning. But anyone wanting proof of the racial lines that divide Cincinnati need only stand on Music Hall's front steps and look into Washington Park. After a recent Friday morning concert, it's safe to say I was the only Music Hall patron brave enough to walk across Elm Street and sit on a Washington Park bench. After more than 100 years as Over-the-Rhine's great landmark, Music Hall has become an exclusive island unto itself.

Imagine if visitors to Chicago's Art Institute never stepped into adjacent Grant Park. What if patrons of the New York Public Library never ate lunch in Bryant Park?

These days, Music Hall itself looks great. Scaffolding on the building's north side confirms that additional revitalization is underway.

But what is the CSO, Over-the-Rhine's leading arts organization, doing about the neighborhood that begins at its doorstep? In the wake of the recent street violence, like all Over-the-Rhine residents, the CSO cannot afford to go about business as usual.

Music Hall staff were evacuated on April 10 after the first street riots broke out downtown. It wasn't until April 16 that staffers returned to their offices.

It's clear that the anger and frustration over Timothy Thomas' fatal shooting by the Cincinnati Police have nothing to do with the CSO and Music Hall. Still, from the perspective of the building's front steps, the overall attitudes of CSO patrons and staff are also clear. Additional uniformed police officers have been hired to keep Music Hall secure. The CSO doesn't want thugs in itsbeautiful house.

"What we have told people is that we are committed to Classical music," says CSO Public Relations Director Rosemary Weathers. "We are committed to Music Hall, and we are committed to the community of Over-the-Rhine.

"But I believe if you really want to make a difference, you can't do something like one concert in a city park. It takes a long-range approach."

Every time I go to Music Hall, I intentionally walk down 12th Street and through Washington Park. It helps to remind me that the status quo positions from Over-the-Rhine businesses, social agencies and arts organizations are no longer doing the job.

Twelfth Street has become Cincinnati's version of the Bowery. Panhandlers stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Trash is everywhere. It's a depressing sight. While I feel safe, I'm sympathetic to the fact that elderly CSO patrons see Washington Park as a dangerous area filled with criminals, prostitutes and drug abusers. The attitudes have to change.

The battle lines between Music Hall and its neighbors have been drawn over a controversial proposal by Cincinnati Pops Conductor Erich Kunzel for a new and expanded School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) to be built on adjacent land. Original plans for the project required a relocation of the Drop-Inn Center from its current 12th Street location. While current drawings allow for the Drop-Inn Center to remain, bad feelings have festered on both sides.

Recently, the CSO announced new outreach programs to build audiences throughout Greater Cincinnati. Bach & Beyond is a series of three summer concerts to be held at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. Additional performances are planned for outlying suburbs.

But it's unclear what additional plans the CSO has for Music Hall's very own doorstep. The symphony is proud of its outreach into Over-the-Rhine. As a sign of commitment to diversity, one CSO administrator points to its two Classical Roots programs that promote the role of symphony music in African-American and Latino communities. Last year, the CSO created a new administrative position — community relations manager.

But after all that Over-the-Rhine has experienced recently, the CSO clearly needs to do more. For everyone who calls Over-the-Rhine home, the status quo is no longer enough.

Over-the-Rhine's leading arts organization must lead the way. A big step wouuld be for the CSO to open its doors and embrace Washington Park as its own.

Contact steve ramos: [email protected]