Construction cranes and other heavy machinery have become familiar sights in Cincinnati's West End, a roughhewn stretch of warehouses and housing projects adjacent to downtown.
The transformation of the low-income housing blocks that were Laurel Homes into a diverse neighborhood combining market rate and subsidized homes continues steadily. A new community center sits on Linn Street, just a stone's throw from many of the new City West houses. The former Washburn Elementary School soon will become home to a new neighborhood YMCA and charter school.
It's hard to say what will eventually become of the West End, but for the first time in a long time its future looks brighter for longtime residents and newcomers making the neighborhood their home.
These changes have yet to pass the doorstep of 1515 Linn St., home of the Arts Consortium of Cincinnati, the area's leading African-American arts center and one of the oldest such arts institutions in the U.S.
Administrative Assistant Dorothy Butts sits at the reception desk, answers phones and greets visitors, completing the same tasks she's been doing for 15 years. To its visitors, the Arts Consortium is a familiar, though worn, space. Its black box theater — home to the Cincinnati Black Theatre Company — its galleries and its backroom offices are in need of renovation.
After 32 years of operation, the Arts Consortium has become an old standby, a familiar sight to West End residents, much like the Ollie's Trolley burger stand around the corner. The key change, one that's likely invisible to many visitors, is the appointment of Glenn A. Ray as the new executive director.
Ray took over last December, replacing Sharon Hardin, who served as the Arts Consortium's executive director for less than two years.
Ray is a middle-aged, portly man, as soft spoken and demure as a funeral home director. While many local arts leaders qualify as flamboyant ambassadors and outspoken cheerleaders, he comes off as contemplative and polite.
Asked about his priorities for the Arts Consortium, Ray gives an answer that reflects his reserved personality: He wants to listen to its longtime artists and volunteers.
Uninterested in shaking things up — that's not his style — he's more fixed on facilitating the plans and ideas of the people around the Arts Consortium. There have been grand plans tossed on its doorstep before, including a multimillion-dollar design for a new, expanded Arts Consortium promoted by then City Councilman Dwight Tillery.
Ray confirms that discussions continue about a new home for the Arts Consortium, including the possibility of leaving the West End. But that's a decision for a future day. For now, he's listening, learning and taking small steps.
Ray is something of an arts insider. He was the founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Performing and Cultural Arts Complex in Columbus, managing the center from 1987-1992. After earning a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and various East Coast teaching assignments, he came to Cincinnati in 1996 to serve as executive director at the Association for the Advancement of Arts Education, which trains and aids teachers in implementing the arts into their classroom curriculum.
Ray watches neighborhood changes from the center's front door. Plans to redesign Linn Street into a boulevard would eliminate most of the Arts Consortium's front parking lot. No matter what happens inside the facility, the changes outside will impact the institution.
Ray is helping prepare for the 10-week summer arts camp for children, the Arts Consortium's core program. The fifth edition of the Midwest Regional Black Theatre Festival wrapped up last month with news of additional support from the city of Cincinnati, both for the annual theater fest and for the Arts Consortium itself.
The West End continues to change, but it's unclear if the Arts Consortium will change with it. How many opportunities does a sleeping giant have to revive?
That's one question Ray has to answer immediately.