In early August, I went to the Cincinnati neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine on a mission to help create a church and serve the urban poor in a predominantly African-American community. The area my church group and I stayed in is historically known as much for its Italianate architecture as its high crime rate.
Much of the community has been held together by Living Water Ministry, a church started in 1999 by a Christian couple, Pastor Johann and Grace Kim.
While walking through the neighborhood, I noticed that the gentrification process had already begun just a few streets away from the church, where many homeless people sat on the curb to drink and smoke from the early afternoon to late evening.
A few scant blocks away, the streets were bustling with live music, hip coffee shops, big-box grocery stores and brand-name retailers. The difference in landscape and culture was jarring, and I realized soon enough that the neighbors in this church community may eventually get pushed out of their homes if urban renewal continues to move at its current pace.
The pastor and his wife started a Sunday school for young people several years ago to keep the urban poor from completely leaving the area. The Kims have a long-term vision for urban renewal in Cincinnati. They recently bought an abandoned church building, which they plan to gut and rebuild so they can host worship services, church activities and Bible study classes throughout the week.
During the same week, Business Council of Westchester President and CEO Marsha Gordon and Executive Vice President and COO John Ravitz also were in Cincinnati, attending a convention where they heard how nonprofits are vital to urban renewal.
The Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce has been the liaison for moving economic redevelopment projects forward for the last decade. In 2003, the chamber founded the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., a nonprofit group focused on redeveloping business centers and bringing new development projects to Over-the-Rhine. Its projects, which are funded privately through corporate contributions, have created all the difference in downtown Cincinnati, which is almost unrecognizable when compared with what the area looked like some 10 years ago.
“What we see is the involvement of the business community in leading the way and raising money,” Gordon said. “We saw pictures of buildings that were redeveloped and that had the residential rates increased to become a more attractive area to live. We saw the whole community coming together with people of different socioeconomic classes doing yoga in the park and enjoying nighttime events, including jazz and salsa.”
With youth flight a problem in Westchester County, Ravitz said he was inspired by the convention, so much so that he said he wants to start focus groups to discuss ways that communities can retain urban youths and create more job opportunities for them. Another issue The Business Council of Westchester wants to address is how to retain the urban poor in redeveloped areas through building affordable homes and providing services to the homeless.
“Business organizations have to take the lead on urban renewal, and it’s not to say that we’re better than the government, but because we’re connected to the community we can bring together people who will invest in these types of projects,” Ravitz said.
As Gordon and Ravitz were on the walking tour of downtown Cincinnati, they saw firsthand how the area has begun to transform with the help of a $48.9 million renovation project of Fountain Square and more than 100 condos opening in Over-the-Rhine. Whether they are in Cincinnati or White Plains, Ravitz said the common thread he found is that anywhere they go it’s important to have conversations with stakeholders who can help the community move forward with urban renewal efforts.
Several nonprofits are interested in helping communities stay together, especially as urban renewal projects have the ability to transform the geography and character of a city and displace many of the urban poor. While some are building a church that will bring communities together, others are focused on providing homes for low-income families.
In Bridgeport, Conn., private investors and public lenders have contributed to transforming the once-dilapidated urban center into a burgeoning business hub. Meanwhile, the nonprofit group Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County, is dedicated to keeping low-income individuals and families in the area by building homes for them.
“In order for a family to get a Habitat house, they have to be living in housing that’s unacceptable in one form or another — whether it be affordability, the conditions of the house or overcrowding,” said Bruce Berzin, president of Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County. “The other criteria are that they have to be able to pay off the mortgage we provide and be willing to partner with us in providing 500 hours of sweat equity.”