Neighbor dividend pays off for businesses in E. Walnut Hills

Early on a Saturday morning, Rachel Dover, a barista at Café DeSales, walks in the front door for her shift. “Hi Ed, Hi Carol, Hi Dan.” She greets everyone by their first names. Customers trickle in and out of the cozy corner spot designed with lots of wood and warm colors. Everyone knows each other and friends chat about the goings on in East Walnut Hills, the community where many of them live, and run stops or own property.

The café, formerly Moca, opened in 2007 and has served as a community-gathering place ever since. On the corner of Madison and Woodburn Avenues, in the shadow of St. Francis DeSales Church, businesses like Café DeSales bring new life to an area that has seen more than is share of development woes. Still, with DeSales Plaza, new apartment and flat complexes and a growing number of healthy businesses, this small stretch of Woodburn Avenue is emerging as one of the most vibrant, and stubbornly optimistic, communities in Cincinnati’s urban core.

Some of the revitalization of the area may have happened without proactive residents like Ed and Carol Pfetzing. The Pfetzing’s have lived in East Walnut Hills since 1974 and own four storefronts in the area. Ed serves as vice president of the community council, the East Walnut Hills Assembly. He and his wife have seen their street slowly evolve from boarded-up storefronts and bars, to locally owned and operated businesses with the lowest reported crime rate by Cincinnati Police’s District 2.

One major contribution to the development of the area was the change in zoning that prevented a CVS, complete with a drive-thru, in the spot where DeSales Plaza now sits. If Ed and other assembly members hadn’t pushed for zoning changes, three major centerpieces of the neighborhood – all a part of DeSales Plaza -- wouldn’t exist. The Plaza also includes Suzie Wong’s restaurant, the Residences at DeSales Plaza, and, most recently, DeSales Flats, which rented out all of its 76 units in only four months.

“I remember when we had to advertise for our apartments as ‘Hyde Park/East Walnut Hills’ so people would know where it was,” Ed says. “Now people seek out spots in East Walnut Hills.”

While the Pfetzing’s have rented two of their four storefronts, they are not open to any takers. In fact, they take their time, looking for entrepreneurs who will not only run a successful shop, but also contribute to the community.

“It’s more about ideas and energy than money,” Carol says. “We could rent the spaces easily, but we want people who need and recognize the community.”

One such person is Catherine Meguire, owner of Le Bon Vivant, a shop that features fine French food and products. She opened her doors in one of the Pfetzing’s storefronts in May of 2011.

“I’m an urbanite through and through,” Meguire says. “This location is great because it’s easy for people to get to from anywhere in the city. We need to make this a destination for it to flourish.”

The past year brought a rush of new tenants: Skinny Pig, Hi-Bred Vintage and CLEAR, a yoga and Pilates studio, along with Meguire’s shop. One storefront has been occupied by Manifest Gallery since 2004. The gallery, which has shown art from as far away as Germany, was opened, in part, after studies showed that the arts play a vital role in the rebirth of depressed communities.

“I’ve been working here two years,” says Joanna Vance, office manager of Manifest. “The change is great. I’ve brought friends down here that hadn’t been in a while, and they’re shocked to see how much has opened.”

Ed was one of the first people Manifest co-founder Jason Franz consulted when looking for a space in East Walnut Hills. Ed referred him to another landlord in the area. Soon after, Franz opened Manifest and has watched the community change ever since.

“These are all entrepreneurs who have fire in their belly,” Ed says. “We don’t knock on people’s door offering cheaper rent. We want it all to happen organically.”

Back at Café DeSales, which Carol refers to as the “Community Breakfast Room,” the Pfetzing’s know every diner. Many sit down and join the conversation for a few minutes before placing their orders. One man who joins the conversation is Dan Joyner, a seven-year EWH resident and a civic and community revitalization consultant. “It’s about creating spaces for people to go,” Joyner says. “The patio out front is a great example.”

The patio, on the corner of Woodburn and Madison, took shape after a conversation just like that. Ed and Carol were talking with other community members about what they could do to improve their neighborhood. Carol sketched the patio on a bar napkin, as a symbol of a gathering space that was both inviting and inclusive. Years later, that patio is a popular reality that serves as a cornerstone for the entire community.
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