Neighborhood Heroes: Working behind the scenes in Pleasant Ridge


In a recent Facebook survey, people were asked who their heroes are and why. Celebrities and captains of industry didn’t make the cut — rather, the heroes generally were everyday folks who did what they could do to make their corners of the world better.

In a similar vein, Cincinnati is filled with unlikely and unheralded folks who are the heartbeat of our communities. We all know someone who's emerged as a "hero" in our neighborhood — a person helping turn a failing school into a national model, saving a library, promoting arts and culture or protecting the environment and, in these small ways, ensuring that their friends, family and neighbors thrive.

Pleasant Ridge is just one of 52 Cincinnati neighborhoods, but it's as good a place as any to demonstrate the impact that everyday people can have. It's perhaps best known these days for Everybody’s Records, late night favorite Pleasant Ridge Chili and new development on a prominent corner, but residents are also gaining notoriety for their stubborn determination to nurture the community.
 

Ruth Anne Wolfe

“If you’d told me at 25 that the most radical thing I could do was be a PTO co-president, I wouldn’t have believed you, but it’s absolutely where revolution is,” Ruth Anne Wolfe says, referring to her volunteer work at Pleasant Ridge Montessori (PRM). “This is where we can prove children can learn in a public school.”
 
When Wolfe’s daughter enrolled in kindergarten in 2006, Pleasant Ridge Elementary had been in academic emergency for a decade and was being overhauled as a Montessori school. She recalls, “I said those fateful words: ‘It’s only nine months. How bad could it be?’”
 
When classes started, she had her answer. The lack of resources was overwhelming, 98 percent of students were beneath the poverty line and teachers were in survival mode. Only four people attended an early fundraising meeting she attended.
 
“They were talking about raising $200,” Wolfe says. “I’m thinking, ‘$200? We need to raise $60,000!’”
 
By the end of that year, most new families with the ability to do so had left the K-8 school. She and her husband were faced with the question, “Should we stay or should we go?”
 
“We’ve talked social justice my whole dang life, but there it was, my child,” she says. “We decided if we were going to be there I was going to help make it work.” 
 
Her law firm took a backseat, and PRM became her full-time job.  She founded PRM Foundation, co-chaired the PTO, volunteered in classrooms, started a gifted program, donated financially and recruited volunteers.
 
Soon the school began to thrive. Enrollment grew from 314 students in 2006 to 640 this year. 
 
“Middle-class people decided it’s OK and cool to send their children to school in their own neighborhood,” Wolfe says. “This brings resources and a push for quality for all children.” 
 
Last year, parent groups reached Wolfe’s original $60,000 goal, providing everything from classroom materials to a nature playscape. More than 150 volunteers now help PRM flourish.
 
“I saw something bigger than me that was worth my time, energy and imagination and affected my own child but also society,” Wolfe said. “The big prize of a peaceful community that’s economically and socially diverse is worth striving for. Life is better and richer and fuller if you do.”
 
 
Elliott Jordan

African artifacts, acrylic paintings from the Dominican Republic and Elliott Jordan’s original artwork fill his storefront gallery on Ridge Road, and in his studio next door dozens of paintings await their final touches. Opened in 1995, the Elliott Jordan Studio Gallery seems like any other art space at first glance, but it offers more than meets the eye.
 
“I’m a culturist,” Jordan says. “Ever since I was in college I’ve been a proponent of African and African-American culture, and it has persisted through my life. I study any and all things related to this, and I want to share that with others.”
 
To that end, Jordan creates his own artwork, invites poets to do readings, hosts jazz concerts and teaches classes. Budding artists come from Dayton, Columbus and throughout Cincinnati each week to learn from him. 
 
“Elliott has been a powerful force in developing the arts as a core part of our business district and enhancing the global perspective in our community,” says Pleasant Ridge resident Julie Olberding. “Elliott’s studio has helped attract other arts-related businesses to set up shop here and individual artists, musicians and other creative people to live here.”
 
This strong arts community was the foundation for District A, started in 1997 by Maria Kreppel as a citizens’ initiative to promote the multiplying of arts assets in Pleasant Ridge and Kennedy Heights. 
 
“You have a story going on, and the arts are the musical background,” Jordan says. “It gives a theme to the neighborhood, softens the commercial edge and provides community richness.”
 
As part of the District A initiative, Jordan created an art exhibit in 2011 at Pleasant Ridge Public Library called Beyond Black & White, highlighting lesser known interracial friendships in history. It was fitting for a neighborhood Elliott describes as diverse and peaceful.
 
“There are a variety of interesting people here from one pole to the other,” he says.
 
Jordan believes strongly in the power of art to shape our world.
 
“It’s like the juice, the flavor of life,” he says. “It gives it more value. You’ve got one chance to live your life — you should enjoy as much of it as you can.”
 
 
Mary Ann Phalen & Diane Roketenetz

Mary Ann Phalen grew up in Pleasant Ridge and often frequented the library, befriending librarians who set aside books they knew she’d like. Her love for the library grew as she brought her five children to the same branch.
 
Then in 2006 Phalen heard the neighborhood branch might be on the chopping block, its lack of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations a key factor. She and her friend Diane Roketenetz decided that, if the library needed to be ADA compliant, they’d make it happen — a daunting task, considering the $1.3 million price tag.
 
With no time to waste, they rallied neighbors around the cause. Their first stop was Nativity Church, where with Fr. Paul Deluca’s help they collected 500 signatures to present to the library board in their appeal to save the branch. While the board was impressed by the groundswell of support, they expressed trepidation about considering improvements — what was the point when they may have to close the branch anyway due to funding constraints?
 
The group persevered. Nativity students rallied on Fountain Square, Pleasant Ridge Community Council established a fund for library renovation and renderings of a renovation proposal were created pro bono to present to the library board. The board suggested that if the community could raise one-third of the costs, they would cover the rest — doubting the residents would succeed. They underestimated Pleasant Ridge.
 
Phalen and Roketenetz garnered support from local businesses, foundations and over 550 residents who held home tours, garage sales and even lemonade stands. After five years of tireless work, they proudly presented a check for $326,000 at the project’s April 2011 groundbreaking and additionally raised $32,000 in in-kind donations.
 
“What you have done here and what, of course, hundreds of other people have joined with you to get done is a perfect example of cooperation and collaboration and the best possible definition of community,” said Paul Sittenfeld,  Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County trustee, in a 2012 letter to Phalen and Roketenetz.
 
The library now boasts increased accessibility, additional parking and expanded gathering space. Last year 131,868 patrons visited the library, but none of it would have been possible without the determined bookworms.
 
 
Carl and Marjorie Evert

Carl and Marjorie Evert, 91 and 85 respectively, moved to Pleasant Ridge in 1954 and have worked tirelessly to help the community live up to its name. About 35 years ago, they learned that the Hilton Davis chemical plant had contaminated 81 acres of soil and lagoons with the potential to pollute the entire neighborhood and beyond.
 
“These were carcinogens,” Carl said.  “If this had been left alone the incidence of cancer would have gone up, not to mention that people were moving out of Pleasant Ridge because of the fumes.”
 
They formed Citizens Concerned About Hilton Davis in 1980, but the group's concerns were ignored. Undeterred, they sued the EPA for not enforcing clean air laws and won, leading to a 1986 consent decree mandating a clean-up that would cost more than $50 million.
 
Enforcing and implementing the decree, however, was another matter. The Everts worked tirelessly with Kodak (the property owner), the City of Cincinnati and the Ohio EPA to transform the site into a safe location for development. They met monthly with the groups for over 15 years.
 
“The EPA became cooperative when they realized we weren’t going away,” Carl says.
 
“The people who did the dredging (clean-up) wore the equivalent of space suits to protect themselves,” Marjorie says, chuckling. “All of it in the face of the company swearing there was no contamination.”
 
All told, the Everts spent more than 2,000 hours on this effort over 30 years. The lagoons were cleaned, the water was treated, the soil was removed and the EPA must continue to monitor groundwater for the next 30 years.
 
In addition, the Everts’ work led to the creation of Cincinnati’s Office of Environmental Quality in 1992 and clean air laws exceeding state mandates.
 
“I think Pleasant Ridge would have been empty by now if we hadn’t gotten that site cleaned up,” Carl said. “We just didn’t let it die. It was worth the fight.
 
Tell us about heroes in your neighborhood: Send suggestions for future profile stories to cincyheroes@gmail.com.
 

Read more articles by Holly End.

Holly End is a freelance writer and published author from Pleasant Ridge.
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