Call it IMBY. By tending to one neglected plot of land, a small Over-the-Rhine community took the “not” out of NIMBY and stood the disengaged “Not In My Backyard” ethic on its head. It started in 1989, when Ken Cunningham and John Spencer moved to Main Street and immediately set to work rehabbing the decrepit park in their new backyard.
To hear Cunningham tell it, the park was paved over and festooned with a rusty play set that bore more resemblance to a torture device than a tool of innocent fun for city schoolchildren.
“A public latrine,” Cunningham says someone aptly dubbed the park. Cunningham and Spencer, partners in local architectural firm Kenneth Cunningham and Associates, Inc. (KCAI), couldn’t simply ignore the decay on the corner of Melindy and Clay streets.
“Because I’m a landscape architect, I couldn’t have this business going on outside my door,” Cunningham says. “It wasn’t very good for business.”
They put in a call to the park board director, who took one look at the play set and had it cut down the next day.
While Cunningham and Spencer started clearing away the debris in the park, they also began mentoring nine children and two families who lived on the other side of it. But in ‘89 the process had only just begun. It took seven years to convince the city of Cincinnati to turn the land over to their care.
“I made hundreds of telephone calls,” Cunningham says. “It’s out of that that I realized a project like this, you can’t really slow it up and you can’t speed it up, it’s its own time.”
Finally they secured a lease for 99 years for $1 per year. In the meantime, the park had attracted a coalition of 35-some neighbors. These included Patricia Klein and Reid Hartmann, who moved to Main Street 3 ½ years ago and immediately started nosing around Northern Row Park. They fell in with Cunningham and Spencer, and the rehabilitation process lurched forward.
“We had to do a lot of grant-writing to get the money to do anything,” Klein says.
Then things really started to take seed in what Cunningham calls “an unexpected wealth.”
In 2005 the city called to offer the paving stones dug up from the renovation of Government Square bus terminal.
“Here come 12 pallets of granite paving we could never have afforded,” Cunningham says.
Hours of grant-writing paid off as money started coming in from Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, Procter & Gamble, the city of Cincinnati’s Safe and Clean Neighborhood Fund and other foundations.
When they saw what was happening, individual donors came forward to contribute; there was a single donation of $10,000. Volunteers have now raised nearly $80,000 for the park.
The park coalition installed lighting and had a wrought-iron fence erected. They saved the graceful ash trees and a couple shrubs and used a jackhammer to dig up asphalt in order to re-soil and replant the rest. People started showing up bearing flats of vegetation to add to the community garden.
On Great American Cleanup day, the whole neighborhood pitched in to help install the pavers from Government Square.
“I think it brought everybody together on cleanup day to really accomplish a task,” Klein says. “We met more neighbors that day than we did probably the year before that we had lived there.”
The park also gives the community an idea of what can be done when a bunch of people get together to make something happen, Klein says.
“It’s not just ‘When are they going to do it?’” she says. “Whenever someone says that, I always ask who ‘they’ is.
“If you can’t answer who ‘they’ is, then you just need to do it.”
Like-minded collectives of “yous” are getting their hands dirty for greenspaces in other parts of Over the Rhine and throughout the country. Just a couple blocks from Northern Row Park, another community garden blooms at the east end of Liberty Street, Cunningham says, while New York City residents organize on a larger scale to upgrade Hudson River Park.
On June 17, 2006, Northern Row Park played host to Klein and Hartmann’s wedding. In 2007 Northern Row Park got its own rededication ceremony.
On more ordinary days there’s the occasional cookout or gathering. And always there are dozens — and just dozens — of dogs.
The park was a “tremendous lifting of the spirit” for the Northern Main Street neighborhood, Cunningham says.
“I never realized that we’d have 35 volunteers that are now homeowners,” he says. “Now literally 35 homeowners participate in the management and development of the park.”
Over-the-Rhine is important for its history and architecture, but also because it’s “downtown’s neighborhood,” immediately adjacent to the Central Business District and economic heart of the city, Cunningham says.
Klein believes that a tiny park in Over the Rhine is important because it defies the media’s image — and the neighborhood’s own perception — of Over-the-Rhine as a dump.
“Over-the-Rhine is a good window into society, into diversity, into how to make people get along and work together, into how to fight urban degeneration,” she says.
The work isn’t finished. In the park’s future lies a community services pavilion whose backdrop will serve as a screen for movies.
Residents and volunteers can keep abreast of park and other neighborhood goings-on via a Yahoo chat group. Though it’s probably easier to just meet up in the park.
“Everybody gets together, and that’s how the news gets passed around,” Cunningham says.
Yet there’s no trash, people pick up after their pets, and the park’s remained largely free of vandalism.
Cunningham believes that people cherish and care for this new Northern Row Park because they see their fingerprints on it.
“A couple kids will come through, 7 feet tall and 13 years old, and they’ll go like this” — he uses his hands to waft air up to his nose in imitation— “’Oh boy, there’s nothing like fresh air.’”
In the middle of Over-the-Rhine, that’s a minor miracle.Photography by Scott Beseler