Twenty years ago, Walnut Hills was a neighborhood plagued by crime, economic depression and resulting population loss. But residents didn’t go down without a fight; for the sake of their beloved community, a handful of citizens organized to address issues like education, housing, social services and safety.
Today, safety and quality of life are better in Walnut Hills, which are the evidence of the tenacity of those community leaders and the others who have joined them. Lower crime rates, together with economic investments and housing developments in the area, are helping attract a diverse group of residents.
Now, the future of Walnut Hills depends on cooperation between old and new leaders and their shared commitment to providing a safe community for all residents.
Click below to hear a conversation with former sheriff's deputy and Walnut Hills security guard John Maclanagan, whose community policing efforts were instrumental in shaping the increased safety residents enjoy today.
Community policing tackles roots of safety issues
Walnut Hills shares many of the safety issues present in similar mixed-income urban communities, but while theft, vandalism and other property crimes are still common, violent crimes are increasingly rare. A few years ago, Walnut Hills ranked highest in violent crimes among Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods. But as of December 2016, that figure was on the decline with shootings, for example, dropping more than 30 percent.
In a disappointing turn, Walnut Hills welcomed 2017 with two widely reported violent crimes. One, a homicide in a vacant housing complex; the other, random victimization of a local resident. While much has improved, instances like these perpetuate a decades-old misconception of Walnut Hills as a haven for criminal activity — even though community leaders and statistics tell a different story.
Officer Kandice Roper-Issa is a familiar face in Walnut Hills. As its designated Neighborhood Officer, she works closely with the Walnut Hills Area Council
’s safety committee to exercise Cincinnati Police Department’s Community Problem Oriented Policing
strategy. CPOP supports cooperative engagement between police and residents with a shared goal of improved safety. Unlike a standard patrol officer, Neighborhood Officers are given extra time and resources to investigate chronic and urgent problems and to address the roots of community safety issues from the street level.
Racial and economic diversity is a hallmark of the Walnut Hills community. Amid the current economic boom, community leaders are working hard to maintain that diversity, but high concentrations of poverty and low-income housing pose significant challenges. Among them are the absentee landlords and quality-of-life issues that often plague subsidized housing. This challenge is most clearly evident in places like The Alms building on Victory Parkway, a landmark property that has long been a known hotspot for code violations and criminal activity.
One of the greatest challenges in addressing safety in low-income areas, Roper-Issa says, is a lack of “guardianship” among residents. But creating a safe neighborhood means holding both landlords and residents responsible for maintaining a decent standard of living and safety. An additional challenge is that criminal behavior is often a generational problem, a cycle that is hard to break, especially from the outside.
“My personal goal is for people to know that they have a right to feel safe and to be able to stand up for their street and their neighborhood,” Roper-Issa says. “That they are empowered where they live, whether they pay market rate, don’t pay rent or pay two dollars a month. Who cares? You have a standard of living and that’s your right.”
According to police sources within District 4
— the district that oversees Walnut Hills; neighboring East Walnut Hills falls under District 2
— criminal acts are often perpetrated in the same few places among the same few people, and in many cases, by people who don’t even live in the neighborhood.
“We’re dealing with a cultural issue,” Officer Roper-Issa says. “We have to learn how to address that. We can’t just arrest that away. That’s something the community needs to address together.”
Two-pronged path to safety: community investment and partnerships
Modern law enforcement is more holistic than it used to be. In addition to partnering with police, the Walnut Hills Area Council is joined in the fight by the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation
, local faith-based groups, the Bush Recreation Center
and local agencies like Urban League
and the Anti-Drug Coalition
Together, these stakeholders have implemented methods for promoting a safe, strong community through means other than law enforcement: Residents and leaders have planted community gardens
in once-vacant lots; invested the neighborhood public school
; addressed concerns about food security, employment opportunities and shared amenities; and worked to activate public spaces like the new Green Man Park
for increased community engagement.
Katie Neltner has spent the past two years chairing the council’s safety committee. She helped implement its new crime-prevention initiatives.
“In recent years, the new development in our neighborhood has been a deterrent,” Neltner says. “Lighting and neighborhood cleanups have definitely helped deter crime, as well. New programming in the neighborhood has helped increase the sense of community, which in turn helps fight crime.”
Roper-Issa and some community leaders also attribute the decrease in crime to the Neighborhood Enhancement Program
, which is a partnership between the City of Cincinnati and neighborhood stakeholders designed to funnel city services into addressing the unique issues of a specific community.
Walnut Hills took part in the 90-day NEP in 2014, during which time the city addressed code violations, infrastructure improvements, traffic concerns and crime. Meanwhile, partners like Keep Cincinnati Beautiful
worked with the community to tackle litter, blight, vacant lots and illegal dumping at crime hotspots around the neighborhood. Evidence of this program is still visible today.
Passing the torch for a safe community
Many of the leaders who helped the community turn the corner 20 and 30 years ago are now eager to groom younger residents for leadership roles in Walnut Hills. With this new leadership, crime prevention and safety are still top priorities.
“Safety is one of, if not the most important issue in our community,” Neltner says. “Thankfully, we have a lot of engagement from our neighborhood residents.”
As an example of the exciting things in store for 2017, Neltner cites the forthcoming youth baseball league, which will be headed up by local resident and former minor-leaguer George Smith. Residents hope the league will bring new life to a vacant baseball field and engage area youth in positive interaction with peers and coaches.
This month, Smith took over the position as chair of the Walnut Hills Area Council’s safety committee while Neltner transitions into her role as secretary. Surrounded by those who walked this road before them, Smith, Neltner and other leaders will implement solutions to problems old and new.
Officer Roper-Issa is excited about this new chapter for Walnut Hills. She looks forward to working with a new generation of leaders who can present innovative ideas for community policing and help reenergize tried-and-true programs such as Citizens on Patrol
and the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence
Roper-Issa has faith in the people of Walnut Hills and their ability to change both the perception and the reality of crime in their neighborhood. “Walnut Hills has some issues,” she says. “But residents aren’t backing down. We have genuinely good people who live here and the community is committed to it. They aren’t going anywhere. They believe this is something they can overcome.”
On The Ground in Walnut Hills is underwritten by Place Matters partners LISC and United Way and the neighborhood nonprofit the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, who are collectively working together for community transformation. Additional support is provided by development partners Neyer Properties and CASTO. Data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center. Prestige AV and Creative Services is Soapbox’s official technology partner.