How Linda Holterhoff has improved Cincinnati's neighborhoods for over 20 years

See a problem, find a way to solve it.
To Linda Holterhoff of Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, it really is that simple. With more than 30 years spent tirelessly improving the quality of life in Cincinnati neighborhoods, her career is a testament to the fruit of pursuing a vision, taking big risks and staying the course.
As she prepares for her retirement, Holterhoff reflects back on her tenure with the organization, how it’s grown and changed under her leadership and what she’s learned about building a clean and safe community.

Making Cincinnati great again
Holterhoff is a Cincinnati native. Both of her parents’ families were from Over-the-Rhine and she lived in Mt. Auburn, on Inwood Place, for her first four years. Even though her parents relocated to Oakley and then Springdale in her youth, she’s always seen downtown as her first “home” and has fond memories of all their return visits to her aunts’ and grandparents’ homes as she grew.
“I saw it when it was in its heyday, basically, when Over-the-Rhine was 50,000 people,” she says. “When there were houses all the way down Sycamore on either side of the street. … It was totally different. As kids, we’d go downtown and wear hats and dresses and little gloves. … Downtown was really thriving. We would take the streetcar down to Shillito’s Department Store to look at the displays. There was just so much energy.”

By the time Holterhoff returned home to Cincinnati in the late 1970s after college, downtown and Over-the-Rhine had changed. After seeing what it had been years before, she wanted to be a part of making it great again.
“Coming back all those years later and starting my career with Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, it was really sad to see the changes,” She remembers. “But, you know, I’m an optimist. So I looked at it as an opportunity to do something.”
Keep Cincinnati Beautiful (KCB) is the local affiliate of the national organization Keep America Beautiful and has been a Tristate mainstay for over three decades. Launched by the City Manager and a member of City Council in 1981, the nonprofit organization now works closely with Hamilton County, the City of Cincinnati and regional neighborhood organizations to address issues of litter and blight while increasing community pride, recycling and sustainability.
Cincinnati residents have benefitted from KCB’s programs whether they realize it or not, and Holterhoff has been behind it all for nearly its entire existence. Under her leadership, KCB has brought the city such campaigns as “Don’t Trash the ’Nati” and “Littering Is Wrong Too,” plus programs like the Great American Cleanup. Most notably, Holterhoff was instrumental in making Cincinnati the first city of its size with a full-scale curbside recycling program.

Social work and community change

Holterhoff has served as the Executive Director of KCB for over 20 years, but her work with the organization began in the early ’80s when she joined the staff as educator and program manager. With a professional history in social work and a personal interest in recycling and sustainability, the organization was a great fit.
A child during the hippie movement of the late ’60s, Holterhoff was a student at Ohio State University when she first caught on to campaigns like Earth Day and the back-to-the-land movement. A few years later, she found her way back to Cincinnati and brought her commitment to recycling and sustainable living with her.
Holterhoff worked for a few years as a social worker at the Citizens Committee on Youth’s youth services bureau in Northside. There, she discovered that her greatest skills were in developing programs and planning events. When it was time to move on, she found the perfect opportunity with Keep Cincinnati Beautiful.
In its infancy, Keep Cincinnati Beautiful was called Clean Cincinnati. At that time in the early ’80s, David Mann was Mayor (he’s back in office as Vice Mayor) and Pete Rose was KCB’s first official spokesperson.

At its start, the organization had a tiny staff that worked with city officials to address the problem of litter: educating residents, creating ordinances, etc. Holterhoff worked for a few years with KCB as an educator and then stepped down to stay home with her two daughters while serving on the Board of Trustees.
There was no curbside recycling program available for Cincinnati residents in the ’80s. So, back at home, people like Holterhoff who wanted to recycle had to do much of the work on their own. She turned her basement into a makeshift materials sorting facility and delivered bags of recyclables around town to wherever they were being collected.
The City of Cincinnati was working out a plan for waste reduction at that time and was planning to build a mass burn incinerator. Environmentalists fought the plan and instead suggested a citywide recycling plan. In 1988, in order to help the city develop its recycling program, Keep Cincinnati Beautiful created a position for a Recycling Program Manager and Holterhoff hopped back on staff.
The next few years were spent hand-sorting trash, weighing percentages and investigating recycling markets in the region to create a viable recycling program. By the time the city’s program was ready to launch, it was poised to collect aluminum, paper and both PET and HDPE plastics from the waste stream, diverting up to 12 percent of residential waste from the landfill.

A household recycling program of this scope was a significant undertaking for the City of Cincinnati. Seeing it come together was “a thrill” for Holterhoff and one of the highlights of her career.
Roxanne Qualls, who served as Mayor in the mid-1990s and then on City Council as Vice Mayor from 2007 to 2013, became one of Holterhoff’s greatest allies in promoting sustainability at the city level. Holterhoff remembers the curbside recycling program as their first major project together, and they’ve had a strong working relationship since then.

Qualls sees Holterhoff as a strong, leader with an “indomitable spirit.”
“She can do anything she likes,” Qualls says, “She is a proven leader, administrator and manager.”
The success of the curbside recycling program established Keep Cincinnati Beautiful as a trusted resource for the city and Holterhoff as a reliable leader, but there was much more work to be done. Holterhoff was going to make sure it happened.
She moved into the role of Executive Director in 1994, and KCB entered an era of extensive growth and development.

An evolving organization for a changing city
Keep Cincinnati Beautiful started with the issue of litter and expanded into recycling, but that wasn’t the end of the story. Between her affection for the city, her training in social work and her commitment to sustainability and quality of life issues, Holterhoff saw KCB through a lot of growth over the next 20 years.
On paper, the mission of Keep Cincinnati Beautiful is “to educate and encourage individuals to take greater responsibility for improving their community environments.” Under her leadership, KCB’s programming has stretched into issues of sustainable infrastructure, community education and strategic community revitalization.

The organization enacts creative, innovative solutions for solving the quality-of-life issues facing Cincinnati neighborhoods — litter, graffiti, illegal dumping, vacant properties, etc.
Holterhoff comes by this work honestly, believing that everyone deserves to live in a good place that’s clean, safe and beautiful. That’s the Cincinnati she remembers from her youth, and it’s the vision she’s pursuing for its future.
Barb Wriston-Ruddy has been on staff at KCB for 13 years and has seen the organization grow and thrive, and she credits Holterhoff’s leadership with its success.
“Linda lives and breathes her belief that everyone has the right to live in a clean, beautiful and safe community,” Wriston-Ruddy says. “Under her direction, KCB has been recognized as an award-winning affiliate of Keep America Beautiful and serves as a model for other organizations to follow. In Cincinnati, Linda has been a key partner with city administrators and police to develop strategies to tackle neighborhood blight and crime.”
Under Holterhoff’s direction, KCB has become a go-to resource for Cincinnati community leaders who need to see a change but aren’t sure how to make it happen. She’s thankful for her strong partnerships with the city, the Department of Public Services and the Police Department — and she’s quick to mention that none of this would be possible without KCB’s sponsors — but working alongside these community leaders has been one of her greatest joys. These are the people she says have “taught her the most” and made her career such a pleasure. 
Wriston-Ruddy says that watching Holterhoff at work is one thing she’s enjoyed most about working under her.

“Linda's enthusiasm and commitment to working in neighborhoods has been contagious,” she says. “It makes me smile thinking of past cleanup events and Linda working side by side with community members. She always made each person feel that they were valued and celebrated their community efforts.”
Holterhoff is committed to the KCB mission and isn’t afraid to jump a few hurdles to get there. The evolution of the organization over the past 10 years from is proof.
“I can see what it could be and I’ve never been afraid to step off and do something about it,” she says. “Luckily I’ve had staff this last five years that has stepped off with me. … It amazes me that we’ve been able to basically make things out of thin air.”

Leaving a legacy
The legacy that Holterhoff leaves as she steps into retirement this year is more than just the strong, effective organization she helped build. Her imprint is on neighborhoods all over the city.
One of her favorite stories to tell is of a young boy who stopped on his bicycle in Over-the-Rhine to look at a vacant building being painted by KCB’s arts department. He watched them bring the building to life with KCB’s signature faux doors and windows and said, “I know what that is! It’s a home!”
“That’s exactly what makes you want to stop and cry,” Holterhoff says, recalling the story, “because you know you hit a homerun with these kids.”
One less blighted vacant building. One more bright place in a struggling neighborhood. One more child with a sense of “home.” That’s the legacy that Holterhoff leaves as she steps down from Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, the same one she set off to build 20 years ago.
For a woman who hasn’t sat still much for 20 years, retirement is still a bit of a mystery. So Holterhoff hasn’t made many concrete plans for the future. She looks forward to some down time but says, “I’m not going to go home and knit, that’s for sure.”
Holterhoff is confident that Keep Cincinnati Beautiful and the City of Cincinnati will be fine without her. The organization has never been stronger, and she says the city is on a roll.

“I don’t think anything can stand in its way,” she says, believing that things will only get better from here. And it’s not a stretch to believe that’s in small part thanks to her.

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.
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