Neighborhood Heroes: Bellevue's collective impact

The small town allure of Bellevue makes you forget downtown Cincinnati is less than two miles way across the river.

Family-owned establishments line Bellevue’s Fairfield Avenue as it follows the path of the Ohio River east from Newport, and neighbors greet each other by name as they purchase candies at Schneider’s Sweet Shop or grab coffee at Avenue Brew. Bellevue’s easy charm is no accident. It’s the result of deliberate effort from its exceedingly humble residents. 

Each person interviewed saw someone else in Bellevue as the real hero. They spoke of neighbors who helped a 95-year-old woman fix up her home, police officers who gained admiration through their inordinate kindness and a city councilman who created little free libraries.

Those anecdotes, as well as the stories of Bellevue heroes featured here, illustrate the collective impact that’s possible when everyone does his or her small part to create a vibrant community. 

This is the third story in the Soapbox series “Neighborhood Heroes,” which celebrates everyday folks who do what they can do to make their corners of the world better and as a result become the heartbeat of their communities. Previous stories focused on Pleasant Ridge and on Walnut Hills.

Bridget Vogt

Five years ago, Bridget Vogt decided to start a community garden in Bellevue that was more about community than the plants themselves. There would be no fences and no individual plots. It would truly be a garden for everyone by everyone.
“The people I met had a vision of the garden being a place where people could meet each other, not so much focused on gardening perfection, although we do produce some stuff,” Vogt says.

Neighbors can stop by the city-owned plot at the end of Pflueger Alley just once without feeling guilty for not continuing on a regular basis, and kids can jump in rather than being told they’ll mess up something.
“I heard a boy recently informing people when they should return to help,” Vogt says. “He’s as much in charge as anyone else, and he’s probably 11 or 12. It’s given him structure and a role. A lady walked by one time and shouted at him to get out. I was like, ‘No, no, he belongs here!’” 

Vogt is pleased that the community garden has become a tool for empowering youth, allowing kids to meet adults who can continue to support them over time.

“Some kids are known through reputation,” Vogt says, “but I think me seeing them as good kids changes how they see themselves and how the rest of the class sees them. There’s a lot of ways they can feel successful here.

“It’s great when a boy comes down and says, ‘Guess what, I’m Student of the Month,’ and he’s as excited to tell us and invite us to his concert as he is to invite his dad. And then we show up! It’s great to see that. That’s the beauty of Bellevue.”
Along with forming the garden, Vogt continues to look for other opportunities to help residents utilize their talents and build community. Her latest project is Cantastic, an effort funded with support from ArtsWave to bring art to the community by commissioning Bellevue artists to transform garbage cans into murals.

“It’s another way to bring out wonderful things our neighbors can do,” she says. “If we keep helping neighbors find unique ways to contribute, we’ll continue to be very lucky to be residents of Bellevue.”

Diane Witte

Diane Witte lived in Bellevue until she was 9 and remembers it as a place where everyone, rich and poor, had two things in common — their homes were well-kept and their top priority was their children’s education. When she moved back in 1970, she was pleased to find not much had changed. 

By the 1980s, though, local residents were replaced by out-of-town landlords who took less pride in their properties. Stores and restaurants made way for vacant buildings and one-room apartments. 

“People were moving to the suburbs,” Witte says. “But in my opinion it’s better to stay in town, keep it stable and build it up.”

That’s exactly what she did. Witte helped create historic preservation districts in Bellevue in 1987, and as a result building owners were mandated to preserve or renew the integrity of their properties and were held to higher standards. She also formed a beautification group and started placing hanging baskets around town, graduating to creating flower gardens on street corners, painting chain link fences and making handmade flags to line Fairfield Avenue.

“This stabilized the town and began to turn things back around,” she says. “If people feel unsafe driving through, they’re not going to stop. We didn’t ask permission (to hang the flower baskets). We just did it. We stood on our cars to water them.”

Witte and her sister Denise later opened Bellevue Bistro in an effort to spur development.

“We hoped if people saw we could make a go of it, they would try, too,”  Witte says.

She was right. Soon after they started the Bistro, a bead store opened across the street. An art gallery followed, and the momentum hasn’t stopped since.

Witte sold the restaurant nine years ago to care for her ill husband, but it remains a neighborhood asset that draws customers from miles around. She says Bellevue today is better than ever before.

“Now it’s a mix of people from different places, which I think is very important,” she says. “I’m impressed by how the young people try to bring their community together. I’m more than happy to see them take it and run with it.”

Witte believes the key to a successful community is positivity and perseverance. “It’s really important to always say, ‘We can do this, we can fix this, don’t tell us we can’t because we can.’”

Sean Fisher

When Sean Fisher and his wife moved to Bellevue four years ago, they fell in love with it right away.

“It has a small town feel but with great restaurants and bars, and it’s just a quick walk or bike ride to downtown,” he says. “Bellevue is shockingly friendly. The community is tight-knit, and people have each other’s backs.”

The more people he met, the more he realized that the town’s success wasn’t the result of one strong leader but of each resident’s unique contribution. He intended to step up as well.

As a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP program in urban studies, Fisher hoped to contribute by joining Bellevue’s Planning Commission and Board of Adjustments.

“When I moved in, Bellevue was creating a comprehensive plan,” he says. “I was really impressed and tried to contribute to fostering walkable, green and diverse development.”

He’s particularly focused on ensuring that economic growth is consistent with Bellevue’s long-term goals.

“We have valuable real estate by the river,” he says. “It’s important to select developments that help the whole community and enrich our existing character.”

Sitting in meetings and looking over proposals isn’t the flashiest way to get involved, and that’s exactly what makes Fisher special, according to Bellevue Councilman Ryan Salzman.

“Sean is a Bellevue hero because he sacrifices his time and energy to serve on boards that make very important decisions for our community,” Salzman says. “He has vision and works to bring that vision to fruition.”

Dru Bricking

Without fanfare, Dru Bricking has volunteered with Bellevue Public Schools nearly full-time for the last three and a half years. She doesn’t do it because she has children there — they’re grown with kids of their own. Instead, she does it simply because she can.

“I get a kick out of it,” Bricking says. “I enjoy seeing other people happy, and if I can make someone’s job a little easier it’s worth it.”

She describes her work as making copies and stocking shelves, but the staff members she supports say she does much more.

Grandview Elementary School first grade teacher Heather Young describes Bricking as selfless, giving and special, recounting the many hours she spends just with first grade students alone. Young says Bricking is always willing to jump in and help, no matter what the project.

The school’s Family Resource Center (FRC) Coordinator Rob Sanders says Bricking is a godsend.

“The FRC serves children and families who experience wide-ranging issues, from hunger to abuse to homelessness and more,” Sanders says. “Each Friday afternoon Dru is there to help distribute our ‘Power Packs’ that provide basic nutrition for students over the weekend. Dru spearheads our annual Santa Shop, designed to teach children about giving as well as money management and budgeting. Dru directs the school-wide holiday food drive that helps provide Thanksgiving meals for over 50 families annually. The yearly Christmas Assistance program that’s served hundreds of children over the years would never get off the ground without her.
“More importantly, Dru provides love and support for any child, or adult for that matter, who walks in needing someone to talk to or feel connected to.” 
Bricking hopes that others will join her in getting involved, even if it’s just for an hour a week.

“If I can do it, anyone can,” she says. “Every little bit makes a difference.”
Tell us about heroes in your neighborhood: Send suggestions for future “Neighborhood Heroes” stories to [email protected].
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Read more articles by Holly End.

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