Walnut Hills / E. Walnut Hills

On The Ground: Music, diversity, collaboration connect Walnut Hills

Music brings people together: Joe Sandman at the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation understands that. He, and others who appreciate the scene thriving across the re-emerging neighborhood, are using music as a tool for community development. And it’s working.
Sandman said: “We piloted our Music Off McMillan series in the summer of 2015 with seven weekends featuring performers at several venues.” Initial locations were The Brew House (1047 E. McMillan St.), The Greenwich (2442 Gilbert Ave.) and Fireside Pizza (773 E. McMillan). “We also had musicians busking on the streets between them. Our goal was to encourage walkability in the Walnut Hills Business District.”
Sandman took the success of 2015 and refined Music Off McMillan for 2016, presenting five events on first Saturdays, June through October.

“We hired featured bands with city-wide profiles to elevate awareness,” he said.

Napoleon Maddox and his hip-hop collective Is What?! kicked things off at Fireside Pizza in June, followed by Jesse Lamb at The Greenwich in July. The Ingrid Rachel Project performed at a new venue, the barbecue joint Just Q’in (975 E. McMillan), in August. The Hiders entertained a crowd at The Brew House in September, and HuTown Holler finished the series at the newly spruced-up Five Points Alley off Gilbert Avenue, in conjunction with popular Over-the-Rhine restaurant Gomez Salsa, which introduced a second location at 2437 Gilbert.
To round out each Saturday, nine other bands were hired, mostly from the neighborhood. Buskers, including Walnut Hills resident Baba Charles and Spirit Nine — a collective of drummers and singers — were back for 2016 and were enthusiastically welcomed by merchants and music lovers. The October musical celebration coincided with WHRF’s popular annual Walnut Hills Street Food Festival.

Watch the below video of Baba Charles discussing his lifelong devotion to creating music in Walnut Hills.

The popularity of Music Off McMillan encouraged ongoing musical efforts at the various host venues.

Laura and Chris Davis, the brother-sister team who now operate The Brew House, were approached by Ric Hordinksi. The professional musician lives in Walnut Hills and runs The Monastery (766 Wm. H. Taft Rd.), a one-time church he’s converted into a recording studio and occasional performance venue. In August, he conducted a one-month “residency” at The Brew House with weekly performances.
Hordinski’s gigs were so well received that the Davises have kept the music going since then, with more month-long residencies. Laura said: “It was really sort of by accident, letting people try something for a month.” The crowds keep growing.
Because of a busy recording schedule with musicians from across the country — the likes of Over The Rhine, The National, David Wilcox and Phil Keaggy — Hordinski doesn’t do a lot of performing at The Monastery. But he’s deeply committed to building connections in the neighborhood. He hosts frequent community meals; sometimes he shows movies. When a neighborhood family couldn’t afford a formal funeral, he even provided space for a memorial service.
Music is always happening at The Monastery, and Hordinski’s long-range plan is to rehab the church’s sanctuary as a 300-400-seat venue for occasional performances. If not for his intercession, the condemned church building would have been demolished years ago.

“The neighborhood needs the space, a place to bring people together," he said. "I place a high priority on making the space available, especially to make music — which is about community building.”
Hordinski also helps numerous young local performers by providing them with studio time. One such artist is Aprina Johnson, a 28-year-old singer who works as a community coordinator for WHRF.

“She’s an interesting mixture as a performer, very eclectic — pop, soul, a bit of Fleetwood Mac; she’s super talented,” Hordinski said. But she lacked “infrastructure,” so he stepped up.
Johnson, originally from Dayton, is enthusiastic about the Walnut Hills music scene. “Music Off McMillan created vibrant street life. I had a chance to perform at The Brew House to a packed house. It felt like home to me. The food there is great, and the music is out of this world.”
Other young musicians find support, training and guidance at the Music Resource Center (3032 Woodburn Ave.), a nonprofit studio that’s a multicultural teen center. MRC uses recording and performing arts to inspire teens and build connectivity between diverse communities. Director and founder Karen D’Agostino says aspiring hip-hop, rock and jazz performers learn about technology and the process required to create and record, paying only two dollars per month instead of using expensive professional studios.
D’Agostino launched MRC in 2007, which is inspired by a program in Charlottesville, Va. Situated on the border of Evanston and Walnut Hills and adjacent to numerous bus routes, MRC rented half the building for several years and then purchased the entire facility. Its various studios are outfitted with recording equipment, some of it donated (Hordinski was an early supporter) and some purchased with funds from local foundations.
Kids come from nearby high schools like Withrow, Hughes, Purcell and beyond. About three-quarters are African American.

D’Agostino said: “We demand a respectful attitude of anyone who wants to be here. Most of them say they feel safer at MRC than at school.”
On a quarterly basis, MRC hosts evening “samplers” to showcase the talent and work of students. Families are invited and a hot meal is served. As many as 80 people have attended at once. “One boy brings 13 family members,” D’Agostino said proudly.
MRC also operates its own low-power FM radio station, WVQC-LP, FM 95.7, with a signal covering Walnut Hills and nearby communities.

“We teach the kids that their music should be radio-ready,” D’Agostino said. “So, a radio station was important.” The looped broadcast playlist is created entirely by teens grades 7-12. There are a few talk programs, including “Your Voice Matters: Make It Heard,” which is funded by ArtsWave.
D’Agostino seeks partnerships and collaborations wherever she can find them. Among other projects, MRC talent produced a promotional jingle for the WHRF.
MRC’s young musicians might eventually find their way to the legendary Greenwich, a neighborhood icon since the late 1950s. The space was originally a popular restaurant, then a venue for jazz and other music, starting in the late 1970s. Cincinnati native Mark Yates became a partner in the club in 1997. Following some renovations that created a 100-seat music room, he reopened with renowned jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal in May 1998.
About 40 percent of the music Yates books today is jazz, including big names like George Benson and Art Blakey, but he has broadened the mix to include blues, especially local professional guitarists Sonny Moorman and Kelly Richey, who each have monthly gigs. Richey is up next on Dec. 17.
“What we do at The Greenwich is a reflection of what’s going on in the neighborhood,” Yates explained. He presents occasional spoken-word events, as well as political fundraisers and candidate forums, and The Greenwich has a second-floor art gallery.
The renaissance of Walnut Hills has supported business growth at The Greenwich, which draws music lovers from all over the Tri-state.

“This has been our strongest year in terms of attendance since I’ve been here,” Yates said. “Maybe two-thirds of our audience comes from other parts of the city. But we see new neighborhood residents, too.”
Yates is truly pleased with the neighborhood’s rebirth, as nurtured by WHRF’s vision for a Walnut Hills that’s “vibrant, safe, healthy and inclusive for all.”

Yates noted: “This neighborhood is a gateway to downtown. Jack Casino is just a quarter-mile down Gilbert Avenue. The Foundation sees The Greenwich as an asset, and they’ve reinforced us as an evening destination with more street lighting.”
Yates’ interest in The Greenwich was as a retirement investment, but he’s now a committed Walnut Hills resident who loves when neighbors drop in. “I want to give back whenever I can. I love being part of something that’s involving and improving.”
Neighborhood was similarly important for musicians Annalisa Pappano, director of the early-music ensemble Catacoustic Consort, and her husband Marcus Kuchle, director of artistic operations for the Cincinnati Opera. Several years ago, the couple bought a home on Upland Place, a street with lots of artsy neighbors. They needed spaces for their music — she plays ancient instruments like the harpsichord and the viola da gamba, and Kuchle is a classical pianist — and they found the perfect house and neighborhood.
“Our street,” Pappano said, “is a real community of serious artists.” She’s presented house concerts of early music at their home, as well as recitals with internationally known guest artists at Church of the Advent on Kemper Lane. “I have the feeling that this community really wants more music.”
Indeed, from Music Off McMillan and neighborhood bars to recording studios to professional recitals, Walnut Hills is a significantly musical neighborhood — one that makes living there all the more meaningful.
On The Ground in Walnut Hills is underwritten by Place Matters partners LISC and United Way and the neighborhood nonprofit Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation who are collectively working together for community transformation. Additional support is provided by Neyer Properties Baldwin Development. Data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center. Prestige AV and Creative Services is Soapbox’s official technology partner.


Read more articles by Rick Pender.

Rick Pender is an Over-the-Rhine resident with many years of writing, editing, fundraising and public relations experience. He is the theater critic and contributing editor at CityBeat and a regular contributor to WVXU's "Around Cincinnati." Follow him on Twitter @PenderRick.
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