Just being of service

If you ask the leaders of any general-interest community organization, you’re likely to hear a familiar refrain: it’s difficult to retain members while attracting new ones. Our increasingly virtual world cultivates like-minded echo chambers and encourages people to align with organizations that cater to specific values and interests. Compounding the problem is society’s acclimation in the post-COVID era to curtailing involvement with groups that conduct in-person meetings.

This is unfortunate. The modern cultural emphasis on individuality and self-interest in the name of authenticity steers people to overlook how they and civic organizations can help one another. For a community like Mt. Airy, which suffered roughly three decades of economic decline from circa 1980 to 2010, it’s doubly imperative that its citizens stay informed and get involved in the community’s gradual revitalization.

Two longstanding organizations that serve Mt. Airy’s more than 9,200 residents are its Town Council and Civic Club. Their functions are different, but the organizations provide strategic support for one another, and they share the common goals of keeping citizens engaged and informed.

Mt. Airy Town Council: The face of the neighborhood

Since 1977, the Mt. Airy Town Council has represented the community within the overall city of Cincinnati. The Council participates in Invest In Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit that assembles neighborhood community councils and collaborates with them to develop ideas that enhance communities’ quality of life.

TJ  Smith serves as the Town Council’s interim president, which currently comprises a five-member board (up to seven serve at a given time). She’s been a member for 11 years and has served in various leadership roles since 2016. She acknowledges Mt. Airy’s ongoing challenges but notes that the community’s positive turnaround is too often overlooked.

TJ Smith serves as the Town Council’s interim president.“There have been more problems with crime since [Hawaiian and Bahama Terraces] transitioned to Section 8 housing, and the loss of businesses such as UDF and Mercy Health have negatively impacted Mt. Airy,” said Smith. “But I think the negative perceptions caused by past crime issues gives many people the wrong impression about Mt. Airy. It’s a great neighborhood, and with Mt. Airy Forest, we have one the most beautiful public spaces in Cincinnati.”

The Town Council meets monthly on every fourth Tuesday. Before the scourge of COVID-19, Smith said meetings typically attracted 20 residents, but post-pandemic, the average is 10. Meetings inform Mt. Airy residents with monthly police and fire data, discussions of pressing community issues and future plans, and, when elections near, introduce the community to candidates for local public offices.

The Town Council operates with a city-funded annual budget, which fluctuates slightly – in 2023, it was $7,300. These funds are commonly allocated for such endeavors as public-space beautification, supplemental neighborhood watch patrols, supporting educational programs at Mt. Airy School, and public events.

Among Smith’s goals for the group are to widen its representation to include all parts of the community and improve its relationships with Cincinnati’s police department. On the whole, she’s satisfied about Mt. Airy’s relationship with Cincinnati’s leaders and institutions, though she laments the lack of public input prior to the closing of CPD’s District 5, which places Mt. Airy under District 3’s jurisdiction (read more about this change here).

The Town Council has collaborated with the Civic Club and Mt. Airy CURE, the community’s economic development advocacy organization, for some events such as a neighborhood cookout and a drive-through Christmas display at Mt. Airy Forest, and she hopes that more collaborative initiatives will take place in the future.

Town Council monthly meetings inform residents about police and fire data, discussions of pressing community issues, future plans, and introduce candidates for local public offices.

Mt. Airy Civic Club: A 111-Year Legacy

The Mt. Airy Civic Club was founded in 1913, shortly after the city of Cincinnati annexed the community, to provide a connection point for the community’s residents. Mark Menkhaus, a Mt. Airy resident since 1998, currently serves as its president and has been an officer since 2011. Its board currently comprises four members: Menkhaus, recording secretary Cheryl Crooker, who replaces the recently deceased (and beloved longtime member) Cindee Walsh, treasurer Anita Killian, and member-at-large Tom Cepluch.

For its first six-plus decades, the Civic Club was, per its bylaws, an all-male organization with a women’s auxiliary (the auxiliary later separated to form the Town Council). Subsequently, the Town Council was created to provide an organization where women could fulfill leadership roles in support of Mt. Airy’s growth. Shortly thereafter, the Civic Club opened up to full membership for women.

In the organization’s heyday, its monthly meetings – which occur every third Wednesday – were quite the event, with limburger and onion sandwiches on rye bread (let’s not judge), barbecued ribs, or other hearty German fare punctuating the gathering. At its peak during the 1960s, one in four Mt. Airy men were Mt. Airy Civic Club members. On nights when a well-known speaker, such as a Cincinnati Reds player or executive, or local politician, Civic Club meetings would attract hundreds of attendees.

However, attendance has dropped off substantially since Menkhaus joined the organization in 2009, and the downward trend accelerated post-COVID. Now, Menkhaus noted that the average meeting brings a core of less than 10 regular attendees. An aging constituency and less community investment as a result of an increasingly transient population and declining ownership have been contributing factors.

“We had a two-year hiatus of in-person meetings,” Menkhaus said. “Some of our most dedicated members are now in their 80s and are less mobile and not familiar or comfortable with e-mail and online-meeting tools.”

The Civic Club's 2013 centennial was commemorated by the installation of a flagpole and plaque at Colerain and Kirby Avenues..

One Civic Club meeting fixture is a presentation by a Cincinnati police officer, where trends in Mt. Airy’s public safety and criminal activity are discussed. Like Smith, Menkhaus noted the rampant speeding and high volume of Colerain Avenue collisions. He noted that the stretch of the route that runs through Mt. Airy is passed through by 55,000 vehicles per day, with 170 reported annual accidents (Menkhaus thinks the actual number is much higher). A recent surge in car thefts, of which he has firsthand knowledge as a member of Mt. Airy’s neighborhood watch, has been another concern discussed at Civic Club meetings.

In addition to informational sessions and educational presentations, educational philanthropy is another Civic Club focus. The group has donated to various extracurricular activities at Mt. Airy Elementary, as well as LaSalle, McAuley and Aiken High Schools. When the Civic Club celebrated its centennial in 2013, they enlisted Jackson Donaldson, an Eagle Scout who lived in Mt. Airy, to coordinate the installation of a flagpole and granite plaque at the intersection of Colerain and Kirby Avenues. Donaldson acquired and installed the pole, and a Civic Club member donated the granite, which had been left over from a decades-old construction project. The Civic Club paid for the engraving, and Donaldson installed it adjacent to the flagpole.

Menkhaus expressed a wish for greater collaboration between Mt. Airy CURE, the Town Council, and the Civic Club. For example, when the owners of Mt. Airy Mart applied to the Town Council for a liquor license, the Civic Club drafted a letter opposing approval given the business’s history of underage alcohol sales and other illegal activities. The Club also sent letters in support of Mt. Airy CURE when it was challenging the city regarding zoning issues, and also assisted CURE in procuring development funds for the redevelopment plans for the Colerain-North Bend corner.

The Civic Club is understandably proud of its status as Cincinnati’s oldest continuously operating organization but faces the problems that many legacy organizations face as people’s interests and passions commonly focus elsewhere.

“The organization was supposed to run out of money in 2017, but we’ve managed to press on,” Menkhaus said. “We’re working to make the meetings and the organization’s mission relatable and relevant to families and younger generations. They’re essential to any organization’s survival.”

This Resilient Neighborhoods series presents stories that focus on leaders, organizations, and everyday people who, in large and small ways, help a community regain a positive identity by collaborating to overcome its struggles.

You can read earlier articles in the Resilient Neighborhoods – Mt. Airy series here.

The Mt. Airy series has been made possible with support from the City of Cincinnati and Homebase, the leading resource for community development, focused on sharing resources, funding, and expertise that helps transform neighborhoods and improve the quality of life for the residents of Greater Cincinnati.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.