Third places prevail

In sports, third place rates only slightly higher-than also ran status. In horse racing, third place is the “show” horse, and unless you’ve bet a trifecta or a longshot, they provide scant winnings for bettors (a 60-to-1 show wager once provided me a quite profitable exception). In the Olympics, third place signifies a bronze medal, which earns a spot on the awards podium, but doesn’t provide the immortality-and endorsement potential-that gold-medal winners may enjoy.

However, in a sociological context, third places are essential to individual and collective quality of life. Simply put, third places serve complementary roles to home and work, which are first and second places, respectively. A third place is a gathering spot that provides an alternative to the deep enmeshment of home life and the rigid structure of the workplace. Given the rise of remote work, Ray Oldenburg advocated for the importance of third places as vital to civil society, democracy, and community engagement in his 1989 book, The Great Good Place.

Mt. Airy’s leaders, residents, and stakeholders maintain a lengthy wish of what they want for their community: a coffee shop, a grocery store, and more retail shops lead the list. Even amid the community’s challenges, many residents are doing what they can where they are to enhance Mt. Airy’s quality of life. In some cases, it requires minimal financial obligation. An open heart and sincere interest in your neighbor will suffice.

Having faith

A church is a natural third place. Members’ nourish their souls to express their faith, engage in social events with fellow congregants, and serve their communities through various philanthropic events.

Lesley Jones has been the pastor of Truth and Destiny Covenant Ministries for 21 years. Its first home was in Northside. When the congregation outgrew its original space, she led Truth and Destiny’s search for a new home. She viewed the church being in the midst of a transitional point and moved into the former home of Mt. Airy United Methodist Church in 2013. She knew Mt. Airy well. She first moved into Mt. Airy in the ‘90s, as a single mother and student teacher at Woodward High School while still an undergrad at Miami University. She returned to the neighborhood in 2008, and she sees the neighborhood is on a parallel track to her goal of a diverse, inclusive church.

“Mt Airy is unique and has the potential to be a model community for bringing cultures together,” she said. “We have a diverse neighborhood. At Mt. Airy Elementary, there are seven to nine languages spoken. In addition to our legacy residents and those moving in from around the city, we have growing Nepalese, West African, and Latin American communities, among others.”

Jones noted that churches’ importance as a third place has grown as their mission grows to encompass more than worship and religious education: “We’ve introduced nutrition and exercise classes as we embrace holistic wellness. One thing that COVID-19 has taught us is that one of the best defenses against illness is a strong immune system, so we think it’s an important way to support our community.”

She acknowledged the pandemic’s widespread trauma, and the church’s role to facilitate healing. She said that many senior citizens around Mt. Airy were alone and vulnerable, so Truth and Destiny launched a program where members knock on doors of community elders to make sure they’re healthy and secure.

Pastor Leslie Jones
“Something as simple as a knock on a door can help people feel a sense of safety and connection,” she said.

Jones also acknowledged the opportunity churches have to deescalate our society’s growing polarization: “In 2024, it’s a revolutionary act to care about the person next to you. Our culture has an increasingly individualistic ethic, I think it’s important for us to show the love reflected in the Gospel. If someone is about to fall off a cliff, if you reach out to them, they’re not going to care if you’re gay or your political party.”

Because Mt. Airy lacks a community center, Truth and Destiny has embraced the unique opportunity to be a connecting spot, especially for kids. Periodically, they will show a movie on the center’s screen, pop popcorn and open their doors. Or senior citizens connect there over a game of bridge.

“It’s not our goal to just preach at people to win souls,” she said. “We want to do what we can to help overcome society’s divisions along lines of age, race, or politics. If we listen to each other, we’ll find common ground. Jesus was the ultimate storyteller, and his stories brought people together.”

It’s good in the neighborhood

It’s possible to find a third place just outside your front door. To Lisa Gerton, a retired visual-arts teacher who moved to Mt. Airy from Finneytown in 2010, community starts on the hyperlocal level.

“Sure, it would be nice for Mt. Airy to have a coffee shop or grocery store,” she said. “But you don’t need those things to have a great community. It just takes neighbors coming together.”

The residents of Van Leunen Drive, which connects North Bend Rd. and Little Flower Avenue, have maintained an informal, yet vibrant, neighborhood group since the mid ‘90s. When Gerton and her husband moved in, they were greeted by homemade bread and hand-drawn cards from Van Leunen Drive’s children. She knew she’d found a home.

The unassuming street, which includes 21 single-family homes and four- and six-unit apartment buildings at both ends, was built in two phases, with the first done in the late ‘50s and the second in the mid ‘60s. The houses are ostensibly ordinary; but the sense of home cultivated on Van Leunen is uncommon. The street maintains its own citizens’ patrol, and has a lengthy tradition of late-summer block parties and garage sales. The block parties have been on hiatus, but there are plans to resume, according to Van Leunen resident and psychologist, Jerome Gabis. The neighborhood maintains a social committee that stays abreast of neighborhood residents’ life events. Whether it’s a death in the family or a college graduation, the street bands together to make sure their neighbor isn’t forgotten.

“Mt. Airy is what we make it,” Gerton said. “I see so much in the media about people saying they’re lonely and disconnected. The best way to change this is getting to know your neighbors on your street.”

Morton Triangle spring bloom

Another unique way their community has banded together is the upkeep of a beautiful flower garden in the Phillip Morton Triangle, which is located at the North Bend end of the street and named in honor of Mt. Airy’s last mayor before it was annexed into Cincinnati. The garden spans approximately an acre and provides a peaceful respite along a crowded street.

“Whenever someone moves into the neighborhood, we welcome them and invite them to take part in the neighborhood group,” Gerton said. “We’ve never had anyone say they didn’t want to get involved with the association. We have a diverse community on our street, but we all come together to make it a nice place to live.”

(Literal) growth opportunities

Community-support agriculture (CSA) is an increasingly popular way for people to enjoy locally grown produce while supporting sustainability and enhancing connections with neighbors. In communities such as Mt. Airy that lack a grocery store, it’s especially important.

Mt Airy CURE, the neighborhood’s economic-development advocacy organization, is initiating the planting of a community garden. It’s as yet unsettled as soil samples are being studied to ensure viability, however the first choice is a greenspace parcel behind Mt. Airy Commons and the Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly building on Colerain Avenue. Serenity Carroll, a Duke Energy account executive and Mt. Airy CURE’s treasurer, is helping spearhead the community garden effort.

Serenity Carroll“With a 15-minute drive to the grocery store, Mt. Airy is kind of a food desert,” she said. “Access to fresh produce would be valuable for the community.”

Carroll drew inspiration from touring other Queen City community gardens. The CSA behind Rockdale Elementary in Avondale provided a particularly inspiring visit. The Cincinnati Zoo assists with its upkeep, and it supports students in running a produce stand that teaches them the basics of running a business.

Earlier this month, Carroll enrolled in an 11-week course led by the Civic Garden Center to help communities launch their own gardens. Kymisha Montgomery, the Civic Garden Center’s urban agriculture coordinator, noted some of the program’s highlights.

“It’s about more than just growing food,” Montgomery said. “It’s important to understand the soil, equipment, and materials to make the investment, and it’s key to know where to apply for grants to help communities invest in their gardens. And, it’s important to learn about proper pest control...and understand the 70/30 rule; you have to be prepared that pests are likely to get 30% of your crop. ”

Kymisha MontgomeryMontgomery said that a garden with seven beds with the appropriate equipment and supplies would cost $7,000-$8,000. Cincinnati offers urban agriculture grants, and the USDA and Keep Cincinnati Beautiful are other readily available sources to subsidize community gardens. She said that education has been a two-way process, particularly among gardens maintained by immigrants.
“At the community garden in Northgate, new Americans from Bhutan and Cameroon constructed trellises from tree branches and natural materials. It was very creative. They were resistant at first, because they thought I was just going to instruct them to do things the American way, but I was excited to learn from them,” commented Montgomery.

Carroll has grown tomatoes, peppers, and other staple vegetables in her backyard garden, but she hopes to also grow root vegetables, green beans, spinach, and onions in the community garden.

“I think it’s important to have healthy produce that’s nutritious and familiar to our community,” said Carroll. “Basically, anything you can put in vegetable soup.”

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.
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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.