How a neighborhood that said “No” to everything became one that says “Yes”

The word “secession” is usually associated with the Civil War, the most combative period in American history, when 11 states voted to sever themselves from the rest of the United States and create their own rebellious government.

About 10 years ago, the word was seriously kicked around In the Cincinnati neighborhood of Westwood, as some community leaders promoted the idea of breaking away from the city and going it on their own.

It would have almost been like a return to the Civil War era, as Westwood was incorporated as a village in 1868, with its own mayor and government. But Westwood became part of Cincinnati in 1896 and the community began growing and evolving.

Growth and change come with their own challenges. For decades, Westwood was a mostly white neighborhood of solid, middle-class homes and homeowners. That began changing in the ‘70s and ‘80s as an influx of apartments, many of them geared to lower-income renters, cropped up.

That created a backlash among some residents, and by 2000, some long-time homeowners created a group called Westwood Concern, whose motto was, “It's your neighborhood. Keep it clean. Keep it safe. Take it back.” It was clearly an unwelcoming message.

“They used coded language,” says longtime resident John Eby. “Like, ‘Those people are moving up the hill.’”

Westwood Concern organizers took over the official neighborhood council, Westwood Civic Association, the community’s formal link to City Hall. What developed was an antagonistic relationship with City Hall and the very agencies, departments, and people who had the power and the resources to help the neighborhood.

“Westwood became known as the neighborhood that says ‘No’ to everything,” says longtime resident Greg Hand.

“Westwood got a rap for always saying ‘No’ to everything, and not very politely,” Eby concurs.

People were moving out, the historic neighborhood business district was largely vacant, housing prices were plummeting, and the Guardian Angels vigilante group was actually invited in to patrol the streets in 2004.

Talk of secession gained currency. Clearly, change was needed. But what?

A tipping point occurred in 2010. Some residents wanted a mural in the neighborhood, as arts education organization ArtWorks was painting them in communities all over the city. The Civic Association, however, said “No.”

“It will encourage graffiti, they said,” says community organizer Leslie Rich.

ArtWorks’ rules said that a community group needed to sponsor a mural, so Rich and eight others created one. They got the mural, which was painted on the side of Henke Winery on Harrison Avenue.

That simple effort sparked a neighborhood revolution of sorts.

“At the mural dedication, we had neighbors come out of the woodwork,” Rich says. Some had ideas they wanted to talk about, so these neighbors started getting together in a group that eventually became Westwood Works. They met in neighboring Cheviot at first as there was no suitable place in Westwood to meet at the time.

“There were some key voices that were really anxious to get Westwood moving in a new, positive direction,” says Tom Sauter, the current president of the Westwood Civic Association. “To get the neighborhood developed and bring people back to Westwood and bring businesses back to Westwood.”

They were eager to get involved and create change, he says.

“I don’t think they were satisfied to have a civic association just occasionally send letters to city council,” Sauter says.

Those meetings developed into the creation of Westwood Works, which has since evolved into an organization that sponsors events such as the Second Saturday street party and art show in the business district. It’s taken on a much larger role too, with a mission to build a community that its residents are proud of and to create opportunities to promote inclusion and diversity in a neighborhood that is roughly half Black and half white.

One of its early efforts was a successful campaign to revise the Civic Association constitution and institute term limits for its board members. That led to new faces and new perspectives on that board.

“It took three years, but progressive candidates replaced the negative board members associated with Westwood Concern,” Hand says.

“We could cultivate new leadership so it looks like the community,” Rich says.

The group is now working on updating the Westwood Strategic Plan, a forward-looking document meant to guide development. A version was first written under previous leadership 10 years ago.

“Westwood is really a different community than it was 10 years ago,” Rich says.

Westwood Works is one of five community groups in the neighborhood that are sometimes jokingly referred to as the “five families.” But unlike La Cosa Nostra, there are no turf wars involved.

The groups have been able to work together and focus on a common agenda to improve the neighborhood, make it a more welcoming place that says “Yes,” more often than “No.”

Westwood Civic Association is the official contact with city administration, representing the concerns of Westwood and providing a forum to discuss neighborhood issues, while The Westwood Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (WestCURC) works on returning vacant or distressed properties to productive use. And the Westwood Historical Society collects and tells the stories of the community through monthly programs and an archive of documents, photos, and artifacts.

If there is a godfather to the groups, it is the Westwood Coalition.

The Coalition is composed of people from each of the other community groups. It is run not by a chairperson, but by a “convenor.” Its mission is to coordinate and encourage collaboration among the “five families;” to find ways to get all the stakeholders rowing in the same direction on neighborhood issues.

“I like to refer to it as the United Nations of Westwood,” Rich says.

One of its early successes was Westwood’s adoption of a form-based zoning code. Such a code is meant to regulate development based on how a neighborhood looks and feels and is especially helpful in preserving the character of urban neighborhoods and preventing unwanted and unsightly development.

The community groups are now working with City Hall on a project to slow traffic along busy Harrison Avenue and the center of the business district.

The results of creating an engaged, coordinated, and collaborative community leadership are evident.

Last year the community celebrated the opening of Westwood Town Hall Park. The renovated park includes a new playground, a plaza and community gathering space, new landscaping, terraced seating, and a dog park, all built around the community’s historic 19th century town hall building.

A historic, ornate Cincinnati Bell exchange station from the 1920s underwent a $3 million renovation to become the home of Madcap Puppet Theater performances and classes.

Cincinnati Public Schools invested about $14 million in the renovation of the Mother of Mercy High School so it could become the home of Gamble Montessori High School, and also opened Gamble Montessori Elementary in 2019.

Dining and drinking options have expanded. West Side Brewery opened in 2017, as did Muse Café, a coffee and wine bar. Fine dining became available at Ivory House earlier this year, and Nation Kitchen just opened its second location in the neighborhood.

The results — and what may yet come — have only happened after a decade or so of community building work, crafting a strategic vision, and engaging the neighborhood to work together on it.

“When this work started, I would not have believed you if you said the city is going to invest $4 million in a new park, Cincinnati Public is going to invest $14 million into the renovation of a building in Westwood, and you’re going to have two new school buildings open up in a period of 18 months,” Rich says.

“I would not have believed that.”

The On The Ground: Westwood feature series is made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. / U. S. Bank Foundation.
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