Written by Josh Elstro
Edited by Josh Elstro and Leyla Shokoohe
Narrated by Leyla Shokoohe and Josh Elstro
Kid 1 - I don’t know no other play ground. This is the one right across from my school. I wanna come here.
Kid 2 - They think that just because they have just because they have so much money, that they have the right that ‘oh we can just tear it down and we can pay for it’
Kid 1 - They just want to make more houses and make more money. They don’t care about other people. They must be stupid.
Ian Strickland - I know deep down that as long as I am benefitting on the backs of my sisters and brothers of color I am dying, and I am sick.
Kid 3 - We downtown Cincinnati talking about why we want to keep this court so we can shoot some basketball.
Kid 2 - Well we’re trying to save the courts because people want to tear them down and build like luxury houses, and I don’t like it.
Josh Elstro - You’re hearing the voices of kids on a pair of basketball courts located across the street from Rothenberg Academy; an elementary and middle school in the northern portion of Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood.
Kid 2 - My mom has been living here for like over thirty years now. And the courts has been here. And it makes me really mad because I basically grew up, on the basketball courts
Kid 3 - Why ya’ll trying to tear the parks down man? We trying to shoot some basketball. Know what I’m saying?
Josh Elstro - These clips came to us from a video made by a group presenting themselves on Facebook and other social media as the “Keep Our Courts” movement. The two minute video features lots of kids explaining why the city of Cincinnati should do just that: keep their basketball courts. Since it’s release in April of 2016 it’s garnered some twelve thousand views on Facebook alone.
In today’s episode, we speak with residents and professionals working in the neighborhood. From this community we tried to learn “why”. Why exactly do we need to keep these courts? Leyla Shokoohe has more on that story.
I'm Josh Elstro and this is Bellwether, where we lead, by listening. Stay with us.
Kid 4 - Oh my love will you play with me? Will you play with me? Yeah...
Leyla Shokoohe - The clips from this video are definitely cute. This shot, at the end, is a little girl in braids, maybe four or five years old, leaning up to the camera’s boom mic as she sings. They stir up an emotional response whether you know what these kids are fighting for or not. But they don’t do much to explain what they’re fighting for.
To figure that out, we needed to speak to some grown ups...
Jenn Arens - It’s been going on for over a year. It was March of twenty fifteen, it landed at Over the Rhine Community council meeting
Leyla Shokoohe - Jenn Arens is the Community Education Coordinator at the Peaslee Community Center; located just a few blocks away from the basketball courts. She’s only been a Cincinnatian for a few short years since earning her masters in Sociology at George Washington University in 2014.
Jenn Arens - Studied gentrification and studied race and class and gender issues.
Leyla Shokoohe - As soon as she took her position in Cincinnati, she hit the ground running; learning as much as she could about a messy land development deal that fell into her lap at a community council meeting.
Jenn Arens - North Pointe came to ask for, you know, the kind of standard developer path. The city makes you go to the community councils and ask for a letter of support. Like, the board of trustees voted in support of their plan and then put it to the full body. The Full body voted also in support of the plan initially...
Leyla Shokoohe - This sounds like a pretty cut and dry deal. The neighborhood trustees vote in favor. The full neighborhood body, votes in favor. North Pointe, the private developer in question, has their requested support from the neighborhood…
Jenn Arens - And then it was brought to their attention that they didn’t follow the bylaws that meeting on the vote. So the vote had to be retaken.
Leyla Shokoohe - Due to a clerical voting error, something that could have potentially been an open and shut case in one evening was suddenly a fight right out of an eighties movie like The Goonies.
Goonies - No sign, no sign, no sign!
Leyla Shokoohe - For those who don’t remember or haven’t seen the classic film, first of all you need to. It’s incredible. But more to the point, it’s about a gang of kids who discover and follow a treasure map after finding out they’re likely losing their homes to a group of land developers. This clip comes as their land is about to be signed over and they think they’ve lost all the treasure, but suddenly discover they’ve managed to sneak out just enough to save their homes. The kids of Over the Rhine don’t have a treasure map. What they do have, is basketballs.
Jenn Arens - So the following meeting was when a bunch of our kids designed that like silent protest; bouncing basketballs outside of the community council meeting.
Leyla Shokoohe - On March 30th of 2015, twenty or so kids and families from Rothenberg’s neighborhood stood outside the community council meeting as council members entered, silently bouncing basketballs and holding up signs of protest.
Jenn Arens - It was one of our kid’s who’s now twelve was like, ‘they didn’t come to ask us about how we felt about them taking our courts, so we’re gonna to bounce our balls in silent protest. So, that community council vote, the kids spoke and definitely swayed some people on council.
Leyla Shokoohe - The basketballs seemed to have done the trick to slow down this initial clash of developer versus community, but it wouldn’t have happened without the support of adults.
Jenn Arens - We also did some organizing to make sure some people who kind of knew the full deal on the issue were there and could vote, so in that secondary real vote the Over the Rhine community council opposed North Pointe’s plan.
Leyla Shokoohe - Jenn and others behind the cause are involved for a number of reasons, several of which go beyond just saving a few basketball courts. Most of this land stands as some of the oldest public serving, public-owned land in Cincinnati, which is still owned by the city. It was donated in 1824 as a land trust to raise public funds to send local children to school. In fact...
Jenn Arens - It is actually the first revenue on record that went into creating the public school system in Cincinnati.
Leyla Shokoohe - And so it stayed, entrusted to the city as a way to generate income and send Cincinnati’s youth to Public Schools until the 1970’s. At that time the city officially took over ownership of the land. It was slated to be a recreation and playground area which only developed so far as the few basketball courts that stand there now. This gives current ownership to the Cincinnati Recreation Commission, or CRC, who has a very important final say in any transfer of the land.
Jenn Arens - Now in order for North Pointe to get control of this land to make this development happen, CRC has to transfer the land either directly to North Pointe or I think to economic development, and economic development brokers the deal
Leyla Shokoohe - With that in mind, Jenn and fellow community members began working to gain the ear of the CRC as well.
Jenn Arens - Like hey, here are kids who use your space that you own and operate and who love it and who are fighting for it and it’s being threatened by this development. And they knew nothing about it.
Leyla Shokoohe - The neighborhood kids’ small protest seemed to be what finally brought not just the disagreement, but the land deal itself onto the CRC’s radar. The protest was moving, but not enough for the CRC to openly support Keep Our Courts.
Jenn Arens - The interim director was initially was like, ‘Oh yeah I saw what the kids…’ because we took, I mean the kids went to City Hall way back in September to testify to the neighborhoods’ committee. So the interim director at CRC had gotten wind of that and was like, ‘that was really cool’. But it’s also like, nobody wants to say they have as much power as they do. Like, that’s what’s really challenging. It’s like, ‘Oh well, we don’t want to give up the courts but you know economic development folks really want to see this deal happen, and we don’t want to be positioned so that we’re standing in the way of economic development. Which I think is weak as hell. I mean you own the land. You have to transfer it for the deal to happen and you’ve got community members who are fighting for it. And like, you’re not willing to say no.
Leyla Shokoohe - For Jenn and other supporters of the movement, this is where the core of the issue lies.
Jenn Arens - It’s like, no no no. Like, this is public land. This is public land that is used. Why are we even considering it? It should never have been on the chopping block in the first place. So to me it’s non-negotiable. It shouldn’t have been offered to a private developer ever. And if that’s the status quo then it’s like any piece of public rec land is just what? Up for grabs? It’s just potentially there for the taking of any developer who wants it? It’s a ridiculous precedent to set.
Leyla Shokoohe - Not only does the deal threaten to put public land on the chopping block, it also continues a cycle of rapid real estate development that has swept through the historic Over the Rhine neighborhood, raising rental rates and property values. North Pointe’s development plan doesn’t sound much different than what long term residents have seen happen throughout the rest of the neighborhood.
Jenn Arens - Twenty one plots, that will be single family homes with like, detached garage. Like, kind of suburban style homes. Three to five bedroom. That would all be... Their first estimates were four hundred to six hundred thousand dollars.
Leyla Shokoohe - In the 2010 census, the neighborhood’s median income was only fourteen thousand five hundred dollars per household. Over the Rhine was also infamously declared the quote “most dangerous neighborhood in the United States” end quote as recently as 2009, based on a crime index study. For better or worse, the city’s response to these issues, heightened by a series of riots back in 2001, has been strategic real estate development. In an attempt to appease concerns of displacing lower income residents, developers use terms like “work force” and “mixed income housing” to help lobby for city funds. This deal includes such housing.
Jenn Arens - The development also includes one building that already is standing that needs to be… It’s been… the city’s put a lot of money into securing it, but they are going to turn that into work force housing that’s eight one bedroom units that are about nine hundred fifty dollars a month.
Leyla Shokoohe - So how exactly do one bedroom apartments that rent for $950 a month, in a neighborhood with an average household income just over the poverty line, get declared “workforce” or “affordable” housing? It comes from a simple formula the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses to determine eligibility for housing subsidies.
Jenn Arens - So they calculate ‘what’s the medium income in the area?’ You line up everyone in Hamilton county from the person who makes the least amount of income to the highest amount of income, you line them up in a line, and you take the person, the household who’s smack dab in the middle, and they’re your median income. So you measure everybody else against that median. So anything that’s under that middle, you can call affordable housing. So what North Pointe is putting forward when they say, ‘oh we’re going to take this existing building that the city has financed and we’re going to put eight one bedroom units in, and it’s going to be work force housing’.
Leyla Shokoohe - Private developers heavily lean on this terminology when seeking neighborhood moral support or city financial support. But activists like Jenn and long time community members see this as nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse for actively displacing residents.
Jenn Arens - No matter what happens, the new development, you either destroy, devalue, or displace like, whatever is currently there in the name of your new beautiful thing. And there is so many racist over- undertones and overtones to that, that it is really hard to… and some people will just, if you even say that some people will dismiss you as being like dramatic right, but come on, I mean that’s the reality. That’s the reality. You can’t build around black kids playing… and it happens, it happens all the time. Basketball courts are the first thing to go. Right?
Leyla Shokoohe - At this point it seems important and fair to mention that we reached out to North Pointe and offered them a chance to speak. We did not receive any response. And with the removal of public spaces like basketball courts and the play on language that is “mixed income”, developers have created neighborhoods they can easily present on paper as inclusive and diverse. Jenn says it’s all smoke and mirrors.
Jenn Arens - What’s happened is, we’ve gotten increasingly mixed economic population, but we’ve lost overall units. There are fewer units available now then there were in 2000. And we’ve lost the vast majority of those units at that lowest level, so that is like text book of how this all plays out.
Leyla Shokoohe - This essentially means, lower income people who were already in the neighborhood, are in fact being displaced because there’s simply less housing being offered in their price range, despite a more diverse pricing index. Or to put it simply, the Goonies of the world typically don’t find their long lost treasure under the current model.
Goonies 1 - Stop stop, you can’t do this. Because they’re somebody else’s wishes. They’re somebody else’s dreams.
Goonies 2 - Yeah, but you know what? This one. This one right here. This was my dream, my wish. And it didn’t come true. So I’m taking it back. I’m taking em’ all back.
Josh Elstro - We want to thank Jenn Arens of the Peaslee Neighborhood Center for sitting down to talk with us. Next, we return to the courts that Jenn, OTR residents, and the neighborhood kids are all fighting for as we continue with more stories from Bellwether.
Josh Elstro - The Keep Our Courts movement doesn’t have much. There are no major businesses or angel funds that are likely to come along and donate to a campaign to fight North Pointe’s preferred developer agreement. Literally all they have are their friends, their neighbors, and the thing that brought this story to the city’s attention in the first place: basketball. We visited the courts to learn more about what the neighborhood is doing to create awareness of the situation.
This brings us Act 2 of our show: A Place at the Table
Before we go on though, just a quick warning there is some graphic tape coming up very shortly in this piece. So if that bothers you or there are kids around, you may want to consider fast forwarding about a minute or so.
North Pointe’s preferred developer agreement was set to renew at the end of July of this year. There hadn’t been much noise from North Pointe or the Keep Our Courts movement since the release of their video back in April. In the immediate wake of the early July deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille at the hands of police officers, both of which were caught on tape, Cincinnati’s chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement quickly mobilized.
TAPE - ALTON STERLING AND PHILANDRO CASTILLE SHOOTINGS - ...and the police just, he’s covered. They killed my boyfriend. He’s licensed. He’s licensed to carry.
Josh Elstro - Holding more frequent and visible public meetings, Black Lives Matter was able to publicize and draw a good crowd for an event at the courts, dubbed “Hoop on Main”. The event poster reads “special event to stop gentrification of community basketball courts”. Also worth noting, this had just happened two nights earlier…
Brian Williams - We are covering something of a national emergency that is unfolding in the city of Dallas Texas tonight. We have had eleven police officers hit by gunfire. Sadly, four of them have died of their wounds.
Josh Elstro - Tensions were understandably high at the event...
Black Lives Matter Representative - They have consistently tried to erase us but we stand here today and say that we will not be moved. We tell people that we will not be erased. We tell people that they will not continue their state violence against us. We know as Black Lives Matter that state violence doesn’t just happen when they murder us in the street, in terms of Alton Sterling. In terms of Philando Castille. We know that state violence is also pushing us out of our communities.
Josh Elstro - But I was able to speak with a number of community members and activists and witness a positive grass roots event which worked to raise awareness for the cause.
The event had a significant showing, two age group tournaments with dozens of participants and attendees.
Mario - The idea of starting a tournament, really came up from me and another couple of people because we’ve done a lot of these tournaments, not about basketball, but about soccer back in Italy, and they're really a way to keep the whole community together.
Josh Elstro - This is Mario. He and his fiance live just two blocks away from the courts.
Mario - I’m from Italy actually. So I’m not from the states as you can hear from my accent.
Josh Elstro - Hence his inspiration for the idea. He truly believes that awareness and visibility are the keys to fighting what he sees as a threat to their community.
Mario - So what we really hope to do is to try to get kids, older kids, families, supporters, white, blue, black, everybody together to show that these courts are so much more valuable. Just imagine this beautiful day if instead of those courts there were just apartment buildings filled with professionals that the only thing they do is just wake up in the morning, go to work, make money, and then come back home and that’s it.
Josh Elstro - This stereotypical expectation of North Pointe’s development was not hard to find among Black Lives Matter activists and community members.
Jared - Hoop on Main is an anti racist, anti gentrification basketball tournament.
Josh Elstro - Jared has been involved in housing work in the neighborhood since 2010 and became deeply involved with the Black Lives Matter movement shortly after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri back in 2014. He has strong opinions about what he believes the development plan truly means under the surface.
Jared - There is a development plan being proposed that would demolish these courts that would demolish these courts and put high rise condominiums likely, or houses, whatever it is for mostly rich, white people. So we’re here to say these courts should stay not because we say it, but because the neighborhood wants these courts to stay.
Josh Elstro - But the community consists of more than recent immigrants and minority activists. And We found the same type of feelings and biases against North Pointe’s actions among those their plan is said to serve.
Ian Strickland - Over the last year and a half since we’ve been here, my wife and I, we’ve seen kind of a similar movement to a lot of cities in our country of, what most people would call gentrification.
Josh Elstro - Ian Strickland is the pastor at Over The Rhine Community Church.
Ian Strickland - There is a development, which is good, but it’s only for a very specific group of people. A group of people who look a lot like me.
Josh Elstro - It’d be safe to say, by this he means young, white men.
Ian Strickland - And so, in the last few years I’ve kind of been waking up to the reality of if my life is benefitting at the cost of other people’s lives then that’s not good for me. That’s actually really bad for me. So this court has kind of been one of the major points in that resistance; the fight against gentrification, or at least inequitable development. Simply because basketball courts are not only a place for recreation, but a place for building really deep community.
Josh Elstro - When asked what he thinks allies of the cause, who might also be beneficiaries of development projects like this, can do, he continued on.
Ian Strickland - Learning, is like step one. So finding some people who have been in this fight and in this struggle for years and decades and simply being able to learn where the movement started and where it is today, because like, what was going on in the sixties isn’t just history it’s, it’s bleeding into what’s happening right now so...
Josh Elstro - I did exactly that. After a moving speech from Ms. Dorothy I knew I needed to speak with her. She could be described as the sort of matriarch of this neighborhood. She spent the entire afternoon posted up just outside the gate of the courts cheering for almost every player by name… and followed up a few games with a scolding of younger players who got a little too heated on the court. I watched as they came to her before our interview, tail between their legs as she gently told them to cool down, which they followed up with a, “Sorry Ms. Dorothy.”
Dorothy Darden - My name is Dorothy Darden and my relationship to the court? I have lived in Over the Rhine, west and east for fifty two years. North Pointe needs to really scratch the original thing they had on the table because when you talk to three or four people out of a community and you think that you’ve covered the base, and there are mass people here and you don’t talk to the whole? There’s room at the table for everyone. But when you talk to two or three who say they represent a people as a whole and they don’t, then scratch the whole project and start… go back to the beginning and then do it well.
Josh Elstro - Speaking with Ms. Dorothy, I was quickly able to push all of the other tensions, history, and biases aside and get to the crux of why people in the community are so frustrated with the way this deal is going down. She’s also one of the few people we were able to speak with who has managed to get any face time with representatives of North Pointe. She believes she sees what’s really in their hearts.
Dorothy Darden - When we were sitting in a meeting a month ago the developer, the big man said, ‘It’s just a few trees!’ Well, there’s orchards in the back of there. When you see us like that, how are we supposed to feel good about that? How are we supposed to know that we can actually talk to you when you tell us, ‘well I’ve never done affordable housing and I don’t plan to’ where’s the trust in that? So what are we supposed to get out of this?
Josh Elstro - Ms. Dorothy has seen deal after deal like this affect change on her neighborhood for decades. But she remains hopeful and kind spirited through it all.
Dorothy Darden - This has been a fight. Every day being here has been a fight, just to say ‘okay I deserve to be here’ you know? I deserve rent an apartment and have it affordable for me to live at. I deserve to go to work. No. Am I pulling down six figures? No. But I’m important. I’m important. And I matter. And so do all my people here. They matter. We matter. You know? And if we can just break through the hysteria of having money and power and get to really being people, we can really break some ground and really get to a common place. But we’ve got work to do. And we got some ugliness to face in all our lives that’s embedded in all of us. You know?
Josh Elstro - Throughout our conversation, she kept referring to “a place at the table”. It reminds me of an anecdote I’ve heard used over and over again to explain why Black Lives Matter activists feel so strongly about their cause; about why it’s important to say Black Lives Matter and not just “All Lives Matter”. I’ve even heard the famous conservative pundit Glenn Beck use it to explain the movement. It’s why this community believes it’s important that North Pointe work closer with them when planning redevelopment. It’s as simple as this:
If a bunch of people are sitting around a table, eating pie and someone doesn’t get any, that person speaks up and says, “Hey, can I have some pie too?” The response from the table is “All diners matters”, and they go right back to eating their pie. Our guy is still left out.
Saying “all diners matter” feels reminiscent of an insistence upon terminology like “mixed income” or “work force” housing in reference to developing on top of low income residents who have been there for decades, when you’re really talking about something that’s only affordable to very few.
No one is saying wealthier folks don’t matter, or they’re not welcome to the neighborhood. The community is simply asking that we leave some room and a piece of pie at the table, for those who came before us, using whatever resources they have. For now, that means, simply inviting people out to enjoy a few games of basketball…
Dorothy Darden - And so I’m just asking you all, I am so full just to see these babies out here enjoying doing what they do, we should have the right. For no other reason. We don’t have to have another reason. We have some trees. We got a court. We have people. We got a gathering. We have a community. And that’s enough. And it has to be respected. So I’m just asking you all continue. Be for each other. Continue to make those hard conversations. Ya’ll know we gotta have some hard conversations. Ya’ll know our biases. Ya’ll know how we feel? But it’s time to tear the wall down ya’ll, or those babies won’t make it.
Josh Elstro - A quick follow-up: Jenn Arens of the Peaslee Neighborhood Center sent us an email with this information: The director of economic development spoke with Peaslee Neighborhood Center Director, Jenn Summers on July 25th, the day North Pointes Preferred developer agreement was to be renewed. He explained that NorthPointe had expressed a desire to walk away from the preferred developer contract if they were going to be subjected to additional public input requirements.
On July 29, Keep Our Courts announced that this was indeed the case, and that North Pointe’s preferred developer contract had expired and there were no immediate plans for renewal.
From the Keep Our Courts Facebook page, quote ‘This is a victory in what will continue to be a long struggle and is the outcome of over a year’s worth of hard work. There is much more to be done. We must ensure that our neighbors in the community are directly involved and lead the shaping of the future of this land.’ End quote. Or, in other words...
Goonies 1 - We don’t have to leave the Goon-docks!
Goonies 2 - There will be no signing today, or ever again!
Josh Elstro - Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Bellwether. We’ve just launched our website which is bellwethershow.org. You can also find us on social media on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram by just searching Bellwether, or Bellwether podcast, or Bellwether show. Those are definitely worth checking out. There’s ways you can get involved in the show. Communicate with us. And also, particular to this episode, we should have some additional interview pieces and speeches from the folks at the basketball tournament because they had a lot of great stuff to say which I think is worth hearing and you should check out. And, on whatever service you’re using to download these episodes, please, whether it’s iTunes or Stitcher or whatever go subscribe rate, review, and above all else continue to lead by listening.
Leyla Shokoohe - Bellwether is created and produced by Josh Elstro and Leyla Shokoohe. Josh is the technical guru and Bellwether is his brainchild. Leyla is a freelance journalist and Josh’s creative side kick. Together they tell stories that lead. So take a listen and let’s see where we go.