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Raising Up Lincoln Heights

By Joe Wessels · September 25th, 2008 · Wessels
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Tearing down the Valley Homes would seem like a good way to kick-start struggling Lincoln Heights. Walking among the mostly boarded-up government stock housing built in the 1940s to house workers at the General Electric plant during World War II, it’s clear that this place isn’t exactly prime Hamilton County real estate.

But when the mostly white workers at GE headed out to other suburbs after the war ended, a corporation owned by African Americans bought the barracksstyle housing and built a community for themselves seven miles north of Cincinnati. It was a haven and a reprieve from the racial inequalities prevalent around the United States at the time. A wall built around the town helped keep it that way. Strife is nothing new for this little burg, which has found itself getting the short end of the stick for decades. There has been talk in Lincoln Heights for years — with a 2000 U.S. Census population of just more than 4,000 people — of suing Hamilton County over the gerrymandering the town experienced that basically moved its core source of tax revenue, General Electric, to newly formed Evendale, located across Interstate 75 from the GE factory.

Along Douglas Walk, a sidewalk with housing lining both sides, Helen Hughes poked her head out of her front door to see what I was doing.

Her TV was playing in the living room through the kitchen on the other side of the narrow building, which had shingle-like siding and single-pane windows with window-installed air conditioners sticking out of nearly every one. Hughes has been living in this apartment, which she owns, for 44 years — starting back when there were dirt roads, chickens and rabbits roaming everywhere.

Pretty much her whole life. She says she likes it there. Now Hughes is the only person left in her building of about six units in a quiet neighborhood that has all the signs of once being filled with life. Empty clothes lines drape from pole to pole next to doors that are boarded up. There are wire-strewn sockets in the ground that likely once held up light poles that guided families back to their homes on dark evenings.

Those old buildings, filled with asbestos and barely standing in some parts, are slated to be torn down starting early next year. A $10 million tax credit was secured to give a big boost to planned patio homes for senior citizens.

Some who own their older apartments aren’t exactly excited about the plans, though. Lorene Dunigan- Jones has lived in her home for 32 years and wants a fair price for the space she owns, but she believes the development will be good for the struggling community.

“But they shouldn’t and they don’t need to shove things in people’s mouths,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere. No one is going to come up and take it away from me.” Dunigan-Jones sat out in the grassy area in front of her home talking with two other older women, all residents of Lincoln Heights. They acknowledge that their community is having a rough go of it, but they’re not exactly convinced that the solution is to tear down everything and start anew. “They take out (appliances) of one apartment and put it in another,” Dunigan-Jones said. “Then they board it up and say it’s condemned.”

Lincoln Heights Day, an annual tradition with a parade and two-day festival, brings out the community. Residents line the streets to watch the politicians, floats, fire trucks and police cars move down the streets and past the Valley Homes, where few can live anymore. That fact doesn’t seem to be on the minds of those sitting on lawn chairs and waving to those in the parade.

It’s unfair what has happened to Lincoln Heights. There’s no question about that. But the resilience of the community to survive and keep its vision alive as a unique community in the U.S. is as inspiring today as it probably was in 1940s.

It’s good to see time isn’t making a good idea die.

CONTACT JOE WESSELS: joe@joewessels.net



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