We used to call it “Little Kuwait.”
It was 1989 and crack cocaine had all its black enthusiasts by the pipe; never more prevalent and obviously so than along the stretch of Burnett Avenue heading north toward its intersection with Rockdale Avenue.
Twenty-five years ago and before Cincinnati Children’s Hospital began and continues its expansive march also north on Burnett Avenue, my cousin, Patricia, was a master barber at Stag’s Barber Shop, the most stereotypically ghetto barber shop where, while waiting for haircuts and shaves, customers — many bearing the falsely brave hallmarks of street corner drug kingpins — could peruse the latest in the wares offered by neighborhood crack enthusiasts, each one more of a runaway extra from a Spike Lee film than the next: all manner of stolen car or household electronics, three-piece toilet bowl rug sets, hair care products including bags of hair and, of course, sometimes already-worn sneakers with the occasional vacuum sweeper rolled along Burnett, its wheels encrusted with the street’s garbage all the way from its previous owner’s home.
Back then, my friend Charlene and I used to call those last few blocks of Burnett “Little Kuwait” for the copious amounts of burned-out cars, dilapidated and boarded-up buildings, the seemingly 24-hour din of noise emanating from car stereos and black folks yelling at each other from across the street or down to the street from apartment windows and for the way that street was sometimes impassibly thick with throngs of people just milling about without regard for cars or busses.
There is a lot that’s ironic about Avondale, like, for one, the way it borders Clifton and St. Bernard but it still manages to feel like a city unto itself, completely separate and sometimes isolated from Cincinnati; Price Hill, Western Hills and Northside can feel like this, too.
But they each have distinctive identities marking them that aren’t solely comprised of race and crime.
Conduct a Google search of “streets in Avondale, Ohio,” and a detailed and outlined map will show that Avondale has a spookily similar topographical silhouette to Africa, another densely black land mass fraught with crime yet held together by national pride and belonging.
Like they used to in the O.G.
Over-the-Rhine, native Avondalians will give interlopers the stink eye; they know when a visitor doesn’t belong and they can feel our anxieties.
Another irony, though one that hasn’t necessarily hurt Avondale, is that it’s sometimes bolstered by the city yet left alone by the city to solve its own problems, and this can be a good thing if not an interesting social experiment.
Community stakeholders have emerged in Avondale to take ownership of its schools, its community councils and, yes, even its crime.
CIRV — Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence — started in Cincinnati in 2007 and is modeled after the much-studied Boston Gun Project and is designed to, on a street level, reduce the numbers of gun violence “and associated homicides” perpetrated by repeat, violent offenders already known to police. Between 2012 and 2013, shootings in Avondale increased from 30 to 33; shootings jumped from nine to 20 in Winton Hills; fell from 20 to 19 in East Price Hill; and shootings in Walnut Hills fell from 27 to 17. CIRV’s multi-tiered partnerships comprise local, state and federal cops, social service agencies and local community groups and have identified 10 total Cincinnati neighborhoods, including the ones cited above.
The last time I laid eyes on the Avondale CIRV street team, several years ago, it was led by a man who’d years before shot and paralyzed a woman but who’d served no time for that crime (because, he said, he’d done it on self defense) but whose flamboyant and boisterous affect seemed inspiring to the small gaggle of black men on his team who were themselves breaking ties with their previous violent and drug-related pasts.
They had just the right language and, because of their pasts, they hit the right notes of street credibility with the offenders they’d be approaching after incidents of gun violence.
They were wholly believable and doing the Lord’s work.
But defeatist questions dog Avondale: Is this mostly black enclave separated by classism when its residents specify whether or not they live in “North Avondale”? Are all its people outnumbered by the people who insist on terrorizing the streets of Avondale with exacting gun violence?
What bearing do better schools, increased community involvement and tax incentives and jobs from a hospital have on a black man intent on buying a gun and using it to mow down his definition of disrespect? And what, really, can the cops do to beat back a neighborhood’s longstanding reputation for being the place where outbursts of pop-up violence live and sometimes hide?
Police suspect Brandon Thomas of shooting to death Adam Bostic and Betty Thomas execution-style early on the morning of Jan. 9 in the Avondale apartment they shared with two young girls who were home when their parents were murdered.
This could be about drugs, about Brandon Thomas having some kind of entangled, illegal relationship with Bostic that went violently wrong.
Cordero Warren and Ebony McDavis lied to police Dec. 19 about how their daughter was shot, blaming her shooting on stray bullets from nearby partygoers who were shooting at one another who were really firing into the air. Turns out 3-year-old L’eah Johnson was shot after Warren’s gun, beside her on the floor where she slept, went off.
Avondale, for people divested in its future growth, is merely a place to stay.
It’s like a shrink-wrapped Detroit in that the neighborhood’s core of retail — Avondale Town Center — and Jet-worthy small black businesses — AM soul and funk stalwart WCIN — have vanished, leaving very little to be proud of or connected to.
The space junk of supposed ghetto needs like dollar stores, a substandard discount grocery store and beer- and cigarette-rich corner bodegas have replaced them.
That’s a crappy diet for a neighborhood that needs its strength.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: firstname.lastname@example.org