A cup of coffee costs $1 at the Pilgrim Place Coffeehouse, located in a back room inside Old St. George, the onetime Catholic parish on Calhoun Street in Clifton Heights. For the past 11 years, Old St. George has functioned as an interfaith community center, meeting place for social justice groups, arts venue and rental hall. CityBeat has presented the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards there since 2001.
The coffee is a good deal if anyone were around to take advantage of it on this rainy weekday afternoon in early March. Past the front office where Assistant Director Nate Diller holds down the fort, through the empty courtyard, its Great Hall and bookstore, Old St. George is a slumbering giant desperate to come alive. The espresso machine hisses with a burst of steam, but I'm the only person around to hear it.
A young woman enters and breaks the silence, putting coffee cups atop the machine. Asked when the coffee bar opens, she answers matter-of-factly, "It opens whenever anybody wants something. Do you want something?"
Old St. George is a shadow of its original function as a neighborhood parish, and it likely will end its second life as a community center and arts venue at the later this year.
Current Old St. George Executive Director Larry Bourgeois was part of the team of volunteers who bought the massive church from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 1994 for approximately $600,000 and worked hard to repair the structure and fill its many rooms with eclectic programming and activities.
Rental revenue and fund-raising efforts failed to pay off the mortgage on time, and recently U.S. Bank moved to foreclose on the property. To prevent Old St.
George from being torn down and its stained glass windows and Rookwood tiles sold at a public auction, Bourgeois and his group sold the church to Clifton Heights Community Urban Redevelop-ment Corp (CHCURC), a partnership organization that brings together Clifton Heights neighborhood groups and the University of Cincinnati to revitalize the neighborhood adjoining UC's campus to the immediate south.
Old St. George and CHCURC signed a partnership in July 2003 for CHCURC to become the building's preferred developer for a $64,000 fee (money used to repair the church's roof).
Late last year, when Walgreen Drug Stores offered the Old St. George group $1.65 million for the building and land -- with every intention of razing the historic building -- the group turned again to CHCURC.
CHCURC offered Old St. George $1.6 million, and the group accepted. The contract gives Old St. George half the money on March 16 and the other half at the end of the year.
Bourgeois and his group can remain on-site through the end of the year. In the fall, CHCURC will seek new development offers to rehab the church, and it's unlikely that Old St. George will remain as a community center past 2005.
CHCURC is focused on Calhoun and McMillan streets, with new student apartments slated to open this fall and condos, upscale retail and green space planned in future phases. Old St. George stands in what CHCURC calls the "entertainment district," and it's unclear how a community cultural center fits in with plans for upscale restaurants, movie theaters and office space.
"We are a common ground," Bourgeois says, speaking at his cluttered office adjacent to the Old St. George's Great Hall. "We are about divisive issues being shared. I thought the major arts organizations and preservation organizations would have helped us. But I'm an optimist. You know, if you're against a particular group, there is someone who will give you money. If you specifically are a Christian organization, you'll get money. But Old St. George is open to all groups. It's not a simple message."
Outside the window of the library, Old St. George backs up against the UC Swing Building and its garage -- the concrete barbarians at the gates. The neighborhood is changing and Old St. George, as grassroots as community spaces come, is caught in the flurry of development.
On a sign in the church coffeehouse advertising Old St. George as a space for weddings and receptions is this message: "A great place for community spiritual renewal." It's as uplifting and optimistic as Bourgeois and the people who volunteer there.
Many of the books stacked on shelves in the adjacent bookstore offer themes of hope -- Reflections of Heaven: A Millennial Odyssey of Miracles, Angels and Afterlife and Andrew Young's An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America.
Maybe this is how the Old St. George staff and volunteers remain optimistic despite all that's happening around them and the threat of losing their home for the past 11 years. The Samuel Hannaford-designed church, opened in 1874, might have finally run out of luck.
Old St. George is a wonderful idea, but its Great Hall remains cold on the warmest day yet of 2005. It's a prophetic sign that no one is coming to save the dream a second time.
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