On the Road: Conversations on housing justice, Bootsy Collins, WKRP and everything in between

Lonnie, Eddie and I with members of Working in Neighborhoods in Cincinnati

Lonnie Barlow, Eddie “Ice Cream” Jones and I took the show on the road to Cincinnati last week for a brief visit hosted graciously by the Peter Moorhouse, Sustainability Coordinator at the University of Cincinnati, and Dean Niemeyer, Principal Planner of Hamilton County. The three of us came to Ohio’s “Queen City” with some personal ties: Eddie was born in Cincy and has lots of family ties there, Lonnie cut his teeth as an emerging organizer with the AMOS project in the city and I’ve made many trips to visit my grandma, who passed away at the age of 99 last year, and other family there over the decades.

The drive down through the Ohio flatlands — ground zero of the combustible culture wars that have taken center stage in election season — was time to ruminate on some of our favorite topics, like Rick James’ lasting influence on the flamboyant strain of Buffalo street culture and the Golden Age of the sitcom in our 80s childhoods, a topic we gravitated to after reaching the conclusion (which I’m sure we’re not the first to come to) that WKRP and Bootsy Collins were Cincinnati’s greatest cultural contributions.

After our workshop on community resilience at the University of Cincinnati

As soon as we arrived, we led a workshop for about 100 students and faculty members in the university’s Planning School, housed in the aggressively geometric DAAP building designed by starchitect Peter Eisenman. Later that evening, we spoke alongside an impressive set of community leaders to a group of neighborhood activists and community-based planners.

In both sessions, I opened with an overview of PUSH’s model, introducing the community-engaged design process, the symbiosis between, on the one hand, base-building and campaigns for energy democracy and community benefits and, on the other, material investments in renewable energy, stormwater management, weatherization and green affordable housing that generate decent jobs accessible to community residents.

Lonnie spoke to both groups about the ways we engage our members in leadership development, campaign planning and decision-making around our development projects. Eddie, always looking to shake things up, elaborated on methods of training community members to rebuild neighborhoods while walking through the audience, aisle by aisle.

Touring South Cumminsville in Cincy

We did our best to learn as much as lecture and had the benefit of interacting with some outstanding groups at the workshops, including Working in Neighborhoods, CUFA and the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative.

The most memorable exchange at the university session came when an audience member asked us to summarize PUSH’s work in one word. Without skipping a beat, Eddie answered “self-sufficiency” and gave his take on how gaining control over the real estate development process, energy distribution, food and water management can build the spiritual power of a community.

Before hitting the road the next morning, we visited our ally Sister Barb and members of Working in Neighborhoods in the South Cumminsville neighborhood. The Buffalo crew was duly impressed by the deep roots the organization has in the neighborhood and their record of turning vacant 19th century buildings into quality homes for first-time homebuyers. The neighborhood itself is a preservationist’s paradise, with a bevy of quaint brick cottages and stunning mixed-use buildings. For now, thanks to the cohesion Working in Neighborhoods has worked to build, it seems insulated from the waves of gentrifying capital that have hit closer-in neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine.

In both the academic and community settings, we were all struck by how much hunger there is for building community power and wealth by taking charge of economic sectors we know will need to grow for the species to survive: solar, wind and geothermal; water management; green housing; and food.

Lonnie on the mic withEddie and Sister Barb

On the eight-hour ride back to Buffalo, we kept ourselves occupied listening to 70s-era breakbeats and challenging ourselves to remember as many dead fast-food spots as we could bring to mind from 80s-era Buffalo: the Red Barn off of Fillmore, the downtown Burger Kings in the bus station and Main Street, the Swiss Chalet next to Shea’s, a Long John Silvers near Bailey that I never knew.

As we rolled into town, Lonnie did some visioning on the community-building impact of the beat-making studio he runs on Niagara Street, seeing lots of potential in the rising generation to build a new Buffalo sound we’ve been hoping for since Rick James left the stage.