Have you ever been to a memorial for someone you never knew? If you’re lucky, it was half as reverent and positive and even funny as the celebration of Ruth “Cookie” Vogelpohl’s life was in January at Our Daily Bread. Vogelpohl was the founder of the soup kitchen, day center, and social service agency, which has been located near Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine since 1985. At the memorial older volunteers were leading prayers as younger punketeers sang folk songs. You could watch as those who had just been served a hot meal got up to talk about Cookie or tell a joke. You could hear about the time she mentioned there would be friars at lunch, and how an industrious client started prepping to collect equipment for her. “No, I meant Franciscans,” she chortled.
Vogelpohl’s death comes at a moment when Our Daily Bread, and those in the surrounding neighborhood, have reason to take measure of its achievement. ODB serves on average about 400 meals on a weekday. According to executive director Georgine Getty, some 5,000 to 6,000 people volunteer time or supplies in a given year. Besides meals, ODB offers emergency rent and utility assistance, daytime after-school programs for kids, and two in-house social workers. There are times when you can get a haircut or have your picture taken there, and plenty of times when you can play chess or dominos. ODB has been in the area since before Over-the-Rhine reached bottom, with the riots of 2001, and they’ve seen the slow bounce back accelerate. It’s a durable institution in a neighborhood suddenly brimming with change, and that is one further cause for contemplating how the transformation is taking shape.
In recent years Vogelpohl had pulled back from the facility, and by the time she passed, in December, the staff was employing an all-purpose declaration to guide the operation: “What would Cookie do?” Staffers knew that Vogelpohl had instituted many small practices during her time at ODB that made a big difference. For instance, she made ODB a place where one could sit and use a fork. She insisted on using real plates and tableware when serving people, because she said nobody should be made to feel disposable. She made sure clients got cakes on their birthdays; all they had to do was come in and let the staff know it was coming in a few days. She ensured a level of humanity for people who found their humanity under attack on the streets of the city.
Recently a visitor came in and said that although his birthday was three weeks away, could he have a cake today? The staff thought about it, and, applying the WWCD? postulate, decided he shouldn’t be turned away just because it wasn’t quite his birthday. They celebrated early.
One more reason for taking stock came on the cold morning of January 9, when a man stormed into the building as people were lined up for a meal and opened fire with a shotgun. Deante Mattocks, who was only 28, died of injuries and an unnamed female was hospitalized in critical condition. (She has since recovered.) Robert Jacobs, 43, was arrested and charged with murder and felonious assault. According to accounts from both the prosecutor and ODB employees, Jacobs is alleged to have been involved in a domestic dispute—a romantic triangle—with the other two. A trial date has yet to be set.
After the shooting, yellow tape blocked off the street in front of the building. More than 100 clients saw it all, and it’s extraordinary that no one else was injured. The agency closed its doors and didn’t re-open until Martin Luther King Day.
While ODB seems to have fully recovered, the violence heightened fears among some vendors nearby in Findlay Market. All of a sudden some people are wondering if it just got harder for everybody to get along. Right after the shooting, a merchant charged out and confronted Georgine Getty, declaring that she was responsible for the incident and for exposing Findlay Market to violence. On January 13, Jenni Jenkins, director of communications for ODB, posted a statement on her Facebook page: “To the Findlay Market vendor who decided to verbally attack my coworker and humiliate her, publicly asserting that the shooting that happened this week was all our fault because we serve the ‘dirty’ poor who don’t belong in the neighborhood anymore—shame on you….”
According to Kate Zaidan from Dean’s Mediterranean Imports, some merchants have used the incident as a springboard to say “See, this is why it doesn’t work”—to have a social service institution operating on the periphery of one of the city’s landmarks. Zaidan has organized a tour of ODB for interested vendors in the past. “There is tension and some concern among tenants,” she says, “and I thought we could demystify things.”
Tension regarding what, exactly? “Oh, there’s people that hang out outside ODB. People down on their luck, people who need a hot meal,” she tells me. “I think the concern is that it scares customers.
“My general sense is that people are just a little unsure about how the neighborhood changing is going to affect our businesses,” Zaidan says. “Findlay Market is going to look so different a year from now. We’ve been doing things a certain way—some have been here 150 years. And so, yeah, it’s a little challenging. You are not sure which way things are going to go.”
Ilene Ross has taught cooking classes at Cook’s Wares in Montgomery and beyond for some 30 years. Anything and everything except for pie and sushi, she says (she’s dissatisfied with her crust). Ross senses a reluctance, even a fear, from her students when it comes to visiting Findlay Market.
“Most of the time I’d say the vast majority of people in my classes are from the suburbs and shop at big chain grocery stores. I prefer to shop at farmers’ markets, especially Findlay Market,” she says, adding that she shops there two or three times a week. “I always tell people of my favorite vendors there and I often get a fairly negative response. People say they never think about going there because they are concerned about ‘the crime.’ I just get a lot of pushback in regards to the neighborhood and what they perceive that type of neighborhood to be, which is not safe.”
But now, young whites, if not suburbanites, are moving into OTR in greater numbers than they have in years. The mix has generated increasing unease among newcomers and longtime residents alike.
I like to go to the market on weekend mornings, and one gray Sunday I made it there around 10. A block away, I had a big American car behind me, its sound system pumping some very loud, bass-distorting jam as I waited for the light to change. When both of us turned the corner and were driving down Race Street, along the eastern edge of the market, the car suddenly veered around my right side and its African-American driver leaned out, half standing through the window, and flipped a finger in the market’s general direction. Then the car rattled off ahead of me.
A cosmic gesture of rage and powerlessness, and I was the only audience he had.
Sitting at a table at Cake Rack one late afternoon, Getty recalls without getting deep into it the recent time she got an earful from a shopkeeper, before a somewhat bigger audience. “One person—out of literally hundreds—one person had harsh words for me,” she says. She won’t say who, though. “I don’t want to give them credibility and I don’t want to fight with them.”
Them: it’s an ever-shifting group Getty says she has been hearing a lot about lately. A chorus of voices who tell her there’s no way ODB can remain on Race Street if Over-the-Rhine is to thrive. “They” won’t allow it: the powerful forces of gentrification who are currently making over the blocks around the market, with more change to come. Soon an actual grocery store will open just outside the market space, run by the owners of the Fresh Table stand. It’s set to be a 5,700-square-foot store (with a lunch counter inside), and is just one part of the $24 million Market Square project being developed by The Model Group on the 1800 block of Race, just across Elder Street from ODB. You can hear the whir of power tools while standing at ODB’s front door. “They” are moving in; “they” want the homeless out. That’s the background noise Getty hears, but doesn’t much listen to.
“I can never find out who ‘they’ are,” she says with a laugh at Cake Rack. “And my thing is, you know what? If they do have a name, a face, a concern, here’s my cell phone number, let’s talk it out.”
Getty, who is from Iowa, was Executive Director for the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless from 2002 to 2007, and then for six years was director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network
of Greater Cincinnati before coming to ODB.
Whoever “they” might be, they aren’t the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), she notes. Their profile in the area north of Liberty has been less visible and less polarizing than it is south of Liberty. Getty says, pointedly, “I think I’ve met [3CDC honcho] Steve Leeper twice, and once it was when I was south of Liberty and he suggested a really good Japanese restaurant. 3CDC has not come to us and said, ‘Leave, and here’s the plan.’ Nobody has come to us and said that.”
In fact, the day after the shooting, one small extraordinary thing happened: The Model Group’s CEO Steve Smith sent a crew of carpenters and other workers over to ODB. Footing the expense, Model Group built a new enclosed entrance, a secure space where ODB visitors can check their belongings and now get a sadly mandatory wanding. (A $10,000 grant from the Cincinnati Foundation pays for two employees with a wand at the door.) But visitors still don’t have to show a card to eat. Anybody can go and have lunch there: that piece of Cookie’s legacy lives on as well.
Beyond good citizenship, the new entrance was a show of support. Smith worked in the neighborhood when he was a kid and was vaguely aware of ODB. Slowly he got to know the staff personally. Today his 20-year-old daughter is a volunteer, and, he says, “I want them to know we are on their side as they do important work.
“This is a neighborhood that is in transition,” he adds, pointing out his company’s track record for creating affordable housing in OTR, as well as the number of market rate units they’ve built north of Liberty. “There is room for everyone in the neighborhood, and there is also room for disagreements—so long as everyone comes with openness.”
Five years from now what does he see? Will people get along as the neighborhood continues to change?
Smith answers the question through a side door. He describes what he calls “one of the big gaps” opening up in the community. The cost to build is so high that developers can only make the numbers work, Smith says, by relying on the subsidies for affordable housing (housing for those making at or below 60 percent median income) or from winning big in the free market—and that leaves what he calls “a broad band” of the middle class unable to live in OTR. “Those are your baristas, teaching assistants, a lot of public servants—a huge swath of service sector people who cannot afford to live in Over-the-Rhine.” That gap, he suggests, is worrisome.
“Guests,” Cookie called the people who came to ODB, a finer word than clients. Getty warmly uses the word today. She uses it a lot more freely than she does another G-word—gentrification—that comes up often in conversations about Over-the-Rhine.
“Stop saying that,” she says to me, “because it’s not true. As of right now it’s not Anna Louise Inn versus Western & Southern. They had a ‘they’; we don’t have a ‘they’ yet. You are saying that gentrification is inevitable and everybody is secretly thinking it is so. I don’t think it’s true—I hope it’s not true. And I’m not going to borrow trouble until ‘they’ emerge with a name and a face.”
Getty walks me to the streetcar platform across the street from ODB. “We are going to continue trying to be the best neighbors we can be,” she tells me, “and do our thing.”