Saturday, November 16, 1996
Respect, if not affection
Gray annoying, but effective

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Buddy Gray
Charles Smith, in hooded jacket,
exchanges hugs with other
friends of Buddy Gray
on Friday. (Steven M.
Herppich photo). | ZOOM |
Buddy Gray went nowhere slowly, nowhere quietly.

Inside Cincinnati City Hall, the Over-the-Rhine activist wielded considerable influence for a man whose constituency - the poor and homeless - mostly did not vote.

He did it by relying on an in-your-face, shout-them-down style of confrontation that, time and again, persuaded city officials to twist rules in his favor and pour money into Gray-backed low-income housing projects.

On the streets of Over-the-Rhine, where ''Buddy'' was by far the best-known resident, he always walked briskly. To take a tour with him of one of Cincinnati's poorest neighborhoods - as fast-paced as it was - was to see his passion for those who had nothing and his resentment toward those who opposed him.

Over two decades he fought - almost always bitterly - to transform Over-the-Rhine to conform to his vision: a concentrated pocket of low-income housing, homeless shelters and treatment programs for alcoholics, drug addicts and the like.

Through various non-profit groups, he assembled the second-largest stock of buildings in Over-the-Rhine and, as a result, constantly butted heads with community groups that did not share his vision. He was a love-him-or-hate-him activist who had many enemies but didn't let it bother him.

''He wasn't one to cultivate friends, that's for sure,'' said William Langevin, director of the city's Department of Buildings and Inspections.

''I know I always tried to avoid personal confrontation with him, because it was not a pleasant experience,'' said Mr. Langevin. ''He was highly, highly confrontational and argumentative. But the man certainly had my respect.''

To have those who differed with Mr. Gray praise him speaks volumes about his role in lobbying inside City Hall and in shaping Over-the-Rhine.

''Regardless of whether you agreed with what Buddy said, you had to respect the intensity and the commitment he had for the neighborhood and for people who are often forgotten in society,'' said former Cincinnati City Councilman Nick Vehr.

Karla Irvine, who as head of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) was a frequent critic of Mr. Gray, said his death was a tragedy.

''Although we differed night and day on strategy, I think our basic values were pretty similar,'' she said.

While Ms. Irvine hoped to spread low-income housing throughout the city's neighborhoods, Mr. Gray sought to keep it primarily in Over-the-Rhine. There, she said, he was intent on building a ''super ghetto.''

To do so, Mr. Gray needed to be persuasive inside City Hall. His non-profit groups - in particular, the Race Street Tenant Organization Cooperative that he helped found in 1977 - owned dozens of buildings that were badly in need of refurbishment and, to that end, city and federal funds.

''Buddy knew how to lobby very well to get attention to the things he was interested in,'' said Cheryl Meadows, director of Cincinnati's Neighborhood Services department.

''He knew how to empty out the Drop-Inn Center and bring the (homeless) in to make a specific point. He knew how to use his influence when needed.''

Ms. Meadows said her relationship with Mr. Gray was sometimes adversarial, but they ultimately worked well together.

Calling Mr. Gray the ''last of the grass-roots politicians,'' council member Dwight Tillery said, ''Buddy really understood how city hall operated.''

''He understood grass-roots politics. He knew how to bring people together, and he know how to be a strong advocate for the people of Over-the-Rhine and especially the poor. Council didn't always agree with Buddy on a (variety) of issues, but I certainly had the greatest respect for him because he was a formidable person to deal with.''

Mr. Gray's influence found its way into the office of Mr. Langevin, whose building inspections staff routinely battled with Mr. Gray over the condition of the many buildings he controlled.

Though Mr. Gray was ordered to - and finally agreed to - fix up many buildings, he then turned around and flouted other city laws, according to Mr. Langevin.

One of Mr. Gray's ''curious habits,'' he said, was allowing so-called security tenants to live in vacant, inhabitable buildings.

''It was never what I would call a legal practice. We held it in a very dim light,'' said Mr. Langevin. ''But we were eventually able to work out a compromise so those rooms they were living in could be brought up to standard.''

''Buddy was a very effective advocate. In recent years, however, I think his influence was probably much less than what it had been,'' said Mayor Roxanne Qualls.

If Mr. Gray was not as influential, his non-profit groups still had considerably deep pockets. Two low-income housing groups tied to him spent more than $1.2 million acquiring parcels west of Vine Street between 1990 and 1994.

These acquisitions and others - labeled as ''landbanking'' by some groups who thought Mr. Gray simply wanted to sit on buildings and delay development - further alienated him from pro-business interests.

Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce officials - who have sought to gentrify the neighborhood - called in Dan Pinger Public Relations Inc. to do their talking as soon as Mr. Gray's death became known. The PR firm issued a brief press release calling Mr. Gray ''a tireless leader for those who are often unheard.''

Said restaurateur and frequent Gray critic, Jim Tarbell: ''This was a real tragedy. This is not an appropriate time to comment on other aspects of Buddy's life.''

As successful and bullheaded as Mr. Gray was, he knew there could be dangers in the positions he took. He had received death threats over the years. In more than one instance, he was confronted by angry people in the streets. And his ''tough-love'' attitude toward many of the neighborhood's homeless people made for an uneasy peace between them and him.

Laura Goldberg contributed to this report.

Published Nov. 16, 1996.