Sunday, November 17, 1996
Over-the-Rhine now up for grabs
To many, Gray was the bulwark


BY CAMERON McWHIRTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

From the dilapidated low-income apartments on Republic Street to the fancy brewpubs of lower Main Street, the news swept through Over-the-Rhine Friday morning. Stanley Howard Gray, known to everyone as Buddy, a man who had spent his life working to help society's cast-offs, had been killed by one of those he tried to help.

People gathered in parks, on street corners, in offices and restaurants to mull the loss and its profound impact for Cincinnati's toughest and poorest neighborhood, now in the throes of battle over gentrification.

Outside the 14th Street offices of Race Street Tenants Organized Cooperative (ReSTOC), one of the housing groups that Mr. Gray helped found, men grouped to talk, shuffling their feet to keep warm.

For these men, all poor and former residents of Mr. Gray's Drop-Inn Center Shelter House, a powerful voice for the downtrodden was gone.

''My first thought was that it's over now, we don't have a chance,'' said Lemuel Israel, 42, who is living in a treatment center that Mr. Gray helped start. ''There was nobody standing between the rich people and the poor people but Buddy Gray. I'm in shock. I'm numb.''

Thomas Denhart, the largest landlord in Over-the-Rhine, didn't shy away from the power struggle implications of Mr. Gray's death.

''The question now is this: Was it a one-man show or was there an organization there that will continue? How effective will they be without him?'' Mr. Denhart said. ''It will be interesting to watch.''

In terms of property holdings, nothing will change immediately. Buddy Gray never owned these properties, though he controlled them by sitting on the boards of various agencies. The question is whether those agencies can be as effective without his powerful personality to guide them.

When Mr. Gray began work in Over-the-Rhine in 1973, this poor neighborhood was in need of a leader to argue for help from City Hall and other power centers. Over-the-Rhine was the city's forgotten neighborhood, a social backwater only blocks from the downtown of what was to be called ''America's most livable city.''

Mr. Gray became that leader. Besides his work with the homeless and addicted, he organized protests. He battled council members, business people and anyone else he thought wasn't doing right by the poor.

It was in-your-face activism, and for all the criticism from Cincinnati's ruffled power elite, the tactic worked. For years, he fought developments that he considered harmful to the poor. He built, with many other like-minded people, a powerful network to help the city's homeless and chronically poor. ReSTOC and other groups eventually became the second largest landholders in Over-the-Rhine behind Mr. Denhart.

But over time, a new political force developed in the neighborhood, as upscale businesses, primarily bars and art galleries, developed around Main Street. Well-to-do outsiders began to move in. Eventually, the two forces developed opposing visions for the neighborhood's future.

The battle lines were drawn. Mr. Gray and his supporters bought buildings to rehab for low-income housing and treatment centers. Developers moved in to turn run-down buildings into revamped stores and apartments. The two sides clashed repeatedly and heatedly over specific projects throughout Over-the-Rhine. One of the most recent battles was over 1400 Vine St., where Mr. Gray fought the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce to set up a group home for reforming alcoholics.

Mr. Gray's devoted followers saw him as an advocate of the principle of ''people over systems,'' a crusader for the lower classes. He also developed ardent enemies, who saw him as archaic, stubborn and power hungry, a man who could not accept change or compromise.

Many supporters worried, like Mr. Israel, that Mr. Gray's death would mean a gentrification blitz on the poor neighborhood.

''Sometimes he would come across with too much heavy-duty confrontation, but that was because he believed so much in what he was fighting for,'' said Sister Kateri Maureen Koverman, clinical director of Joseph House, a center for alcoholic veterans on Vine Street. Sister Koverman, a friend of Mr. Gray's for almost two decades, saw his death as a temporary victory for gentrification.

''Some factions within the community will be very pleased because that voice will take so long to replace,'' she said. ''Evil seems to have won with his murder.''

Councilman Dwight Tillery said the death left a large portion of the neighborhood's more than 8,500 people without a voice.

''With his absence, where does that really leave the community?'' he said. ''That is where I have grave concerns. No matter what one might have felt about Buddy, overall the record will show that he was really a person committed to the issues of the poor. Absent that strong voice, what will now happen to thousands of residents who in one way or another were dependent upon his leadership? I think his death not only is a great loss to the people in Over-the-Rhine and the people in this city, it certainly poses a greater question as to what will happen to the poor in the Over-the-Rhine.''

But others think Mr. Gray's legacy will be preserved, simply because his work attracted many supporters.

Pat Clifford, for years Mr. Gray's assistant and now head of ReSTOC, said Mr. Gray was not the only advocate at work in Over-the-Rhine.

''It never was like that,'' Mr. Clifford said. ''One of the biggest misconceptions was that this was a one-man show.''

Jim Verdin, president of the Verdin Co. in the Pendleton neighborhood, said Mr. Gray's work can't be erased by the slaying.

''There will be a change, but, honestly, I'm not sure how it will affect the growth of the area or his mission,'' Mr. Verdin said. ''I would think it would continue on because he has a big following.''

Time will tell. Politicians, business owners and housing advocates anxiously wait for the real impact of Friday's tragedy to unfold in historic Over-the-Rhine.

The indigent, whom Mr. Gray made the focus of his life, wonder nervously what will happen to them.

Peggy Whitted, 32, a mentally ill woman who lives in a group home on Elm Street near Music Hall, rushed out of her building to the Drop-Inn Center when she heard Mr. Gray had been shot. A reporter told her that he had been killed.

''He was always trying to help people,'' she said, tears pouring down her face as she fiercely gripped a plastic soda bottle and a paper napkin. ''He helped me. He kept me off the streets. Who's going to do that now?''

Laura Goldberg contributed to this report.

Published Nov. 17, 1996.