Northside sees progress despite arson string

Wednesday, December 16, 1998

BY TANYA BRICKING
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[fire damage]
Becky Norton looks from her porch on Fergus Street to the house next door, which was destroyed by arson last week.
(Glenn Hartong photo)

| ZOOM |
Under the view of a police video camera installed Tuesday, the corner of Chase and Fergus avenues in Northside is a block under watch. On one side, there's a former crack house restored to its 1880s traditional shotgun style with Victorian touches.

On the other side, another house sits charred and vacant, disfigured by arson.

A dozen arsons have plagued the neighborhood since 20-year-old Antonio Shafer was stabbed to death on Witler Street in a street fight Oct. 1. But the fires have not burned the neighborhood spirit to get beyond this.

Jim Maxwell sees his neighborhood as one that's changing for the better -- but the transition comes with some costs.

His neighborhood is one where a hip hair salon shares a block with empty storefronts. It has posh restaurants such as Boca and ordinary pubs like Junker's Tavern. It has a tattoo shop and Crazy Ladies, the city's only feminist-lesbian bookstore.

It's a blue-collar neighborhood where some executives have settled. It has a racial mix that's 21 percent African-American and 79 percent white. Residents say it's a place where sexual preference or the color of the window

trim doesn't become the talk of the neighborhood. In the mornings, trails of garbage are evidence of the popular corners to hang out at night.

Mr. Maxwell, 47, who owns the former crack house on Chase Avenue, clears trash from his sidewalk on daily walks.

He's lived there since August and has made it a home for his office, Silver Hammer Workshops, an environmental-education group for children.

In his short time there, he's become a visible community activist, calling police when he spots trouble.

The neighborhood reported 803 "serious" crimes last year. Crimes classified as serious include homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft.

In the first eight months of this year, Northside had 558 crimes classified as serious. It also has had three homicides this year. Mr. Maxwell is scheduled to be in court today as a witness against young adults charged with menacing, felonious assault and littering. His speaking out has brought threats that his home will be the next in flames, or that his Rottweiler, Mabel, will be poisoned. There's a reason Mr. Maxwell stays.

He has hope that things will get better.

At the crowded Ace Hardware store on Hamilton Avenue, owner Bill Dickhaus, 73, has seen times like these before.

A few years ago, he had to stop selling spray paint because kids were marking up cars, he recalled.

"Now they're picking on houses that are empty and they put them on fire," he said. "It's just a matter of young kids."

Kenneth Ward, 17, lives near the corner where the city installed a camera Tuesday so police can watch the block.

He sees police as an intrusion into the neighborhood, but he knows the reason the police presence has been growing.

The talk among his circle of friends is that the small fires being set around the neighborhood are in retaliation for the October stabbing. A teen has been charged in the death.

Antonio Cornist, 28, who often hangs out on Chase Avenue, thinks it has more to do with a lack of supervision.

"There's a lot of abandoned houses," he said. "And you can get in them. Kids use them as clubhouses."

Authorities aren't yet sure that teens are to blame, Cincinnati Fire Capt. Dan Rottmueller said. "We've got (witnesses who saw) kids running from a couple of scenes," he said of the arsons. "But we don't know for sure."

There is a feeling in the neighborhood that this will blow over, said Jeanette Ward, 43, Kenneth's mother.

The $5,000 reward being offered to solve the arsons may prompt a resolution, Kenneth said.

"$5,000 at Christmastime," he said. "I wish I knew who did it."

The Blue Ribbon Arson Fund is offering a $5,000 reward for tips on those responsible for arsons in Northside. Anyone with information is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 352-3040. Callers may remain anonymous.



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