The uneven, broken sidewalks of the West End are littered with broken glass, White Castle wrappers and bottle caps. But there's surprising beauty in one of Cincinnati's most deadly neighborhoods.
On a spring day, a towering cottonwood is doing its best impression of snow flurries in 80 degrees. Parts of the neighborhood have aged gracefully.
On Dayton Street, 19th-century mansions of meat packers, builders and brewers still shine under a layer of peeling paint, tarnish and rusting wrought iron.
Kathy Luhn, working to restore the John Hauck house at 812 Dayton, invites us inside. It's like stepping into a cool, dim time capsule of inlaid floors, 14-foot hand-painted ceilings, sage-green walls, red brocade drapes and tar-black carved woodwork as solid and rooted as the German family that lived here.
Just around the corner is the "home'' of the Tot Lot Posse - a playground with a purple dinosaur and plastic slides. There are no kids, only two men at a picnic table.
I ask Roger Bailey, 67, about drug crimes. He won't talk about the posse, but says the neighborhood is getting worse. "When I was going to school, people cared about people. Now, there's a lot of indifference.''
"Thank you!'' says my friend Michael Howard, who grew up here. Bailey has made Howard's point of the day: disintegration of the family. Howard compares the solid foundation of the Hauck house to the hopeless life of drug gangs. "There is no vision at City Hall to deal with this,'' he says.
Cincinnati Police Capt. Vince Demasi says the Tot Lot Posse is "very organized and very sophisticated.'' Federal indictments of eight gang leaders said they used apartments on Dayton Street to cook and sell crack. Leader Antwynn Beavers had six cars. Police found a half-kilo of coke and $40,000 in cash in his apartment.
A crop duster spraying sarin nerve gas on the West End could hardly inflict more misery than the rapes, murders, drug addiction, thefts and decay caused by crack. But the people I talked to were not angry.
A woman told me her "baby'' takes good care of his children, so he can't be a bad guy. But she's afraid to hear the phone ring at night. She knows.
"I don't think people understand the magnitude unless it directly affects them,'' Demasi said. "There is no question the drug culture drives the violence. Ninety percent of the homicides lead back to the drug world.''
Sometimes when cops bust drug thugs, neighbors come out and cheer, he said. But "the West End is very scared.''
Near the Stanley Rowe apartments, old men on lawn chairs don't have much to say to a white guy asking questions. "Just keep walking,'' one finally says. "You'll see for yourself.''
Demasi hopes the recent busts help them arrest 50 or 60 street soldiers. "We are going to be absolutely relentless,'' he says - but it will be up to the courts to keep them in jail, and that seldom happens.
Cops can't install responsibility where it's as scarce as high school diplomas. They can't get civil rights leaders to stop ignoring young men who push drugs and kill each other. They can't make mothers stop finding excuses for "babies'' who would rather sell crack rocks for $500 a day than put sliders in a sack for minimum wage.
Still, the drug dealers thought they were invulnerable. "We've made a few people look over their shoulders,'' Demasi says.
And maybe get a few more people to look in the mirror.
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