LISC National

Living, working and volunteering in West End, Tia and Michael Brown make change

By Hillary Copsey

Tia and Michael Brown met in the West End a decade ago at Bright Star Community Church. They fell in love not just with each other, but with the neighborhood and the church's vision for it.

They started volunteering, first with Bright Star, then also with Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses. They began attending West End Community Council meetings. Tia, 35, founded the West End Art Gallery — it doesn't have a physical space yet, but still organizes monthly art workshops — and landed a job as Seven Hills communications coordinator. Michael, 34, folded his lawn care business to take a facilities position at CityLink, a social service agency in the West End.

And all the while, Tia stalked real estate listings and neighborhood gossip.

“We said, 'We're here.' We already had invested ourselves, and we knew we needed to be closer,” Michael said.

In April, the Browns became West End homeowners.

“We don't consider ourselves to be activists. It's not like that. We just feel called down here,” Tia Brown said. “Let's lift up the people who have been here. We want to be here with you.”

The West End has historically been an African American neighborhood, part of Cincinnati's urban core.  Divided by Interstate 75 in the 1950s, the community has high poverty levels and a low homeownership rate. The neighborhood lost housing, residents and schools in the last half of the 20th century.

But in recent years, as redevelopment has moved out from Cincinnati's central business district and Over-The-Rhine, the West End has seen renewed interest and community energy. Tia's position at Seven Hills was made possible by funding from Place Matters and support from LISC of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. The West End is a Place Matters community.

Meanwhile, over the last decade, Bright Star Community Church has been working to buy all the properties on its block. The church has been in the West End since 1963, and Pastor James R. Strayhorn said the parishioners had had enough of the crime around them.

“When I was younger, when there were more buildings on the block, there was a time that there would be crime right there on Charlotte (Street) — dice games, drugs,” Strayhorn said. “We had a vision to own the block. If we own it, we can control it.”

The church has four parcels left to buy. Strayhorn said he plans to open the doors of a new church, family life center and school by 2020.

The Brown family.
The Brown's home.
“The little things go a long way, everybody wants good neighbors. People you can talk to, people you can trust, and that’s what we’re about.”
— Michael Brown

The Browns are part of all these community efforts. Pick an event or program in the West End, and chances are good that Tia or Michael will have had a hand in it. As Seven Hills communication coordinator, Tia, especially, is in touch with everyone, collecting news and information and sending back out into the community.

“Tia is always willing to show up and be there,” said Alexis Kidd, executive director of Seven Hills. “She's a voice that's a fresh perspective. She lives here. She's a resident.”

The Browns also are affecting the neighborhood in the smallest ways: mowing empty lots, talking to their neighbors, cleaning up litter on the sidewalk, walking to and from work.

“The little things go a long way,” Michael said. “Everybody wants good neighbors. People you can talk to, people you can trust, and that’s what we’re about.”

They've strung up lights on their home's small patio, and they already have reached out to the owners of the empty lots and buildings around them, asking if they'd ever sell. Tia still is stalking real estate, looking for permanent home for the West End Gallery. They dream about making their home a gathering place for friends and family — nieces, nephews and cousins, neighbors, the more the merrier.

Robert Killins, a Seven Hills board member, has lived in the West End for nearly 20 years. He says he sees more young families like the Browns moving into the neighborhood and with them a growing amount of social engagement and social capital. They have time to volunteer and work in their community.

Combined with professional and financial support from LISC and Place Matters, the social engagement is making community development happen, said West End Community Council President Keith Blake.

“Lately,” said Blake, who has lived in West End since 1989, “people are more interested in long-term participation in the community.”

When West End crime makes the news, Tia said their family wonders why they live there. But the Browns have endless faith in the West End and no doubt this is where they should be.

“The community is still rife with that darkness and that violence. It’s still there,” Michael said. “But it’s decreased. The more we expand, the less we see that stuff.”