I covered my first NAACP convention 11 years ago in Pittsburgh. Next week will mark my second, again in the city where I live (now Cincinnati). A lot has changed; then I was an intern at the New Pittsburgh Courier, my hometown black paper. Today, I'm a bona fide journalist with a serious body of work. The NAACP has gone through three presidents; newly installed Ben Jealous, four years my senior at 35, is its first leader of my generation. That's a hopeful sign that the organization is finally ready for new and much needed ideas to tackle the economic strife and whatever other battles are ahead.
But, ain't much changed either: 1996 and 2008 were presidential election years—Clinton or Dole, Obama or McCain. Pittsburgh then and Cincinnati now have experienced dubious racial progress. Months before the Pittsburgh convention, five white police officers killed Johnny Gammage during a traffic stop inside the city limits; months later they got a pass from an all-white jury. In Cincy, people still talk about a 2001 riot sparked by the police killing of an unarmed black man like it was yesterday. But more relevant and disturbing is that a study on race in the city just concluded that "despite seven years of multiple sustained efforts to reduce disparities, the circumstances have not changed for African Americans in our community."
Almost makes you wonder why the NAACP is bringing all its members and its millions to town. Since they're coming anyway, I hope the delegates get out of downtown and do something few did in my hometown in '96: see how real live black folk live in Cincy. A few places y'all need to check out between meetings:
Over-the-Rhine. The neighborhood infamous for the '01 riots is being redeveloped, or gentrified, depending on who you ask. Historically a neighborhood of German immigrants, white flight left it heavily African-American in recent times. Don't bother with a bus tour. In Washington Park, about 10 blocks north of the convention center, you can tour a fresh, new, $200,000 condo, get hit up for change by vagrants and watch as steel for a new performing arts school rises—all on the same block.
Avondale, Bond Hill and Walnut Hills. Epicenters of working-class, black Cincy life. Avondale and to some extent, Walnut Hills, have their issues with crime and violence but most folk want what anyone else does: decent crib, decent job, decent family, decent money. Holla at some folks on their porches if you delegates really wanna know what's good with everyday people.
Julia's. The official name of the restaurant is "A Taste of Julia's," but nobody eats there for just a taste of anything. Best soul food I've had since moving here and it'd have to be since Julia inexplicably located to Fairfield, a good 20-minute drive north of downtown. If you have time, make sure you check it out. If you don't have time, make time.
Underground Railroad Freedom Center . An easy walk from the convention center, the waterfront attraction houses thousands of black history artifacts—some thought provoking, some enraging. To keep 'em from forgetting how far we've come, I took my sons' picture inside an actual "slave jail" that still stands inside the museum. The center's been a political football over issues of funding, and more recently development, since a billion-dollar riverfront project is set to be built around it.
The West End. Like Over-the-Rhine, the West End is close to downtown and at a turning point. A major housing project was cleared several years ago to make way for a new mixed-income development. It has attracted many young, black professionals who work downtown with affordable townhouses, but the housing slowdown has hurt the development's momentum. Some projects are still standing there, but they're not far from the ornate houses that have long been home to the Mallory family, Cincinnati's black political dynasty which includes the city's current mayor, a state legislator and a judge.
Ollie's Trolley. Old-school soul food sold out of an old trolley car at the corner of West Liberty and Central Avenues in Over-the-Rhine.
The Greenwich . Long a haven for jazz in Walnut Hills, now renovated and host to musicians and spoken word artists.
Markell-Bani . How often do you run across black-owned wineries in the Midwest?
Bell's Tobacco . After you grab a good vino from Markell-Bani, roll around I-275 to Bell's, where some good black folk will roll you a nice stogie.
City Hall . I told the mayor's chief of staff, Carla Walker, over coffee on Thursday that it's a safe bet most outside of Cincinnati don't know how much political clout African Americans have in this town. The mayor, Mark Mallory, and city manager, Milton Dohoney, are both black; as are the coroner, several city councilmen past and present and numerous department heads. While Walker and I talked, a former city solicitor, young, black and female, stopped over to chat us up. Cincy may not be known for its progressive politics, but black folk definitely have a seat at the table here.
Keith Reed is a writer living in Ohio.