Island of Humanity – Gettin’ My 52 On in the Villages of Roll Hill

This is my forty-fourth in a series of walking Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods to find what makes each relevant to me. Follow me on Instagram for a hint of where I’ll venture next.

The Fay. Everyone knew it as The Fay, a winding stretch of subsidized housing built in the 80’s. However, I didn’t know it as The Fay, with one exception.

A writer friend of mine, Maura Anaya, had been a social worker then, making visits to the community. In one of our writing sessions, Maura penned a piece about The Fay. She painted one of the most startling images of life inside the neighborhood – more than what I could find in Youtube videos and news reels. I included her work at the end of this blog, but in her writings, Maura referred to the area as an island and through her work and words, affirmed the humanity that can be found anywhere.

That was years ago. In 2010, the city of Cincinnati announced plans for a $36 million overhaul of the Fay Apartments, including new kitchens, windows, doors, fences and a new name. The Villages of Roll Hill.

In one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods, residents and city officials alike agreed. The problem was not with the residents, but oftentimes their associates. The revitalization plan also included installation of security cameras, and automatic camera readers for license plates to identify individuals who perhaps were in the wrong place for the wrong reasons.

In 2012, when the new 703 units on the 79-acre parcel were unveiled, residents hailed the outcome as nothing short of a total makeover and total peace of mind, as one resident called it.

At the time, the city received the “Oscar” of community development awards for its LEED work in the renovations of the Fay Apartments.

But given its history, I of course had trepidations over walking the area.

Mark joined me that day, only because he was off after call. I planned the route during school bus pickup times. Many children waited at bus stops along the streets of the Villages of Roll Hill.

Our entry in the community was met with an empty police cruiser, perhaps stationed there during school pickups. We stopped and talked to a young mom with a very tall toddler. “School today?” I asked. “No, she’s only three,” the mother replied. I couldn’t believe it. The little girl had grown past my waist. The three-year-old had come from good genes.

We kept up our walk, surprised by the airiness of the community. Space. Breath. At several junctions, I waded through the dew-laid grass to snap photos of what appeared to be our city’s medical institutions and those of higher learning.

I tried to imagine if my home overlooked of these institutions. And I had little or no way to access that educational institution via schooling, financial means, even for that matter, the damn highway separated them all, as well as a twisting, winding road, which led down back through South Cumminsville and was not developed at all. How would I wake each morning?

As had become customary, I did discover a pair of lost soles, as we traversed the neighborhood. Many of the townhome clusters had neighborhood laundry rooms (though the hours noted were mostly weekday and weekends, with little consideration for weekday evenings) and neighborhood offices. There were at least three playground areas, and a child care center.

The homes were distinct in siding color and style. Many had been built as multi-units versus townhomes. During the renovation, some 17 buildings had been demolished to open up the setting, as we would learn. Some of those had been built along the property’s fenceline, and knocked down for more breathing room.  Where once old chain link fences had been installed, the newer ones or none at all allowed for more light as well.

We circled around the neighborhood, which didn’t take long. Nearing our car, I stopped to chat with two gentlemen seated on their front stoop.

I sauntered up the walk with Mark trailing me. “Hey, how you are this morning, gentlemen?”

“Just enjoying this weather,” the older one responded.

“My name is Annette, and this my husband Mark.” We all shook hands.

“I’m Ron.”

“Ron, I’m out walking Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods. (blah, blah, blah). This is quite the change. You’ve been here a while?”

“Yes, since early 2000’s.”

“So, you’ve seen the change.” Ron noted the apartments across from him which had been torn down.

“For the good?”


“Raised any kids here?” The other gentleman, Dave, said he did. Two went to St. Boniface in Northside. The other to West High.

Ron went on. “But we gotta have more for kids to do.” Dave nodded his head. Of course, that was the lament of all parents, but this time the note felt far more imperative and important.

“Boys and Girls Club does operate out of Roll Hill,” I noted, having learned that from my last walk. What about a rec center?” I asked.

“Kids got to go too far for that one down in Millvale.” Later we would drive down to that and it really was far and hilly) and only the fittest had a shot at going back up that hill.

We took our leave, with me asking who the smoker belonged to.

Everyone pointed at Ron.

“Well, Ron. Next time, I’ll be back around dinnertime.” Ron chuckled.

Trudging back to the car, we walked past the basketball courts and cramped community center.

I tried to work the logistics in my head. One neighborhood, the near entirety of it, was managed by an out of town property manager. There was a remaining dozen or so homes that belonged to an older street but were beyond the boundaries of the actual Villages of Roll Hill . They were part of the Villages neighborhood, not part of East Westwood, which seemed to be having its own issues set adrift from any comprehensive neighborhood feel.

Wallick Communities was the operator, based out of Columbus. They operated in nine states and also managed properties for assisted living, senior housing, and student housing. Let’s just say the online brochures and marketing are VERY different.

We’ve come a longs ways from separating ourselves by chain link fences. But I couldn’t help but walk away thinking we still had more distance to travel, in each of our minds, to envision a neighborhood not segmented off from the rest.

Excerpted from Maura Anaya’s work on The Fay apartments…

Having worked off and on with people who live in the Fay as a caseworker and in various other capacities for 20 years, I found myself visiting that island on top of the hill surrounded by trees, often, sometimes every day for weeks at a time. I once stood in the middle of a parking lot with a different domestic disturbance going on like stereo sound on both sides and in front of me. I knew 4 children who had witnessed their mother murdered in front of them on a street there and saw for the last time a teenager I cared about as he got out of the car telling me he knew what he was doing. 24 hours later he was found shot in the back, gone. I have called the police on that hill more than a few times. Yet, what struck me most about the Fay or the newly dubbed village of Roll Hill was the humanity. The humans all living behind cinderblocks with concrete floors, all isolated with one entrance and one exit. The people trying to beat the odds, the ones that despite one set back after another persevere and keep moving forward. The crime and poverty maybe more obvious, but the kindness, the hard-working men and women, the moral choices, and deep empathy that exists despite or perhaps because of the poverty stayed with me in equal measure.

If you think you are thrifty or strong or kind, try being those things when you are poor or scared for the safety of yourself or love ones at every moment.

Things that others do not see or are scared to look at you can see up close at the Fay but that up-close view reveals more than the stereotype or reputation of the neighborhood.

There was a vibrant economy that did not exist with money but rather bartering, favors and keeping track of who you owed and who owed you. There are vegetable trucks, sock and underwear guys and phone card sellers that came on the same day of the week that were not exactly official. It takes 5 dollars for you and your child to take the bus out of there. The store, the doctor a job interview or buying groceries means a significant undertaking if you are poor. Everyone knows the guy who can fix cars or a washing machine or the bootleg cab drivers. More than a few times, I have walked with families to buy some chips at the only store at the entrance. I have waved at the guys on the corner and counted pennies. I met all the definitions of families you could imagine that live there. What separated them from my urban neighborhood was diversity of income not diversity of being. No sea of humanity is one thing and despite the poverty and a concentration of all the urban problems you can name, I witnessed amazing spirit and creativity, time and again. No matter how desperate or poor, love has the same definition everywhere. The people I met at the Fay taught me that there are many ways to live under the same circumstances. American entrepreneurship and ingenuity is not just about drugs or exploitation it is about sharing and depending on others. It is about figuring out a way to live that meets your needs. I learned how working mothers of multiple children cook big meals with very little and was taught recipes for feeding a crowd that I still use.

I knew families that stuck to themselves and were very selective about who they associated with and others who knew everything and everyone. I knew criminals and law-abiding Christians, Muslims, even a Buddhist. I talked for hours with many families: a single mother so depressed and alone fearful to leave her apartment, an elderly foster mother who just did not know how to help the children she was caring for, a drug dealer who wanted to get out of hustling, an immigrant who built a computer for his studies. I met more loving parents than drug dealers and people with skills and jobs more than not. As a community, there are ebbs and flows and norms and unspoken rules just like anywhere else.

The Fay was an intense microcosm of humanity. Joy, suffering with some living and others just surviving, perhaps like every neighborhood. Or perhaps due to its isolation, it’s location or its existence up on the hill with empty tunnels underneath the dynamics whether they be dangerous, desperate or amazing examples of human spirit, I never left the Fay without thinking of the extremes of a remarkable place.

Maura Kennedy Anaya


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