Hope for the Hilltop

By Christina Drain

The west side of Columbus is one of the oldest areas of town, with a complicated history of wealthy industrialists, a Civil War Confederate prison camp and the state's former insane asylum. But the Hilltop, named because the neighborhood sits on the highest ground in the area, has fallen on hard times, as homes and buildings have aged and blue-collar industries shut down.

"The neighborhood is very old and has a lot of history," said the Rev. Julia Nielsen Bingham, executive director of the Greater Hilltop Area Shalom Zone. "It has some complicated history around race, around mental health."

Bingham, an Ohio State graduate, leads an extensive revitalization effort that also includes Ohio State outreach and engagement partners as well as local agencies.

The Hilltop area is roughly defined as about 20 square miles, from I-670 to the north, I- 270 on the west and south and I-71 to the east. The population of more than 58,600 is predominately Appalachian white, with African-American minorities and increasingly Bantu Somali, Latino from Central and South America, Burmese Cambodia and a burgeoning Asian population, according to Bingham.

Unemployment on the west side is 13.7 percent, higher than the state and national average of just over 10 percent, with the highest employment among those 16 to 24 years old. More than 90 percent who are employed commute more than 10 minutes to work each day, outside the neighborhood, according to a study done by Ohio State City and Regional Planning and Landscape Architecture students.

Home and business vacancy rates are nearly 14 percent, compared to an 8 percent average for Columbus in 2010. While high school dropout rates have dropped in the last 10 years, the area still holds a rate nearly 6 percent higher than the city of Columbus schools.

Despite the statistics, residents are resilient and there is hope for employment with the opening of the Hollywood Casino last fall.

"There is a huge pride of place pride in the neighborhood," Bingham said. "People who are there love that they are Westsiders and will say so. Along with that comes hard-headedness, stubbornness and persistence. I've never met a neighborhood that so embodies that as this group, and it's even true for those who haven't lived there that long."

The Shalom Zone was founded in 2011 and quickly created a strategic plan to identify areas of focus.

"The zone started about two years ago out of the energy of a collection of church people who knew that they were doing really great small charity work but weren't comfortable with the fact that the systemic change wasn't happening and if they didn't do something different, the neighborhood would continue to decline," Bingham said.

With needs clearly identified through a strategic plan, Bingham began to form partnerships with Ohio State and other agencies.

Identifying economic opportunities and challenges

One of the needs identified in the strategic plan was to bring back development to the area.

City and Regional Planning and Landscape Architecture students met with local residents, business leaders, neighborhood associations and even a group of first and second graders to get input on the needs and concerns of the area. They looked at access to transportation, open space, job generation and vacant and abandoned buildings.

"The idea was to work with the community and help them prioritize the needs and concerns," Jesus Lara, professor, Knowlton School of Archetecture, said. "What are the most important things so that when the money comes in for grants and investments they know where to invest."

The result is a 32-page report, which has been circulated as high as the governor's office and includes an urban campground to support the 6-mile portion of the Ohio to Erie Trail that will run through the western section of the area.

"In most of these classes, the students don't have a chance to interact with clients," Lara said. "In this case they had an opportunity to work for a real client, real issues and provided real design solutions."

'Bringing harmony back to the Hilltop'

One of the more unique programs of the shalom zone is the Mediation Center, which provides conflict prevention, mediation, and resolution services to Westside residents. Church leaders realized that to stop violence in the neighborhood, they needed to change behavior.

"One of the things that the shalom zone recognized is that the shalom zone is about bringing harmony back to the Hilltop," said Tamara Davis, professor, College of Social Work.

Davis, who lives on the Hilltop, is one of 25 local residents and other partners who have been trained to mediate for free on a variety of issues such as youthful offenders, landlord-tenant conflicts, domestic and custody disputes.

"A lot of what could be termed disharmony in the community, could be worked out through a mediation approach rather than having it escalate to something that everybody wishes to avoid," Davis said.

Taking care of body and mind

The OSU College of Social Work has partnered with Mental Health America of Franklin County to run pro bono mental health counseling centers in the shalom zone and Columbus Neighborhood Health Centers. It's a workforce development field placement program for social work students to learn how to provide integrated care to people who are coming in for health care.

"It's really an effort to try to address mental health care in the Hilltop where very little existed prior to this and to provide it in a way that people can actually access it for free," Davis said.

Jerry Cable, director of outreach and engagement for the College of Pharmacy, has been working with Health Sciences to explore the possibility of a free clinic with access to medicines at the shalom zone.

"We first of all want to make sure that there is a need in the area and that they want those kinds of services," Cable said. "And then find a way to align that need that also fits in with the federally funded clinics that are in that area. We're not running pharmacies. We are extending dispensing and counseling for medication related issues for the doctors' free clinics."

The College of Dentistry also is providing services to the neighborhood.

Student helping students

Lisa Durham, assistant dean for Community Engagement in the College of Social Work, became so interested in the shalom zone that she is now on the Board of Directors. She has encouraged social work students to become involved in the teen center, Freedom School and other educational programs. She was also instrumental in helping the group form its strategic plan.

"I think what I love the most about it is that it's a true community organization so it's absolutely the community coming to us and saying 'Here are our needs. What can you do?' as opposed to us going in with research dollars saying 'Let's study you' and then leave," Durham said. "We don't want that to happen. That's not in the best interest of the community."

Article originally published by onCampus - http://oncampus.osu.edu/hope-for-the-hilltop/

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