Fran and Mike Harmon moved to the neighborhood in 1975. Mike already had several connections with Kennedy Heights’ residents. They included the family of his best friend in high school, the Helmicks, who lived on Rogers Park Pl. The father, Bob Helmick, was a founder of the Kennedy Heights Community Council (KHCC), and its second president. Through the Civil Rights movement, Mike had become friends with the Butkovichs and the Sillets, who lived on Edgeview and were very involved in the community. Mike served on the Catholic Interracial Council with Bob Davis, who lived on Davenant with his wife Angela, and their family. These were all people the couple admired.
In 1974, Mike was attending UC Law School. A classmate was Hannah Jarson, who happened to be KHCC President at that time. Hannah encouraged Mike to look for a home in Kennedy Heights. Fran and Mike started exploring and soon were pleased to find their Dutch colonial, Queen Anne home on Kinoll. Jodi Barkley, another neighborhood resident and champion, was their realtor.
As others have mentioned in this Elder Series, there often were parties in the neighborhood, providing a way for people to get to know each other. Jim and Mary Wolfe had a Christmas party and Bobbi and Paul Freshwater held a New Year’s Eve party. One year, residents at the parties found themselves talking about recent burglaries in the neighborhood, including the Harmon’s house. As they talked, they realized there was a pattern. About 15-20 houses were affected. A group, predating the Citizens on Patrol, came together, headed by Phil Matson, They regularly went out at night in pairs, watching for activity and then organized data about the break-ins.
The group had walkie-talkies that connected to Don Winkler’s ham radio. He could then communicate with the Cincinnati police. Don lived at the corner of Wyatt and Davenant. Soon, this group helped compile evidence for the police which led to arrests. Activity came from a house on Valley View and from a home in Pleasant Ridge. Mike was the court monitor; he shadowed the cases and kept the group updated. They kept witnesses and victims informed of court dates and provided support and rides to attend court. Neighborhood delegations observed hearings. Letters were written to prosecutors, the probation department, and the sentencing judges. The process took 1 ½ to 2 years to complete, but it resulted in a decrease in break-ins from 30 a month to 0.
Under Mike’s leadership, the KH Urban Redevelopment Corporation was incorporated in 1978. Don Mystrom, Davenant, retired from the Army Corps of Engineers, was the first director. Al Gerhardstein, Bob Davis, Charles Clingman, Dan Gardner, Jim Cebula, Joe Lynn, Leonard Hawkins, Noel Morgan, Paul Freshwater, and others were on the Board. They obtained government dollars and a Mott Foundation grant to rehabilitate run-down houses in the neighborhood. The first project was the home on Wyatt at the corner of Aikenside, current owners are Jane and Michael Thompson. The Board held grunt ‘parties’ every Saturday to do much of the rehab work themselves. In 1981, the corporation became inactive, but was resurrected in 2008 when the community needed a mechanism to acquire and re-develop the former Furniture Fair/Kroger Store at the corner of Montgomery and Kennedy. The newly reorganized and renamed corporation, KH Development Corporation, is responsible for several houses again being rehabbed as well as developing the current Cultural Arts Annex and the Montessori Center.
Mike was President of KHCC from 1986-88. His goal was to make the neighborhood more attractive in order to draw families to move in or stay. Kennedy Park, known at the time as Robison Park, was in great disrepair and people were afraid to use it. Trash, lottery tickets, empty liquor and beer containers littered the area; winos and druggies were regulars. A park board employee told Mike that he doubted the park could ever return to a place that the community would use for the enjoyment of all. Mike thought that the KHCC could have a major impact if it spearheaded a rejuvenation of the park, as well as elimination of neighborhood eyesores.
Mike asked Mary Anne Butkovitch to head a Beautification committee. She agreed if Mimi Gingold joined her. They became the first co-chairs. As described in the Elder Series interview with Mimi, a great effort was given involving several city departments and numerous community volunteers to return the park to its former beauty and make it a place where residents enjoyed using it regularly and safely.
Around this time, Kroger had acquired a large lot used for neighborhood sports on Ridge Rd. This displaced several area youth sports teams. Mike believed Kroger morally owed the community for taking its field. He and Vince Stamp, Pleasant Ridge Community Council President, lobbied Kroger hard and succeeded in obtaining a significant grant from them to install the soccer field at Kennedy Park, making the park more attractive, and a necessary destination for families from across the city, as well as from the two neighborhoods. Mike recruited area Boy Scouts, including both KH and PR youths, and the Robison Road Garden Club, straddling the boundary of PR and KH, to become active in helping to change the scenery. The Boy Scouts re-built the ravine trail, steps, and footbridges over the creek; the Garden Club helped clear the dense shrub area along lower Robison transforming it into an attractive flowery wetland and meadow.
Mike was given the Citizen of the Year award in 1988.
Fran stated they wanted their children to grow up in an integrated neighborhood. Participating in the Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church scouting unit and in American Friend Service (AFS) student exchanges were also important experiences for their children. “If we had to do it all over again, we’d do it all over again” was their reply to how they felt about the community. “It’s a welcoming community that is multi-racial, accepting of all orientations, with great neighbors.”
What do they suggest to someone moving into KH? “Get involved, you’ll like it! Come to Progressive Dinner. Get out and meet your neighbors -- you’ll feel welcomed. It’s a great place to raise a family. Our two parks Kennedy and Drake, the Montessori, Art, and Cultural Centers -- the schools, public and private, are tremendous assets for any neighborhood and we have them all right here. We have great location for shopping, services and entertainment, between Rookwood and Kenwood, and between local business districts in the Ridge and in Silverton. We’re close to I-71, The Lateral and The Crosstown making it easy to get downtown and around the entire metro region.”
Fran likes to cite a phrase from Ce Holm about the angst of people fighting rush-hour traffic on I-71 between their downtown jobs and their homes in the outer suburbs: “There should be a billboard at Exit 8 [Ridge Rd.] saying, ‘If you lived in Kennedy Heights, you’d be home now’.“
Interviewed by Christine Schumacher, December 7, 2015
Presented to KHCC, January 19, 2016