Christmas in July, A rally for the Anna Louise Inn

Christmas in July Rally July 23, 2012 at Lytle Park. Photo: Justin Jeffre

The phrase “Christmas in July,” usually signals a summertime sale at some major department store. But this July its meaning was entirely different.

On July 25th, exactly five months before the day we celebrate Christmas, Lytle Park (near 4th and Broadway) lit up with a real and slightly surreal Christmas celebration. There was a Christmas tree near the statue of Lincoln decorated with garlands, wreaths, lights and Christmas carols.

Just as the semi-elaborate event was about to begin the crowd was greeted with several huge claps of thunder and lightning flashing from ominous looking clouds on either side of the park. One clergyman noted that the lightning and thunder was God’s way of saying He/She was there with us. But only a few drops of rain fell.

Reverend Nelson Pierce of the Amos project was Master of Ceremonies. He opened by commenting about the weather and congratulating those gathered for braving it.

All 225 participants received at least one candy cane.  Actors playing Joseph and Mary arrived with a life-size donkey made of cardboard. All of this happened in the ninety-five degree late afternoon heat and no one seemed to miss Santa, who, indeed, went missing.

At this point the reader may be asking: “Ok, but why were all of these people celebrating, or rather enduring, ‘Christmas in July’?”

The event was organized by a coalition of activist and religious groups who have invested a great deal of energy for the past year and a half trying to convince the Western & Southern Financial Group, and its CEO John Barrett, to put aside a lawsuit against the women of the Anna Louise Inn (ALI).  It seems that Western & Southern (W&S) wants to buy the ALI (where poor, working women have received housing and care for 103 years), in order to develop high-rise luxury condos at the location. Western & Southern has been continually been pursuing legal means to prevent a major remodeling project at the ALI. And thanks to a recent ruling by litigant-friendly Judge Norbert Nadel, W & S has so far been successful in preventing the renovations.

“Christmas in July” was the latest event in the widespread local effort to call attention to the disconnect between Western & Southern’s actions and the strong sentiments most Cincinnatians have for this beautiful old building at Lytle Park, and for the nearly 250,000 women who have been served by their sponsoring agency, Cincinnati Union Bethel. The ALI currently serves 56 women.

On December 23, 2011, a quiet and respectful demonstration was staged by Occupy Cincinnati at the Nativity Scene in Eden Park, overtly sponsored by Western & Southern.

The recent event at Lytle Park was intended by its sponsors, including the Coalition for the Homeless, SEIU, the Amos project and other local religious groups, to draw attention once again to the strange irony of W&S sponsoring a depiction of the biblical story where there was “no room in the inn” for Mary to give birth to the infant Jesus. Now, in the company’s own backyard, Western & Southern wants to evict poor women who are similar, in so many ways, to the Mother of Jesus. Go figure.

“Let the women stay!” the crowd shouted as an actor in a top hat portraying John Barrett tried to push the Holy Family along with their sorry, cardboard jackass, out of Lytle Park. Finally, moved by the entreaties of Mary and the crowd the wealthy CEO repented and agreed to let them stay. “For he’s a Jolly good fellow,” the crowd sang out in response to his change of heart.

Many of the speakers at the event made their goal clear: Repentance on the part of Barrett and his company, and reconciliation with those women who have been W & S’s good neighbors for so long a time. Reverend Troy Jackson of the University Christian Church even promised to buy an insurance policy from the company at the moment of its “repentance.”

State representative Denise Driehaus emphasized that “Compassion has always been a hallmark of Cincinnati” and that the Anna Louise Inn has been permitted to remain in its present location through a series of development projects over the years.

It was the good fortune of many to be able to sit throughout the hour and a half event on folding chairs provided by the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition. At one point, Margaret Breidenbaugh led the crowd, many of which were sweating in the sun, in a medley of familiar anachronous carols.

Susan Quinn Bryant, pastor of Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church, also reflected upon her adopted city; “I knew that Cincinnati would not stand for this,” she said. “This is a city of faith. It’s a city of commitment and a city that cares. I knew they [Cincinnatians] would not stand for it.”

It wouldn’t be Christmas without the nutcracker. Nestled between several of the speakers, 15 year old Emma Jackson (daughter of Reverend Troy) did an exquisite ballet on toe point to the famous Tchaikovsky music, not an easy thing to pull off on the park’s rough, concrete surfaces. But, the crowd showed its appreciation.

Julie Sellers, President of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, noted that “Business has a moral responsibility to be part of the community. The Anna Louise Inn is a testimony to Cincinnati’s strong tradition of being sensitive and supportive to people of diverse needs.”

 

Postcards were handed out to all those gathered, requesting the crowd to fill them out, sign, and mail to Barrett at his office on Broadway. I was surprised to learn that one of those gathered at the periphery of the group said he had caught a glimpse of Mr. Barrett himself across the street, momentarily watching the event that had been generated by his ongoing intransigence.

Elizabeth Brown, the director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (the local fair housing advocacy group), read a letter from Shanna L. Smith, the President of organization’s national office. “The Anna Louise Inn provides much-needed services to women in need of affordable safe housing,” she wrote.  “The National Fair Housing Alliance is watching with concern the efforts of the Inn to stay in downtown Cincinnati.”

Late in the program, several more “carols” were sung, but the words had been rewritten in the spirit of the demonstration. Perhaps it is fitting to close with the second verse from “God Rest Ye Corporate Janitors” (noting that the janitors of SEIU have been a part of this fight for justice, working to force the W & S subsidiary, Eagle Properties, to pay a fair rate to the janitors who clean its buildings).

In your best voice, Dear Reader, feel free to sing along.

 

God rest ye women of the Inn

Let nothing bring you tears.

For we are standing with you now,

The masses crowding near,

And standing firm against the Firm

That’s causing so much fear.

Good housing for women of the Inn,

of the Inn.

Good housing for women of the Inn.

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