CINCINNATI — As Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic battled for the title at the Western & Southern Open north of Cincinnati, a small plane buzzed overhead, trailing a banner calling the sponsor a bunch of bullies.
The public nose-thumbing gave thousands of tennis fans a window into another match being played out downtown — between insurance giant Western & Southern Financial Group and a nonprofit home for women called the Anna Louise Inn, a fight that is headed for the Ohio Court of Appeals this month.
It has become the most public conflict in the transformation of Cincinnati, as well as a stark example of the difficulty in balancing the public benefits of gentrification with the human costs.
“We really do believe enough is enough,” said Mary Carol Melton, executive vice president of Cincinnati Union Bethel, a nonprofit that operates the inn. “It’s like someone coming up to you and saying, ‘I want to buy your house,’ and you politely say, ‘It’s not for sale,’ and they don’t understand that not for sale means it’s not for sale.”
Western & Southern, a Fortune 500 company, has been trying for several years to buy or force the Anna Louise out of the Lytle Park Historic District, the beautiful and serene neighborhood they share, and turn it into a boutique hotel.
The company has successfully sued to stop renovation of the 103-year-old property and publicly disparaged residents as homeless prostitutes who don’t belong in the neighborhood.
CEO John Barrett wrote in the Cincinnati Enquirer last month that he wants to acquire the Anna Louise not out of greed, but to turn the building into a hotel, “which we believe is its best use, given the historic character and architecture” of the neighborhood.
The home’s low-income residents and their supporters have been fighting back, protesting outside company headquarters, filing a lawsuit alleging discrimination and posting a biting online video in which a company spokesman is parodied as saying: “Why would you want to give safe housing to women in need when we can hook you up with a view like this?”
And then there was the fly-over at the tennis tournament in August with the banner: “W & S: STOP BULLYING ANNA LOUISE INN.”
Western & Southern has a long attachment to the Lytle Park area. It paid to have the neighborhood’s namesake preserved in 1970 when an interstate tunnel went in. The company is headquartered next to the park and developed a $322 million, 41-story office tower down the street that opened last year. It owns other properties in the neighborhood, including a recently renovated upscale hotel.
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