Alleys are a great way to get between two points, but sometimes they're littered with debris. When neglected, they can become a haven for trash and out of control foliage, making them unseemly, dangerous, and impractical to use. Cincinnati has its fair share of alleys, connecting major thoroughfares between buildings and parking lots (where buildings once stood), but sometimes they need to be cleaned and cared for when left unkempt.
That's where Spring in Our Steps steps in.
We spoke to Christian Huelsman, the Executive Director of the organization, to learn more about what it is he and the other members of the group do to beautify these public urban pathways.
Cincinnati Refined: Who are you and what do you do?
Christian Huelsman: I am Christian Huelsman, the Executive Director of Spring in Our Steps, alumnus of DAAP School of Planning at the University of Cincinnati and junkie of maps and the tiny capillaries of the circulatory system of cities. I steer the ship for an organization that includes four fantastic board members with diverse skill sets. We all have day jobs and volunteer for dozens of other causes, ranging from historic preservation to pedestrian advocacy. So, we make time when we can to renew focus on the beautiful details of the city.
CR: What is Spring in Our Steps?
CH: Spring in Our Steps is a Cincinnati-based 501(c)3 organization that feels the city's most neglected pedestrian spaces can become some of the city's best assets. The group initiates projects in public alleys, at hillside stairways, and for other public walking infrastructure. Advocacy has become a more important piece of our work, as alleys become more at risk from large scale redevelopment proposals and stairways continue to crumble with limited allocation of resources for their rehabilitation. The outlook for these truly overlooked spaces can change in a heartbeat.
CR: When and why did you begin SiOS?
CH: I co-founded Spring in Our Steps at the end of 2011 with Pam Sattler (Cincinnati Preservation Collective). I had previously been a victim of crime, outside our Corryville apartment. Something was triggered and I began to take greater notice of the overgrown, trashed, poorly lit public spaces. Everyone, regardless of income, race, or ZIP code, should ultimately be able to feel safe walking in the city; addressing these criteria can bring clean, tidy, well-lit community spaces.
CR: How many projects have you done with SiOS?
CH: Without checking the tally, I believe we've logged nearly 200 cleanup events of alleys and stairways since 2012. We've also hosted programs such as elaborate walking tours of alleys, stairs, and paper streets (The Jaunty Jubilee in 2013, Street Haunts & Alley Jaunts in 2015), alley film screenings, photo walks, and fun pop-ups like lawn bowling and mini-golf at Cincy Summer Streets.
CR: What’s been your favorite moment thus far?
CH: You know, it was such a thrill to collaborate with good friend Maya Drozdz (Your Friends & Neighbors) on last year's Kleingassefest. For years, SiOS had a stubborn desire to do something amazing in Over-the-Rhine's Coral Alley, just east of Main Street. We both had reached symbiosis with our enthusiasm to do a tiny-themed event in such a space. The result was an outdoor gallery of tiny buildings, tiny perspectives, telephoto masterpieces, and miniature installations on a beautiful Saturday in September.
CR: Where do you foresee the project going from here?
CH: More activation of alleys and stairways with subsequent enhancements that invite more positive users into these spaces. A program that has been in the pipeline for a while now is the Stairway & Alley Signage Project, a collaboration between SiOS and the Department of Transportation & Engineering. Set to be installed along pedestrian gateways at each public stairway between northeast Over-the-Rhine & Mount Auburn, pedestrian-scaled signage will provide an identification system of place for users for the first time.
CR: Is there an end goal?
CH: It's hard to envision SiOS single handedly developing an alley or stairway culture in Cincinnati. But I would say the cultural embrace of these quintessentially Cincinnati features, no matter the community group or collective, is the vision. Homegrown activities in alleys and on stairways would give turning visitors' heads whiplash. "Wow, look at what Cincinnatians are doing to commemorate their history, celebrate their heritage, and preserve their assets"...that would be tremendous.
CR: Do you have a favorite alley? If so, which one and why?
CH: After conducting inventory of each of them back in 2015 (which you can find on our website), I still go back to Mount Auburn's South Wendell Alley after all these years. Beginning at the historic Moerlein Residence on Mulberry Street, edge to edge with brick pavers, lined to the east with a 50-foot tall stone wall, and crowned by an unfortunately closed public stairway at St. Joe Alley. It was our very first and most rewarding cleanup project. As I aspire to photograph all 510 or so alleys this year, I suppose I'll gain some new favorites.
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