Monday, January 18, 2010

Local Issues: The Enquirer Calls "Save OTR"

Cincinnati Enquirer Editor Tom Callinan published an essay last Thursday titled Now, not soon, is the time to save OTR's historic treasures.

You need to read it.

You can find it
An excerpt:

Soon is not good enough, Cincinnati.

Now would be a good time to get serious about saving Over-the-Rhine.

And I am not talking about crime there. I’m talking about saving its soul – the building stock that makes it one of the largest urban historic districts in the United States. The crimes are occurring not in the streets, but towering over them.

We are losing a treasure, one building at a time. That is the biggest crime happening in our midst...

Preservation of the historic core is not just council’s job.

It is not about them; it is us.

It is not there; it is here.

It is not soon.

It is now.
- Tom Callinan

My question:

There are many of us who believe so fully in the value of Over-the-Rhine that we would be willing to invest the next 5, 10, 15+ years of our lives in helping save our neighborhood.

But, we aren't necessarily the ones with the capital to make it happen.

Who will help us help OTR?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

City Living: How Small is Too Small?

photo courtesy of

A while back, the LA Times ran an article about a couple that was living in a 380 sq. foot home in the LA area and I saw it passed around various online sites and communities. Check out the original article here, or Apartment Therapy's Ohdeedoh coverage here.

The article raised a lot of questions for me.

First of all, is it really necessary that my husband, son, and I share over 2000 square feet of living space?

Second, when we finally purchase or build a home, what sort of square footage is reasonable for our family?

Third, why do we have so much STUFF!?

I have not always lived in large spaces.
Although my family home was large while I was growing up, my parents downsized drastically when I went away to college and I've lived in mostly small spaces since. College dorms, my first apartment, and my first Cincinnati apartment were all small and required a lot of creative organizing and storage solutions. (Unlike many of my friends, I wasn't able to store my things at my parents' house for the years I was at college and afteward; I had to find a way to either take everything with me or get rid of it.) The apartment I'm in now is really the first place where I can stretch out, put things away, and still have space to spare. It's glorious!

Is it really necessary?
And no.

I've thought a lot before about small living spaces and have always been fascinated by the miracles that modern design can work in a small living space, even for families with multiple children. Japanese design has been doing this for centuries. And, In some ways, I covet both this simple lifestyle and its aesthetic. The absence of possessions is attractive and the use of space is brilliant. Simple, clean, and uncluttered.

But, like the home featured in the LA Times and those I've seen here, here, and here, I've come to the conclusion that, though small has its perks, small is not always better.

Some thoughts:

- Families like the one living in LA have the availability of an outdoor living space that offers both an escape from the home and a place for their child to play. Without that space, I would presume that the indoor space would feel more restrictive.

- Well-designed small homes with multi-use spaces and creative organizing often require money and design expertise. If not, it's hard to make a small home look anything but cluttered. Am I the only one who wonders if some of these folks have storage outside of the home, perhaps in a garage, basement, or another facility? Where do they store their Christmas ornaments!

- Okay, I know that the Christmas ornament question is silly, but it brings up a good point. Although I think purging useless junk is a great idea and something we can all learn to do, there is a certain charm to things like family keepsakes, childhood memorabilia, and heirlooms that seem absent in a lot of super-small living spaces. I'm probably one of the least sentimental people on the planet, but I still can't imagine throwing out my high school photos. I know, I'm probably being foolish...

- In a super-small home, entertaining is often out of the question. My husband and I like having people over for dinner and I couldn't help but notice that many families living in small spaces have teeny-tiny kitchens with no more than 4-6 tables settings. What if they want to invite another family over for dinner? Do they have to order takeout and ask their guests to bring their own flatware? I threw a 30-person dinner party for my husband's 30th birthday this past year. Frankly, there was no way in hell I could have done that in a 38o square foot home.

- Lastly, I know that it's really hip to have only one child (two at the most), but my husband and I hope to be more than a "family of four." It's easy to share a small space with an infant, but imagine doing that with four teenagers. Not so practical. A big family, to a certain extent, necessitates a bit of privacy. I'm not suggesting something extravagant, but a little space is nice. Maybe a few doors to close?

So, how small is too small for you?
For your family?
What would you have to give up to live in 380 square feet?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Local Issues: Raising Kids in a Lead-Contaminated City

According to a news article from 29 Dec, 2009:
Ninety-three percent of the city's housing stock was built before 1979, before lead was banned from paint. If the paint is intact, it does not pose a problem. However, when the paint chips and peels due to poor maintenance, dangerous toxins are exposed. Young children are particular susceptible because they touch the floor and windowsills, ingesting the poison, which can cause developmental and cognitive delays. (Read the complete article here.)
My husband and I live in a loft apartment in Cincinnati's historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in a building that was once a brewery. In many ways, the apartment is a dream: we have 15ft. ceilings, concrete floors, over 2000 sq/ft of open living space, and pay pennies per square foot compared to other folks in our city. In other ways, though, this apartment is a nightmare: it's impossible to properly heat, the landlord neglects normal maintenance issues in the units and the building, and my husband has had to invest his own time and energy into the most basic of improvements on our place. It's a trade-off. We get a ton of space for cheap, but we have to work to make it comfortable.

When our son was born, we considered leaving, but also made a plan for the work we'd need to do on our apartment if we stayed. Insulating the back of the apartment and building bedrooms in that section, closing/insulating the ceiling, painting the floor, and rebuilding the bathroom were all on the list. Frankly, the past year has gone by too quickly and we've been too tired to do all that work ourselves (not to mention unwilling to foot the bill).

The one issue, though, that keeps haunting us is the open ceiling, which is basically just the floorboards of the unit above us. Not only does it mean there is no sound barrier between us and our neighbors, but that everything from water spilt on the floor above to the everyday dust from walking has the potential to end up in our apartment. Needless to say, keeping our floor clean is like conquering Goliath. As soon as our son started crawling, the open ceiling and the dust the results became our primary concern. This brings me back to the issue of lead contamination.

At my son's nine-month doctor's visit, he was subject to a routine blood test to check for lead contamination in his blood. As any mother would be, I was happy to comply and, as any mother living in the City of Cincinnati should be, I was anxious to hear the results. Knowing that my apartment is A) built long before 1979 and B) owned by a man who is not particularly interested in making improvements left me concerned that not only the paint on our walls but also the everyday dust on the floor could be poison for my son.

A month later, I got a very calm and courteous voicemail message from a nurse named Donna:
"Ms McEwan, I'm calling about the lead test results for your son. First of all, I would like you to know that he is NOT lead poisoned, but the test did show signs of lead contamination in his blood and I'd like to speak with you about it."
The next week involved a lot of phone calls, internet searches, panicky floor cleanings and "what if" conversations with my husband until we were able to have our home visit from the nurse and discuss the issue of lead in general and our apartment and baby specifically.

To make a long story short, my son's lead contamination level at the time of the test was 8.3 migrograms per decileter of blood. A level of 10 is considered "poisoned," and the City can do very little to help us unless my son has been poisoned (i.e. enforcing lead abatement laws with my landlord, inspecting my apartment to pinpoint the contamination). Thanks to the help of the nurse who visited us and took a sample, we know that the paint on our walls is not lead paint and so we can assume the paint dust falling from the ceiling is not contaminated either (since they appear to be a result of the same paint job). Because that was our assumed source of contamination, we're totally stumped as to how our son could have ingested or inhaled the lead.

Some thoughts:

- The nurse told us that all the rehab work being done in OTR could be producing lead dust to such an extent that my son could have inhaled it. Could this have happened just walking up and down Vine St. in the past few months?

- I would assume our building has lead pipes somewhere down below. Although the pipes "should not" produce lead-contaminated water, what if they do? We're going to purchase a cheap (and often unreliable) lead test to see.

- We've been very careful about the toys we've purchased for our son--where they're made, what they're made of, etc. But we've let some toys slip in from friends and family members. What if my son ingested lead from a cheap, foreign-made toy? We're seriously considering getting rid of all of them, just in case.

- When asked to compare the severity of my son's 8.3 lead level, the nurse said that a child can ingest one single lead-contaminated paint chip and their blood be poisoned to a level 20. So, there's a chance that my son's lead exposure was a one-time fluke that will soon be a memory.

So, until we get connected with the Lead Clinic at Children's Hospital so our son can be watched closely for further exposure, my husband and I are playing detective to find the source and taking extra precautions to get our baby's blood healthy (via extra iron and calcium and lots of hand-washing).

I'm curious if any other folks out there have had experience with lead abatement in your buildings or a lead scare with your own children.
Ideas about the source?

Another point of interest: There are all sorts of theories and rumors around the environmental health world that suggest lead poisoning (and not poor parenting, education, or culture) as the primary explanation for the high presence developmental delays, ADD, and behavioral problems in poor urban youth. This theory holds weight, I believe, if you consider that many families in cities live in rental properties and not family-owned homes, do not have the financial means to abate their own living spaces, and may not have the education to know the dangers of lead and how to prevent lead poisoning in children.

For further information about lead poisoning, visit the Children's Hospital website or read this Wikipedia article.