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The Condemned

In Ohio, and across the country, homeowners are battling cities and developers conspiring to seize their property.

Out here on Edwards road, yellow signs bearing messages like "HELD HOSTAGE" and "WE SUPPORT ROOKWOOD EXCHANGE" sprout like dandelions from front lawns, and a king-size bedsheet banner hanging from Sandy Dittoe's pink stucco one-story declares, "64 OF 65 RESIDENTS WANT OUT. I AM ONE OF THEM." Dittoe bought her house for $82,000 seven years ago, and she's almost completely rehabbed it since. In 2002, speculating on Anderson's plans, she bought a house around the corner, which she rents out. When Anderson offered her $175,000 for each property, "it was a godsend," she told me. "I was thrilled." She began to make plans to move and to pay off the loan for her Northern Kentucky nightclub. But she has to wait for Anderson to make deals with all her neighbors before she'll receive a penny.

In the meantime, Dittoe's in limbo -- a maddening situation that she blames on her holdout neighbors. "Sure I'm pissed. They're screwing everybody. I've been stuck in a house for two years. There's no point in putting any more money into it, but I still have to live here," she says, pointing out the unfinished trim in her kitchen and the place where she left off putting purple paint on a bedroom ceiling. Her neighbor, Bill Pierani, a part-time security guard for the Cincinnati Reds, agrees. "We'd have been out of here years ago if it wasn’t for them."

Pierani and Dittoe are glad to show me evidence of "blight": the streaks of grime in eaves; an overgrown back yard, home to rats and snakes; the foundations cracked, they say, by the heavy truck traffic; the "foot traffic" and the "element" it brings in; the guys -- "I won’t tell you what color they were," Pierani says -- who broke into someone's house. They point out the oil change place and the muffler shop down the street and describe how they've long wanted to get away from these nuisances -- although there's little evidence that they or their neighbors tried to sell their homes or otherwise flee the neighborhood before Rookwood Exchange came along. Pierani compares the neighborhood, in which he has lived for nearly all of his life, to the cancer he once had. "The job is to go in and cut it off completely. Not to keep hacking at it."

At a meeting the previous night, the residents' impatience turned on Anderson's lawyer, who assured them that the end was in sight. This statement left resident Walter Sims hopping mad. "That lawyer pissed me off because he stood up there and misled these people," Sims, who is settled into his rocker on the front porch, says in his Kentucky drawl. "He knows these people" -- he points to a holdout's house next door -- "ain’t gonna ever sell to him. But he’s relying on the city to do it for him in court. And he knows that until all these appeals are resolved, they can't do nothing. You know how slow the judicial system is? It takes them months to wipe their ass."

But the residents reserve most of their seething fury for the holdouts, and when Pierani says, "Twenty-five years ago, there would have been a homicide by this point," it's not clear if he's nostalgic or relieved. When Sims says, "I think people are mad and disgusted because they ain't got their money. Why haven't you done something by now to get us the money?" you feel how ugly things might get. And when a man smoking a cigarette on his porch first refuses to talk to you because "the papers always get this story wrong," and then calls you back to say, "Wait a minute. You can quote me on this. Fuck the Gambles. Yeah. Fuck the Gambles, and throw Joe Horney in there, too," you're pretty sure things already have.

In this kind of atmosphere, it's no surprise that the residents don't believe that the Gambles and the others are standing on principle. Explanations vary -- some think that they're angling for a better price, others that they're just stubborn -- but most people seem to agree with Dittoe's assessment that "this project is going to benefit everyone, all the residents here and the whole city." She adds, "There's more to it than just what these people want." But whatever NIMBY concerns may have motivated the holdouts in the first place, they have become galvanized by the large-scale implications of their battle. "What I want to protect is not just myself, but virtually everyone else in the USA from having their constitutional rights undermined," says Horney. "I mean, this is the land of the free and the home of the brave. We're allowed to go out and buy property, and that's being taken away." As they dig in for the appeals, it's clear that these folks are in it for the long haul, that, even with his rented eminent domain powers, Anderson has a lengthy wait before he can extend his empire into this neighborhood. "He can have the house when we're on our deathbed," says Carl Gamble. "Not a minute before."

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