A Man, a Mission
An Interview with Austin Hill

Though it was early in the day, The Stowe Mission located in the South Side neighborhood of Columbus was alive with the hustle and bustle of local volunteers who were preparing some of the 7,000 meals that would be served within the month to the neighborhood’s people in need. Though they were busy anticipating the meal period, everyone was smiling and excited to lend a hand. I arrived thrilled to meet Associate Director, Austin Hill who opened our morning together with a tour of the facility in which they moved in and began renovating six years ago. “The Stowe Mission deals with three things, which are, hunger, medical attention, and community outreach,” he explained to me while we toured the full kitchen (and pantry), the dental facility, and the eye clinic. As we approached two glass doors, he pointed out the building directly across the street where the Mission began serving this Columbus community prior to moving into its current location. I became fascinated with the fact that what happens inside impacts a lot of what was happening outside those two doors right where we stood; the shaping of urban neighborhoods is all about the people making it happen, and the folks at Stowe Mission under the leadership of Austin Hill are those kinds of people making it happen in Columbus’s South Side. Austin, his wife Chelsea, and their three young daughters call this area home and are passionate about it becoming a better place for everyone. To learn more about the impact on the South Side of Stowe Mission and Austin, check out his interview below.

What does Gentrification mean to you?

Rising tides raise all ships. You can’t fight money. Gentrification is going to happen in urban environments with the ways that cities are changing. If there is any substantial architecture in it there are going to be people with money investing in it. How do we improve neighborhoods without changing the demographics of the neighborhood? We want to figure out how to put systems in place to make sure that everyone who wants to be in the neighborhood can stay while still improving the lives of everyone. I believe that is the right way to do gentrification, to leverage the money the right way.

Why do you feel it is so important to make sure everyone can stay?

A lot of people give up once they see gentrification happening. If we can figure how to fight for, even just some people, to stay in the neighborhood it might not mean something to everyone, but it means something to those people. Even if it’s a small impact, it’s better than nothing. I’m going to quote my friend here and put it into a metaphor…if we look at gentrification as a bus, how do we make sure that there is a seat for everyone on it?

You came here specifically to do mission work in the South Side. Did you pick the South Side, or were you recruited here?

I grew up wanting to be a farmer. I was going to school at night at Columbus State for construction. I started hanging out at the homeless shelter Downtown, Faith Mission. For some reason I started loving the city. That was never something of me before… I wanted to be in the middle of nowhere.

What do you think it was?

The parts of the city that I loved and felt drawn to were the rougher parts. Building relationships with the people who were in the rougher neighborhoods is really what drew me to the city. So, when I was hanging out with the guys at the homeless shelter, it was an affirmation that this is what I want to devote my life to.

How did you end up with Stowe Mission?

I heard about Stowe Mission and started coming here. Stowe was in such a place where they were doing all of this ministry work, but there was just the pastor. They needed the support staff to put in new development and do more; they didn’t have the funding though, to have that support staff. My wife and I decided that after so much time of volunteering that we fell in love with this neighborhood…we raised over 65% of our own salary to come down here to work full time. We intentionally came to this neighborhood so that we were part of the community we were serving.

What is your current role?

I’m the Associate Director. That means I focus on the day to day workings of Stowe. I work with volunteers; I make sure everything runs smoothly, community relations…a lot of organizing community outreach. My mission is how Stowe impacts this specific neighborhood.

What is a highlight success story of Stowe Mission?

One guy named Danny used to be homeless for five years…he was coming and eating here for those five years. He came to one of our church services and then began volunteering every day. Because of that, Stowe and a lot of our other agencies partnered to get him into a shelter and then into his own housing. He is no longer homeless…he doesn’t need to come to Stowe anymore.

If you look at mercy work, the three kinds are relief, development, and reform. Right now Stowe focuses on relief. Our goal is that everyone here doesn’t have to come here. Danny doesn’t have to come here anymore, and that is success.

We covered your work in the South Side, let’s move on to living. What is different about raising a family in an urban area?

I think because Parsons Avenue is a meeting place for the have and have not’s….you can see a house that sold for $5,000 and then one for $300,000 all on the same block. It’s nice to see my kids growing up in a place where they aren’t isolated in the thoughts that everyone looks the same, dresses the same, and acts the same. They get to see abject poverty and then two minutes later see someone driving a car that cost more than our house.

Where do you guys hang out in the neighborhood?

My wife will walk to school and pick them up; they’ll walk to Schiller Park and hang out for a couple of hours. Weekly we go to the German Village Coffee shop.

Crime is perception…what is your take on crime in the area?

I personally have been quote unquote mugged three times; every single time I’ve talked them down by looking at them as a person. I have the benefit of being quote unquote, Pastor of a soup kitchen; it’s hard for people to be mean when I’m offering them food…It’s a product of poverty, not poor people, but poverty. When people see that all of their hard work has no outcome, or long term goal, then it’s hard for them to see beyond the moment. People aren’t thinking five steps ahead. What the South Side needs is more opportunity…

Crimes, often times, in the South Side particularly, are crimes of opportunity. If you have locks and lights it helps. Yeah, there is crime…there is crime everywhere now. I think if you know your neighbors and you know your neighborhood it’s not as scary.

Since working here and calling it home, what are some milestone changes you’ve witnessed in the South Side?

People are moving back to the city…that is a great thing. I’ve never seen gentrification from the forefront…seeing it creates urgency as to how to figure out how we can leverage it for the betterment of everyone.

On Parsons it would be the money dumped in from the Children’s Hospital…naturally that is going to come down Parsons. The closing of the porn shop is fantastic. There are obvious signs that clean ups of properties are happening. Now people are on Parsons because they want to be on Parsons, not because they need to because they are riding the bus or something.

A big example is that my wife will walk down Parsons with my kids…a year ago she would not do that.

What are some signs of community happening in the area?

The Kossuth Street Community Garden is community lead and based…we get produce from them in the summer. You get to meet people outside, and not isolate yourself.

There is Bikes for All People bike shop —I’m on the board of trustees for that bike shop. It’s where I take my bikes, as I commute every day. I bike to work every day…I try to bike everywhere.

Another thing being worked is called Community Grounds…a coffee shop being put together by people in Ganther’s Place to be opened right here on Parsons Avenue. They’re great people and I’m really excited. My wife hopes that they’ll have a drive through.

What are some opportunities for the city?

I whole heartedly believe that we need better mass transit. That’s what we need. We are the largest city without a substantial transit system. That will help push us over the edge even more. Instead of people saying Columbus, Ohio they could just say Columbus.

Everyone gets in arguments about what comes first: dense development or healthy transit. Both need to happen at the same time. We need a good amount of people willing to make, quote unquote, sacrifices to push for transit. I use my bike, Car2Go

It’s time for Columbus word association…I say a category and you say the first thing that comes to mind!

Coffee German Village Coffee Shop

Breakfast - Angry Baker

Independent Grocery Store - The city needs more

Nightlife - 4th Street, Downtown

Lunch - German Village Coffee Shop

Outdoor Activity - Audubon Park…they have a free rock climbing wall

Kids Activity - Walking Downtown…I’m proud that my kids get to see things that I wish I could have seen. They’ll be independent because of it, but not in a selfish way.

What would you tell someone who is on the verge of working or moving to the South Side. They’re on the verge, what is the final thing you would say to them.

There is no other place where there is built in diversity. There is a wealth of opportunity on the South Side. There is a momentum here to join in with what’s already happening. It’s well worth the risk. You’re going to build relationships that you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to with people who don’t think, look, and act like you. The Southside is a great place.

By this time the building was filled with people who were enjoying the grace of others in the form of a fresh, hot meal. I felt proud to know that the positive changes on the South Side were so greatly connected to the work that Austin and his team are doing at the Stowe Mission. Though he didn’t become a farmer as he originally planned he has certainly contributed to growing something substantial and important to the Columbus community that he serves. I encourage everyone to visit the following website to learn about the different ways in which you can help out. Urban living has as much to do with redevelopment of real estate as it does people, and this interview has shined light on an organization doing both. Visit Metro-Rentals.com to view places to rent on the South Side.












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