Over-the-Rhine

I have spent the past four years being priced out of some of the fastest-gentrifying areas of the United States: traditionally African American and West Indian neighborhoods in Brooklyn that have witnessed an improbably fast sweep of young, relatively well-heeled, mostly white and Asian people—people like myself—moving in and transforming bodegas into artisanal mayonnaise shops.

Despite my intimate familiarity with the gentrification process, however, when I visit my hometown of Cincinnati I’m always taken aback by the extremes of race and class on display in one of the city’s fastest-changing neighborhoods, Over-the-Rhine. Located directly adjacent to the city’s central business district, OTR, as it is often called, offers a somewhat surreal refresher in the architectural, economic, and racial history of American cities. On one block, rows of boarded-up buildings abut a tidy, suburban-style townhouse serving homeless veterans, while a renovated single-family row house a few streets away is on offer for $650,000. Ground-level retail in the storefronts of ornate nineteenth-century structures ranges from a men’s clothing store covered with jaunty hand-painted signs advertising check-cashing services to a design shop selling $125 tote bags. Representative street life on a snowy winter afternoon: a bored-looking young white valet waiting for customers outside of a just-opened, design-magazine-ready Japanese restaurant; a twenty-something black woman with platinum blond hair proclaiming to no one in particular, loudly and at length, that she had never sold her body and was offended by suggestions to the contrary; a group of black teenagers laughing and joking around on the sidewalk; a well-dressed young white woman walking her dog down an otherwise deserted alley where expensive cars sat parked next to abandoned buildings.

Vine Street's upscale stores and restaurants

Vine Street’s upscale stores and restaurants

Over-the-Rhine first came to the attention of the world outside Cincinnati in 2001, when one of the largest riots in recent U.S. history broke out there. When I set out to write something about my hometown, I asked myself whether it was worth covering a neighborhood that had already been explored by the New York Times, the Guardian, MSNBC, and countless others. After all, Cincinnati is a relatively unknown commodity outside of Ohio, and, like any other city, is filled with countless fascinating stories and characters. But there is something special about Over-the-Rhine—something that has inspired both fear and romanticization for decades—and I wanted to understand more about the dramatic changes that are taking place there. It’s stunningly beautiful, its history is stunningly tragic, and it serves as a case study of many of the most pressing issues facing cities today: inequality, poverty, gentrification, densification, and privatization.

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Cincinnati’s founders settled on the northern bank of the Ohio River in 1788. In 1837, the Miami and Erie Canal, which connected the city to New York and New Orleans, was completed at what was then its northernmost border. In the same period Germans began to immigrate to the city in large numbers, giving Cincinnati a Teutonic character that it retains today. When many of them settled just north of the canal, it began to be known as the Rhine, and the land above it Over-the-Rhine. By 1850 a thriving Over-the-Rhine housed a heterogeneous mix of Cincinnati’s Germanic population, with prosperous merchants living steps away from poor laborers.

Courtesy of the Cincinnati Museum Center collection

Undated photo of Over-the-Rhine showing the Miami and Erie Canal, now Central Parkway. From the Cincinnati Museum Center collection

But over the next few decades the demographics began to change. Across the nation, technological advances in transportation and infrastructure and a growth of anti-urban sentiment were beginning to draw those who could afford to leave the city centers outward. “Suburbia, pure and unfettered and bathed by sunlight and fresh air,” wrote Kenneth T. Jackson of this period in Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, “offered the exciting prospect that disorder, prostitution, and mayhem could be kept at a distance, far away in the festering metropolis.” In Cincinnati, the leading citizens began to leave the city’s basin and build mansions in the surrounding hills.

Over-the-Rhine became poorer and friskier. “It is the most densely populated portion of the city, and is inhabited by about 25,000 persons, almost exclusively Germans, and Americans of German descent,” noted 1880’s King’s Pocket-Book of Cincinnati. “Innumerable variety shows, beer-gardens, and other places of amusement and recreation are in its precincts. It is a famous place of resort at all times, but especially on Sunday, for those who love excitement and beer.” By the turn of the century, the population had reached its all-time peak of approximately 45,000.

Over the next few decades, the area’s physical and social infrastructure steadily declined and residents left in search of better conditions. Among other factors, the allure of the suburbs was strengthened by the rise of car culture and, eventually, New Deal programs promoting home ownership and encouraging economically and ethnically homogenous communities.

These policies also ensured that Over-the-Rhine would remain a white neighborhood well into the twentieth century. For years the Cincinnati Board of Realtors actively supported the theory that racially similar neighborhoods were best by refusing to help blacks move into white areas, according to Zane Miller and Bruce Tucker’s 1998 book Changing Plans for America’s Inner Cities: Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine and Twentieth-Century Urbanism. As a result, although several surrounding neighborhoods were predominately black, Over-the-Rhine gradually became filled with poor, white Appalachians.

By 1960, the neighborhood’s population had fallen to 30,000. Over the next ten years, the number was halved. By this time segregationist housing policies had fallen out of favor, and for the first time a significant proportion of residents were black. Many of the newcomers had been displaced from the nearby West End neighborhood, which was torn down as part of a slum clearance program.

African-American children playing in mid-century Over-the-Rhine

African-American children playing in mid-century Over-the-Rhine. From the Cincinnati Museum Center collection

In the 1970s, decades-old debates about what should be done to improve the neighborhood grew more contentious, evolving into a Hollywood-style struggle between two charismatic young protagonists, Jim Tarbell and Buddy Gray. Tarbell, a restaurateur and future politician who had brought Captain Beefheart and the Grateful Dead to Cincinnati as a rock promoter in the ’60s, wanted to lure the middle class back to Over-the-Rhine. Gray, a social worker who dedicated his life to the neighborhood’s poor, believed that securing the rights of existing residents had to come first.

Mural celebrating Buddy's Place, a homeless shelter named after neighborhood activist Buddy Gray (who was killed by a mentally ill man in 1996)

Mural celebrating Buddy’s Place, a homeless shelter named after neighborhood activist Buddy Gray (who was killed by a mentally ill man in 1996)

Focusing primarily on the issue of housing, Gray and his fellow activists succeeded in limiting market-rate development and establishing control over many existing buildings. However, as time went on, the gulf between the different visions for the neighborhood became ever more entrenched, with the pro-development camp (headed by the Tarbell-founded Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce and Over-the-Rhine Foundation) and low-income resident advocates (the Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement, comprising advocacy groups and institutions serving the neighborhood’s marginalized residents) competing for the city government’s attention and support. “For a long time, it was a battle between the poor people wanting to keep the neighborhood, and other people wanting to take it from them and gentrify it,” Elizabeth Brown, executive director of Cincinnati nonprofit Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), told me. “It was this utter battle back and forth, fought in terms of absolutes.”

By 1990, the neighborhood’s population had fallen to 9,752. The median household income was only $5,000. A quarter of the housing units sat empty; only three per cent were owner-occupied. Seventy-one per cent of residents were black.

Credit Scott Wesseler

A decade later, the population had shrunk to 7,638. The neighborhood was notorious for crime, drugs, and homelessness. A social worker who lived and worked in Over-the-Rhine in the ’90s and early 2000s (and who asked to remain anonymous) told me that neighborhood children had virtually no chance of a normal life during this period. “There’s kids I watched, I knew them when they were five years old and I lived there long enough to know them till they were teenagers. These kids had shit for opportunity. They were fucked just by where they were born,” he said, the emotion in his voice apparent. “I’ve spent time all over the country, I’ve worked around inner-city kids and have spent a lot of time talking to people who did the same thing . . . Over-the-Rhine is an ugly fucking place when it really gets down to it. It is gritty and nasty . . . You’re talking about open-air drug dealing on multiple corners. People from other major cities would come to my house, drive down the street on the way to my house where there would be guys just selling drugs on both corners, openly, and they would be like, ‘What the fuck is going on? This hasn’t happened in fill-in-the-blank-major-city in a decade.’ So yeah, you grow up there, you’re fucked! No question.”

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Recent studies have ranked the Cincinnati metro area as America’s eleventh most segregated by income (tied with Kansas City and Washington, D.C.) and tenth most segregated by race. While I was surprised to learn about my hometown’s national clout in these matters, the segregation itself was not news.

In early 2001, a discussion between business, civic, and political leaders organized by the city’s main newspaper reached a grim consensus about the state of black/white relations in the city. Then-mayor Charlie Luken named the issue the city’s top challenge. Businessman and community leader Clifford A. Bailey was quoted as saying, “I see Cincinnati as being in denial that there is a race problem . . . The African American community doesn’t feel the police are protecting or serving it at all.”

A few months later these tensions were thrust into the global spotlight when the city played host to the nation’s largest riots since Los Angeles exploded in 1992. As in LA, Cincinnati’s were triggered by policing issues. On April 7, a nineteen-year-old African American was shot to death in an Over-the-Rhine alley by a white police officer only a few years older. Timothy Thomas, who was unarmed at the time of his death, was the fifteenth black man killed by the Cincinnati police within a five-year period. During this time, no whites died as a result of police activity. Protests over the shooting and the legacy of entrenched inequalities it pointed to soon gave way to violence and looting. Although there were incidents in several areas, the epicenter was Over-the-Rhine. For days, sensational images of the neighborhood flashed across the world: fires; streets blocked by lines of police in riot gear; dazed victims of both police- and rioter-induced violence; crowds running to escape tear gas sprayings; handwritten signs reading “Tired of talking—stop killing (us) or else!”

Washington Park during 2001 Cincinnati civil unrest

Washington Park during 2001 Cincinnati civil unrest. Credit Ryan Thomas

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These tensions felt a world away when I was growing up, although I was only a twenty-minute drive from Over-the-Rhine. My teens were spent in Anderson Township, a fairly typical outer-ring Cincinnati suburb due east of downtown. Its main corridor, Beechmont Avenue, is flanked by big-box stores, chain restaurants, and strip malls. A turn down almost any side street puts you on a winding, wooded road lined with schools, churches, and subdivisions occupying various positions on the continuum from modest ’50s ranch to 2012 McMansion on golf course. Most of Anderson’s 45,000 residents live in single-family, owner-occupied houses surrounded by tidy yards; renting seemed exotic and sad to my childhood self. According to the 2010 census, the community is ninety-five per cent white, with a median household income of about $70,000. Ninety-seven per cent of residents live above the poverty line.

I spent as little time in Anderson as possible as a teenager. One of my favorite escapes was Kaldi’s, a nineteenth-century pharmacy turned into a café and used bookstore in Over-the-Rhine. Kaldi’s served as a sort of hub for the arts community that had developed in the neighborhood in the 1980s and ’90s. Located in what had become known as the Main Street entertainment district, it was surrounded by bars that were also popular with white, middle-class suburbanites.

Credit Flickr user radellaf. Used under Creative Commons license

Kaldi’s. Credit Flickr user Radellaf

After the 2001 riots, business slowed dramatically for these and similar establishments in the area. This was due primarily to an increased perception of Over-the-Rhine as dangerous—a quality associated with the neighborhood for as long as I can remember—but also to a boycott of center-city businesses and entertainment promoted by a number of community groups for several years after the unrest. Although some downtown businesses made it through this period, many, including Kaldi’s, closed their doors.

Recently, however, a new wave of development has taken hold, with a number of businesses and condos opening in the southeastern quarter. The new storefronts are independently owned, and most align closely with my consumer preferences. There are good bars, restaurants, and coffee shops, as well as a used bookstore, vintage clothing store, and several art and design shops. The Art Academy of Cincinnati relocated there a few years ago. There’s a park and a music venue that gets good touring bands. The renovated apartments are nice. A streetcar is scheduled to open in the next few years. If I were to move back to my hometown, Over-the-Rhine would be at the top of my list of places to live—particularly as it’s one of the most pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods in a car-dependent city.

The Gateway District

The Gateway District

Levels of development activity vary widely across the neighborhood. Some streets remain completely untouched, lined by abandoned buildings. A section that has become known by the real estate agent–sounding term the Gateway District, however, has already gone through several stages of gentrification. “Three or four years ago the Gateway District was gentrifying, and it was primarily done by the hipsters,” my brother, who lives in downtown Cincinnati, told me. “They’re generally still the ones that work at the places that have sprung up there, but it’s certainly become more mainstream now. It’s a collection of people in their mid-20s through 30s—corporate people from P&G and Kroger that avoided the area until now—that go out there and even live there now.”

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After the riots, it was obvious that something had to change. From what I’ve been able to tell, however, there was never much of a debate about what that something should be. Police reform, one of the two main streams of governmental response, was a clear necessity. The other—the physical and social restructuring of Over-the-Rhine—has been more controversial.

To put the matter in context, some background regarding Cincinnati’s recent history of decision making regarding urban space is useful. Over the past ten years the government has spent a fortune on faddish large-scale development projects, including a convention center expansion and new stadiums for both the Reds and the Bengals. Economic returns on all three have been far below the exuberant projections (“the Cincinnati [football stadium] deal combined taking on a gargantuan responsibility with setting new records for optimistic forecasting,” Stanford economist Roger Noll told the Wall Street Journal in 2011). I personally wonder if the public money that went toward the Contemporary Art Center’s new Zaha Hadid–designed home, which opened in 2003, might have had a greater impact if it had been spent on smaller-scale, more locally focused arts initiatives. The newest major downtown attraction, a casino located just outside of Over-the-Rhine with an eighty-foot-tall sign and oddly aggressive beige facade, seems tragicomic.

Contemporary Arts Center in downtown Cincinnati, a short walk from Over-the-Rhine

Contemporary Arts Center in downtown Cincinnati, a short walk from Over-the-Rhine

Of course, Cincinnati is not alone in chasing questionable development trends. In an influential 1989 analysis of culture- and consumption-based interurban competition, geographer David Harvey argued that the proliferation of cookie-cutter amenities popping up across the country was a result of a fundamental shift in urban governance. Feeling the impact of deindustrialization, decreased support from central governments, and increased geographical mobility of businesses and money, local governments changed their focus from providing services to citizens to trying to attract cash.

But they found themselves competing against one another for a limited pot of business and consumer dollars. “We here approach a force that puts clear limitations upon the power of specific projects to transform the lot of particular cities,” Harvey wrote. “Indeed, to the degree that interurban competition becomes more potent, it will almost certainly operate as an ‘external coercive power’ over individual cities to bring them closer into line with the discipline and logic of capitalist development. It may even force repetitive and serial reproduction of certain patterns of development (such as the serial reproduction of ‘world trade centers’ or of new cultural and entertainment centers, of waterfront development, of postmodern shopping malls, and the like).”

Cincinnati's new casino

Cincinnati’s new casino. Credit Scott Wesseler

Interurban competition and declining resources are issues that Ohio cities understand very well. A 2008 Brookings Institution white paper noted that its job growth was forty-fifth among the fifty states from 1970 to 2005, significantly worse than even neighbors that face the same general challenges. Ohio’s metropolitan areas, in particular, fall far below their counterparts across the country in terms of job growth. Population across the state has dropped as sprawl has increased, resulting in a glut of vacant land and abandoned buildings. And adding to the complexity of the challenges facing the state, it simply has more cities than most: Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, Akron, Dayton, Canton, and Youngstown are forced to share a dwindling pot of funds. “Ohio’s cities simply lack the resources to solve their problems,” said a 2010 Brookings paper. “Their loss of population and jobs has rendered them disproportionately poor, starved of the fiscal resources they need to provide decent public services, let alone invest for future growth.”

So, like other municipalities facing similar challenges, Cincinnati’s government has tried a variety of strategies to attract and retain cash and jobs—including, in the case of Over-the-Rhine, planned gentrification. Trying to imagine the pressure of sitting on City Council in the years immediately following the riots, the appeal of this approach is clear. After watching the neighborhood erupt in flames following decades of bitter debate about who should control it, the fact that the enthusiastic, well-connected pro-development camp was eager to inject money and energy into the neighborhood must have seemed like a no-brainer to many. Letting the low-income advocacy groups dictate the neighborhood’s spatial dynamics got us here, the thinking seemed to run: now it’s the other side’s turn.

And so two years after the riots, the city created the body that has been responsible for much of Over-the-Rhine’s restructuring, a private nonprofit called Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) whose board of directors is a who’s who of the city’s corporate leaders. Its remit extends throughout Over-the-Rhine and two other downtown districts. In an article from the time in Cincinnati’s main newspaper, city officials said the impetus behind its creation was a growing recognition that development was not the local government’s strong point. As a result, they claimed, Cincinnati was falling behind its neighbors. By handing responsibility for building projects over to professional development deal brokers, the city hoped to increase the overall speed and efficiency of development and secure better terms from developers. “The hope is 3CDC will get us there faster, with fewer lost or stalled projects,” said the Cincinnati Enquirer. “The goal is to spark new housing, shops, offices and arts north from the riverfront through Over-the-Rhine.”

3CDC project under construction

3CDC project under construction in early 2013

In the decade since, 3CDC has acted in a variety of roles (developer, master developer, asset manager, and lender/fund manager) to implement a 2002 Over-the-Rhine master plan. Its strategy has been to identify discrete chunks of the neighborhood to be developed, then land bank empty buildings and lots to build a critical mass of properties on a block, renovate salvageable existing structures, and build new ones to fill the gaps. To date, it reports restoring over a hundred historic buildings, developing almost five hundred residential units and almost 130,000 square feet of commercial space, and creating streetscape improvements and hundreds of new parking spots. It has also purchased businesses suspected of contributing to crime, such as liquor stores. Last summer it debuted a $48 million renovation of Washington Park, the neighborhood’s largest green space.

Washington Park

Washington Park. Credit Scott Wesseler

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In researching this article, I found that most people with an opinion about recent developments in the neighborhood tend to recount a version of one of two narratives. One goes something like this. First and foremost, it’s high time that someone try something new to reverse its decline. Second, the consistent population decline and emptying out of the building stock over the past few decades has left plenty of space for newcomers and existing residents alike, and the benefits of gentrification—less blight, fewer crimes, more amenities—are good for everyone. The influx of middle- and upper-class households and visitors creates a healthier balance and fits in with the neighborhood’s history of different groups arriving in waves. It’s fair to move some of Over-the-Rhine’s social service agencies out of the neighborhood, as has occurred, since clustering a high proportion of the city’s most marginalized residents in one area, as failed policies of the past have done, creates havoc for all concerned.

There’s also the issue of changing prevailing notions about the city center. Given the environmental and public health dangers associated with sprawl, this is no small concern. In a city where almost ninety per cent of the metropolitan population lives in the suburbs, stereotypes about center-city crime and danger join forces with a proliferation of outer-belt strip malls, big-box stores, and chain restaurants to ensure that many suburban- and exurbanites rarely venture downtown except for work or game days. Meanwhile, the cultural preference for larger, newer homes with bigger yards continues to push the metro area limits ever outward.

It therefore seems self-evident that it is in the public interest to demonstrate that dense urban living can be not only feasible but desirable. From this perspective, Over-the-Rhine’s transformation seems to have been a success. Like several apartment dwellers and business owners I spoke to in the neighborhood, Dan McCabe, a cofounder of music venue MOTR, mentioned his pride at serving as an ambassador to the city. “We often see people for the first time from our suburbs coming to Over-the-Rhine, and MOTR is that introduction  for them. It’s a lot of fun to be in that position, to represent the neighborhood and its progress.”

Bar and music venue MOTR

Bar and music venue MOTR

Although it’s too soon to tell whether it will make a difference to the city’s footprint, the message is being received. In May 2012, conservative local celebrity Bill Cunningham raved about a recent trip to the neighborhood with his wife on his radio talk show. “A few years ago the odds of Bill Cunningham and Penny Cunningham . . . walking through Over-the-Rhine was zero. Zilch. Kevlar. Wouldn’t have happened. Most dangerous zip code in America. Crime. Terrible. Drugs. Prostitution. We walked four or five blocks from Central Parkway north on Vine Street, and I felt as warm as if in my mother’s arms . . . We went to three restaurants and they were all packed, with a two-hour wait . . . I’m thinking to myself, “Something right’s going on. Maybe I should spend less of my time crapping all over the city of Cincinnati and more time experiencing it.” . . . So despite what you may think to the contrary, if you live in [names various rural and exurban areas], think about coming to downtown Cincinnati, north of downtown in Over-the-Rhine . . . and tell me in the days, weeks, months ahead that you’re not shocked.”

Credit Johanna Liming

Historic Findlay Market, an Over-the-Rhine institution. Credit Johanna Liming

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The other common narrative about current developments, while not necessarily diametrically opposed to the one described above—many, including myself, see elements of truth in both—paints a far bleaker picture. At its core, it holds that what’s going on amounts to a shuffling around of the poor for the benefit of the rich. As Miami University architecture professor and longtime community activist Thomas Dutton put it in a recent paper, “In Cincinnati and Over-the-Rhine, corporations are building sanitized urban playgrounds for the privileged.” It contends that displacement, although hard to measure, has already occurred, brought about both by deliberate actions on the part of the powerful—e.g., successful efforts to move homeless shelters out of the neighborhood—and unplanned but predictable consequences of market forces. It predicts that higher prices (and an accompanying rise in real estate taxes) will drive out low-income residents and the establishments serving them and, over the long run, prevent everyone except for the well-to-do from moving in.

This narrative frequently extends to a criticism of 3CDC, which, although not responsible for all of the new development—small, independent actors have been most heavily involved on Main Street, for example—has become the most prominent face of change in the neighborhood. And while it is hard to feel much ill will toward a lone individual working hard to realize his dream of running a small coffee shop, in an era of overwhelming income inequality many critics have voiced skepticism about the motives of the city’s corporate elite, which forms the backbone of 3CDC. (From the “About” page of the organization’s web site: “Cincinnati is fortunate to have a very strong and engaged base of corporate leadership, led by Procter & Gamble, Macy’s and Kroger to name a few. More than 30 corporate leaders make up 3CDC’s Board of Directors. The corporate leadership of 3CDC is vital to its existence and its success.”)

This skepticism stems largely from the fact that Over-the-Rhine itself is of strategic business interest. A bit of Cincinnati background: in a city of two million that feels in some ways like a small town, the largest corporations have a psychological weight in the community that I have never felt from their New York counterparts while living in that city. A job at global consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, the city’s third-largest employer, is widely seen as a ticket to the good life. However, these companies’ prominence within Cincinnati notwithstanding, when trying to attract top talent on a national level they are held back by the city’s sleepy, conservative reputation.

In this respect, Over-the-Rhine’s potential value is clear. As a beautiful, walkable, amenity-filled historic area located directly between the central business core and the university district, the city’s second largest employment center, Over-the-Rhine could offer the highly sought-after young professional demographic a taste of the big city at a fraction of the cost of New York or San Francisco. For corporations, then, the time and money donated to run 3CDC’s day-to-day operations is a good investment, particularly as the largest source of actual development funding is public money.

Real estate agency window

Real estate agency window in Over-the-Rhine

The question that many critics have asked is whether it is in the public interest to give corporations that are ultimately responsible only to their stakeholders—most of whom have never set foot in Cincinnati—power to make decisions regarding the city’s urban space. Although all of its projects have to go through the city planning commission, there is a strong sense among people I interviewed that if 3CDC wants something to happen, it happens.

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Of the two narratives, the first is unquestionably more dominant. Several Cincinnatians I spoke to who don’t follow politics told me that they were unaware that there was any controversy surrounding Over-the-Rhine’s redevelopment at all. With notable exceptions, the majority of media coverage, both local and national, has centered on the concept of dramatic renaissance and rebirth.

Credit Scott Wesseler

3CDC’s vice president of communications, Anastasia Mileham, told me that she felt that critics were overrepresented in the media in relation to their actual numbers. “Certainly I’m biased, but I’d beg to differ that a lot of people are unhappy about it. There are certainly a vocal few who tend to get quoted often in the paper, but I’d say you’d be hard-pressed to find long-term residents of the neighborhood who are law-abiding citizens who are unhappy about the changes. I don’t care how poor you are, you don’t want to live amongst crime and neglect and deterioration.”

Nick Dewald, an architect who founded a successful new flea market modeled on the Brooklyn Flea in Over-the-Rhine, told me that he thinks tension between 3CDC and its critics has declined in recent years. “The negativity about [3CDC] has kind of reached a low point right now, from what I can hear, just because no one can deny that the neighborhood is in as good a shape as it has been since 1940 or something. I think that’s sort of undeniable. I can literally think of people who have actively protested 3CDC who have sat in a lawn chair watching a concert in Washington Park, which is managed by 3CDC. Because a lot of those people who were complaining about 3CDC also love Over-the-Rhine, and if you love Over-the-Rhine you’re going to enjoy the neighborhood, and you kind of can’t enjoy the neighborhood without enjoying something that 3CDC is responsible for.”

Over-the-Rhine mural celebrating local politician and pro-development activist Jim Tarbell, whose vision for the neighborhood has been enacted over the past decade

Over-the-Rhine mural celebrating local politician and pro-development activist Jim Tarbell, whose vision for the neighborhood has been enacted over the past decade

There is evidence to support both narratives. There are still many empty buildings in the area, and crime has gone down (although it remains higher in the sections that redevelopment has not yet touched). However, prices are rising, social service agencies are being moved out (often after contentious, highly public debates), and a number of people familiar with the situation say that they believe poor people are leaving.

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Different organizations are trying different strategies to help the low-income population stay in the neighborhood. Local developer The Model Group employs a variety of creative financing tools to build high-quality affordable housing. A pizzeria in the Gateway Quarter functions as a job-training program. Churches and social service organizations continue to offer literacy training, early childhood education, food assistance, and more.

In the early days of redevelopment, however, geographer Jean-Paul Addie found little more than lip service paid to preventing displacement among key neighborhood stakeholders. “In discussing the future of the neighborhood with neighborhood organizations and estate agents,” he wrote in his 2006 Miami University master’s thesis, “there appeared to be little regard paid to how to regulate gentrification or ensure the sustainability of an economically and culturally mixed community after capital investment and competitive markets were established. Interviewees advocating for market-rate development revealed both an apparent desperation and adherence to neoliberal ideology—that stimulating the real estate market was the key to the future of Over-the-Rhine and that everything else would fall into place once these economic conditions were firmly established.”

New condos in Over-the-Rhine

New condos in Over-the-Rhine. Credit Scott Wesseler

In the case of 3CDC in particular, several people I spoke with told me that the organization had become more involved with affordable housing in the past few years. “Early on, they wanted to do nothing and they’d veto any type of low-income housing. It was extremely difficult,” Elizabeth Brown told me. “It was like, ‘Well, we don’t do that. If you want to build low-income housing, go build it.’ But then they would try to block anything that was going on. That’s changed today. I can’t say they’re enthusiastic or that they’ve embraced it, but they understand that they have to be a partner in these mixed-income developments and low-income housing.”

For a current project, Mercer Commons, 3CDC is working with St. Louis developer McCormack, Baron, and Salazar, a specialist in mixed-income housing, to create a dedicated number of affordable units that will be identical to their market-rate counterparts. It has also worked with Over-the-Rhine Community Housing (OTRCH), a nonprofit with deep roots in the neighborhood’s affordable housing advocacy community, on a number of initiatives. “Given how our organization was developed over the last 30 years, we have property strategically located in the neighborhood. For the most part, wherever 3CDC turns, we’re either across the street or right next door,” said Mary Burke, OTRCH’s executive director. “So at some point we have to be invited to the table when development is occurring.” Joint projects to date include a market-rate property with several affordable units and a twenty-five-unit apartment building serving homeless people with active addictions. Burke also says that 3CDC has also helped her organization find new ways to generate revenue, something that’s becoming increasingly vital as federal support for affordable housing shrinks, by helping it put together favorable deals to sell off properties that the larger group needs to complete its projects.

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It remains to be seen whether these and related initiatives will succeed in creating a viable mixed-income community. I asked Colleen McTague, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Cincinnati who has been involved with the neighborhood in various capacities for many years (most recently, while conducting a study of day labor employment agencies there), what she thought current trends pointed to. “Social service agencies being asked to leave, or homeless shelters being relocated, day labor employment agencies moving—it gives you a sense there’s some kind of something happening to the under- and unemployed,” she told me. She was careful to note that no research specifically on the topic existed, and that there was little likelihood that such research would ever find funding. From an anecdotal perspective, however, “it looks to me that there’s less opportunity for the underemployed and unemployed to find housing in Over-the-Rhine,” she said. “It appears that way.”

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“I don’t have a problem with there being some nice restaurants in Over-the-Rhine,” Justin Jeffre, editor of Streetvibes, the newspaper published by the Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, told me. “But there should also be affordable places for people to go and shop, affordable places to live, affordable places for people to enjoy themselves.”

Coffee shop and wine bar on Vine Street

Coffee shop and wine bar on Vine Street

I asked Tony Romano, organizing director of New York–based nonprofit Right to the City, which focuses on gentrification and displacement, whether he considered what I think of as cultural gentrification—the opening of independent bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and galleries that make neighborhoods attractive to, well, me—a problem in and of itself. He told me that even if their creators and patrons have no intention of disrupting the surrounding community, history shows that these first steps are problematic unless existing residents have some control over the process.

I described the current situation in Over-the-Rhine to Mark Partridge, an Ohio State University professor who specializes in urban poverty and rural/urban relations, and asked what he thought the long-term impact on the poor community would be. “A lot of it is really neighborhood-specific,” he said. “It’s hard to make general statements, that ‘Oh, it does push out low-income people,’ or ‘it has relatively marginal effects on low- and moderate-income households.’ Across our academic literature, we can’t pin it down. But, saying that, there’s definitely some effect. You are pushing out low-income households, and to the extent that you are, you’re just rearranging the deck chairs, so to speak. You’re making one area prosperous, but another is then going to have a higher concentration of low-income households that may be associated with various kinds of social needs.”

Partridge was skeptical about the claim that gentrification’s benefits would trickle down to the neighborhood’s low-income residents. “Unless you can link the kind of job opportunities that were created to actually hiring low-income residents, at best it’s probably a zero sum. You’re just rearranging where the poverty takes place. But on the other hand, if the business community came in and says we can create business opportunities that will also create opportunities for low-income workers, then I could see a win-win for both sides. But if that wasn’t explicitly a part of the equation when they were starting the development, it probably just was zero sum.”

I asked Justus Uitermark, an assistant professor of sociology at the Netherlands’ Erasmus University Rotterdam who studies gentrification, if he could help me locate successful global examples of gentri-fying neighborhoods where existing communities have been able to remain more or less intact. His response: good luck. “It is very difficult to resist gentrification once it is fully underway. The most effective way to resist gentrification would actually be to try to reduce its speed and try to create structures that keep people in their place—so for instance, making sure that there’s some rent controls in place, making sure that there are good community facilities so that people don’t move out of the area, keep pressure on politicians to make sure that new houses are being built for the people who live there, and make the cost of gentrification high by demanding that people who are displaced are given a suitable alternative in the neighborhood. But in the end, if you live in a city where market forces are very strong and where the pressure on land is very high, it’s extremely difficult to fully resist gentrification.”

Street in Over-the-Rhine

Street in Over-the-Rhine. Credit Scott Wesseler

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When low-income residents leave the neighborhood, their choices about where to go are fairly limited, both by price and by some areas’ vocal attempts to keep subsidized housing out. And although Cincinnati is a relatively affordable city, price is still a major consideration for people of limited means.

“We have a lot of people that are either paying huge amounts of their income, to the point where if they pay rent they don’t eat for a week,” HOME’s Elizabeth Brown told me. “Or many are living in a substandard, very low-quality market. We get calls all the time in my office about a variety of housing issues, and some of the descriptions of the substandard conditions are just horrific. But people can’t move. They’re there because they’re only being charged two or three hundred dollars a month and yet falling down on their heads, but they can’t afford anything else. And when I talk about substandard housing sometimes, the city takes it as ‘Oh, we just need to enforce more.’ Well, if you shut down all the substandard housing, you’d have homeless camps all over the city.”

Over-the-Rhine pawn shop

Over-the-Rhine pawn shop

The National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty paints a grim picture of the housing options open to low-income Americans. In no jurisdiction in the country does a full-time job at minimum wage provide enough income for a market-rate one-bedroom. Demand for affordable housing far outweighs supply; only a third of low-income families eligible for housing assistance receive it.

According to the Brookings Institution, between 2000 and 2010 the number of Americans living in poverty rose by 12.3 million, bringing the figure to a record high. The population in extreme-poverty neighborhoods (defined as those where at least forty per cent of inhabitants live below the poverty line) also rose during this period.

And in the meantime, neighborhoods from Over-the-Rhine to Crown Heights continue to gentrify. I don’t have the answers—but I think we need to be asking a lot more questions.