What makes a neighborhood evolve? Is that evolution good or bad – or can it be both? These are the questions in my head as I stroll the streets of Over-the-Rhine, an iconic urban neighborhood just north of downtown Cincinnati. OTR, as it is known to locals, is an area in flux, an historically working-class section of the city undergoing gentrification and transforming before my very eyes.

The dichotomy is everywhere. Newly refurbished buildings stand next to run-down domiciles. Upscale casual eateries and old barbecue joints exist side-by-side. Community centers and churches exist in contrast to new commercial blocks. This is, quite literally, a neighborhood that is changing, and one that will look very different in a month or a year.

As a traveler, Over-the-Rhine is exactly the sort of neighborhood I love. It has incredible old architecture – many buildings date to the 1850s – highlighted by the 1878 Cincinnati Music Hall, wonderful urban art, and a public market (Findlay Market) that has existed for more than 150 years. It is easy to walk – or take the streetcar – and close enough to downtown to make visiting some of the iconic structures there simple.

The Cincinnati Music Hall is a marvel!

In the mid-nineteenth century, a wave of German immigrants swept into the midwestern United States. Here in Cincinnati, they settled in a neighborhood just across the Miami and Erie Canal from downtown. The canal was nicknamed the Rhine in reference to the German river, and those who lived here commuted “over the Rhine” into the city. The name stuck.

Over time, the German immigrants assimilated and moved into other areas of the city, and Over-the-Rhine transformed into the heart of the African-American community in Cincinnati. Community organizations were created to counter growing poverty, but as with many predominantly black neighborhoods in major American cities, little outside money flowed in, and the historic buildings were largely left to decay. Crime increased, and the neighborhood got the reputation – fair or not – of a place one didn’t want to be after dark, especially after a series of riots in 2001.

Since then, the neighborhood has been the focus of gentrification efforts, led by the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, or 3CDC. They, in partnership with local government and local businesses like Proctor and Gamble, have invested more than $500 million into Over-the-Rhine, purchasing more than 130 historic buildings and constructing nearly 50 new ones.

A newly refurbished building keeping its old charm.

The physical effects of this are easy to see. I walk south after completing my tour of Findlay Market (the beer garden is not to be missed), and am blown away by all of the seemingly-cool restaurants and shops. In a single block on Vine Street I find a new ramen joint, a candle shop, and a store selling gourmet treats for pets. These stand in contrast to places like the Alabama Fishbar, an iconic cash-only fried fish eatery.

Findlay Market has been drawing visitors for decades.

Likewise, many of the historic buildings have been refurbished, but kept their original facades, just under a new coat or three of paint. And more construction is underway, each block seemingly having at least one building being renovated. This is now a desirable neighborhood to live in and to visit.

Street art in OTR is on point!

But what of those predominantly African-American residents who had called Over-the-Rhine home for generations? I walk into Cincinnati City Hall, itself an incredible architectural gem, and sit down with Earmon Powell, Community Liaison for Councilmember Tamaya Dennard. Earmon was born in OTR in 1971, and has watched his home undergo its recent transformation.

“The crime statistics were over-exaggerated to get prices down,” he tells me. With the neighborhood made out to be a dangerous place, organizations like the 3CDC could buy buildings for a fraction of what they were worth, fix them up, and rent them out for significantly higher than the African-American residents were able to afford. Black residents were forced into other areas further from the city.

“It’s sad that this wasn’t done in partnership while we were there,” he says. It’s great to see the neighborhood thrive, he goes on to say, but a painful reminder that it was done at the expense of the African-American community, rather than through working together. The statistics back this up. From 2010 to 2014, Over-the-Rhine went from being 60% black to 66% white in the newly redeveloped sections, with the underdeveloped neighborhoods remaining more than 80% African-American.

Construction is being done on non-refurbished buildings all over the neighborhood.

For longtime residents like Earmon, this seemingly successful transformation includes a loss of his home, and a painful erasure of the history of the neighborhood. While the architecture has been kept, remnants of the former residents has been reduced to a few community centers and activists like himself trying to keep those stories from being forgotten.

So where is the balance point? This is a question I’ve been asking myself since my visit. On the one hand, community investment produces a lot of positives, from refurbishing historic buildings to bringing in tourist dollars, stimulating the local economy and bringing an environment conducive to small-business growth. On the other hand, it has led to a displacement of the local population and a loss of much of their history, resulting in yet another neighborhood made unaffordable to working-class families.

I am not an economist. That needs to be said up front. And it is possible that any idea I have might be completely unpractical. That said, I believe there is opportunity to spur redevelopment in the remainder of OTR without producing so many of the (hopefully) unintended negative side effects. What if current residents of buildings were given first right of refusal to purchase and refurbish their homes, with help from 3CDC and community partners? Allow them to band together to remain in their homes, while at the same time actively engaging in the positive redevelopment. Low-interest community development loans don’t need to be reserved for those who already have the capital; rather, with the influx of outside dollars that we know will come as a result of the redevelopment, the financial security can come from the example of the “other” side of the neighborhood. Only this time, residents will be the ones to share in that success, reaping the benefits of increased property value without having to move, and increased business revenues for their own endeavors. Surely something like this is possible in some form.

As travelers, we share in some of the responsibility. We take in the incredible culture of neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine, and our dollars help spur their development. It is important for us to realize the cost that can be associated with the creation of such an incredible walking neighborhood that we want to visit and recommend to our friends. And visit we should; Over-the-Rhine is a wonderful place.

If you want to learn more, or get involved in community activism in regard to Over-the-Rhine, please contact Dominique Francisco, Director of Community Relations for Councilmember Tamaya Dennard, at Dominique.Francisco@cincinnati-oh.gov.

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