Sunday, June 6th, 2010

The Neighborhoods of Cincinnati

Cincinnati can be incredibly surprising to people who don’t know much about it. Cincinnati was the Queen City of the Midwest when Chicago was a small village. And it has an incredible legacy from that day. Cincinnati simply has the greatest collection of assets of any city its size in America. It’s an embarrassment of riches. Yet Cincinnati has not been a strong economic performer in some time. It’s not doing poorly, but it isn’t great either. I examined Cincinnati in one of my signature overview posts a couple years ago called “A Midwest Conundrum” that goes into detail on Cincy’s assets and challenges. I highly recommend it if you haven’t already read it.

This is a follow-up of sorts. My last article didn’t give nearly enough photos to do justice to Cincinnati’s neighborhoods. I was there for a presentation recently, and was fortunate enough to have UrbanCincy’s Randy Simes give me a tour. The result is this photo-centric post. You can view all of the photos in this post as a Flickr set. I also have another Flick set with even more Cincinnati photos that didn’t make the post. With that, let’s kick off our neighborhood tour.

Over the Rhine

Wendell Cox said Over the Rhine “may be the nation’s most important historical district” awaiting redevelopment.

OTR is a near-downtown neighborhood located north of what was once a small canal (dubbed “the Rhine” by Cincinnati’s heavily German inhabitants), now filled in with abandoned tunnels from a never opened subway and six lane Central Parkway. It is exceptionally dense, with tons of incredible architecture that leans heavily to the Italianate style.

Here’s a shot looking down Vine St., which, along with Main St., is one of the two principal north-south corridors through the area.

The south end of OTR was recently named the Gateway Quarter, to signify it as a focus of redevelopment efforts by a corporate led group with the awkward name of 3CDC. In the bottom left of the photo above is Park and Vine, an upscale green general store in the area. There’s also a swanky and delicious restaurant called Senate that I was fortunate enough to eat at. And there are many condo developments in the area.

As with most similar sized cities, these are at fairly high price points and the aggregate number of new residents is still fairly low (probably the low hundreds).

Also like many such districts around the country, the city has targeted this as an arts district. Here’s one theater:

Redevelopment in OTR has not been without its tensions and setbacks. This was touted as an up and coming neighborhood in the 90’s, when its identity was as an entertainment district. As with Cleveland’s Flats, it basically crashed. Also, OTR has been heavily black for quite some time, and city-sponsored redevelopment in the area has created some tensions. In 2001, a police killing of an unarmed black youth touched off four days of riots centered in OTR, earning Cincinnati the dubious distinction of having the most significant racial disturbance in the US after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. However, race relations in OTR seem much improved this time around.

One reason is that there are still such an incredible number of vacant and boarded up buildings that few development projects have resulted in displacement.

The number of buildings like this in OTR and Cincinnati generally is depressingly large. Here’s another one, complete with 3CDC signage. The facade appears to have had work done on it.

And still more. I think you get the gist of why Cox described OTR this way. The potential in these vacant structures is incredible.

Nearby is Findlay Market, the oldest continuously operating public market in Ohio.

It doesn’t look like it in this picture, but the place was doing decent business on the Thursday afternoon I took this. And reputedly the place is mobbed on weekends.

But it’s time to move on. Cincinnati residents are justifiably proud of OTR, but almost to a point where you might think it is the only thing they’ve got going on. It’s a constant chorus of “Over the Rhine, Over the Rhine, Over the Rhine…..” But there are at least 10-15 other neighborhoods in Cincinnati that most cities would kill to have.

Northside

Northside is the neighborhood Greg Meckstroth called the “gayborhood minus the gays.” It’s one of Cincy’s premier hipster districts.

I was there early Friday morning before the stores opened, which explains some of the empty streets. Here’s a mural by Shepard Fairey:

Here’s a crazy one. As you can see, someone at the city cared enough to make this Taco Bell/KFC combo front the street and also mandated brick construction – but allowed (required?) them to have a gigantic parking lot and a drive through. A clearly subpar development that didn’t have to be like this in a reasonably prosperous district.

Clifton

Clifton might be the most complete neighborhood commercial district in the city. It has not only coffee shops, restaurants, and bars, but also a grocery store, a drug store, and as you can see here, even a library branch. It pretty much has everything you need to take care of your daily needs.

Here are a couple of restaurants:

There is even an old movie theater still showing films:

If “Mother” is the recent Korean version by Joon-ho Bong, it even shows good films, Iron Man 2 notwithstanding.

University of Cincinnati

Clifton is basically where the University of Cincinnati is located. One interesting thing about the campus recently is that they hired a number of well-known contemporary architects to design their new buildings. Here’s one by UC alum Michael Graves:

Somewhat oddly, UC spent untold millions on fabulous buildings, then put this sign at their main entrance:

There has to be a better answer than this.

DeSales Corner

DeSales Corner was once a rival to downtown Cincinnati, as the major buildings there will attest. It isn’t often that you see seven story buildings in neighborhood commercial districts. This is like some of Chicago’s more intense districts, like Uptown or Wicker Park.

Like OTR, despite the excellent architecture, many of the buildings in this shot are vacant, albeit in reasonable condition:

There is still new development, however:

Hyde Park Square

When I visited this place, only one word came to mind: money.

It’s a bit difficult to photograph, because there is a huge park in the median of the street, giving an almost courthouse square effect, hence the name:

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour. Even though this is a long post already, there is a lot more where this came from. Be sure to check out the rest of the photos online. And I’d recommend a visit to Cincinnati for yourself to see in person what it has to offer and what is going on there. It is a city that really exceeds expectations, often in dramatic form.

More on Cincinnati

A Midwest Conundrum
Cincinnati Is Cool – by Mike Doyle at his blog CHICAGO CARLESS
Agenda 360 – a review of Cincinnati’s regional strategy
Water Works and the Commonwealth – a look at Cincinnati’s proposed water works transaction

60 Comments
Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation
Cities: Cincinnati

60 Responses to “The Neighborhoods of Cincinnati”

  1. John Morris says:

    It just seems that if one had to point out a really big significant difference between Pittsburgh today and Cincinnati, it’s race. I think Pittsburgh is 25% black or so with the percentage falling while Cincinnati is over 45% black. Pittsburgh might be the new Portland or San Francisco but it’s not likely to be the old Pittsburgh of Teenie Harris and The Courier.

    More importantly, blacks in Pittsburgh are being shoved or leaving the central areas of the city and there is no real successful place in the city for the black middle class.

    I don’t mean to imply that some areas of the city like Shadyside, Friendship, Squirrel Hill or places like Manchester or The War Streets don’t have middle or upper income blacks or that they are actively discriminated against in those places. But, there just isn’t the kind of centered, thriving sense of community from what I can see. It’s a pocket here and a wonderful street there but the guts are just gone.

    And, Pittsburgh is far from being alone. The fate of historically black communities in America is pretty grim. (Read the book Root Shock)

    I just feel like this could be a real niche for Cincinnati as a wonderful centered urban place where black businesses and culture are welcome and at least not destroyed. Of course, if this drew other people too that also would be great.

    OTR just looks like that could be a big part of that.

  2. John Morris says:

    I guess what I’m saying in plain English is that the city should be thinking about chasing that market. (and that’s why I think it takes guts)

    Even 15 years ago, the word black neighborhood painted a picture of a poor area and black inner city for sure meant that(even though that never was exactly true and that the people who painted these pictures were often racist). Now, one might think of Harlem or some parts of D.C. Atlanta or Brooklyn like Fort Greene or Bed Sty.

    The next cutting edge is to see if one can create places like their used to be that were not so divided by class.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    John: Central Harlem had its white flight in the 1910s, and was nearly 100% black by 1920. West Harlem became black around the same time. The Harlem Renaissance was not in a diverse neighborhood. East Harlem had Italian pockets for longer, but it’s more accurate to say that with suburbanization and urban renewal, Harlem expanded and incorporated formerly Italian areas. A modern comparison would be how Chinatown is expanding and incorporating Little Italy and parts of SoHo and the Lower East Side.

  4. John Morris says:

    That’s true. My point really isn’t that much about history as much as the here and now. Most historic black urban areas that have any livability factor at all have been destroyed. (Some places like Detroit, always had issues with real livability and density)

    If one was looking for a big historic urban type neighborhood with a nice street grid, nice structures, the potential for a great arts and shopping district and with a good black cultural scene and strong black middle class, how many choices would you have? How much would it cost to live or start a business there?

    I’m not saying Cincinnati has all this in spades, but it sure looks like it has the bones and some structure to support the development of that kind of thing.

  5. George Mattei says:

    John:

    My experience has been that Cincinnati has a long way to go before it’s actively fostering the city as the “Atlanta of the Midwest” as you seem to be suggesting. I mean they had major race riots in 2001. There was a LOT of racial tension.

    I think that many in the metro area came to see OTR as the “black” neighborhood. It had an extremely high density of affordable housing for very low-income residents. Now every city has something like this area, but in Cincinnati, given the racial strife, it was magnified. While many other cities were revitalizing their best historic neighborhoods in the 90’s, Cincinnati did not seem to be making any sincere efforts until a few years ago. And I’m not just talking about the elected officials. The population at large it seems was stuck in the 60’s in terms of racial attitudes.

    It appears that the riots in 2001 shook things up a bit. The City, through 3CDC, is working hard now to revitalize sections of OTR, and UC is working to revitalize Clifton. The Model Group, a local developer, is rehabbing some of the Section 8 housing into showcase affordable apartments. They have some of the nicest low-income housing I have ever seen (and that’s what I do). So things are starting to happen. I remember reading an article in 2002 that basically said if OTR was in a coastal city, it would have been revitalized years ago. But it was in Cincinnati, and the attitude was that we don’t waste money on that area.

  6. John Morris says:

    “If OTR was in a coastal city, it would have been revitalized years ago. But it was in Cincinnati, and the attitude was that we don’t waste money on that area.”

    Well, there you have it. This is a city like Pittsburgh who is so beautiful in so many ways, yet she sits in bed while her husband looks at photos of other women.

    If people there, don’t appreciate the city, they need to market themselves to people who would.

    This sort of thing happens a lot in Pittsburgh on The North Side where folks come into town to see a ball game or go to The Warhol, end up in The War Streets and start thinking about buying a house. Usually they are from somewhere like D.C. or San Francisco wher similar areas cost a fortune.

    OTR just looks like that kind of place except on a much bigger scale. If folks in it’s suburbs don’t like the place they can just stay out.

  7. Dave Davis says:

    In your earlier piece on the city you mentioned the real problem Cincy faces in passing: The entire region’s divided among feudal cliques, with it’s resources devoured by competing (sometimes ethnic) enclaves. On a 1 mile strip of road that turns into a major north-south artery the speed limit changes 5 times, between 20 and 40 mph! This is done to fund 2 tiny, corrupt community governments that truly have no reason to exist.

    This insanity extends to taxation: If you happen to work in Cincinnati, and have a home in the Deer Park school district but technically live in Sycamore Township, payroll taxes for Cincinnati are taken and kept, while Deer Park takes the money and makes you fight to get it back (even though the school taxes are property-based, and the district has no connection to the crooked faux government of Deer Park!

    Cincinnati is living proof of why the fondest dreams of Republicans don’t work. At some point, small governments become too responsive and deeply inefficient. Millions of dollars are blown across Hamilton County by tiny, useless government entities, responding to penny ante parochial concerns. There are probably more city council members, mayors, commissioners and elected local officials in this one county than there are members of the US Congress. They step all over each other’s initiatives, and water down resources to the point where nothing useful can be funded. Lots of micro-governments are inherently LESS responsive, because they’re resource starved. They can’t do big things because they lack the scale and credit of a larger community.

    The end result is a terrible churn of people and resources. DHL closed a hub they’d invested millions to control in Wilmington (Warren County), and re-opened it at CVG across the river, after Wilmington’s tax breaks expired. Sara Lee moved from Cincinnati, to Blue Ash then to Northern Kentucky, again chasing tax breaks. The suburb of Sharonville built a deulling convention center to compete with facilities Downtown, which compete with facilities blocks away across the river. Robbing Peter to pay off Paul is the norm thanks to too many elected officials, responding to too many tiny, knee-jerking enclaves. Most of the programs and ideas coming out of these micro-governments are bad, none of them are vetted or correlate with broader urban plans.

    Socially these enclaves aren’t especially positive or beneficial. They mostly exist to advance the interests of the well connected locals, not the broader community. Each community has it’s own little Hitler rich guys or homers who have lived there forever, calling all the shots for the benefit of themselves and their friends. If you’re in Montgomery and named Gregory, you get what you want. If you’re in Indian Hill and named Lindner, you set the speed limits. If you’re on the west side and named Luken, you get to be mayor or a seat in Congress after you get bored killing light rail and transport corriders that might bring opportunities to poor people, living in geographically inaccessible, disconnected neighborhoods you’ve zoned them into.

    All of these ills stem from the same source: way too many little, useless government entities. We have to pay each of the literally HUNDREDS of city councilfolks at least $20,000/year to meet weekly to ruin our lives. We empower DOZENS of mayors to blow through tax dollars on whims. It adds up to stagnation. There’s nothing left over to actually get things done after you pay these clowns and fund their pet projects (usually benefitting their friends, family and others who need no charity).

    Unigov would fix all this. But it can’t happen. The ethnic and social divisions are so deep that county residents would never stand for giving the majority city residents the opportunity to block their beloved local boondoggles. Barring major revolution in social attitudes, Cincinnati will always be a backwater.

  8. John Morris says:

    I don’t know if this is appropriate but if anyone who lives in Cincinnati well wants do a post on my blog, I would like that very much.

    My goal which isn’t exactly humming yet is to build a greater info and idea flow between Pittsburgh and the outside world. Cincinnati, is likely of not that much geographic interest in the way Youngstown, Cleveland, D.C. and Columbus might be but it’s just too similar and interesting to pass up.

    My particular interest here is the intersection between, art, culture, urban design and regional economics so that’s sort of what I’m looking for. also, I guess I’m looking for practical ideas, actual examples of things that are and are not working etc…

    My email is in the title page.

  9. dave says:

    Another great place around cincy is Xavier.

  10. Keith Morris says:

    Like you mentioned and as is evident by the pics you took, Cincinnati has several great neighborhoods. Thing is, it seems like urban revitalization of neighborhoods that could increase their number is not a major priority of residents there. Woodburn-Madison, with the DeSales Corner, seems to be in the same place it was with these photos back in 2004.

    http://www.urbanohio.com/forum2/index.php/topic,311.0.html

    While the Gateway Quarter block in OTR is great and gives an example of how amazing the entire neighborhood could be, it just doesn’t look like much progress has been made further north even a block or two judging from the pics you took. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like residents in Cincy are just happy to rest on their laurels and just stick with what they’ve already got.

    Columbus is certainly progressing more slowly than I’d like when it comes to moving beyond the Short North, but there are tangible improvements being made in numerous areas, particularly in the major west-side neighborhoods of Franklinton

    http://columbusite.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=2661&action=edit

    and the Hilltop

    http://www.urbanohio.com/forum2/index.php/topic,23033.0.html

    where new neighborhood events have attracted a good number of visitors and storefronts are now starting to be filled in their dense, but much too empty urban business districts on W Broad just a short drive from Downtown. Neither have the architecture of OTR or the buildings along the DeSales Corner, but momentum is building. I would like to go down south and be wowed by OTR and East Walnut Hills someday, but I just don’t get how people don’t see just how great these places would be with just a little bit of work. Still, it’s hard to complain about the ones that are in good condition.

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