Thursday, August 29th, 2013

In Case You’ve Forgotten How Badly Freeways Damaged Our Cities, Cincinnati Edition

A couple weeks ago I posted a series of photos demonstrating the damage freeway construction did to Indianapolis. Since I’ve been covering Cincinnati this week, I thought I’d show the damage freeways did there too.

Over the Rhine is one of America’s most stunning historic districts. When I visited the city last year, one of the locals explained that there had been “miles” of neighborhoods just like it obliterated by freeway construction. I found this difficult to credit until I came across the photographic proof.

Here’s a picture of one such area, the West End. This photo dates to the late 1950’s:

West End Cincinnati in the late 1950s. Image via Cininnati Transit

Here’s a Google satellite view of the area today. Pretty much everything but Cincinnati Union Terminal appears to have been demolished and replaced with I-75 and an industrial park.

Lest you think Union Terminal survived unscathed, it appears in the 1950s photo that it had a sort of City Beautiful style formal plaza in front of it. Here’s a closer look:

Cincinnati Union Terminal, image via Flickr/whitehall buick

And here’s the Google satellite from today that shows it converted into – what else! – a parking lot:

Almost empty, of course.

Topics: Historic Preservation, Transportation
Cities: Cincinnati

42 Responses to “In Case You’ve Forgotten How Badly Freeways Damaged Our Cities, Cincinnati Edition”

  1. Quimbob says:

    At the Cincinnati Museum (in Union Terminal) they have a weird model (not much attention to scale) of the city that shows this area as it was, too.

  2. Christian says:

    Notice the concourse extension is missing from today’s Union Terminal, which had been demolished shortly after private passenger rail service ended nationwide.

  3. Unreal. All the highway caps in the world can’t replace what was lost.

    Hopefully the city can restore Union Terminal’s plaza and relocate parking elsewhere.

  4. Here’s some views taken from Carew Tower. The first one is in 1958 and the second from 1974. The change in that short time frame is staggering.

  5. Claude Masse says:

    What stuns me is now the interstate footprint looks like a suburban idea.I have just been enlightened to this Cincinnati talk,and I’m all ears.
    Several photos from this flickr pool are truly amazing.The fact that there is very little below grade(from what I see)alignment shocks us I’m sure.My home metro Providence did the same bulldozing;albiet below grade.A very urban narrows you might say.I’ve seen before & after photos of the years 56-64 construction,and was upset at what was razed.That said,even though we got 8 laners out of it also,the footprint was hemmed in.
    Cincinnati planners really bulldozed compared to Providence.looks more like an LA dream.Something I can point out in Warwick where things spread out.Cincinnati really lost alot of it’s heart due to the LA Dream.
    Something also strikes me.The stadium mentality really got a pass in your great city.That in itself must have been responsible for a massive loss of antibellum historic riverfront districts.

  6. Claude, one saving grace for Cincinnati is that the Ohio side of the river was mostly industrial warehousing. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of neat buildings and the street grid were pretty well decimated for not only the stadiums but the highway as well. Still with a tangle of railroad tracks and depots, produce warehouses, and many of the ancillary functions that come with a public wharf, not to mention repeated flooding, it wasn’t ever considered a particularly desirable neighborhood. I wouldn’t be surprised if nobody had actually lived down there since the 1800s. You need to go across the river to Covington to get the old Antebellum mansions along the riverfront.

  7. Neil says:

    The pictures above illustrate how inaccurate a local myth is that Cincinnati lost less architecture than most cities. I read in a book about the loss of the west side (Contested Ground) that it was one of the largest urban renewal projects in the country outside of Chicago.

    Cincinnati just had waaay more old buildings, and yet the 1960s mentality is still way too pervasive in the area. If a time machine is invented and I can get my hands on it, my first trip would be to Cincinnati in the 1930s or 40s just to see how incredible a city it was!

  8. Neil says:

    Sorry to double post, but I guess I’ll hammer in the point: Cincinnati is basically what would have happened to Boston or San Francisco if no one stood up and fought for the neighborhoods that were on the cutting board in the mid-century – gutted out suburbanized shells of their former glorious selves.

    Other cities did it, yes, but few are as dramatic and as tragic as what happened to the west end in Cincinnati and yet people to this day don’t even acknowledge just how much it destroyed the vitality of their city. To this day there still is an all too pervasive contempt for urbanity in the region even if said region has run down but great examples of it that still remain – scraps of what was once around but still remaining nonetheless.

    The NKY cities btw are very impressive/intact though underutalized, whole districts reminiscent of large east coast cities but oddly empty of commercial retail.

  9. Jon Seisa says:

    But just the same, even if a super-freeway did not replace these historical neighborhoods, you just know their other horrific destiny would have been to tear them down, incrementally, block by block and replace them with bigger structures of that hideous minimalistic and boxy “60’s Modernism”, and then the eventual 70’s “Darth Vaderism In Architecture” of those cold black Mylar glass skyscrapers that look like imposing sci-fi “Kronos” (1957), and then those blown-out-of-scale detailed skyscrapers of “Postmodernism” that are all an embarrassment for an city. It’s a LOSE-LOSE situation no matter what, due to the lack of discerning creative vision and good design taste in the hands of the few and shortsighted megalomaniac decision makers, the “Municipal Mental Midgets” who ultimately cast the final lots (no pun intended).


  10. Claude Masse says:

    Neil you are accurate about the urban renewal outside of Chicago story.That said,Why did the the interstate mentality take out so much of your city.As a kid growing up in the corridor,I was oblivious to big back room ideas.We are living off this sick planning.Pawtucket had St.Germain &Roberts knowing well 95 would cut a big groove through the city.I can say this though,they kept it tight.You Hoosiers were to immersed in the LA groove.So there it is.California Dreaming.

  11. Rod Stevens says:

    I’ve never been to Cincinnati, but this old photo prompted me to go to Google maps to look at the city. Several things stand out about the central area:

    1. The monotonous amount of public housing, pretty obviously public, that replaced the older housing around the station.
    2. How many houses are gone even where pieces of the older urban fabric remain. Reminiscent of Detroit.
    3. The appalling loss of land around the CBD due to freeways, intersections and state highways.

  12. Rod Stevens says:

    One question: were all those old buildings taken down on the west side of the town residential or commercial. If commercial, just think of how many cool lofts could have been made today! If commercial, it also speaks to the tremendous change in industrial locations in America. This must have been a mighty place at some time.

  13. Matthew Hall says:

    Is it better to have had and lost than never to have had at all? Such as Cincinnati versus Indianapolis for example.

  14. DaveOfRichmond says:

    Several interesting comments here about what was lost. I don’t disagree, and I certainly think that building freeways through cities was a mistake. However, it would be wise to remember that a young adult or middle-aged person in 1946 had just been through 15 years of utter crap – 10 years of the worst Depression the country has seen (including this latest one) and four years of existential war against lunatics, on two fronts.

    The old Eastern and Mid-western cities had seen very little new investment during those 15 years. They were old, dirty, falling apart, and mostly run by filthy political machines. The people populating those wonderful old neighborhoods were not cool modern urbanites who wanted diversity and artists and rights for gays. They were mostly working class enclaves, distrustful and possibly hostile to outsiders of all stripes.

    The highways and suburbs and shopping malls and glass office buildings were new, clean, fresh, modern, hopeful things. They represented a new world being built on the ashes of the bad old one. The cities stunk of death and depression and the ugly past. The suburbanization went too far, and many of the older cities got worse for a time, which led to another generation or two to either move to, or stay in, the burbs.

    That cycle appears to be mostly over now. This generation will make its own mistakes, which will not appear to be mistakes at the time, just like the suburbs and highways did not seem like mistakes to the vast majority in 1955 or 1960. They seemed like haven’s, and for many people, were.

  15. Neil says:

    Rod: Mixed use, everything was there, industrial, commercial/residential. For a closer look take a gander at this blog written by a frustrated (non-native to the area) preservationist who is currently giving a shot at restoring a neighborhood in Cincy:

    While a lot of the buildings needed work and I’m sure sanitation wasn’t that great, a lot of them actually seem to be in better shape than much of Cincy’s urban core today.

  16. Paul Wittibschlager says:

    Being from Cleveland, I can appreciate the decimation of neighborhoods by freeways.

    Moving forward, cities like Cincinnati and Cleveland should consider highway restructuring. Can some urban core highways be increased in bandwidth (2 levels, one below grade) while allowing another key artery to be converted to a 35mph boulevard with green space?

    Some of these 8-lane monsters were built along waterfronts and pose insurmountable barriers between the neighborhoods and lakefront/riverfront. A huge development loss for the city core.

  17. Frank DeSantis says:

    This is what is told to us as progress in our country.

  18. Joel says:

    Cincinnati was not alone in its losses from urban renewal. Alex Marshall wrote about the loss of historic downtown Norfolk (“How Cities Work”); Mark Goodman did much the same about center city Buffalo (“City on the Edge”). And interestingly, I read that much of center city Detroit was taken out by urban renewal before the ’67 riots. Considering what has been lost in so many American cities leads to questions beginning with: What if? What if much of the urban texture had been retained; would that have changed the character of these cities? Would America be a more urban country? Would there have been more alternatives to Chicago as the “city” of the heartland?

  19. Rod Stevens says:

    I think there is a central issue in this of whether decision makers know and care about a place. Are you Robert Moses, operating at the 10,000 foot level, deciding what is good for “the people”, or Jane Jacobs, writing about Greenwich Village and worried about her neighbor?

  20. Neil says:

    Joel: Cincinnati was not alone, but what was lost was fabric that at its peak was the most densely populated area outside of Manhattan!

    It would be like if San Francisco decided to wholesale demolish the entire mission district.

  21. Jon Seisa says:

    @ DaveOfRichmond – I totally agree. The current generation always ‘thinks’ it is making the wisest and best decisions in the now and for the whole. After decades of incubation pass, then the true reality ferments to the surface emerging a contrary reality. This is how life is, but the current generation always rejects this cyclic principle, and does not consider cause and effect. Current design movements give way to new design movements through retaliation and rejection of the former. The same thing will happen when we eventually realize the mistakes of “Smart Growth”, New Urbanism, infill and the dark underbelly of “densification”. Then people will flee the cities, yet again. After rejection of New Urbanism, the future will then see a turn towards pastoral living and provincial agrarian communities of commonwealths as the next mode and accepted societal structure and lifestyle; these will be the new “agrovills” that will emerge.

  22. brett says:

    I would like to see someone put together an estimate of the amount of property tax revenue that has been lost inside city limits for every city for every year since highways were constructed. All the land that was taken off the tax rolls as well as the lessened value caused by the presence of property near a highway. The numbers and impact for a city like Cincinnati must be staggering.

  23. bemclau says:

    We tend to romanticize about things lost, viewing it thru our modern lenses. Not saying an intact West End would not be completly awesome, but what’s gone is now gone. So we are best served to think about such things long and hard when planning new projects now. OTR is amazing, and huge! It is still loaded with untapped potential. I am happy to report we do have some political, business, civic leaders and plenty of everyday locals that are tuned in to keeping the current fabric intact. We win many, lose some. Mercer Commons project is an example. I understand that the old cannot be duplicated, and in many case should not even be mimicked, but the new stuff kind of makes me cringe a bit. Thankfully, there are many buildings and alley ways being saved too. So we try to hold feet to the fire and learn from mistakes. I hope future generations will recall us fondly.

  24. Jon Seisa says:

    @ bemclau – Ditto. I have brought up this same issue of low quality counterfeit design replication of traditional cues several times on this site with much agitation from NU advocates. And they will point to the failures of past urbanism and suburbia (tit-for-tat mentality) as their primary retort without realizing the damage is already done and it is in the power of now that the future can only be changed, but they only want to repeat the damage with a new kind of blight of falsehoods, one with artificiality and magnified densification. They don’t realize that critics are trying to alert and prevent these horrid mistakes. They will say design and aesthetics are a separate issue executed by architects and designers and have nothing to do with the principles and tenants of New Urbanism and Smart Growth, when in fact New Urbanism is a DESIGN MOVEMENT founded by ARCHITECTS and DESIGNERS (with socialist engineering principles) and the principles and tenants are the strategic design criteria.

    But I wholeheartedly concur with you on what you mean in saying, “I understand that the old cannot be duplicated, and in many case should not even be mimicked, but the new stuff kind of makes me cringe a bit.”

    And here is a perfect example of this awry direction… it’s basically “suburbs on steroids” is what has emerged in Smart Growth, where 2 multi-storey buildings are designed and replicated as many times as possible in hopes no one will notice the horrific redundancy due to color scheme changes and minimal façade alterations. This attempts to replicate traditional architecture but completely fails because it lacks the novelty, diversity and individuality of design aesthetics found in classic urban architecture, so it comes off as fraudulent, phony, fakery and dishonest, the new urban blight of falsehoods.


  25. Mark says:

    As an architect and former resident of Cincinnati- not originally from there though, I can say to see these images is heartbreaking. The loss of the urban fabric and for urbane living in the Cincinnati basin is clear from “10,000 ft”. What is the true tragedy is the loss of the rich, robust varied architecture that can only be slightly detected in these images. Cast iron buildings that would rival Soho and blocks and blocks of hand built brick buildings – trimmed in cut limestone. The city was densely populated and wealthy and produced a sophisticated culture, of art, architecture, infrastructure (think for a moment about the unification of street cars and inclines as a transportation network) and of course cuisine. The loss of tax dollars to the City is true, but the dispersion of this wealth and population to environs beyond the City limits destroyed a cultural “machine”. Cincinnati pre-1948 could truly be spoken in the same context as a unique exceptional culturally rich, historic city – along the lines of Edinburgh or Toledo, SP.

  26. Jon Seisa says:

    Here’s more fuel for your lamentations……


  27. Rod Stevens says:


    I like your summary. It’s not just the wealth and skills that have been sacrificed, but the activity, the day to day creative life of the city. Too often we speak in static terms, but here the real loss was the comings and goings, meetings, conversations, inventions and work of a highly skilled, very dense place. We talk in similar terms about the daily life of Florence in the Renaissance. Daily life in that picture must have been similarly rich and complex, a far cry from the monotonous and open-spaced housing projects and freeway rights-of-way that now show up in contemporary photos.

  28. Chris Barnett says:

    I am detecting a bit too much nostalgia. And I concur with those who suggest that in 1955 or 60, the view was relentlessly toward the new and modern. That view extended to and through “the space age”, which corresponds with my pre-adult life. (Note that most of those years were spent in Columbus, Indiana, which Aaron highlights in an newer post today. It was a wonderful place to spend my childhood years, in a school designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes around the corner from a Robert Venturi fire station, and in a library by I.M.Pei adorned by a Harry Moore sculpture. All high quality modern designs.)

    Old 3-story brick mixed-use buildings were considered hopelessly obsolete. Density of residences was almost universally thought to be a breeder of crime and underworld activity. I have seen (actually, worked) where 3 families lived in a two-story 1800SF house with basement…in Indianapolis…because there was a baby boom and concurrent housing shortage after WW2.

    It’s really easy to criticize the decisions made at the time, which were probably what I would call “local optimums”, or “least-bad”. Progressive people in particular really believed in new, clean, affordable-housing-in-a-park replacing run-down and decrepit housing for low-income people.

    Sure, knowing what we know now it looks stupid. So do combined sewer systems. But they made sense at the time to lots of people. Probably a majority, even.

  29. Tom Roche says:

    @ Jon Seisa, DaveOfRichmond–enough with the relativism. Whatever anyone ‘thinks’ about ‘design movements’ like ‘Smart Growth,’ the _facts_ are that ‘dumb growth’ moved gigatons of carbon from underground to overhead, a crime for which many generations (unfortunately not including the who burned the carbon) will pay dearly. ‘People will flee the cities, yet again’? Not for many, many years, because those very cheap hydrocarbons, which took geologic time to accumulate, have quite literally gone up in smoke.

  30. Jon Seisa says:

    @ Tom Roche – Are you clueless? If you’re this Hydrocarbon Purist perhaps you should give up all your petroleum byproduct toys starting with your laptop, Blackberry, cell phone, and/or PC and everything occupying the entire inside of your home, car and work environment. What you call “dumb growth” progressed you and the whole world to the current state of technological know-how in which you have taken full advantage of reaping its technological rewards and conveniences via a whole assortment of manufactured products and innovations produced from petroleum. Even the petroleum byproduct of fiber optics makes possible the internet that you are communicating on.

    I really just have to shake my head on this one with amusement. Unbelievable.

  31. Rod Stevens says:

    @ Jon Seisa:

    It is exactly for those reasons that the world will change. We will need the petroleum for those other, higher value uses.

    The practical question is how many people in our country, living on lower real incomes than their predecessors had 30 years ago, will be able to live suburban and exurban lifestyles if gas hits $10 a gallon, a very real possibility. I know that living on the urban fringe, we are already cognizant of how many trips we take to town, since each one costs about $2.50 in gas alone. If each trip became $5, we would further consolidate our trips, cut out some soccer and sports activities for our kids, go in with our neighbors on shopping, and think about moving. The market is already speaking on different preferences for urban living. Here in the Seattle area, where the tech boom is leading this area out of recession, the Millennial preferences for urban living and particularly for living closer to their work mean that housing prices have risen much faster and more sharply closer in, while areas like ours, on the edge of the “commute shed” are just beginning to pick up and are now about 50% lower when you factor in the price of private schooling that goes with life in the city.

    The new generation coming along seems to be very practical about not buying too much house, if they buy at all, and buying in a location that will keep its value. Outside of the red hot suburbs of Silicon Valley, the suburbs have not fared well in this recession value-wise. It is also remarkable how much higher the housing prices are near transit and in the older street car suburbs which inspired the New Urbanist design creeds.

  32. Jon Seisa says:

    @ Rod Stevens – Also, completely contrary to the glowing promises and carrot dangling of affordability issues proclaimed by NU, Smart growth, sustainability design, infill and mixed-use, all signs point to skyrocketing property values, and thus un-affordability… apparently only the Rich will be living in the Gentrified New Urbanism City, short of the impoverished being government sponsored entitlement dependent city dwellers:

    “‘Smart Growth’ Makes Housing Unaffordable – American Dream …”:

    We can see here in this comparison report from the National Center for Policy Analysis the solid fruition of some of the failed claims and benefits of Smart Growth and “sustainability design” caused by their draconian regulatory agendas and policies (Agenda-21), having not at all delivered on their promises… i.e. INCREASED CRIME and INCREASED POVERTY are prevalent in Smart Growth Cities while Sprawl Cities have seen reductions:

    This was really a no-brainer to me right off the bat… it makes perfect sense that in issues of crime you will see it escalate due to opportunistic crime of MORE POTENTIAL VICTIMS at the convenient disposal to criminals in an urban area of extremely high densification.

  33. JoeP says:

    While the damage done by Interstates can’t be overstated, I agree that some context is lost on the condition at least portions of the impacted areas at the time.

    Regarding the modern buildings of the time. It’s easy to pick on it now, but I like the contrast from pre war and also of the 80s and beyond buildings. The 50s-early 70s buildings are fascinating to me.

  34. The modern movement brought with it the idea that cities were fatally flawed and prescribed simple solutions for the problems. As it turns out, the sources for the problems were not properly identified during the start of the modern movement and were thus not properly solved.

    The common notion was that the way cities were built was the cause of the pollution, over-crowding and general discomfort found in cities at that time. As we see through all of the adaptive reuse of historic structures, it wasn’t the built form that was wrong, it was how it was used.

    In fact, the built form was done correctly and should have never been destroyed in the way engineers, planners and architects from the modern movement pursued. This is why it is critically important to fully understand the problem before prescribing a solution.

  35. Chris Barnett says:

    “In fact, the built form was done correctly and should have never been destroyed in the way engineers, planners and architects from the modern movement pursued. This is why it is critically important to fully understand the problem before prescribing a solution.”

    I am not as convinced as Mr. Simes. There are certain aspects of modern/current built form, such as uniform grade-level access (no-stair entries), universal entry features (wide doorways and ramps), elevators, vehicle accommodations, independent superstructure (building spacing) that are clearly superior. Not to mention MEP systems and stormwater handling.

  36. Jon Seisa says:

    …and don’t forget basement level merchant shops with stair access from the street grade-level were also eliminated from the previous built form, though somewhat charming (as changes in elevation always are), they were cumbersome for modern requirements, i.e. wheelchair and disabled accessibility, and visible awareness was minimized for merchants.

  37. Eric says:

    @Chris Barnett “If a team of planners was asked to radically reduce the life between buildings, they could not find a more effective method than using modernist planning principles”- Jan Gehl

  38. Dan says:

    If memory serves, the precise portion of the West End that was lost to the bulldozer was home to Cincinnati’s biggest enclave of the black middle class.

  39. Chris Barnett says:

    I was referring more to general modern design and construction principles than to a specific “Modernist” ideology about urban design. A building can be modern without being “Modernist”. In many places “urban renewal” proceeded organically, with new buildings replacing obsolete ones as city center real estate became more valuable.

    This is completely different from bulldozing a path through declining or “slum” neighborhoods at the edge of downtown to put freeways through, while relocating residents to projects. This happened almost everywhere in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and while the second half of that equation was uniformly disastrous, I am not so quick to dismiss urban freeways as uniformly valueless or bad.

  40. Jon Seisa says:

    BRAINSTORM IDEA: Since modern technology can now easily bore tunnels for subways, train tunnels, The Chunnel, D.U.M.B.s (Deep Underground Military Bases), NYC’s network of subterranean arteries for their subway system, and L.A. subterranean LRTS from Downtown to Hollywood, I would think the next logical level for a modern nation is to merely construct expressways and freeways underground and leave the city surface level completely alone for more modest means of transportation and pedestrians. A “subexpressway” would not have to have the width of a standard freeway of 14 lanes across, like here in L.A., instead the two flow directions can be superimposed.

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