The Cincinnati Hood That's Getting Renewal Right
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Go for the architecture. Stay for the beer.
By Stephen Starr
Ten years ago, Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine (OTR) district was labeled the most dangerous neighborhood in America. But now, wandering through OTR, where intact Italianate architecture and old ghost signs commingle with craft breweries and artisan markets, the streets share a different story.
That’s thanks to a multimillion-dollar facelift that’s attracted entrepreneurs, working families and urban renewal experts who are drawn by the simmering experimental atmosphere of this once-neglected neighborhood — one that claims to be the largest historic district in the country (though Savannah, Georgia, might disagree).
Founded by German immigrants in the late 1840s, OTR became home to a major beer brewing industry, making Cincinnati the beer capital of the country in the 1880s. But the 1920s brought Prohibition and rising anti-German sentiment, and the area fell into decline. By the 1940s, inexpensive housing drew former coal mining Appalachian families, then thousands of African American families in the 1960s, displaced by the construction of Interstate 75. And in 2001, the largest riots seen in the U.S. for a decade kicked off here after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen.
On the last Friday of the month, art galleries, most which can be found on Main Street, throw open their doors to the public until midnight.
But in 2005, the neighborhood started to heal. Local authorities, businesses, NGOs and activists have pumped around $1 billion into affordable housing, public transportation infrastructure and making the area more attractive — like renovating swathes of the area, including more than 100 historic buildings. OTR is home to the largest collection of Italianate architecture in the country. Constructed during a building boom in the mid-1800s, the style is marked by wide, overhanging eaves, decorative cornices and narrow windows.
Resident Brent Schwass was drawn by this old-school architecture — the low property prices helped too. He bought a detached 160-year-old house on the district’s northern fringes in 2010 and started a renovation that “took a lot” of work. But he didn’t move to OTR just to look at pretty building facades. A five-minute walk down the street is the renovated 170-year-old fresh food bazaar, Findlay Market. Home to 130 vendors selling everything from dog treats to artisan bread, the lively spot has outdoor cafe seating and live music. The neighborhood also boasts cutting-edge craft breweries — likely inspired by the area’s long history of beer production. Stop by Taft’s Ale House in a renovated church and sip a citrus IPA while admiring the beautiful tiled and wood interior.
The beer legacy and neighboorhood street names are the only remaining traces of German influence. But there are also the older businesses, which have been around for years — such as the unadorned Alabama Fishbar on Race Street — now doing a booming trade in part thanks to increased tourism.
Wander into some of the neighborhood’s wide streets and enjoy wide-angle views of faded hand-painted advertising signs, street-level boutiques and colorful buildings now updated with cornice moldings protruding off their roofs. The 150-year-old Cincinnati Music Hall, built in a Venetian Gothic architectura
OTR’s revitalization doesn’t sit well with everyone. With thousands of revelers and hipsters now descending on weekends, local African American activists are concerned that the community is being left behind. And although two-thirds of the district is African American, only 6 percent of its businesses are. Plus, more reconstruction is needed and partial building collapses have been unsettlingly common. “The neighborhood is still up and coming,” admits Schwass. “It’s still a struggle sometimes.”
But it’s also one of the best neighborhoods to take in the more positive impacts of revitalization, drawing craft beer fans, foodies and architectural buffs alike. That mix of grit and character, evinced by provocative murals and timeworn signs, gives OTR that familiar old-meets-new feel.
- Stephen Starr, Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who lived in Syria from 2007 until 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.Contact Stephen Starr