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Over the Rhine

Over the Rhine
Over the Rhine

© Tom Hamilton

For the past couple of decades, Cincinnati lost contact with one of its oldest children. Once a thriving and self-sufficient neighborhood, Over the Rhine has gone through a perilous journey without actually going anywhere. It aged while backs were turned, aching for the recognition it deserved. Luckily, neglect didn't lead to loss. Over the Rhine is still believed to be the largest, most intact urban historic district in America. In recent years, intense effort from teams of organizations slowly began uncloaking its invisibility in the eyes of the city and its citizens. The amorphous shell that appeared as a physical problem to some, was interpreted by others as a metaphorical gift. While cosmetic reconstruction takes time and money, it is attainable; but reconnecting with the heritage of the city, much less at its cultural centerpiece, is irreplaceable.

In the middle of the 19th century, revolutions in the German states incited scores of immigrants to migrate to the United States. At the time, Cincinnati was a booming industrial center; because of the cheap housing in the northern outskirts of the downtown area, Over the Rhine (OTR) was a magnet for the European newcomers. Since many workers had to walk across bridges over the Miami and Erie Canal (which was since drained and replaced by Central Parkway), the residents nicknamed the waterway "the Rhine" – making their neighborhood "Over the Rhine."

Considering 60% of OTR's population was German around 1850, the buildings took on a German character. Additionally, the locals established the local brewing industry. By 1880, Cincinnati was recognized as the "Beer Capital of the World," led by Over the Rhine's breweries, such as Christian Moerlein Brewing Company, Jackson Brewery, John Kaufman Brewing Company, and Windisch-Mulhauser Brewing Company.

Where there's beer, there's entertainment and lightheartedness. Along with its brewing prowess, OTR was renowned as the entertainment hub of the city. In 1775, the author of Illustrated Cincinnati wrote, "London has its Greenwich, Paris its Bois [de Boulogne], Vienna its Prater, Brussels its Arcade and Cincinnati its 'Over the Rhine.'" His description continued: "There's nothing like it in Europe – no transition so sudden, so pleasant and so easily effected…There's nothing comparable to the completeness of the change brought about by stepping across the canal. The visitor leaves behind him at almost a single step the rigidity of the American, the everlasting hurry and worry of the insatiate race for wealth, the inappeasable thirst of Dives, and enters at once into the borders of people more readily happy, more readily contented, more easily pleased, far more closely wedded to music and the dance, to the song, and life in the bright, open air."

But over time, the center for arts and entertainment succumbed to the vices of shooting galleries, gambling halls, and burlesque halls. By the turn of the century, Over the Rhine was in decline. As the population began to move to the suburbs, the infrastructure of OTR was neglected. Feeding the loop of negative reinforcement, rings of slums were the catalyst to drive out the remaining citizens and cripple property values. That would be the tradition of the area for most of the 20th century.

In 1925, a master plan called for the destruction of residential buildings known to be slums which would be rezoned for commercial, industrial, or civic uses only. However, the stock market crash of 1929 and the following Great Depression would shelve any development plans for decades. In the 1950's and 1960's, many social services were added in the area, but improvement efforts remained in the central business district of downtown. In the 1970's city plans included OTR redevelopment initiatives, but they were thwarted by local organizers who believed the efforts would displace the poor. The next decade would continue the anti-gentrification theme. No improvements would be made until the 1990's when a club called Neon's spurred development along Main Street which would include coffee shops, art galleries, bars, and dot-com companies. In the late 90's, Main Street in OTR was referred to as "Digital Rhine."

Just when things seemed like they would turn around, 2001 changed the positive developments. The dot-com bubble had burst and eliminated many of the start-up businesses that sprouted along Main Street. But nothing would be worse for the area than the Cincinnati Race Riots. On April 7, 2001, an unarmed black man was shot by a white Cincinnati police officer. The officer had chased him into a dark alley and believed he was reaching for a weapon. Violent protestors took to the streets for the following week, destroying cars, looting businesses, and attacking motorists. Those images resonated in the minds of business-owners and citizens alike.

Out of the destruction came an attitude shift among citizens and politicians. Over the Rhine was too important to the city to be neglected. Over the Rhine established its own chamber of commerce; non-profit organizations dedicated their time to neighborhood studies and revitalization plans; entire blocks became rehabbed. The most notable presence in the area is the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC); since 2004, 3CDC has invested $84 million in 152 deteriorating buildings and 165 vacant parcels. The newly created "Gateway Quarter" has established a presence among young professionals and art-oriented individuals. In 2010, feeding on the theme of the arts, a new School for the Creative and Performing Arts was completed; the $80 million facility is the only K-12 arts school in the country. Future plans include more residential revitalization projects, a renovation to Washington Park, a casino, and a railcar line.

Over the Rhine is in the process of coming full circle. The buildings are being rehabilitated and businesses are anchoring once again, but these developments are occurring more quickly than restoration of the area's image. Once the inevitable shift in sentiment occurs, OTR will once again be the city's hub of entertainment, arts, and culture. Let's face it, the area was designed for that purpose.

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