Over the Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio

We’re heading to Cincinnati, Ohio next, to look at Over the Rhine, which is one of the best preserved early Nineteenth Century neighborhoods in America. St. Louis used to have numerous neighborhoods like Over the Rhine, but we annihilated them like fools. Kosciusko, Carr Square (read part two) and Mill Creek, all neighborhoods in St. Louis just to the south, north and west of our downtown could have been our own Over the Rhine neighborhoods, thriving with tens of thousands of people, who would bring tax dollars, jobs, and tourists to St. Louis. But we threw it all away for “redevelopment.” You know how many of those blocks demolished in the mid-Twentieth Century for redevelopment are still vacant?! Dozens, if not hundreds. We’ll look at Over the Rhine, which bears the distinction of being the only neighborhood outside of St. Louis to receive its own tag.

Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. Miami & Erie Canal Locks, Loramie Portage site vicinity, Lockington, Shelby County, OH. Ohio Shelby County Lockington, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. Library of Congress.

Let’s start at the beginning. Ohio, like New York, Illinois and other states, got into the canal building (digging?) business early in order to encourage trade and business. The Miami and Erie Canal linked Cincinnati with Lake Erie, and passed right through the middle of the city. The name “Over the Rhine” comes from the fact the neighborhood lies north of the canal, which is now Central Parkway. Above is a picture of one of the locks in the canal out in the countryside. It was never a very successful canal because it was so expensive compared to New York’s famed Erie Canal. And then the railroads came soon, anyway.

Aerial view of Cincinnati, Ohio, showing river and bridges. Ohio Cincinnati, ca. 1934. Photograph. Library of Congress.

Over the Rhine is located to the left in the above photo of Cincinnati. I don’t want to claim that Cincinnati did everything right. It still engaged in wonton destruction of huge swaths of its historic neighborhoods. The West End, located below downtown, was destroyed for urban renewal, and is now a depressing, boring neighborhood that is only now being revitalized after its death by Modernism. Its levee area was similarly annihilated like St. Louis’s own wharf. Below is an image of the canal while it was still in existence; Over the Rhine is to the left and Cincinnati’s downtown is to the right. As is common, such as in Washington, DC, where the old canal was turned into Independence Avenue, planners simply turned the huge right-of-way into a huge boulevard. Now, in Cincinnati, famously they built a now-never completed subway tunnel in the old canal ditch.

Mark, Jacob B, photographer. Bird’s-eye view of new central parkway looking east, Cincinnati, Ohio. Ohio Cincinnati, None. [Between 1890 and 1920] Photograph. Library of Congress.

As the authors of Suburban Nation famously said decades ago, what you see below and now possesses astronomical property values due to its desirability, is illegal to build in most of America.

Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Aerial view of the historic Findlay Market, Ohio’s oldest public market, in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati. United States, Ohio, Cincinnati, Hamilton County, October 17, 2016. Photograph. Library of Congress.

These photos below show some of the houses that didn’t make it, demolished for a parking lot. I think of the lyrics of that Joni Mitchell song, even if she was talking about nature, and not the built environment.

Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. Pendleton Subdivision Residential-Commercial Buildings, Bounded by Liberty Street, Reading Road & Sycamore Street, Cincinnati, Hamilton County, OH. Ohio Cincinnati Hamilton County, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph.
Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. Spring Street House, Cincinnati, Hamilton County, OH. Ohio Cincinnati Hamilton County, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph.
Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. 418-420 Reading Road Commercial Building, Cincinnati, Hamilton County, OH. Ohio Cincinnati Hamilton County, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. Library of Congress.

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, and the beautiful buildings of Over the Rhine are being saved, one by one, with real estate prices that make the head spin.

It raises the question, of course. Where do the people who once lived here go? Do they go to somewhere that is safe, or to a neighborhood that is dangerous? While the net benefit to the budget of Cincinnati’s government is surely positive, there are always the people who are forgotten.

Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Building in Cincinnati, Ohio’s Over-the-Rhine section. United States Ohio Cincinnati, None. [Between 1980 and 2006] Photograph. Library of Congress.
Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. 112 Findlay Street House, Cincinnati, Hamilton County, OH. Ohio Cincinnati Hamilton County, 1933 (ed. note: 1980s?). Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. Library of Congress.

And to get back to the point of this series, where in St. Louis can you see the skyscrapers of downtown this close to a walkable residential neighborhood?

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Erin O'Reilly says:

    Lovely! I love these posts and all the history they contain! Thank you!

  2. W. White says:

    A couple of things.

    First, Over-the-Rhine’s recent renovations have displaced very few people. The neighborhood was almost completely abandoned fifteen years ago. There were entire blocks of buildings with no occupied storefronts or upstairs apartments, none, in an entire block of buildings. That is a level of abandonment that even St. Louis usually doesn’t achieve, at least on blocks that retain all their buildings on them. Inner-city Cincinnati post-riot cratered in population, not helped by property owners who had been failing to maintain their buildings properly for decades. OTR was not a case of gentrification, unlike in other cities or other Cincinnati neighborhoods.

    Second, while property values in OTR are quite high, with stupidly high amounts of money being thrown at the remaining vacant, unrenovated buildings, that was not the case even ten years ago. Property values were almost comically low. You could plop down $15,000-$25,000 in cash and get a historic, architecturally important three or four story building. It would be empty; it would need every single repair a building could need, but it would be cheap. I would know, I bought some of them then.

    1. cnaffziger says:

      Interesting…thanks for sharing!

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