April 30, 2013
Neighborhoods of Cincinnati have rich past, potential for bright future
Caption: Peebles Corner in 1940 was a hub of the city and on a par with the Indian Hill of today. The corner's Paramount and Orpheum theaters are gone today, and WilI's Pawn Shop occupied the corner spot until it closed last year.
Cincinnatians love their neighborhoods. Many believe that they set Cincinnati apart and are at the core of the city's identity. But neighborhoods are constantly changing, and if we fixate on an image of neighborhoods that is frozen in the past, we blind ourselves to the realistic opportunities for neighborhoods in the future.
For the first 100 years after the city's founding in 1788, no neighborhoods existed. Everyone lived in the Basin, which city officials divided into wards and precincts by drawing straight lines on the map. Inside those districts. people of every background lived together (not necessarily harmoniously) - rich and poor, native-born and foreign-born, German and Irish, white and black, often clustering on the same block alongside stores, stables, saloons and small factories. Over-the-Rhine is a physical remnant of that first city.
In the decade after the Civil War. the completion of the Suspension Bridge (1866) and the opening of the Mount Auburn Incline (1872) broke the geographical barriers to expansion and allowed residents crammed into the Basin (32,OOO-plus per square mile) to scramble up the hillsides. The new suburban communities they created in the second city were a different kind of place, not a replication of the first city.
Through the migration to the new suburbs. Cincinnatians fragmented and self-segregated. New neighborhoods such as Mount Auburn, Clifton and Hyde Park were clearly for the wealthy. Oakley, Madisonville and Price Hill appealed to working class families.
Avondale became the new center for the Jewish community, but that was an exception. The great river of southern and eastern European immigrants who flowed through Ellis Island after 1880 largely bypassed Cincinnati . They found greater opportunity in the new boom towns along the Great Lakes. like Cleveland and Chicago. Only a few tiny Cincinnati neighborhoods, such as Little Italy in South Fairmount and a Lebanese community in the Bottoms, were ethnically identified.
Race, on the other hand, was a driving force. The exit of wealthy, middle-and working-class whites to the suburban neighborhoods left the surging number of African-American migrants from the South who arrived after 1910 forced into the aging housing of the West End. Those who made it to Walnut Hills, College Hill, Madisonville and other suburbs were contained in segregated pockets.
The simplest definition of "neighborhood, as developed between 1880 and 1920, was "a place where I live with people just like me."
At the symbolic and emotional center of these early 20th-century streetcar neighborhoods were business districts filled with dozens of small, family-owned shops. Sedamsville, a tiny community just west of the downtown, had more than 100 stretched out along River Road in 1900. These were supplemented at the major shopping districts at streetcar crossroads like Peebles Corner in Walnut Hills and Knowlton's Corner in Northside, as well as the new "downtown" created in a rebuilt Basin.
Over a 60-year period after World War II, a variety of forces undermined these iconic neighborhoods. The explosion of families who owned multiple automobiles and put their children on buses every day broke the practical and mental assumption that the neighborhood is the center of a family's reality. The expressway system means we shop at regional malls and work in office parks located along the 1-275 loop. In addition, big-box superstores and online sales have made small, locally owned retail the exception rather than the standard.
The neighborhood challenge of the future is to set realistic and meaningful goals and expectations. City government can invest in new sidewalks and street furniture in neighborhood business districts, but that will not reverse the imperial dominance of Kroger Super Centers, Rookwood Commons and shopping online.
Two great opportunities exist that can make the neighborhoods of the future more relevant than those of the past.
First, will upwardly mobile newcomers to Over-the-Rhine find creative ways to live with, not just beside, the poor who have lived there for more than a century?
Second, can West Side neighborhoods quit bemoaning the influx of displaced African-Americans and build mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhoods?
If successful, they can provide an instructive model for residents of Hyde Park, Avondale and all of us that diverse, inclusive communities are more interesting, exciting and culturally richer places to live than what existed in the past.
Dan Hurley is a historian, founder of Applied History Associates and founder of the Cincinnati Neighborhood Studies Project.