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OKI Wanna Know: How Did Cincinnati's East Side-West Side Divide Begin?

Bill Rinehart
This post at Smale Riverfront Park does not mark the cultural boundary between east and west. It does demonstrate how Vine Street is the divider when discussing street addresses.

Cincinnatians love to joke about needing a passport to go from the East Side to the West Side and back, but how did that split get started? WVXU's Bill Rinehart looks into the city's great divide in this latest OKI Wanna Know.

When Jackie Heintiz moved to the Cincinnati area in the 1980s, she quickly learned about the East Side-West Side rivalry. She wants to know how it started. Was it politics? Religion? Ethnic heritage?

In order to answer these questions, we need to define a couple of things. Who qualifies as an East or West Sider?

"I think we all have ideas of what it means to be an East Sider or a West Sider. I'm not sure there are all that many differences actually."

Jill Beitz is the manager of reference and research at Cincinnati History Library and Archives. She went to high school at East Central, in Dearborn County, Indiana, which makes her a West Sider. Extreme west anyway. She says she had her preconceived notions, but went back and read through some newspapers from the 1950s and '60s.

"The overall belief is that the West Side is very conservative, very Catholic, not at all diverse, and pretty much very insular; people stay there for generations. The East Side is wealthier, more educated, a little more transient in their area."

Today Beitz says the stereotypes don't really hold up. After looking at Census figures, she says the West Side has diversified over the last 20 years, and no religion has a majority.

"I think there's also a thought that the West Side is blue collar, and the East Side is white collar. Again, some of that holds up, but there are also very highly educated pockets on the West Side and more blue collar pockets on the East Side. Some of it depends on what you count as East Side and West Side."

Where Does East End And West Begin?

Where the border is depends on who you ask.

"I can identify the heart of the East and the West Side," says Dave Stradling, the Zane L. Miller Professor of History at UC. "Delhi Township and Price Hill on the West Side; Hyde Park and Mount Lookout on the East Side. But where the boundaries would be, I don't know because there's a big fuzzy middle."

That big fuzzy middle is where Stradling works. Stradling graduated from Indian Hill, but he doesn't feel like an East Sider.

"There's a set of institutions that don't fit well in the East-West divide and that's because they serve populations from both sides of the city," he says. "I work for one of them, the University of Cincinnati. I also think of St. Xavier High School as another, that's right up the middle."

Stradling says that's an important factor in Cincinnati's development: parochial schools and religion.

"The way that the Catholic church is organized, and the way the parochial schools are organized allows for a separate culture to develop around Elder High School, or Seton, and a separate culture to develop around Moeller."

He says many people identify with their high school for the rest of their lives.

'What School Did You Go To?'

John Fairfield is a professor of history at Xavier. He was born in Chicago, so he's neutral.

"Forty years and I'm still an outsider," he says. "That East-West thing is kind of an insider thing. You know, how people in Cincinnati, they want to ask you what high school you're from? I still don't get the high schools. I don't know which one is which, and so on."

What Fairfield does know is how the city grew. He says the East-West thing is definitely a 20th century phenomenon. "Because if you go back to the 19th century, Cincinnati was a very dense, compact, congested community that was hemmed in by all these hills. So it was basically, the old West End, Downtown, Over-the-Rhine. That's where everyone lived. I don't think there was any sort of east-west conception at that point."

Fairfield says as 19th century residents could afford to leave the overcrowded and polluted basin, they moved east, because that's where most of the streetcar and rail lines went, and developers were selling plots in places like Hyde Park and Oakley.

Credit Bill Rinehart / WVXU
The Enquirer's Jim Borgman cemented the idea of the east-west split in a 1990 cartoon.

"If you go west, you very quickly hit the canal, you hit the Mill Creek, which was horribly, horribly polluted and stunk to high heaven," he says. "You have to get over that geography. I really should have prefaced this by saying the East-West divide really comes down to geography."

So, we have economics, religion and now geography that have all contributed to what former Enquirer editorial cartoonist Jim Borgman pictured as a Great Wall between the two sides. UC professor Stradling says there's also just the plain old human factor.

"Sometimes we think of ourselves as Cincinnatians, when that's useful. Sometimes we think of ourselves as Cliftonites, when that's useful, or whatever your neighborhood is. But there are other times I think that there's that intermediate geographical larger than a neighborhood, larger than a school district, that's kind of useful to claim identity to; a connection to."

The divide is not unique to Cincinnati. Jill Beitz at the Cincinnati History Library says she's found similar splits in other cities. She says it's just a fun thing for people to talk about. 

If you have a question and no one else can help, ask OKI I Wanna Know by filling out the form below.

Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio ever since.