Cincinnati officials will apologize for tearing down a large swath of the West End decades ago
You could say J.C. Battle III was born into the family business. His mother gave birth to him on the second floor of the funeral home his grandfather founded at 838 West 7th Street in the West End. There was a funeral happening on the first floor at the time.
"I guess being born in the funeral home, with someone checking out as I was checking in, I just had no choice as to what I was going to be growing up," he laughs.
The building where Battle grew up — and where many West End residents had their memorials — isn't there now. The city tore it down in the late 1950s at the start of a massive demolition spree planners at the time called "urban renewal." The demolitions were rooted in the city's 1948 Master Plan, which called for so-called "slum clearance" in neighborhoods like the West End.
In part to make way for I-75, city crews leveled more than 2,800 buildings, displacing more than 25,000 West End residents through the early 1960s. Almost all of them, like the Battles, were Black.
Now, Cincinnati Council Member Scotty Johnson, Mayor Aftab Pureval and other officials will officially apologize on behalf of the city for urban renewal's impact on the West End. They'll hold a news conference today talking about that apology, and Johnson is proposing a resolution that council will vote on later this week.
In his office, Battle keeps a framed black and white photograph of that building where he was born. The city took it just before tearing the building down. A city employee stands in front with a placard bearing identifying information. The clock on the front of the funeral home reads 10:47. It's a moment frozen in time just before urban renewal changed the West End — and thousands of lives like the Battles' — forever.
Urban renewal forced the Battles to move their funeral home to Rockdale Avenue in Avondale. They carried on, and the business J.C. Battle Sr. started in the depths of the Great Depression just celebrated its 90th year. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, father and older brother, J.C. Battle III is now funeral director there after serving in Vietnam and spending a long career with the U.S. Postal Service. The business has thrived, and Battle takes special pride in providing funeral services to veterans after his own time in the military. He's hopeful that his daughter and eventually his grandson will carry the business into its fourth and fifth generations.
It's a triumphant story. But Battle says the impact urban renewal has had on the people of the West End has lingered for decades.
"They did not know where to go," Battle says. "And the places they wanted to go, they couldn't afford. So a lot of them, that I remember, were saying, 'We just have to do the best we can.' And I don't know where they went to. A lot of them moved from Downtown out here to Avondale, which was predominantly Jewish at the time; then Evanston, then Walnut Hills."
Part of the plan that demolished the West End for I-75 and an industrial zone renamed Queensgate was to provide housing for those who had lived in the neighborhood. For the most part, however, that never came to fruition. As early as 1958, the NAACP was sounding the alarm that the city's planning around rehousing didn't seem serious. Then-NAACP Cincinnati Executive Secretary Kenneth Banks wrote a letter to the NAACP's national housing office that year explaining that the city hadn't identified enough housing for displaced residents. Banks also pointed out that developers and lending institutions showed little interest in building homes for Black Cincinnatians. What was more, Banks wrote, the city lacked basic statistics about the West End and didn't know exactly how many families the highway and Queensgate development would displace.
The demolition splintered the tightly woven community in the West End. Yes, some buildings might have been run down there before urban renewal, residents say, but the connections among neighbors were vibrant and irreplaceable.
Johnson says a city apology is simply the right thing to do, even after all these decades. He also wants the city to engage the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Community Resilience to find ways to help the West End recover.
"It's really heartbreaking, to be quite honest, that none of this had really been addressed at a legislative level," he says.
Johnson echoes former and current West End residents, as well as social scientists, in pointing out the harm urban renewal caused. It wasn't just the loss of community — Black homeowners and business owners lost stability and, in some cases, their property and livelihoods.
"If you think about generational wealth, when you think about thousands of residents being displaced ... this had people starting all over again when they appeared to be on a pretty clear path to living middle class lives here in the city of Cincinnati," he says. "When you completely devastate generational wealth, it has a lasting effect."
Cincinnati wasn't alone in its destruction of Black neighborhoods. About the time the West End was coming down, cities across the country were demolishing communities of color using federal highway construction and so-called "slum clearance" money.
A first step
In 2015, public officials in St. Paul, Minn., apologized for destroying a large part of the city's Rondo neighborhood. Other cities have also acknowledged wrongdoing for similar actions. Cincinnati could be next.
Toilynn O'Neal Turner grew up in the West End after the southern portion was demolished. Today, she runs the Robert O'Neal Multicultural Arts Center, or ROMAC, there. It's named after her father, who helped found the Arts Consortium of Cincinnati and fostered the arts in the West End and other neighborhoods in Cincinnati's core.
One of ROMAC's priorities is preserving the neighborhood's cultural history. The organization is working with The Port to preserve the historic Regal Theater. It sits close to the highway, at the edge of where the city sheared off a large chunk of the neighborhood. O'Neal Turner calls the building a beacon of the neighborhood's heritage.
"You have this interesting history where German, Jewish and African American [residents] utilized that building and had some connection to it," she says.
O'Neal Turner says the West End remains culturally vibrant, but urban renewal and other events put huge economic and psychological burdens on past and present residents. She says an apology is good — as long as it's a first step and not the last.
"I think the apology is warranted," she says. "I think it's warranted to speak of it and to share the history and for the city of Cincinnati to acknowledge the atrocities that happened and the displacement. But I do think an apology without a plan on how to change that economically and how to rebuild the community leaves a tone of not necessarily completing what an apology is supposed to mean."
Battle says the story of displacement from the West End is a tale of resilience for the people who lived there. He's proud of the way his family persevered and kept their business alive and feels encouraged the city is considering apologizing for the destruction of the southern West End. But like O'Neal Turner, he wonders if the city's commitment to reconciliation will go beyond words.
"For them to step up to the plate and realize that a wrong had been done, I can accept that," he says. "You have to have a forgiving heart, and I do."