Over-the-Rhine looks a lot different than it did 20 years ago when some say disinvestment in the community helped further the civil unrest that happened there in 2001 after the deaths of multiple Black men by Cincinnati Police. Following those events, were the decisions to renovate blocks at a time the right ones? And what does the future hold for what is now billed as one of the coolest neighborhoods in North America?
With the crime rate skyrocketing and much of Over-the-Rhine falling into disrepair, the city of Cincinnati and the business community decided to spend $30 million to buy up 200 buildings in the early 2000s. They did it through the Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation (3CDC).
The timeline is laid out on the organization's website:
3CDC begins land banking abandoned, vacant, dilapidated and problem properties in Over-the-Rhine for future redevelopment.
The timeline continues:
- March 2007: Approximately 100 new condo units and more than 23,000 square feet of commercial space come on line as part of 3CDC's first two phases of mixed-use development in the area.
- July 2012: The $48 million renovation and expansion of Washington Park is completed.
- June 2014: Construction on the first two phases of Mercer Commons is completed, yielding a total of 67 apartments (30 of which are affordable units).
Jumping ahead to 2018, 3CDC lists completion of the $17 million Abington Race & Pleasant project, which includes 50 new affordable residential units. The $19 million 15th & Vine project, bringing 55,000 square feet of commercial and office space to Over-the-Rhine.
Before And After Pictures
Take a look at these before and after pictures. By any account, they are pretty stark.
3CDC CEO Steve Leeper says when a neighborhood is redeveloped like this, many people think bad things happen, like high rents that cause longtime residents to be displaced. " 'There had to be gentrification. There had to be people pushed out,' " he says. "The fact is that there are still hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of affordable housing units in this neighborhood."
Some Residents Were Displaced
Around 2009, he says, two of the buildings 3CDC bought involved residents who had to move.
The development company Urban Sites was also buying up and renovating buildings back then. Reginald Stroud says he was a victim after 10 years at 1123 and 1125 Walnut Street when Urban Sites bought the building.
"We pay our rent for the first month of them owning the property, Urban Sites that is, and into the second month we get a note on our door that there's work that needs to be done in the building that requires no tenants to be in the building," Stroud says. "And they gave us 45 days to move and, to boot, they gave us this offer of $200 to help us relocate."
Urban Sites CEO Greg Olson says there were serious safety and sanitation issues, and the building was gutted over a six- to eight-month period. "Our purpose is to lift the entire neighborhood," Olson says. "Our team has been renovating historic spaces in OTR since 1993 and has invested over $100 million."
Olson says Urban Sites owns and manages more than 500 units, and "almost half of our units are affordable - 232 qualify at 80% of area median income (AMI) and 64 of those qualify at 60% of AMI."
Stroud was featured in this documentary while his shop was still in Over-the-Rhine:
He eventually got back on his feet and now operates his store, Anybody's Dream, an eclectic mom-and-pop store, in Northside.
"That term 'gentrification' does something to me," he says. "It's because that's exactly what it was. It was someone who has swung a much larger sword at a much smaller person, you know, who didn't have the capacity to fight back."
Of 'Two Minds'
Visiting Assistant Professor in UC's History Department, Anne Delano Steinert, lived in Over-the-Rhine before and after the 2001 civil unrest and then moved to New York for awhile. She felt like developers were barreling through the neighborhood and trying to make big changes too quickly.
"I'm of two minds about it," she says. "Did they save the architecture? Yeah, and that's amazing. Did they cause displacement and hardship for longtime residents? I think they did."
Over-the-Rhine resident Michael Stehlin moved into the neighborhood in 1989 and still lives there. At some point, he noticed his former neighbors moving out. "Some people, their building was bought and they just gave eviction notices to everybody," he says. "Some people, their rents just got higher and higher every year and some just couldn't do it anymore. And then some buildings, they really got run-down and the building owners said to everyone they had to move out."
Stehlin says if he didn't own his building, he probably would have left.
Over-the-Rhine Community Housing is one agency working hard to keep low-income residents in the neighborhood. It manages affordable housing units whose stock has been decreasing over the past two decades.
A study conducted by the Community Building Institute and Xavier University shows that Over-the-Rhine lost more than 40% of its affordable housing units between 2002 and 2015. Executive Director Mary Rivers says the primary challenge is that people's income isn't enough to cover the costs of operating a housing unit.
"It has to almost be a mission-driven entity that owns the property because it's not a money maker," Rivers says. "The market cannot reach $400 a month rents and sustain it or $500 a month rents when it costs $700 to operate it responsibly."
Rivers says property values are going up in Over-the-Rhine and that means higher taxes. She had hoped the civil unrest would spark change within the city, but says the economic disparities brought up during protests were never addressed.
"How can we do things differently so the benefits are more widely shared? It is so hard for people to approach it from that angle," Rivers says. "Whenever we've brought it up, we've been shouted down, dismissed. It's frustrating. Why can't we talk about it in those terms?"
'This Neighborhood Is Amazing'
As Leeper walks through the neighborhood with WVXU, he says 20% of the business at street level are Black-owned businesses. One of those is the Smith & Hannon Bookstore, which moved to 14th and Vine from the Freedom Center in 2019. It first opened in Bond Hill.
Leeper says the Over-the-Rhine Community Council and others continue to have seats at the table. He walks down Vine Street greeting old and young, Black and white.
"I think the point is this neighborhood is amazing," he says. "It survived the civil unrest. It survived the disinvestment that went on in this neighborhood. It's now surviving the pandemic."
3CDC is now pushing north of Liberty, buying, building and renovating. One big project is near Findlay Market. The development organization is going to rehab the recreation center, Findlay Playground and Grant Park.
This article is part of WVXU's special series looking back at the civil unrest of 2001 on the 20th anniversary of the event. Read more here.
We acknowledge in 2001 it was common to call what happened in Cincinnati April 9-14 a "riot." So why aren't we calling it that now? Through re-examining the events of 2001 and similar occurrences over the past 20 years, we acknowledge "riot" is a racially fraught word that doesn’t depict the full complexity of these multifaceted situations. We believe words like "civil unrest" or "uprising” better reflect what occurred in Over-the-Rhine in terms of many people mobilizing to seek structural societal changes following the killing of Black men by Cincinnati Police.
To learn more about how Cincinnati Public Radio is addressing racism and inequality in our coverage and in our community, please see our Statement on Diversity and Inclusion, and share your feedback by emailing email@example.com.