I was born outside of Chicago but grew up in two very different neighborhoods in the city of Cincinnati. Before me and my mom and brother made the move from the sprawling Chicago suburbs to this humble Ohio metropolis, we drove diagonally across Indiana several times to get a feel for the so-called “Queen City”, nestled cozily among the foothills of the Appalachians. On one of these first tester trips, I recall driving through a darkened downtown Cincinnati, stores and restaurants closed, nearly no one on the sidewalks, and thinking that the city reminded me of a large LaGrange, the small suburb right next to where we were living at the time and where I’d been born, Western Springs. It didn’t seem like a real city to me. Certainly the scale of Chicago, where you can see the tops of Sears Tower, John Hancock and other Loop high rises from forty minutes away on the clearest of days, simply doesn’t compare to the cozy confines of Cincinnati. This was an adjustment, the first of several in our initial years living just north of downtown in the hillside neighborhood of Mt. Auburn.
The downtown basin of Cincinnati is comprised of a street grid that dates back to 1789, with primary North-South thoroughfares originating at the Ohio River and ending at Liberty St., running along the base of Mt. Auburn. Immediately north of the central business district, separated once by the Miami-Erie canal and now by Central Ave., is the neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine (OTR). Initially settled by German immigrants who built great and successful breweries along Liberty St. in the late nineteenth century, OTR is well known for being the largest intact urban district registered with the National Register of Historic Places, with 943 buildings counted.
Despite the neighborhood’s beautiful concentration and variation of late 19th century brick and stone row houses recalling other immigrant districts such as New York’s Greenwich Village or Lower East Side, many area residents are still too stigmatized by neighborhood’s lingering reputation as a ghetto to live in or even consider visiting the area. Their opinions were cemented by a few days of rioting that occurred in the spring of 2001, in response to the killing of a young, unarmed black man named Timothy Thomas at the hands of the Cincinnati Police in a darkened OTR alleyway.
In the wake of this unfortunate civil unrest, what had been a remarkably successful effort to revive and renovate much of the neighborhood’s architectural assets in the 1980s and 90s fell mostly apart. Demand for apartments disappeared, galleries closed, and some businesses had to relocate because customers refused to even drive into the area. We ourselves relocated from the tony but still urban Mt. Auburn to the even tonier first ring suburb of Hyde Park, located about three and a half miles east of downtown. The riots were not the only factors that precipitated this move, but they definitely hastened it and tellingly coincided, for we had relocated by the time I graduated from Middle to Upper School in June of 2001. I was now living very close to my eventual alma mater The Summit Country Day School, whose campus spreads out atop a plush riverside hill with beautiful views to the pocket city in the distance, the canary yellow Big Mac suspension bridge in the foreground.
The spring riots of that tumultuous, defining year for the city and the nation set Over-the-Rhine’s brisk redevelopment back a decade. The aftermath of the looting and arson coincided unfortunately with the expiration of many longtime OTR residents’ federal housing contracts from back in the 1960s, and in the five years immediately after the riots the neighborhood’s population shrank to historic lows, with pervasive squatting, crime, and general malaise. Even worse, the Cincinnati Police, in the wake of the heat they were receiving for their pattern of brazen, racially-tinged actions, reduced their patrols of the area. This only perpetuated the neighborhood’s slum state and reputation, which was canonized in the Oscar-winning film Traffic. Remember when Topher Grace leads Michael Douglas to his drugged out, naked daughter towards the movie’s end? She was in OTR.
Over the past decade, as the wounds of what happened in Over the Rhine in April 2001 gradually started to heal, Greater Cincinnati saw remarkable development along its interstate corridors and riverfront, particularly along the other banks of the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky. Architecturally, Cincinnati has tried to keep up with its cross-river counterpart through a new tallest tower for the city, Gyo Obata‘s recently completed Great American Tower at Queen City Square. This wholly unremarkable office tower, with its glowing tiara top “inspired by Princess Diana” (because it’s in the Queen City – get it?) surpassed the art deco Carew Tower as the city’s tallest building, a distinction the Carew had held for the better part of eighty years.
This new skyscraper overlooks Great American Ball Park, home of the Cincinnati Reds MLB franchise, as well as the highly touted Banks redevelopment – still currently under construction. The shift of cultural and leisure activities across the river to Covington is epitomized by the contrasting designs of Obata’s staid, safe office tower and Liebiskind’s daringly avant-garde Ascent Tower, completed in 2008. In contrast to the humungous auto-oriented developments on the Kentucky banks of the river such as Newport on the Levee and several glassy condo towers, the historically dense and pedestrian scaled parts of old Covington offer an excellent example of what OTR is gradually becoming: a diverse and compact urban district with beautifully restored residential and commercial building stock, lively sidewalk life, and the most crucial ingredient, the young creatives.
Set to open in 2013, the Cincinnati Streetcar is a multi-phased mass transit system with great implications for the city’s economic and social future. Citing the success of surface streetcars in cities like Portland and Memphis, Mayor Mark Mallory, a majority of city council, and many Over-the-Rhine and Downtown residents and business owners are eagerly anticipating the system’s construction.
I am happy to report that in spite of the defeatist intentions of some intractable suburban and state political figures, Cincinnati is in the earliest stages of building the system’s first phase, running through the heart of Over-the-Rhine and Downtown, linking the two neighborhoods with a dedicated public transit corridor for the first time since trolleys roamed the city’s streets and ascended its adjacent hills over seventy years ago.
It will require just under $100 million dollars to construct the streetcar’s first phase, consisting of a loop between the northern confines of OTR and Fountain Square. The project’s initial capital cost of $125 million was recently parsed down to $98 million by removing a planned section that would have connected streetcars to the nascent Banks development and stadiums along the river. This last minute alteration to the Phase I route is due to the short-sightedness of the state’s new Republican governor John Kasich, who has a trendy Tea Party aversion to the price tags that come with mass transit projects. Over $30 million dollars in TRAC funds that were previously set aside for the streetcar project have suddenly become unavailable, even though the project received an 83% approval rating from the state transit board, far surpassing many other state transportation proposals.
Since constructing Paul Brown Stadium for $403 million and Great American Ball Park for $290 million, city planners and regional developers have been touting The Banks riverfront redevelopment but currently the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (by Boora Architects of Portland, OR) stands alone on the site, with nothing but asphalt lots and parking garage pylons to keep it company. This is due mainly to the fact that land rights and air rights for the site are split respectively between the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, creating a huge logistical and bureaucratic headache for redeveloping these prime riverfront parcels into a new urban residential district. The willingness among some area taxpayers to help pay for intermittently used stadiums for barely winning teams but not a modest, pragmatic, job-growing transit line is the worst kind of hypocrisy leveled by the system’s detractors.
My excitement about the Cincinnati Streetcar is tempered by a note of caution, for the city has a history of starting transit projects only to give up on them. Underneath the streets of downtown are about two miles of subway tunnels and four subway stations. The abandoned (or incomplete?) Cincinnati Subway was constructed in the early 1920s with the intent of carrying passengers around downtown and to adjacent suburbs on a rapid transit system modeled after those built in Boston and Philadelphia during the same era.
When the automobile’s swift rise in prevalence coincided with the city’s depletion of its allocated funds for building and running the system, they simply abandoned it, demolishing long suburban portions of tunnels and using their right of ways to make room for the Mill Creek Expressway (I-75) and Norwood Lateral (I-285) highways. Just below the feet of pedestrians and the tires of cars at street level in downtown sits an impressively well preserved series of subway tubes and station platforms that have never seen a single train or rider, used only sporadically since for rations storage and bomb shelters during the second World War.
Stairs leading from street level at the abandoned Race St. station
- Would you want to spend a night in an abandoned subway?
Rendering of the proposed streetcar system, with Cincinnati Public Library and Kroger Co. headquarters in background
Due to the same auto dominated development patterns that killed a nearly completed subway system and displaced tens of thousands of poor and lower class from the West End neighborhood, the Banks and the two sports stadiums are frustratingly cut off from the city’s central business district by Fort Washington Way, an entrenched eight-lane highway that is mostly open air, only spanned from above by bridges that carry the city’s main north-south streets (Walnut, Elm, Vine, Race). Large portions of the city’s historic riverfront settlements were cleared by the 1950s to make way for this connection between I-75 and I-71. Since being effectively separated from the city’s largest employment center by the span of an entire block, the riverfront area has long struggled to find an identity outside of its role as occasional sports venue and parking lot.
Nevertheless, the city sees its competitive priorities rising across the river, and thus has focused heavily on making Cincinnati’s riverfront district a worthy competitor to Covington. In the meantime a couple miles north, hundreds of beautiful, existing buildings dating to the city’s faded heyday have sat in vacancy and occasional squalor. The potential for redeveloping existing building stock immediately along the streetcar route has engendered a wide basis of support among city residents and civic leaders, but streetcar naysayers such as Governor John Kasich oppose the project on the basis of its capital and operating costs, claiming the money could be better utilized elsewhere in the state’s budget. The streetcar’s projected operating cost of $2 million annually will be funded by tax revenue from a new casino development on the city’s storied Broadway Commons site, which has long been a vast and underutilized asphalt parking expanse situated in a strategic urban location.
The newly branded OTR Gateway Arts District
In addition to the federal level support for Cincinnati’s streetcar, just in the past several years there has been a concerted and corporate-backed effort to jump start OTR’s next chapter as a leading artistic district for the city and region, with the streetcar playing a huge role in Cincinnati’s ambitious goals for future inner-city settlement. The city is hoping to drive excitement and interest back to the OTR neighborhood for impressive urban character. The latest spark of investment and acquisition of once-vacant properties has been carried out primarily through the private stakeholder corporation 3CDC, an entity formed in 2006 by the city’s major businesses, whose offices and interests lie directly south of OTR in Downtown.
Backed by this influential organization and other developers, OTR has been receiving steady reinvestment and repair of its uniquely dense housing stock by a new generation of twenty and thirty year olds who are seeking an urban lifestyle without leaving southern Ohio. Cincinnati is anticipating a wide range of economic and civic benefits from the new streetcar system, hoping to renovate and populate at least 1,100 new housing units in addition to 92 acres of underutilized surface parking, whose adjacency to the transit corridor make them rife for residential and mixed use redevelopments. To help ensure this inner-city revival and re-densification, the city is seeking to establish a transit-oriented zoning classification for both Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, a critical step for reducing parking demands and maximizing the streetcar’s ability to catalyze development within its service area.
View north on Race St., near Findlay Market, a part of the Phase I Streetcar Loop
- Cincinnati Music Hall, built 1872
Music Hall, home of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and cherished annual events such as May Festival, has and will continue to be Over-the-Rhine’s primary cultural anchor. Soon to undergo a comprehensive renovation, the building was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1975. Over the course of researching this post, I discovered that Music Hall was actually built upon a plot of land had been historically used as both an orphan asylum and then a mass burial ground for the itinerant and homeless populations of the city. Until 1872, thousands of people were buried in unmarked graves on the formerly detached site, at which point the Music Hall Association acquired the now strategic parcel in the heart of OTR to construct Music Hall, with Washington Park directly across the street. Not surprisingly, Music Hall has many stories of paranormal occurrences, and workers who have dug below certain points in the building’s foundation have repeatedly found extensive amounts of human skeletal remains.
Lois and Richard Rosenthal Contemporary Arts Center, by Zaha Hadid Architects
To supplement the spooky, legendary Music Hall, a number of other influential arts institutions are now headquartered in Over the Rhine as well, including the School for Creative and Performing Arts (their best known alum: Nick Lachey), the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and ArtsWave. The latter two of these three organizations made deliberate, well-publicized moves in their headquartering from adjacent neighborhoods to embed themselves permanently within OTR’s artistically driven transformation and take a true stake in the community’s exciting prospects for reinvention.
While the standard bearing Cincinnati Art Museum remains in nearby Mt. Adams, since 2004 the Contemporary Arts Center has been housed in a Zaha Hadid-designed museum at the corner of 6th and Walnut Streets, her only built work in the United States to date. Hadid’s composition of solid concrete and black clad boxes hover atop one another, projecting into the streetscape and overlapping at a series of shallow, oblique angles. Visitors are drawn into the museum along an “urban carpet” that leads you from the sidewalk and through the lobby, then curves ninety degrees upwards to form the back parti wall for the corner building.
Outside of the University of Cincinnati campus, the CAC is one of the city’s most daring buildings to be realized in recent history, but represents only a sampling of the rich architectural and artistic character that will certainly draw more and more Cincinnatians to live, work, and play downtown in an energy expensive future.
For more on Cincinnati’s Streetcar system and future energy adaptation strategies, follow the jump.