Over-the-Rhine: A Gentrified Home
I’m a journalism student at the University of Cincinnati, and throughout my four years of writing, I never felt as though the stories I tackled truly challenged me. So for my capstone, I wanted to choose a topic that would do just that: challenge me, make me look at something in a different way, and shine light on an important issue.
After reading Women of Cincy’s housing insecurity series, I decided to look at gentrification in Over-the-Rhine. I realized that, after three years of living in Cincinnati, Over-the-Rhine, to me, was that cute area with the shops; the place to go out and dance; the neighborhood I take my parents to for dinner when they visit. But I knew it had to be more.
Over the past two semesters, I was able to sit down with a few local residents and activists, including Mona Jenkins and Bonnie Neumeier. I no longer see Over-the-Rhine as just the place with the shops, or the dance floors, or the strip of restaurants I know my parents will like. I now see it is a home.
Even just a decade ago, Over-the-Rhine was often called one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America. Since then, it’s been transformed into a playground for developers to bring in new businesses and amenities.
The city of Cincinnati provides tax abatements, income tax incentives, and loans and grants to developers in hopes that new businesses and housing will bring more economic opportunity to the area. But as I researched and spoke with residents, I found that these developments often harm low-income locals by attracting a higher-income crowd, taking away community-serving resources and causing the price of living to skyrocket.
I always said if the spirit breaks, the body breaks.
Over-the-Rhine’s developments have left many locals wondering if they’re still welcome in their own neighborhood, and community advocates like Mona Jenkins, director of development and operations at the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, have been trying to figure out a more equitable development strategy.
“I’m all about development – if it’s done right,” says Jenkins. “It’s fine if you want to bring in new businesses, but what about preserving the ones that have already been here for years? And creating a diverse community?”
The Homeless Coalition is an advocacy group that guides those in need to proper resources. They also work to educate tenants on their rights so they know how to defend themselves. When Over-the-Rhine was going through peak development, many residents sought them out for help.
“We work with them to say, ‘What is it that you want?’ Because maybe sometimes they want to stay there; maybe they want to move but they don’t have the means to move, and so we work with them to figure out how to assist in their fight for their housing situation,” says Jenkins.
In 2017, a study on greater Cincinnati’s housing market, commissioned by Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and conducted by the Community Building Institute at Xavier University, found that Hamilton County lacks 40,000 units of housing affordable to the lowest income households. The same study states that for every 100 of the lowest income households in Hamilton County, there are only 28 units of housing that are both affordable and available.
“When you’re giving these tax abatements to developers and these development projects don’t include any affordable housing, and the project is actually taking away affordable housing, then that’s how we end up coming up with a shortage,” Jenkins says.
People come to the Homeless Coalition from Over-the-Rhine, Walnut Hills, Northside, the West End, and more.
“It’s happening everywhere right now,” she says.
When I asked Mona if there were any good examples of development, she said no, because the purpose of development is profit.
“These developers aren’t going in to say, ‘Oh, let me help the community. They’re going in for the sake of making money. So in order to offer affordable housing, it’s going to cut into their profits. And who really wants to substitute profit for community?” she says.
Mona Jenkins is one of the many Cincinnatians advocating for affordable housing. Also among them is Bonnie Neumeier, board co-chair and co-founder of Peaslee Neighborhood Center, a space for community members to learn and grow through creative expression and social advocacy in Over-the-Rhine.
“Just because people have pennies in their pockets or are poor doesn't mean that they don't care about their community or they shouldn't have a right to a roof over their head,” Neumeier says. “Now that there's public investments – like at Washington Park, Ziegler Park, even some of these so-called ‘public spaces’ – we're losing a lot of affordable housing because people that had been doing housing and getting government subsidies for it, they see the almighty dollar or are opting out of those subsidies and then turning their buildings into market-rate housing. It’s systemic.”
Our conversation turns to a building on Main Street that had housed four generations of one family. “They had to move because there was going to be a bar in the front and the guy just didn't want ‘their kind’ living in the building,” Neumeier tells me. They couldn't find another building that had enough apartments to house the entire Appalachian family, and the matriarch died about a month after they moved. “Now some would say she probably died of natural causes,” Neumeier says. “But I always said if the spirit breaks, the body breaks.”
To try and combat inequitable development, Peaslee Neighborhood Center developed an Equitable Development Rubric that uses a point system to determine how specific projects will directly affect community members. The rubric is divided into the following sections:
Slides courtesy of Peaslee Neighborhood Center.
Jobs and Labor
Along with trying to promote and preserve affordable housing, the rubric also seeks to engage lower-income residents in order to support a unified community. Ideally, developers will fill out the rubric and present it to community councils. The hope is for it to eventually gain support from City Hall.
Who Are These Developments For?
In the spring of 1982, Peaslee Elementary School closed down. Neumeier, along with mothers and community members, fought against the closing, and their loss was bittersweet. Since they couldn’t save the school, they scraped up enough cash – $209,239.13, to be exact – to buy the building and repurpose it into what it is today: Peaslee Neighborhood Center. Today, the center hosts a piano program, a girl’s writing circle, a women’s writing circle, African drumming, a summer camp, and more.
Neumeier has been at the forefront of multiple grassroot organizations in Cincinnati. She, along with many others, has fought for years against displacement.
“There's always been a land struggle,” she tells me. “Over-the-Rhine didn't get created or have concentrations of poverty by accident. Everybody was not given the same kind of consideration when suburbanization happened.”
As Over-the-Rhine – and other neighborhoods surrounding Cincinnati – continue to change, we have to ask: Who are these developments for?
In 2012, Washington Park underwent a $48 million renovation and expansion. Additions included an underground parking garage, a performance stage, a dog park, a splash park, and more. The park’s revitalization was highly requested by the community; however, many of the amenities seem to serve folks who are coming from elsewhere.
The old park had a pool that residents fought to keep.
“We wanted our park improved,” says Neumeier, “but families and kids were saying, ‘Don't take my pool away.’” Today, a fountain stands in place of it. “When we were fighting to save the pool, there were young kids in our neighborhood going around saying ‘I can't learn to swim in the sprayground.’”
The dog park, too, attracts an outside crowd, because many locals cannot afford to have pets. On top of that, benches throughout the park have been crafted with arm rests in the center that prohibit people from lying down.
In 2008, Washington Park Elementary School closed. According to Neumeier, they wanted to build a new one where the School for Creative and Performing Arts stands now, but it was never built. “You can count on your hands and toes how many neighborhood kids would go to S.C.P.A.,” she says. Magnet schools can be problematic for low-income students because they entail an application process. “When I look out my window, I miss [seeing] the moms with kids who used to go to Washington Park School.”
And as new businesses crop up, old ones come down. “We've lost a lot of people and it’s getting more difficult for families to make it here, because if you don't have mom-and-pop stores, if you don't have places where you can get clothing, where your basic needs can be met, it isn't as inviting for a family here to be able to stay,” Neumeier explains.
In 2014, Over-the-Rhine was nominated to become preserved by the National Register of Historic Places. “Our community fought against it,” says Neumeier. “Not that we didn't think that our buildings were beautiful, but we always said the faces of our people are more important than facades of buildings.”
Words From Bonnie
Bonnie Neumeier is a teacher, poet, and long-time community activist for affordable housing, basic human rights, and other community-based initiatives. She has lived in the heart of Over-the-Rhine for over 40 years, and she remembers the way things used to be. These are her words.
“You had a lot of mom-and-pop stores, a lot of thrift shops, a lot of small businesses like laundromats. We don't have a functioning laundromat in the neighborhood. There used to be several. There's no functioning drugstore where a mom can buy a bottle of aspirin. Where is she going to go to buy socks and underwear for her kids? I mean, low-income people have money. We need to buy things, but right now we have to go outside the neighborhood to spend our dollar.
I read somewhere that there's been 86 new businesses that opened up in Over-the-Rhine in 2018, and that's going to double in 2019. But they're not what I would call “neighborhood-serving businesses,” you know, like the mom-and-pop stores where an elderly woman might go for her pint of milk, her sandwich, or whatever because she couldn't get over to Kroger's. You know what I mean? Or where kids after school would go to buy their nickel candy. There's nothing like that here. And you used to go down on Walnut Street, and there was one on Vine: You could get a creamy whip ice cream cone for 25 cents or less. I mean Graeter's Ice Cream, it's a Cincinnati thing, but you don't see many neighborhood people that are struggling on a low budget being able to go in there very often, because the ice cream’s expensive.
I have fallen in love with people here because of what they've taught me and opened my eyes to.
And there’s no hardware store. Al Rohs’ hardware store was here for years. You could go into that store, and he would be very helpful if you were trying to fix something in your apartment, or that's where people would buy their worms if they were going fishing…
It’s not that we haven’t said what it is that we want to see. We would have meetings here at Peaslee, and some of the places on Main Street, like some of these upscale places… I mean, we can appreciate art and we encourage self-expression here through arts and music, but this woman said, “I can't eat art.”
The stories of the people that I see daily have so much wisdom. Even if they've only went through fourth grade or only high school or an eighth-grade education, their lived experience is so rich and so wisdom-filled. I have fallen in love with people here because of what they've taught me and opened my eyes to. That's why it's so sad to see. I know that the work of justice is bigger than Over-the -Rhine, but this is where I've learned it. It’s very painful to see what's happening. We just need a lot more people to see the light, to be woken up about what's going on. There's a saying now: “We don't want to be Over-the-Rhined,” and what they're saying is that they don't want to see what's happening to us happen to them. What lessons can we pass on? What can they learn with what we're experiencing here?”
I asked Bonnie: ‘What makes a community a community?’
“For me, a community is knowing your neighbors, working together because everybody didn't have much; you come together and try to figure out what you can do to improve your park down the street or you know, you get to know one another and you stand together.
I mean I have to say, I have learned so much from elder women in this community. I had a neighbor who lived to be 102, and the stories that she shared with me at her kitchen table about her life as an African American woman living in this country… But when times would be tough, Evelyn would be the woman that would encourage me to keep on keeping on.
So it's the resilience, the determination to make a way out of no way, just the love that people have for their neighborhood because they know what it's like to have been displaced. I mean, we were a neighborhood of displaced people.
I hear people now that have lived in the neighborhood a long time: “I feel like a stranger in my own community.” Because that sense of community… that you're not isolated; there's a sense of spirit, camaraderie, solidarity; and then you share the little that you have… And that is disappearing because people are not seeing. We're almost invisible. Our people say that: “We are invisible.” They don't see the gifts, and that's what's so sad. People are just looking at money and profit. They're not looking at the artistic talent that our kids and our parents have.
When I think about this women-led struggle here, how the moms pulled together because they cared about [Peaslee] enough… I mean, a lot of them had never spoken at an official Board of Education meeting before, but because they cared about this place, and they cared about this resource, and then when they didn't win that battle, they didn't go home and cry. They said, “Well, how can we take control of this building?”
So they use all that they have – their hands, their hearts, their feet, their motivation to try to make justice prevail. We sing together, we pray together, we march together, and we do all kinds of daily things to build people's programs – if it's here at Peaslee, if it’s the Children's Creative Corner out of Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, all the programs at the Homeless Coalition.
If you think of our movement as a wheel and a bicycle, and the hub of that wheel is that basic belief that everyone deserves basic human rights – a roof over your head, a livable wage, decent education, medical care, all those things – and the spokes in that wheel are these grassroots organizations that neighborhood people, through organizing efforts, created… We all were working together. It was rooted out of the same movement – Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, Drop Inn Center, Homeless Coalition, Peaslee. People weren't sitting on our laurels. Because people don't want to be victims of poverty. They want to be actors of their own determination in history, you know, actors in their history-making. Not sitting here just being victims. They want to have power over their lives. And they’re as human as anybody that’s coming down here to visit.”
I met Bonnie at Peaslee Neighborhood Center. We sat in an old classroom in front of a big green chalkboard. I remember the red sweater she wore, her long gray hair, her willingness to be honest and vulnerable, how she made me feel at home, and I remember how afterward, she thanked me for my listening heart.
When I Googled “gentrification in Over-the-Rhine,” one of the first articles to appear was titled with the word “salvaged” – as if the neighborhood was nothing before developers came in with brand new restaurants, bars, art galleries, and boutiques. But that’s not true.
The goal of Women of Cincy has always been to create empathy, to incite change, to give people a platform for their stories to be heard. At the end of the day, we all deserve a home that protects us, a family who loves us, and a community that includes us. Thank you for your listening heart.