Downtown is Looking Up in Cincinnati
A deserted, down-at-heels shell of a historic neighborhood just 15 years ago, today Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine area is bustling with new life
One Monday night this spring, a disparate group—bearded and bespectacled, besuited and meticulously groomed—gathered around the bar at Salazar, a restaurant in the Cincinnati neighborhood known as Over-the-Rhine. A 30-something woman with short blond hair and a yoga mat resting against her barstool decompressed after a tough day at work. Outside, a slender man in an "I Love Cincinnati" T-shirt pedaled by as an older couple strolled along dressed to the nines, perhaps on their way to the symphony at nearby Music Hall.
"Can I get another Rhinegeist?" a patron asked, and the bartender popped open a beer brewed in a recently restored 19th-century beer-bottling warehouse. Rhinegeist translates to "ghost of the Rhine," and by the looks of the crowd in the restaurant on what's usually considered a slow night, it seems this neighborhood, once deemed the most dangerous and decrepit in Cincinnati, has indeed risen from the dead.
"I've never felt a better sense of community than I have living here," says Holly Redmond, who moved to OTR, as locals call it, with her husband, Michael, 11 years ago. It's here that they restored an 1860s Italianate house and Michael became an owner of two popular watering holes: a 19th-century wig factory turned craft-cocktail lounge called Japp's and the outdoor-patio bar Neons Unplugged. Holly says she loves running into people she knows on the street, adding, "We are selling our car." Who needs one when you live steps from the business district, not to mention a bevy of new restaurants and boutiques?
Just over a half square mile, OTR is bordered on the south and west by Central Parkway, a onetime canal, blocks from the headquarters of such Fortune 500 companies as Kroger, Macy's, and Procter & Gamble. So far, most of the action is in the southern section, which includes newly refurbished Washington Park, where an influx of homeowners and businesses has helped spark the area's return.
One of OTR's earliest advocates was Jim Tarbell, who grew up in the city and spent time in Boston before moving back in 1967. Eventually he opened a secondhand shop on OTR's main drag, Vine Street, where he also refinished furniture and held weekly potluck suppers. He raised four children in a beautifully restored 1860s townhouse a few steps east of OTR. "I was so in love with living and working here," he says. "I wanted other people to feel the same."
In 1985, Tarbell started the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce, "an all-purpose organization for housing, social action, and business," he says. At the time, he adds, city leaders were dubious about OTR's future. He was able to help change that while serving on the City Council from 1998 to 2007 and during an overlapping two-year stint as vice mayor.
In the early 2000s, bargain hunters started trawling for 19th-century townhouses, many built by the German immigrants who settled here between 1830 and 1900—Over-the-Rhine was a nickname in honor of that now-paved-over canal. Though OTR's brewery district had long ago faded, newcomers were drawn by treasures like Music Hall, the stately home of the symphony and opera, and equally historic Washington Park. In the northern section, Findlay Market, founded in the 1860s, still served up local specialties like goetta, sausage made with pork, beef, and oatmeal; and a diverse crowd still thronged Tucker's, a diner that opened in the 1940s.
What's surprising is how quickly OTR recovered from what had seemed like a deathblow, in 2001, when days of rioting in and around OTR followed the killing of an unarmed African-American teenager at the hands of the police. Businesses shuttered, and many residents fled to safer neighborhoods. A year later, the city finally moved forward with a comprehensive plan for OTR, noting that it was one of the most cohesive surviving examples of an urban 19th-century community in America. At the time, some 500 residential buildings sat vacant and you could hardly give away a single-family house. Today they go for upwards of $725,000.
Neighborhood advocate Jim Tarbell, in his restored 1860s townhouse, started pushing for OTR's redevelopment decades ago and after retiring from City Hall remains a beloved figure in the community.
Much of the credit for this U-turn goes to a private nonprofit developer known as 3CDC (Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation), which brought together not only city-loving artists, musicians, old-house buffs, and entrepreneurs but also city leaders and blue-chip companies like Procter & Gamble. "These businesses are headquartered in Cincinnati, and they want to stay here," says Anastasia Mileham, a 3CDC spokesperson. "And to do so, they need to recruit younger people who are looking for an exciting urban core." Look no further than Taft's Ale House—its name a nod to a certain portly U.S. president from Cincinnati—which opened in a former German Protestant church after it was repurposed with the help of 3CDC to the tune of $8 million.
Launched in 2003 by city and corporate leaders who feared that poverty, crime, and abandoned buildings would spread downtown, 3CDC has shown a knack for leveraging funds and cultivating the enlightened self-interest of businesses and real-estate investors. While other cities fight to keep jobs by way of tax breaks and other giveaways to employers, this nonprofit is tapping companies for help in drawing people back downtown.
The impact has been staggering. Corporate donors have sunk some $336 million into OTR and the adjacent business district, about three-and-a-half times the amount contributed by taxpayers. With the help of two lending programs and state and federal tax credits, 3CDC has helped to revive 131 historic buildings and to create 536 new or rehabbed residential units and 373,267 square feet of new or renovated commercial space. It also oversaw a sweeping redo of Washington Park, once a haven for drug dealers, now OTR's crown jewel.
The nonprofit's mode of operation is to acquire and fix up city-owned and private buildings and return many to their original mixed use: storefronts on the first floor, living space upstairs. It then invites small-business owners to apply for leases—with rent that includes amortized capital-improvement costs—so that they can turn these spaces into bistros, boutiques, bars, and cafes.
Vine Street and its adjacent blocks are now a culinary destination, with many of the new restaurants housed in long-vacant Italianate buildings. That's a big change from just a few years ago, says Jose Salazar, executive chef and owner of Salazar. He relocated from New York City in 2008, when he was offered a job at a hotel restaurant downtown. "When I moved here, the food scene wasn't so great," he says, adding that he was about to move on when he realized 3CDC was handing him a chance to own his own place. To get in line for a renovated site, all he needed was a business plan and a bit of investment capital. "I'm here to stay," says the young chef, who is working with 3CDC to open a second restaurant.
Salazar arrived on the heels of a Chicago transplant named Dan Wright, whose pub Senate landed in a newly restored building on Vine Street in 2010. "There was nothing here," Wright recalls. "Everything downtown closed at 5 p.m. But just south you had thousands of people working at Macy's and Kroger. I figured if we did things right and served food that was better than the chain-restaurant (expletive) they'd grown used to, we had a good chance of succeeding."
And succeed he did. Wright says he paid back 3CDC in three years and went on to open two more restaurants on Vine, both with the nonprofit's help: the upscale bistro Abigail Street and a bourbon-and-barbecue joint called Pontiac. "He had a belief, passion, and, most important, great ideas," Mileham says. "The true pioneers of Over-the-Rhine are the Dan Wrights—the people who believed in what we were doing."
Another early arrival was Doug Spitz, a Realtor who moved to the outskirts of OTR about 20 years ago. "When 3CDC started to redevelop Over-the-Rhine, they wanted to create a real neighborhood—housing and shopping and office space—a place that people wouldn't want to just pop by for a few beers but a place where they truly wanted to live," he says.
"People who come to work for P&G and other companies just fall in love with the neighborhood," Spitz continues. "A lot of people who live in the suburbs check it out because they want to be able to walk to work, restaurants, and the theater. Families love what's happened in Washington Park, too."
Already there is heightened interest in the area's relatively undeveloped northern section, home of Findlay Market and the Rhinegeist brewery, where families and young neighborhood newbies gather to watch Reds games, play corn hole, and, of course, drink beer.
Gentrification is happening so quickly, in fact, that housing advocates fear its impact on affordable housing. While 3CDC is investing $27 million in the conversion of a 19th-century YMCA into apartments for senior citizens, advocates would like to see a certain percentage of all its properties reserved for affordable housing.
While 3CDC rightly takes credit for helping to touch off OTR's revival, Tarbell says there's more to it than that. "If it weren't for the fundamental strength of this neighborhood, none of this would have happened. OTR's comeback is a combination of its unique history and architecture, and the enduring legacy of places like Music Hall and Findlay Market. It was only a matter of time before, with proper leadership, Over-the-Rhine would be ripe for the picking."