Over The Rhine: The Colonial Impulse and the Steep Price of Resistance
Last month I wrote about the colonial impulse in my newsletter (you should subscribe! It’s irregular and always free!), which I summarized thusly: “everything is for me, and my interest/presence necessarily improves everything.”
I am writing this from Cincinnati, where I grew up. I’m staying in the West End and have spent a great deal of time walking around Over The Rhine. For those unfamiliar with the Queen City of the West (Ohio was the west when it got the nickname, okay?), Over the Rhine is a neighborhood north of downtown full of densely-packed brick rowhouses, mostly from the late 19th century.
When I was growing up here in the 1980’s, Over The Rhine was one of the poorest parts of Cincinnati. If one didn’t live there, one didn’t go there. The buildings in Over the Rhine were dilapidated and there were liquor stores everywhere. It was depressed and depressing.
Now, though, Over the Rhine is a tremendous urban success story. Buildings have been restored, and every block bustles with bars, boutiques, restaurants, and stores. It even has free light rail service, making it easy to travel to and from downtown and within the neighborhood itself. It’s not just a place where people live; it’s a destination, anchored by a beautiful park across from the stunningly beautiful Music Hall.
I initially planned to write about how Over the Rhine is an extreme example of the colonial impulse at work. And, to be sure, that’s a lot of what’s going on here. Wealthy people, having decided that being carbound (as one has to be pretty much anywhere else in Cincinnati if one wants to do anything but stay home) sucks and commuting sucks and having cool places to eat and drink on your block is a pretty awesome lifestyle decided to come and take it for themselves with no thought to the people who already lived here.
You see this in booming urban neighborhoods everywhere. What’s particularly galling about it is that the (mostly white) folks who move start bragging about their more sustainable lifestyle without giving a thought to the folks who work in the coffee shops and bars and restaurants and how they have to commute in in cars or diesel buses they pay fares for (no free light rail for poor folks!) in order to serve the residents of the booming urban neighborhood. All that’s happened here is that the newcomers have shifted the burden of commuting off of themselves and onto service workers. Economic segregation is inherently eco-unfriendly, but you don’t tend to hear much about that from the “build faceless condos everywhere so the rich can enjoy the benefits of the city!” crowd. (Also, for what it’s worth, a lot of housing has been reclaimed in Over the Rhine, as formerly uninhabitable buildings have been bought up and restored, and you know what? Housing prices here have only gone up! But I know this is a question of faith — you can’t debate a Christian on whether Jesus rose from the dead, and you can’t debate a YIMBY on whether building houses for rich people will make the benevolent Invisible Hand of the Market create housing for poor people.)
Okay, great, so I have this theory about the colonial impulse. And I’ve found a neighborhood that pretty much perfectly illustrates my point. Think piece done, right? Well, no, because I decided to do a little research before popping off on the internet.
And what I discovered is actually far more sinister than the subconscious white supremacy I thought was underlying the transformation of Over the Rhine. It’s all laid out in this Politico article, but I’ll summarize: in 2001, there was an uprising after a white Cincinnati police officer murdered an unarmed Black man. Worth noting here is that Cincinnati is a remarkably un-dense city. As a point of comparison, it has half the population of Boston in twice the square miles. Over-the-Rhine is probably the most densely-populated part of the city, which makes it an especially effective place from which to launch resistance actions.
The uprising made national news and confirmed a lot of surburban biases about the city and its residents. And that’s bad for business! So then-mayor Charlie Luken went to local business leaders, (okay, mostly just one, because Cincinnati is essentially a Proctor & Gamble company town) and got them to form a private group to buy up lots of properties in Over the Rhine and transform them into something far more bougie. It took time, but the transformation is now essentially complete.
In short, the transformation of Over the Rhine isn’t just an example of rich people transforming an urban neighborhood and displacing its residents; it’s a deliberate effort by the city’s power structure to punish an entire neighborhood for daring to rise up against summary executions. Because let’s be clear — Proctor & Gamble has enough money to do things that would have benefited the residents of the community, but they didn’t do that. They chose to create an agency whose sole purpose was the gentrification of Over the Rhine and the displacement of its residents. They saved buildings instead of people.
What’s remarkable about this is that the folks who engineered it are not ashamed of what they’ve done. They’re positively crowing about it in the Politico article. What a great urban success story! We created a cool neighborhood for rich white people, and all we had to do was kick out tons of poor Black people!
Two codas. One — on Central Parkway, which is the unofficial border of Over the Rhine, there’s a giant mural of Jim Tarbell, a business owner and former city councilor who is one of the biggest architects of the ethnic cleansing of Over the Rhine. In the mural, he’s in a top hat and tails, which feels a little on the nose to me, but it’s a larger-than-life reminder of who won here and the cost of standing up for yourself.
And then here in the West End (Cincinnati’s center city is very compact — Central Parkway is between 9th and 11th streets, and the walk from where I’m staying in the West End to the heart of Over the Rhine is about five minutes.) there’s another reminder, as this is where the city put a stadium over the objections of neighborhood residents. It’s the home of the local MLS team and was built at taxpayer expense, just like the Paul Brown stadium on the riverfront, which is used eight days a year, or as many as ten if the Bengals have a good year.
Since the homes here top out at three floors, the stadium looms over the whole neighborhood like a billboard reading KNOW YOUR PLACE.