Once named the most dangerous neighborhood in the nation, Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine has a deep, complex history, and it’s gone through a major transformation in the last 15 years. For some lifelong Over-the-Rhine residents, the transformation happened right before their very eyes. Even despite marginal progress, though, the historic neighborhood — that was 80 percent African-American until recently — still has a sense of racial divide.
Middle- and upper-class people, primarily white, flock to the restaurants, bars and shops saturated along Vine, Republic and Race streets. Young professionals, hipsters and students walk the sidewalks with their stylish clothing. The middle-aged suburbanites come in and out of trendy restaurants like The Eagle or Senate that serve fancy fried chicken or gourmet hot dogs.
In the midst of it all, though, there seems to be people in Over-the-Rhine who have been forgotten — probably the ones who were there first. Homeless people sit on the sidewalk outside of Holtman’s Doughnuts with a cardboard sign asking for change. A black man asks passersby if they’d like to buy a newspaper — Street Vibes — to help support veterans. Black moms walk their children home and tell the kids not to run. The white people glare and keep to themselves. The black people almost always say a friendly hello when you walk by.
As soon as you pass the deteriorating Kroger on Vine Street heading north toward Liberty Street, it’s like going back in time. The segregation becomes more apparent and virtually undeniable. The few shops and corner stores look desolate with bars on the windows. The abandoned, boarded-up buildings largely outnumber occupied ones. The culture is visibly different. You rarely see a single white person, unless they’re stepping outside of their normal realm to visit the neighborhood’s beloved Tucker’s restaurant or going to or from historic Findlay Market. The streets and sidewalks are littered with enormous amounts of trash.
During the cold winter months, Findlay Playground is hardly what the name suggests. Sadly, the playground looks like a hotspot for loitering, drugs and crime. In the warmer spring and summer months, however, it takes on a new face. The green space becomes a gathering place for families and friends to cook out, relax and spend time together. But no matter the season, this strip always seems to be buzzing. Black people gather along the sidewalks socializing, hanging out. It seems like everyone knows everyone.
There has only been one occasion I can recall where I drove through this strip on Vine Street between Liberty Street and McMicken Avenue and didn’t see a single person. That instance felt eerily like a ghost town; people are always outside in this strip along Vine Street. But even this section of Over-the-Rhine is beginning to see the affects of gentrification. Construction appears to be in the works on a few buildings on the south end of the strip nearest to Liberty Street. Perhaps the reconstruction is slowly making its way north toward Findlay Market as property in Over-the-Rhine south of Liberty has become either incredibly expensive or simply unavailable.
Regardless of the many opinions surrounding Over-the-Rhine, one thing seems sure: its crime-ridden, riotous days have, for the most part, become a thing of the past. My hope, though, is that the lifelong residents who know so much about this neighborhood’s history and culture do not also become a thing of the past.