We learn to survive by being alert, by scanning the landscape for signs of trouble. Look both ways…that green light just changed to amber…those three guys huddled in the doorway means it’s time to switch to the other side of the street.
But what if something akin to survival, call it our sense of well-being, depended on being able to filter out a great amount of the life around us?
In a simple-seeming science fiction novel called The City & The City, writer China Miéville imagined a place where two cities coexist on the same spot on the map. They are two different cultures—different languages, economic systems, fashion, everything—but constantly overlapping. You see folks from that other place walking on your street and you learn to ignore them; they aren’t from where you’re from. In fact, it’s illegal for the citizens of one city to acknowledge the existence of the others, so everyone has learned to “un-see.” People all but passing through one another on the same city street, intersecting yet ignoring.
On a beautiful late-April morning, a reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer went walking in Over-the-Rhine. She was on Vine and 14th when something happened that made un-seeing impossible. A man shot another across the street from the Happy Belly sandwich place. The proverbial pop-pop-pop. The victim ran south—past Pontiac, Dan Wright’s new BBQ joint, past the neighborhood Graeter’s and Holtman’s Donuts—and collapsed and died in the shadow of the Mercer Commons development. “I got to experience two different worlds today,” the Enquirer reporter wrote in her first-hand account.
Crime has helped drive the story of the neighborhood all along. It scared off development in the years before the riots of 2001. After the riots, a reformed police department had the moral authority to help reduce crime in the area. At a Memorial Hall fund-raiser this past spring, a spokeswoman for Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), the agency at the center of everything going on in OTR, reminded her well-heeled audience how afraid they used to be to come downtown, and how development, and 3CDC, had soothed their fears. In a separate speech in April, Reds owner and 3CDC board member Bob Castellini said almost exactly the same thing; years ago, “I was just amazed that we had that much crime in our city just a five-minute walk from Fountain Square.” But now 3CDC was bringing safety and rising property values to OTR.
That was before Sam DuBose and a July brawl on Fountain Square, and before several other highly publicized violent incidents.
I was thinking about all of this while walking around OTR recently with Christina Brown. It seemed like a good time to take a look at some of the schisms that have opened up amid all of OTR’s general good fortune. I was focused on the uneasy overlay of cultures in the neighborhood and had interviewed numerous folks: city council members, developers, citizens, and activists. Brown is a cofounder of Black Lives Matter in Cincinnati, and works for the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission. A 28-year-old from Columbus, she’s a UC graduate who pays attention to what’s happening in OTR’s restaurant scene and has a good friend who runs a store on Main Street.
We walked up Vine to 14th street, at one point weaving between white lunchtime visitors climbing into their Uber ride and a knot of African-American guys in their 20s, smoking Swisher Sweets and commanding the center of the sidewalk. She went one way, I weaved around the other. The old and the new.
“I think there is a will to live together, but a lack of understanding of what it means to live together,” she said. “I do believe there is a general value for folks moving into these places that have experienced urban decay and high poverty and high segregation. But the question is, how much are you willing to learn, and are you appreciative of the folks who lived through the high vacancies, through the disinvestment, through 2001? Do you value them as much as you value your neighbor—the single mother as much as the company vice president?”
We passed the Kroger store and turned west at 15th Street, heading into a maelstrom of new construction. There were cherry pickers and bulldozers blocking traffic, workers going in every direction. “Wow, I did not know this was going on,” she said. At Pleasant and 15th Street sits a small residence that is part of The Joseph House, an organization helping homeless veterans in recovery. Also on the block are a number of developments mixed in with humble, vibrant 19th century brick homes. It’s a concrete example of how different kinds of people can live side by side in Over-the-Rhine.
At the end of the street is Washington Park, and you can see the park’s gazebo from the middle of Pleasant. We made our way toward the park, immersed in a deep conversation about development forces in OTR. And just as we passed through the gazebo, who should be coming toward us but the president and CEO of 3CDC, Steve Leeper. Jaw clenched, shoulders in, the dude was headed somewhere to do something important. The most powerful man in the neighborhood didn’t stop when we waved, though he smiled slightly, and we walked on in opposite directions.
Two worlds intersecting on a map.
The building at the corner of Walnut and 12th Street is a representative 3CDC production. There’s a board-of-directors-pleasing retail business on the ground floor (Lachey’s Sports Bar), and 3CDC’s headquarters is upstairs.
Take the elevator to the fourth floor and when the door opens, you come face-to-face with a replica of downtown Cincinnati, a piece of art that doubles as a statement of ambition: A model rendered in computer-shaped layers of aluminum, more than 1,200 pieces stacked up to form a topographical map of the city, hanging on the wall. The sculpture, by artist Jeff Welch, is so large—15 by 22 feet—that Kentucky pokes down the stairwell and occupies the third floor wall. Metallic letters spell out 3CDC above Over-the-Rhine. All of which is neat, but here’s the interesting part: the title the artist gave to his giant piece. The Aluminnati. It means something, that name.
Shhhhh! Yes, there’s the obvious mashup of aluminum and Cincinnati. But dig deeper; the truth is out there. Somebody was having fun with the idea of the Illuminati, the secret Jesuit organization in 18th century Europe rumored to control people’s lives via backroom social connections and untold wealth. There are plenty today who will tell you that this secret society still calls the shots on a mondo-historical level. Crazy, right? Yet undeniably, this office at 12th and Walnut is where so many trails lead, and where so much money moves.
Being at the nexus means you hear stuff. A few months ago, while I was still gathering string for this story—talking to 3CDC supporters and critics alike—word got back to the fourth floor, and 3CDC spokeswoman Anastasia Mileham gave me a call. “I hear you’ve been asking questions about Steve,” she said. “Were you going to talk to us?” I explained I was still in the midst of reporting and would call to set up a conversation with Leeper soon. A couple weeks later, I did. Unfortunately, Mileham explained, because I had been asking questions about Steve, Steve would not be available for an interview.
Leeper would be the public face of the organization if it had one. He is known to turn down nearly every interview request that comes in; according to Mileham, he’s still smarting from a profile the Enquirer did years ago. He doesn’t much take bows at building dedications, isn’t a big ribbon-cutter. He just gets stuff done.
This is a moment when 3CDC rightfully could take a bow for the success they have had in transforming the community. Indeed, the organization is in the midst of a victory lap that shows no sign of ending. In June, 3CDC was awarded $45 million in federal tax credits for future projects, and sometime this year they will have invested their one billionth dollar in downtown and OTR. Last year the city named them the preferred developer for city-owned properties north of Liberty, including the area around Findlay Market. They opened the 84.51° building this past summer, where they will be running the restaurants and the lucrative parking structure. Guy Fieri puts restaurants they have developed on TV, National Geographic invokes them, and Lumenocity (in the 3CDC-managed Washington Park) continues to blow our minds. Good times? You bet. Yet when Leeper actually sat down to discuss the ins and outs of tax increment financing with Kathy Holwadel, who critiques the powers that be at City Hall and beyond on her blog Cincyopolis—he called her to talk!— she said he seemed angry and defensive. “The guy sitting across the table from me sounded like he was on trial, like he felt I was out to get him,” she wrote.
After 11 years at 3CDC, Leeper has rendered his critics pretty much irrelevant. Still, they haven’t gone away. One of the main criticisms is that his organization makes decisions in secret and doesn’t like input from outsiders, otherwise known as people who live in the neighborhood. Example: Interested parties in Pendleton complained that they felt excluded from plans for a $5 million project to remake Ziegler Park. Eventually, public meetings were held, but the idea that 3CDC acts like it knows what’s best for the community persists. It’s a perception that may have gotten under the organization’s skin, just a little. “We work very, very hard all day long to make sure we are transparent in our work,” Mileham says.
Undoubtedly, some of those critics have their own axes to grind. But listen to what one well-placed interested party has to say:
“3CDC has contributed to, rather than helped to ease, conflict between local institutions. Although 3CDC has held public information sessions, the organization has not engaged the public in any decision making and has provided no opportunities to create linkages with or among local residents…
“3CDC is attempting essentially to create new neighborhoods rather than improve conditions for those in the community…
“[3CDC’s work is] based on the objectives of leaders from outside the community and largely ignore[s] the concerns and input of those inside the community.”
That was written by Adam Gelter in his 2006 master’s thesis. Gelter was interning for 3CDC when he wrote it; after getting a degree in community planning at UC, he was hired by 3CDC, where today he is the Executive Vice President of Development. Granted, his analysis was written eight years ago, and many say 3CDC is more responsive than it once was. But the general feeling that Leeper and company tell neighborhoods to take it or leave it lingers.
When I contacted Gelter to shed light on his original view of how 3CDC operates, I hit that wall again. “We don’t intend to verify the validity or context” of Gelter’s statements, Mileham told me via e-mail. “We do, however, encourage our young interns to have thoughtful views on critical matters. Community involvement is imperative to our work.”
City councilwoman Yvette Simpson walks a fine line when asked about a lack of transparency. She hears it from the community, she says, but explains that the complaint is built on a misunderstanding. 3CDC is a private nonprofit development corporation that answers to a board, not voters. They do not need to be transparent. “What probably can and should happen going forward is for the city to be a more meaningful intervener to help make sure the expectations the community has for 3CDC are more realistic, and that 3CDC becomes more transparent,” she says.
Yet so many have so much hope for 3CDC, and the city itself has so bonded with the organization, that confusion is unavoidable. That confusion didn’t just emerge; it was baked in at 3CDC’s birth. The riots of 2001 gave efforts to revive OTR fresh impetus, but efforts had been underway, and had stalled, long before Timothy Thomas was shot. Cincinnati’s Planning Department for years had been working with City Council and community members to produce a comprehensive development plan for OTR. The report hit the presses in 2002; an even louder thud followed later that year when then-Mayor Charlie Luken and his allies on council did away with the Planning Department itself.
It’s not like people didn’t see it coming. Mayor Luken had scrapped the city’s Economic Development Department in 2001, while simultaneously enhancing the powers of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority. The reason, as Luken told council, was that an entity like the Port Authority, responding to an appointed board of directors (today featuring private sector big shots from Kroger, P&G, Duke Energy, and GE Aviation, among others), could develop projects for the city faster and better than elected officials could.
Public solutions to OTR’s problems were getting the hairy eyeball at City Hall. Step by step, Cincinnati was turning away from public development and transferring increasing sums of public money and abatements to private entities to do the developing for us.
Then, in 2003, 3CDC was unveiled, a private nonprofit launched with money from the corporate leaders who composed its board of directors. Today 3CDC’s directors include reps from Western & Southern, Towne Properties, North American Properties, Kroger, Macy’s, Cincinnati Bell, Scripps, and Procter & Gamble. This is the power structure, able to buy and stockpile hundreds of buildings, cut complicated deals, and pay troublemakers to go away. Elected officials can’t afford to cross them too often. Which twists City Hall in a pretzeloid shape: It partners with the developer but is expected to watchdog the fairness of what the developer does. The result: Elected officials shrug at controversial 3CDC projects (What can you do? They’re a private entity.) and take a bow for the popular ones. Sometimes both.
On the June morning that The Esther Marie Hatton Center for Women opened, there were a lot of names for various speakers to thank, folks who made it possible to build the impressive new facility that will house some 60 women who have relocated from the Drop Inn Center on 12th Street. But as speakers marked the occasion, one name was celebrated repeatedly. His goodness was praised effusively, his presence taken as given, though he died years before ground was broken at this site on Reading Road. Before the ribbon was cut and the invitees lined up for a tour, a visitor could easily have thought Buddy Gray was Cincinnati’s own Abraham Lincoln.
When it was his turn to say something, Mayor John Cranley invoked Gray, summoning the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to call the late homeless advocate a prophet. He suggested Gray was present, smiling upon those gathered (“We all know the spirit of Buddy Gray is here”), and declared it “a day to honor his vision.” The not-so-subtle message was: This was the fulfillment of a great leader’s plans, the city and 3CDC having finally brought fruition to all the work Gray had long envisioned.
Gray, of course, could not offer a response: He was murdered at the Drop Inn Center in 1996, shot by a deranged individual he was trying to help. But it’s safe to say cooperating with developers and City Hall were not things that he was widely known for. Tying them in knots, frustrating their efforts to develop OTR, that was more his bag. Gray’s vision was centered on keeping the homeless in OTR, because their removal, he felt, was tantamount to making them invisible. He felt that they should be integrated into all that was happening around them, not moved to out-of-sight-out-of-mind parts of town like Mt. Auburn (where the Anna Louise Inn has been rebuilt next to the Hatton Center) or Queensgate (where the men from the Drop Inn Center will be moved this fall).
If Gray had actually been there, the mayor wouldn’t have let him anywhere near the microphone. Here’s the kind of thing Gray was known to say, in this case back in 1994: “We’re much like a colony far away in the Third World who’s being attacked by outsiders who want our land. Our land is really valuable now, and we are not.” For Gray, holding onto the Drop Inn Center (and the other institutions he founded, and all the empty buildings he owned) was a source of power. It was his way of making sure that the city looked the homeless in the eye, whether they wanted to or not.
Here was irony thick as blood: The people Gray battled, claiming his posthumous endorsement of their efforts. And yet, oddly enough, it is a plausible claim. He wanted respect and security for the homeless; here are fine new facilities to provide it. More beds than they had before; shuttles to and from the facilities. The whole scene poses a riddle: Is this relocation the final dismantling, or the final fulfillment, of what Buddy Gray had fought so long for?
The answer depends on how you feel about a word Gray swung like a hammer in Over-the-Rhine: gentrification. Radioactive, shame-inducing, lump-raising, effective. In OTR, it’s all the fighting words distilled into one. (Much like this prophetic headline from The Onion: “Decaying City Just Wants to Skip to Part Where It Gets Revitalized Restaurant Scene.”) We want the fruits of change, and we prefer to duck all the side orders of resentment and hurt feelings that accompany it. But here it is, a dirty word dropped before us, with more than enough bad faith to go around.
Gray’s power base was the Drop Inn Center, which changed its name to Shelterhouse earlier this year. His old building on 12th Street, once it is emptied of the last client this fall, will itself begin a transformation. City Council has budgeted $200,000 to convert it into the new home for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, currently housed a few blocks south on Race Street. Perhaps, if the ghost of Buddy Gray had snatched the mic from the mayor, he might have uttered a line from The Merchant of Venice: “You take my life when you do take the means whereby I live.”
Alice Skirtz was raised in the holy fire of urban renewal. Her father was a Methodist preacher at three churches, including Wesley Chapel, which was swept away in the 1970s with the P&G expansion. For 30 years she was the director of social service for the Salvation Army; Skirtz helped found the Drop Inn Center, the Peaslee Neighborhood Center, and other longtime social service institutions. She remains a stern observer of the social landscape. “I am really discouraged about not just Over-the-Rhine but the whole area,” she says as we sit in a downtown Starbucks. “In my view, gentrification of Over-the-Rhine is a corporate growth strategy.”
Skirtz is the kind of person who’ll correct your usage of words like homeless and riot. Her 2012 book Econocide: Elimination of the Urban Poor offers a scathing look at the transformation of OTR. It also takes liberties with a particular word she employs pointedly—genocide. Skirtz sees parallels between what has happened in OTR and the kinds of economic removal policies that ushered in the Nazi regime. For her, gentrification is too nice a word for what’s going on.
Josh Spring, Executive Director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless and an acolyte of Gray’s, agrees. “There’s a cleansing going on, that’s even the language people sometimes use: ‘We’re cleaning it up,’” he says. “For anybody who has been here for some period of time, the biggest difference in the southern part of this neighborhood is not that some buildings have nicer paint on them or there’s new lighting on the street. The biggest difference is that there are fewer people of low income with black skin. Fewer children. So when we say we are ‘cleaning it up,’ what do we really mean?”
Skirtz talks about the power of 3CDC and other developers in almost mystical terms, and seems to prefer the way OTR looked 20 years ago to the way it looks now. This is part of the Buddy Gray legacy, too: an old-school rage against the machine politics that stands up for the underdog. But neighborhoods change, and when they do, there will be winners and losers. As her eyes burn into me in the coffee shop, a block away a group of Armenian political activists are marching on Fountain Square, marking the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, the worst atrocity of World War I.
It’s a stark contrast, what happened in Turkey and what is happening in the shadow of Taste of Belgium, though a handful of dissenters would disagree: There is cleansing and then there is cleansing. Buddy Gray had control of a hundred-plus abandoned buildings, city hall connections, and the good will of many on the street. Today, it’s 3CDC that has an inventory of buildings in mothballs, the connections, and the street love. Gray’s forces have been outmaneuvered. For those who want more say in the transformation of their neighborhood, it appears a new approach is required.
Ryan Messer is one of the newcomers who have flowed into OTR in recent years. He grew up on a small farm in southeast Indiana, and today is a regional manager for Johnson & Johnson. He moved to Republic Street in OTR, and married his partner Jimmy Musuraca last year. Messer is the kind of person who can make you feel bad you aren’t getting more done in your own life. In addition to developing several buildings in OTR with Musuraca, he played a key role in organizing community support for the streetcar and is president of the Over-the-Rhine Community Council. He is the rare newcomer with a critique of what’s happening in OTR, an activist in the After Buddy era: his protest is focused not on returning to a past that has been mythologized out of all reality, but to a future that might welcome broad diversity.
We talk one evening at The Anchor, a sparkling seafood restaurant on the corner of Race and 14th Street that opened three years ago. Park yourself at a window seat and you have a great view of the buzz in OTR—kids dashing into the lights of Washington Park, construction workers in grimy work clothes streaming past. The day before I met up with Messer, Bob Castellini gave a keynote speech at an Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce award ceremony. Within the next few years, he prophesied, thanks to 3CDC, there will be million dollar homes on the market in OTR.
Some prediction. “I think there are already homes going for that much,” Messer says quietly. “Is it a great thing? I think you have to ask the people who live here. Some people think a $400,000 home is way out of line. We’re handling a lot of issues here, and one of them is, what do you do with a neighborhood that suddenly gets popular and people with means suddenly want to move in, when it already has a substantial number of subsidized housing units? Is that sustainable? Can you have a million dollar home next to a building with subsidized units and have it be OK? I don’t know.”
He describes the buffeting change that OTR is immersed in: a pop-up community. “You’ve got Do they think I belong? and Do they still want me here? coming at each other. People are all wondering what the answer is.”
Messer takes a quick glance around the Anchor’s stylishly rusticated room. “We knew these restaurants were coming—they were part of the model. Where were the people pointedly asking, as they sat around a table with those who lived here, how many restaurants should we have in 12, 24, 36 months? Where were the people asking that we train and create opportunities for people who live in this neighborhood, a neighborhood with higher unemployment than many other places in our city?”
As president of the OTR community council, Messer has spoken to 3CDC and city officials about ensuring there will be housing in the area for the people helping to build the million dollar homes. He notes that 3CDC (in collaboration with the city and McCormack Baron Salazar) has constructed the mixed-income development Mercer Commons. North of Liberty, 3CDC is working with Cornerstone and Model Group to build market-rate and affordable housing units around Findlay Market. What Messer thinks OTR lacks is housing for the parade of people streaming past the restaurant’s windows carrying ladders and hardhats, folks who work in the kitchens of places like The Anchor—an income demographic he sees getting priced out.
“Development in OTR has largely passed by those who have lived here for generations,” he says. “These people lived in these houses, their moms lived in these houses. It is unconscionable that they were not included into the plan regarding how boats would rise in this neighborhood.
“Let’s say in 2015 I’m an African-American resident and my parents and grandparents lived here.” Messer gestures toward Washington Park. “I went to that school and played on that playground…it would feel a little better if, when they walk by this new restaurant, seeing groups inside mostly not the same color of skin as them, they could say, ‘My cousin works there,’ ‘My neighbor is a chef…’ It’s been a missed opportunity. It’s not too late; we’ve got more development to go. But there has got to be a way to incorporate residents into the plans going forward.”
Any way forward, however, must pause on a forbidden idea: Why do we have such a hard time saying the G-word? Partly because we can’t agree on what gentrification means, or how much it applies to our own situation. A recent academic study applied two leading scholarly definitions of gentrification (one tracking median income growth, the other tracking education, income, and housing) to New York City neighborhoods. Once it found which areas qualified as highly-impacted, it compared them to neighborhoods The New York Times had labeled “gentrified.” Surprise: no two groups were the same. Even the so-called experts can’t agree.
Lauded urban studies guru Richard Florida looked at that report recently and said, “It’s clear that ‘gentrification’ is still a vague, imprecise, and politically loaded term. We not only need better, more objective ways to measure it; we need to shift our focus to the broader process of neighborhood transformation and the juxtaposition of concentrated advantage and disadvantage in the modern metropolis.”
Why listen to him? Because Florida has been the Johnny Appleseed for bringing an educated, artisanally-minded youthquake to the urban core. To him, these newcomers are nothing less than the best hope for many old-line cities. In fact, his prescription for reviving cities—attracting a college-educated “creative class” that designs stuff, works in knowledge-based industries, and rides bikes—is a spot-on description of OTR’s newcomers.
But just because gentrification may be vague, imprecise, and politically loaded doesn’t mean it’s fiction. In OTR, a young moneyed class, overwhelmingly white, is moving in, and will soon be crossing Liberty. The character of the neighborhood is changing day by day. Several questions follow: Are people being displaced? 3CDC sometimes says through spokespeople that it isn’t responsible for gentrification because nobody gets moved out. But various press accounts have documented cases of tenant removal. Don’t neighborhoods change all the time? And is change bad? OTR has seemed like a place in need of change—about two-thirds of all families in OTR live below the Federal Poverty Level. North of Liberty, according to 2010 Census data, median income is under $11,000. Overall, OTR’s 6,064 residents (72 percent of whom are African-American) can expect to live six years less than the average Cincinnatian. We got to this point because after the destruction of the West End, stranded African-Americans found cheap housing in a part of town that nobody wanted. OTR was such a dead zone that no one had even bothered to practice urban renewal on it.
Bill Collins, an innovative urban observer and board member of the Madisonville Community Council, suggests that OTR actually is undergoing de-gentrification, and says we should be more worried about that. Between 1950 and 2010, he notes, Cincinnati lost 150,000 members of the middle and working class. OTR became one of the poorest communities in the country, with an unemployment rate at 25 percent and an average household income of less than $10,000. Looking through that long-term prism, it becomes harder to vilify any change in a neighborhood that doesn’t deplete it but adds to its resources.
But if gentrification is an inadequate term for what is going on today, we certainly could use some descriptor. We need a good word capable of covering the whole new horizon of shared experiences, a word that describes a spectrum of yucky feelings that comes from a collision of whites and blacks who feel they have utterly nothing in common and brush past each other with less than a word said. The feeling that comes from seeing a guy step out of a Tesla and hand the keys to the valet while he turns away from a man sitting on the sidewalk and enters a restaurant where he can order pulled pork served in a bag of Fritos. The feeling that comes from the sense of relative safety on the street because “the crime tends to be black on black.” There is a fresh class of humanity arriving in OTR and a fresh set of feelings too. For this we still need names.
There is as well the sense among some that they are no longer welcome where they live. As Reverend Damon Lynch III puts it: “The problem is not so much affordability, it’s one of class. Who gets to live next to whom?”
Lynch, the pastor at New Prospect Baptist Church, was based at Findlay and Elm for years. From there he was instrumental in bringing the Justice Department to town and shaping the consent decree that transformed the Cincinnati Police Department. Last year he moved the church’s main home to Roselawn. He was a key figure in the rebuilding after the 2001 riots but now he sees the rebuilding as tainted. For him, OTR didn’t feel like home anymore.
“I remember when I got there, there were drugstores, laundromats. There were places you could buy a loaf of bread. They all disappeared. It’s, like, classic, if you were to write a book [about] how to destabilize and take over a community—get rid of the drugstores, the laundromats. Now you’ve got Graeter’s and oyster bars and microbreweries. The argument was, there was room down here for everybody. But that’s not true. The people who move in don’t want to live next to people living in dire poverty.”
Earlier this year, city councilman Chris Seelbach tweeted an aerial picture of Washington Park, taken years ago. It looked like a photographer had captured a moment right after a bomb hits a parking lot—the space was devoid of people, devoid of grass, the very earth looked scorched. Definitively dead. Nothing like the landscaped, people-friendly public park there now.
There’s no going back. Thank God, you say, after you see that photo. But Lynch saw the picture up close, and saw that just outside the shot, all around the park, was a community of people very much alive.
“What happens is, we miss opportunities—the people we see as problems miss out on opportunities to rebuild their community,” says Lynch. “If I’m a kid standing on the corner of Race and Liberty, I’m seen as a problem. But if I’ve poured the concrete in the sidewalk, there’s a certain sense of pride. When you engage people in that process—when they have work to do in the place that they live—they have a greater respect for the community, greater sense of ownership of the community.”
Lynch sees little to like in an urban transformation that leaves a significant portion of its inhabitants behind. To that end he is now calling for the creation of a black 3CDC, a development engine that would work in the community for the purpose of employment and investing in human resources already present. “After 25 years in OTR hearing young men talk, their lingo is, ‘I’m holding down the block. Whatever I’m doing, this is my block,’” he says. “But what I’d share with them is, ‘You don’t own anything here. And when they move you, you’re gone.’”
The little office in Mr. Bubbles is indisputably some of the coolest square footage in the whole state of Ohio. The camper-sized room planted in the garage smells of exotic air fresheners. The bodyguard who owns the detailing business has hung pictures of clients and associates on nearly every inch of the walls: Morris Day & The Time, Deniece Williams, Pee-wee Herman, Cornel West. This is the business office, but it is about so much more than business: it’s a candy store and community center. People come here to find out what’s going on. Get buzzed in and you see boxes of Pop-Tarts leaning against a wall, Maruchan Instant Lunch and Faygo pop on shelves, Kaiser hot pickles and a tub of Double Bubble on the counter. Behind the counter Tabatha Anderson banters with customers. Life keeps her busy.
Pendleton is on the eastern edge of OTR and has its own flavor, so much so that it has its own neighborhood council, of which Anderson is the president. “The issues for us today aren’t what they used to be,” she says. In the late 1990s “it was the wild west around here, and a lot of people would have pulled up stakes: I’m out. But folks here at Mr. Bubbles, we’ve been here a long time and we don’t run from a challenge. Pendleton is a little neighborhood, but I think we are one of the crown jewels of the tiara. We are not like Mt. Adams—but it’s not like we couldn’t be if we wanted. We choose to be Pendleton!”
She takes a phone call; a guy pays for his detailing and says “See ya later, cuz.” Anderson feels that the new residents seem interested in understanding the particulars of where they are living. “In some conversations I’ve had at City Hall, the question of gentrification has come up repeatedly,” she notes. “When I am asked if that’s a worry for Pendleton my answer is no. There’s diversity here—a group of people who understand it’s not just enough for me to be OK, let me ask my neighbor if they are OK. And that’s what community is supposed to be about.
“A lot of the newcomers to the neighborhood, these are what you might have called yuppies back in the day. I’m not sure what you’d call them now. They come with an attitude of, ‘How did you get here? Tell me your story and I’ll tell you mine.’ We want people who own these subsidized buildings to be good community members, too.”
As part of her job for the Pendleton Neighborhood Council, Anderson, along with Ryan Messer, paid a visit back in March to Mayor Cranley’s office. Anderson wanted to talk about the greenspace across from Ziegler Park; Messer came to ask for the city’s support in gathering information on the housing market in Over-the-Rhine. If the working class is being squeezed out, he thinks it’s something the city might want to know about. But according to both, the mayor wasn’t feeling it. As Anderson recalls, Cranley bluntly told them: “If people can’t afford to live in Over-the-Rhine, we can always push them into Pendleton or Walnut Hills.”
“In all honesty, it was a very callous remark,” she recalls. “I was a little shocked… it was sad because what it says is that [he’s] not in touch with the struggling people in [his] city. As a mayor you represent everybody—not just where you live.”
For his part, the mayor heatedly disputes this version of events. “It’s an outrageous quote. I’d never say that,” he says. “I never talked about pushing anybody anywhere.” Cranley says he reminded Messer of the millions of dollars the city has invested in OTR, and said if Messer wanted a survey he could fund it. As far as he can recollect, Messer’s concern was with folks making an upper-middle class living not being able to afford a home in OTR.
“My memory was we weren’t talking about waiters and waitresses [being priced out], because they would qualify for low-income housing,” Cranley says. “It is guaranteed there will be a supply of housing for working class and middle class families, which is a good thing.” For people making $80,000 or $90,000 a year who are looking for a place to live in OTR, he added, “there are still options. But at the same time there are plenty of options for them in Northside, Walnut Hills—I don’t know if I said Pendleton or not. Who would have thought 10 years ago that would be the problem?”
And there it is, filling the air between the stained glass of City Hall and the shiny rims of Mr. Bubbles. A vision of yuppies and creatives all getting along with the longtime families of Pendleton. A vision of refugees priced out of areas they used to call home. How far we’ve come vs. where are we headed. Community leaders who can’t agree on what was said in a meeting. Two worlds, twin possibilities, existing on different planes.