I occasionally get asked if I’m somehow related to the Gilbert of Gilbert Avenue. The answer is no, except for one coincidence: Both Alfred W. Gilbert and I were born in Philadelphia before spending most of our lives in Cincinnati.
That’s it. From there our biographies wander apart. We didn’t even share the same century. The other Mr. Gilbert never knew the joy of playing “Stairway to Heaven” 10 million times on the radio, and I shall never know the thrill of naming a major Cincinnati street after myself.
Gilbert Avenue was born in 1866 as Cincinnati’s first-ever long road out of downtown, surveyed and mapped to begin at today’s Hard Rock Casino and run diagonally to the northeast. After researching the street’s history, I am surprised that Mr. Gilbert wanted—or even allowed—his/my name attached to it.
He was the city’s civil engineer, so he knew to the exact inch where the “Gilbert” signs would show up along Deer Creek Valley. That area is now just a spaghetti of exit ramps on I-71 South, but back in the mid-1800s Deer Creek Valley was famous. Like, really, really famous. Here’s a tiny sampling of the things people said about it: the grand cesspool of all rottenness; a synonym for all that is disagreeable and repulsive; a bloody pool of filth; and an unutterable abomination. Gilbert stuck his name right there.
Why was Deer Creek Valley so disrespected? We all know Cincinnati’s history of meatpacking and the massive vats of animal fat transforming into candles and soap. Have you ever wondered where such grisly carnage and unbearable stench of pig entrails were housed? Welcome to Deer Creek Valley. It was sparsely inhabited then, handy for dumping excess animal flesh and fluids into its meager waterway. Slaughterhouses crowded there for more years than we want to think about. The street we know as Elsinore Place was then named—not kidding—Effluent Pipe Road. Only later did the industry move west to the Mill Creek.
Walnut Hills, Avondale, and other communities safely distant from Deer Creek Valley needed a better way to get their increasing populations into the city. Remember, this was when the method of travel was the horse and railroads were young. Decent roads coming from Cincinnati’s northeast into downtown barely existed; some didn’t even deserve to be called roads.
To the rescue rode Colonel Alfred W. Gilbert, Civil War veteran and surveyor. He joined with other city leaders to propose that Deer Creek be filled and graded, with a new street alongside it that would extend out and be connected with “the Montgomery Road.” If you’ve ever navigated the clumsy angle where Gilbert Avenue is stitched to Montgomery Road like a third leg, now you know why it’s a five-point clown car of an intersection.
Gilbert Avenue’s debut was not universally applauded. Sure, the street was an improved straight shot into the city, but Deer Creek Valley wouldn’t be completely filled in and free of slaughterhouses for a
few more years. Just imagine those warm summer days as travelers ambled beside a 40-acre unflushed toilet. Even after the creek was transformed into a popular park called Deer Creek Commons, there was still one big problem.
You may have noticed the problem yourself, back when I mentioned Hard Rock Casino. That’s right: Gilbert Avenue started at Court Street, a short stub of a street that was blocked by the Courthouse (and still is). So if your horse or wagon were approaching the city, you had to turn right at Court Street, then left to cross super-wide Eggleston Avenue without being killed by one of the constant trains, and only then could you go, uphill, to downtown’s main streets. In other words, this new road was not the easy connection that had been promised.
If only there were some kind of viaduct or something smoothly merging with East Eighth Street. The Gilbert Avenue Viaduct had been included in the Colonel’s original plan, but that part wasn’t built right away. It took another 40 infuriating years.
It would have been easy for Alfred Gilbert to shake his fist at God for those lost years, because the terrain between downtown and the foot of Mt. Adams has eternally cursed Cincinnati’s road planners. I’ve previously written in Cincinnati Magazine about the nightmares surrounding the building of Columbia Parkway and the connecting ramps to I-471. Landslides were the punchline to every joke of an engineer’s vision. In this case, though, Gilbert probably shook his fist at his fellow humans.
Turf wars between Hamilton County and Cincinnati are literally as old as dirt. This particular turf war added an extra dimension: tracks. Not only would Gilbert Avenue’s viaduct require streetcar rails (enter the Cincinnati Traction Company), but below it on Eggleston Avenue sat a spiderweb of tracks (enter the Pennsylvania Railroad). What followed was a four-dimensional game of chicken that lasted decades.
Competing plans flew back and forth; one of them would have plunked the viaduct between Eighth and Ninth Streets, preventing our beautiful Times-Star Building from ever existing. Each participant stood firm, defending their God-given right to have the others pay for everything, and poor Colonel Gilbert was left with his dream unfinished. His viaduct finally opened in 1912, but he’d died in 1900.
Meanwhile, all of the villages and neighborhoods northeast of downtown spent those decades making babies, and with them came that new contraption, the automobile. By the time Gilbert Avenue was truly complete, it had little impact on the 20th century’s most unwanted new invention: traffic congestion. Streetcars, personal cars, horses, wagons, and pedestrians were now competing daily for a Darwin Award on streets that were only half as wide as they are today.
I’m not a real historian. While I’ve gotten pretty good at digging through old publications and official documents, I sometimes worry that I could be distorting things by not grasping the whole story. I’m pretty confident, however, about this claim: If there’s anything that moves more slowly than Cincinnati traffic, it’s Cincinnati government.
Every widened street, every new ramp and viaduct, every solution to a local traffic problem came just in time to be too late. Here’s just one example. When the Gilbert Avenue Viaduct had become a daily clog of cars, a bold solution was recommended: Let’s double the width of Seventh and Eighth Streets, make each of them one-way, and then on Seventh Street we’ll build a new connecting ramp to the viaduct. That was proposed in 1931, when traffic in the area was already horrendous. Get ’er done Cincinnati got ’er done 19 years later. Oh, wait, that’s only when the new ramp was built. The plan was accomplished backwards—first the ramp, then another two years before the widening of Seventh Street. Local sales of Tums and Rolaids must have been fantastic.
Arguments about the widening of Gilbert Avenue itself began in 1896, as the invasion of those suburban babies was proceeding and the viaduct was still unbuilt. All the way into the 1950s, hardly a year passed without some talk—and occasionally a bit of action—on widening or further-widening a section of the street. The constant upgrades settled down by the 1960s. Countless buildings, of course, continued to disappear and be replaced.
I recently drove the entire length of Gilbert Avenue, just to feel a little kinship with the guy who mapped out its path in 1866 as he lugged along that surveyor thing to do whatever the hell it does. I reflected on the fact that Alfred Gilbert and I have both enjoyed gazing upon Fountain Square, Music Hall, Findlay Market, Arnold’s, several churches, and more. But along our shared street, not one structure I saw was something he would have known. And nothing he viewed back then has survived for me. It’s another example of how completely different our lives have been, except for our names, place of birth, and this city we ultimately called home.
There’s a Gilbert Street in Philadelphia, but it’s known only to those who live nearby, in an outlying neighborhood that didn’t exist during Alfred’s time. Cincinnati’s Gilbert Avenue, though, is somebody!
I must admit that whenever I’m approaching downtown on I-71, it’s kind of cool to see my name in letters four feet high. Since Alfred W. Gilbert could not possibly have envisioned these enormous exit signs referring to him, I hereby accept the inheritance. Thank you, Colonel. We’ll always have Deer Creek Valley.