When Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach shot and killed unarmed teenager Timothy Thomas in the early hours of April 7, 2001, long-simmering frustrations boiled over after years of African American men dying at police hands. Riots wracked Over-the-Rhine, Walnut Hills, Avondale, and other city neighborhoods over the following days, gutting small businesses and leaving communities shocked and broken. The ensuing boycott of the city and downtown businesses protesting police brutality brought cancellations by prominent touring performers, costing millions of dollars in lost revenue and tarnishing our national image. Then 9/11 happened, and Cincinnati shared in the economic slump the terrorist attacks visited on the travel and entertainment industries.
“It was just a rough year,” says Joe Tucker, owner of Tucker’s Restaurant, the beloved Over-the-Rhine cornerstone his family has run since 1946. Their front windows were smashed during the riots, and the ensuing loss of business almost did him and his wife Carla in. That same year, cancer took his brother. “We lost our house, our cars,” he says. “We lost everything.” Tucker’s return to normal took years, only to endure a shooting in the restaurant, then a fire. Yet even under COVID-19, as his and Carla’s temporarily carryout-only business gets a fraction of the traffic they used to, he’s a portrait in resilience. “I’m not a crybaby,” says Tucker. “There’s a lot of people in worse shape than I am.”
The 2001 riots and ensuing recession were a rock bottom from which the city, Over-the-Rhine in particular, clawed its way back. The road to OTR’s recent renaissance hasn’t been smooth by any means, but the riots brought to bear a collective will needed to finally start making change. It united resolve across stakeholders who didn’t trust one another— corporate, political, activist, and community—and helped identify the disparities that create conflict and the need for targeted investment that counteracts long neglect.
A commission of business and community leaders was set up to address racial disparities with new educational and investment opportunities in overlooked communities. These included a chamber-backed Minority Business Accelerator, a $30 million investment by Procter & Gamble, and a private nonprofit Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), which was first led by then–P&G CEO A.G. Lafley. Since then, 3CDC has been the engine of transformation that’s rejuvenated Washington Park, restored Music Hall and Memorial Hall, and rehabbed individual properties to allow entertainment and dining to bloom again along Race, Vine, Walnut, and Main streets. Interest surged in living near such attractions, and suddenly you couldn’t afford a new condo in a neighborhood long spurned by most Cincinnatians.
While economic development is essential, it’s empty unless residents feel safe and citizens heard. That was the M.O. behind the other major development birthed in turmoil, the Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement. Federally mandated, it was written with input from some 3,500 community members and signed just over a year after Thomas’s death. At its core, the agreement worked to correct systemic racial profiling, put community members in police cruisers to ride along on patrol, and established a citizen complaint authority.
The Collaborative Agreement hasn’t always been popular, particularly with the police department, which tried unsuccessfully to renege. After it was voluntarily renewed in 2007 beyond its initial court-ordered term, by 2015 Cincinnati showed a 69 percent reduction in use-of-force incidents. Relationships between police and communities of color still have miles to go, as George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and the unrest that followed prove yet again, but the Collaborative Agreement has made progress here. A recent “refreshment” of the agreement continues to promote dialogue, training, and community problem-oriented policing—showing that comebacks can happen when you try, fail, and try and try again.
Both the Collaborative Agreement and OTR’s renaissance have had their share of critics, particularly long-time neighborhood residents who feel excluded from the redevelopment gold rush. Joe Tucker has seen adversity bring change that cuts both ways. He says he’s not comfortable offering al fresco dining this summer, as other OTR restaurants are. “Up here [north of Liberty Street], it seems like 3CDC just leaves everything dormant.” Try, fail, and try again.