Cincinnatians who regularly joke about the East-West divide of our fair city may be amused to learn that the neighborhoods of Westwood and Clifton share a very important historical linkage. Essentially, both learned—the hard way—not to mess with Cincinnati’s Boss Cox.
Westwood and Clifton were thrown together in the 1890s because of Cincinnati’s urge to grow. Between the censuses of 1890 and 1900 Cincinnati’s population increased from 296,908 to 325,902. That is an increase of almost 10% and a good part of the growth came by annexation.
Beginning in the 1880s, George B. “Boss” Cox and his machine looked up to the hills surrounding Cincinnati’s crowded basin and saw a tantalizing array of independent and prosperous villages. Professor Zane L. Miller, in his book, Boss Cox’s Cincinnati: Urban Politics In The Progressive Era, summarized the attraction:
“In 1889, Mayor [John B.] Mosby noted that the recent growth of the suburban population and the approach of a census year made the question of annexation one of unusual importance. A ‘large increase of population over that of the last census,’ he explained, ‘conveys the idea that there is great prosperity; that . . . business must be good [and that] opportunities for employment and the investment of capital [are] greater.'”
Boss Cox’s Cincinnati Republican machine set its sights particularly on five adjacent villages: Avondale, Clifton, Linwood, Riverside and Westwood. In planning to annex these five villages, the downtown powers saw at least four things. They saw the opportunity for additional tax revenue without raising tax rates. They saw the potential for even more tax revenues as more residents moved to the hills.
They saw numbers. The Cincinnati basin by 1890 was pretty heavily settled. There was not a lot of room for population growth. By adding land, lots of land, lots of open land, Cincinnati had the opportunity to report a significant increase in population by the next census. In addition, Cincinnati would have the opportunity to attract lots of new residents to these semi-rural hilltops to show substantial growth in future censuses.
Most importantly, Cox and the boys saw Republicans. As chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Committee, Cox knew that these satellite villages leaned strongly Republican.
He also knew that they leaned strongly independent. If Cox asked the five villages to vote on the issue, he knew that they would vote to stay independent. Most of the voters in the five villages saw a big neighboring metropolis wallowing in debt, ruled by a shady, if not overtly criminal, regime. They wanted no part of that mess.
So, Cox changed the rules. He marched up to Columbus and had the state legislature pass something called the Lillard Law. (The law is named for Robert W. Lillard of Cincinnati, who introduced the law while serving in the Ohio General Assembly. The Cox machine later rewarded him with a sinecure as Superintendent of City Hall.)
The Lillard Law mandated, in questions of annexation, that the votes of villages to be annexed by a neighboring city must be counted along with the votes of the city to which they would be annexed. In other words, Cincinnati’s 50,000 voters would be asked to vote on annexation along with the 2,200 voters combined in the five hilltop villages. The five targeted villages learned an important lesson about Boss Cox: You can’t win. You can’t break even. And, you can’t quit the game.
In the election of April 2, 1894, Avondale and Riverside voted to merge with Cincinnati, while Clifton, Linwood and Westwood voted against annexation. Their objections were drowned out in the flood of Cincinnati votes in favor. The final tally was 49,467 in favor of annexation and 4,467 against.
For the record, Clifton (home to the Boss himself) voted resoundingly against annexation, 289 to 21. Westwood voted against annexation 149 to 120. Linwood voted “nay” by 139 to 86. Despite vocal objections in the run-up to the election, Avondale and Riverside both voted in favor.
The vote was contested, the Lillard Law assailed, but it was all for naught. The vote stood, and the hilltops were shepherded into Cincinnati’s domain.
With the five annexations, Cincinnati gained 10,000 citizens, 2,190 voters (of which approximately 1,500 were considered Republican), and 11 square miles of prime residential real estate, increasing the total area of Cincinnati from 24 to 35 square miles. That is an overnight 48 percent increase in acreage.
For a brief and shining moment, Westwood and Clifton stood shoulder to shoulder against the big city political machine. Then, as newly annexed Cincinnati neighborhoods, they had to fight for their share of the pie and all solidarity evaporated. The East-West divide slammed back into place.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities