Down on Main Street

The rise, fall, and lingering limbo of OTR’s dream street.

Photographs by Jonathan Willis

March 2000, a group of OTR merchants published a promotional pamphlet entitled Come Visit Our Main Street. Today, all but six of the 18 businesses and services listed in it have closed. Despite the efforts of many people, Main Street seems to have lost its way—along with a swath of its personality, a chunk of its appeal.

The six blocks of Main between Central Parkway and Liberty Street rank among the most contested, abused, lauded, historic, heartbreaking, and exquisitely beautiful real estate in the city. Block after block of 19th-century buildings reveal the architectural DNA of an era when German shopkeepers, their families, and immigrant workers lived above the butcher shops, bakeries, and drygoods stores they operated; when Over-the-Rhine was a city within a city, and this street was its commercial core. In the years after World War II, those same buildings became home to white Appalachians who’d migrated from Kentucky and West Virginia. By the 1970s, poor blacks, often from families displaced by development in the West End, moved into the neighborhood and became deeply entrenched there.

Cultural overlap continued in the 1980s, when struggling (predominately white) artists discovered Main Street’s cheap rents. As tends to happen when artists set up a colony in a forgotten or down-on-its-luck urban quadrant, developers weren’t far behind, and they began to eye the graceful but deteriorating Greek Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne style commercial buildings. Gallerists, bar owners, breweries, and record stores followed. By the mid-1990s, Main Street was a hip entertainment district that mingled newcomers and new businesses with longtime, and frequently low-income, residents. It was not always a peaceful coexistence. But, for better or worse, what happened on Main Street in the 1990s developed organically—without a master plan, without city assistance, and without anything like 3CDC to lead the way.

The cacophony of partying, gallery-hopping, jazz, blues, bluegrass, Bockfest, poetry, and a protective police presence grew silent not long after that cheerful brochure was printed. Many blame the one-two sucker punch of the April 2001 riots and the nation’s economic downturn after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now, with Over-the-Rhine’s rebirth underway a few blocks west on Vine Street, Main is struggling to get back on its feet like a proud, punch-drunk boxer, blinking madly to prove there’s some fight left.

The people who have watched the rise and fall and leveling off of Main Street describe wildly different versions of the same phenomenon. Some call the hard-partying scene of 15 years ago a “Golden Era.” Others view those times as the death of a cohesive community. And for some, it was just another phase in the life of a street that has been in flux for generations. Here, then, is how it looks to each of them—a highly subjective history of Main Street. A place that isn’t what it was, for sure. But if history’s any guide, a place that’s bound to become something else.

Movin’ On Up

People have been drawn to Main Street for different reasons. For some, it’s all about the architecture; for others, it’s cheap rent; for still others, the chance to feel slightly removed from Over-the-Rhine’s rougher blocks. But everyone who has spent any time there seems to have fallen in love with something about the street before they staked their claim. This was where they wanted to be.

Printmaker and visual artist Terence Hammonds grew up at 1208 Main Street with his mother, brother, and three sisters. Today he lives in Northside.
We moved [to Main Street] when I was 1. In the early 1980s, there were honky-tonk bars. There was an Appalachian family that lived in my building. The alley between [us] and the building that used to be Divas on Main was really dirty. [That family] used to throw bags of trash out their window into the alley.

Terence’s mother, Deborah Hammonds, a nurse’s assistant at Veteran’s Administration Hospital, moved her children from West Eighth to Main Street in 1978 and stayed until 2007. Now she resides in Groesbeck.
We had two white families living in the building; the rest of the building was black. Main Street was not as bad as other parts of Over-the-Rhine. It was its own separate entity. You didn’t have a lot of the violence of 13th and Walnut. It was pretty peaceful and quiet.

Singer and WNKU radio host Katie Laur lived at 1202 Main Street—above Kaldi’s, the popular bookstore/coffeeshop/bar—from 1994 to 2007; she was forced to move when her building was developed into condominiums by Urban Sites Properties.
It used to be full of hillbilly bars. In 1972 it was poor whites. It was more dangerous than with blacks. Poor whites were into knifing. I started my band in 1975 and one of the first gigs we had was at Aunt Maudie’s. I can remember standing out on the corner of 12th and Main and thinking, God, I’d love to live here. And then thinking, What a stupid idea. Everything was old furniture stores. Thirteenth and Main is where the craps games used to be. Kaldi’s wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye.

Marge Hammelrath, director of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation from 1992 to 2007, worked with Main Street businesses and residents, advocating for the street’s preservation.
We used to go from the symphony [to Aunt Maudie’s] to hear Katie Laur sing. That was before drugs. Seedy is one thing. Drugs are another. I can remember being in a meeting with an FBI agent who said, “You’re gonna get drugs here because of I-75.” I had no idea it would mean the deaths of so many people.

Terence Hammonds: When I was 5 or 6 years old, there was a deli my mother had credit with. We would go there and get whatever my mother wanted on credit. And on the corner of Woodward and Main there was an ice cream store on the first floor. I remember playing at Peaslee [Neighborhood Center] because my mother could see us from the kitchen window. Main Street felt safe. The Bank Cafe on Vine and 14th—my sisters and I would walk there and we’d find drunkards hanging out. But Main Street was always safe.

Bill Baum, owner of Urban Sites Properties, came to Main Street in the mid-1980s after years of renovating old buildings in Clifton. He paid $50,000 for his first site, the five-story, eight-unit building at 1209 Main.
Main Street was vacant. We appreciated the architecture in the mid-1980s [but] the banks thought we were nuts. We were just putting pennies together, refinancing buildings we already had, using sweat equity, swinging a hammer. We’d redo [one building] and keep going.

Interior designer Leah Spurrier now co-owns a shop called HighStreet on Reading Road on the edge of Over-the-Rhine; in 2000 she opened a business on Jackson Street, just off Main.
The first time [I saw the street] I just kept saying, “It’s really beautiful. It’s really beautiful.”

Julie Fay bought the nine-unit Iris building on the 1300 block in 1991. With her companion, the late developer Paul Uber, she rehabilitated more than 40 OTR properties.
I first came here because I loved the architecture. My great-grandparents were from this neighborhood; they all left by 1900. I used to see it on my way to Edgecliff College [in the 1960s]. I could hardly believe the conditions of the buildings. Even in their falling-down state, they were just good.

Mt. Lookout resident Dan Aren, a blues and jazz musician and librarian, was drawn to Main Street for the music in the 1990s.
There was a real scene there. Wherever there’s real artistic output, people tend to congregate. If you went up on Main Street before the bars it was this lost, forgotten street, like from The Twilight Zone.

Founder of Envoi Design at 1332 Main, Denise Kalmus-Weinstein was living in North Carolina in 1988 when a five-hour layover at Cincinnati’s Greyhound station introduced her to Over-the-Rhine.
I moved here two weeks later. I moved with $35 in my pocket. I lived in my car for a week. I thought I could do really well here. Ever since, this area’s been home.

The “Golden Era” Begins

Like moon explorers, developer Bill Baum, entrepreneur Terry Carter, and designer Denise Kalmus-Weinstein ushered in a new era of residential and business growth, helping to kick off Main Street’s grandest times in modern history.

In 1988, Terry Carter bought a small saloon off Main Street and created Neon’s On 12th, a wildly popular hangout that went through seven expansions before being sold in 2003.
I paid $17,000. It was a real tiny neighborhood place called Chuck’s; [the owner] carried his booze home to keep from getting robbed. I was on the street every day for three straight years. I slept there. I wouldn’t let the locals come in and panhandle my customers, use the bathroom, and steal the toilet paper. I started acquiring a more suburban clientele and it kept blossoming.

Marge Hammelrath: When people were standing in line outside [Neon’s], other people thought, Wow, this may be the place where I need to open a bar. That really hadn’t been our plan to make it an entertainment district, but Over-the-Rhine really got City Hall’s attention because it started turning in taxes.

Terence Hammonds: My bedroom window faced Neon’s and Neon’s was OK until they started putting neon all over the place. That shit kept me up. One night I had exams but I couldn’t study because there was an oompah band playing. It seemed like, to people coming down, it was their playground. [But] it was my home.

Terry Carter: By the late 1990s, there were 17 to 19 clubs and bars down there. The police loved us because they worked these details to make extra money.

Leah Spurrier: I thought it was abusive. The young—primarily white—kids coming down from the suburbs used it for entertainment [and] abused it. They didn’t interact with it in a respectful way.

Denise Kalmus-Weinstein: I called it “Liquor Lane!”

Bill Baum: It was exciting, but the people who lived there thought, Wow, it’s noisy, people leave their beer cans. It was not without its downside.

A Scene Built on Art, Coffee, and Alcohol

In 1992, Mike Markiewicz opened Kaldi’s Coffeehouse & Bookstore in the Belmain Building, 1202 Main Street, along with Sonya McDonnell. He sold his interest in the late 1990s. Kaldi’s quickly became the focal point for artists, musicians, writers, neighbors, and tourists. At the same time, the arts community was attracting visitors to the monthly Final Friday gallery openings—events that weren’t necessarily more sedate than the bar scene.

Katie Laur: It was such an exciting time. It was just constant 24/7 art. They had some Final Fridays that were drunken fall-downs where the artists would get in fist fights and I thought, Oh my God, this is just like Van Gogh cuttin’ off his ear. I would just be so excited.

Terence Hammonds: The bars I hated. I loved the art stuff.

Denise Kalmus-Weinstein: It was a more eclectic mix. We had a lot of African-American men [as design clients] and we did their CD covers.

Marge Hammelrath: It brought such diversity into everybody’s lives. People from those ghettoes—the West Chesters, I call places like that ghettoes—they would come and see and get to enjoy something they wouldn’t otherwise see. And we had a lot of tourists at that time. Reporters from other cities would come in my office to ask me how we did what we did.

Katie Laur: I had interview appointments every day at lunch. It was that much attention being focused on one small area. It was like champagne all the time.

After selling his share in Kaldi’s, Mike Markiewicz left Cincinnati for a few years, only to return during the riots in 2001. He now sells books and records at Iris BookCafé, 1331 Main. He lives upstairs.
Kaldi’s didn’t make the neighborhood; the neighborhood made Kaldi’s. A place like Kaldi’s is largely theater; it creates an image for itself. The street at that time was full of poor, starving artists. Karin Bergquist [singer for the band Over the Rhine] was my first staffer.

Dan Aren: Kaldi’s was a hip place with the books, the coffee, and the drinking. A real New York-y scene.

Denise Kalmus-Weinstein: It was like the neighborhood kitchen.

Katie Laur: You could go into Kaldi’s and it just looked like something out of Edith Wharton. It was gorgeous. And you never, never knew who you were gonna run into.

Terence Hammonds: My friends started moving down. Kaldi’s opened. I was part of the music scene. I was in a band. I had my first art show at Kaldi’s. I was 16 or 17.

Dan Aren: It must’ve been 1994 when they started having blues at Jefferson Hall [1150 Main Street] and I went to that—the best blues from all over the country: Son Seals, Magic Slim, Anson Funderburg, The Holmes Brothers, Pinetop Perkins.

Terence Hammonds: I was reading a lot about the downtown New York scene and I started feeling [like], I’m born into this. I’m living this. I got really snobby about art and music.

Neighborhood Tensions and the G-Word

Blues bars and schoolchildren, panhandlers and arts patrons: the street became a mix of different people with divergent interests. Low-income families found their once-quiet neighborhood pummeled by music and partying “young professionals.” Churches and social service agencies saw their clients’ presence—and their own efforts—become less than welcome. And artists saw developers eyeing their cheap, funky digs.

In December 1995, musician Michael Baney, a member of country band the Goshorn Brothers, was robbed and shot dead in the parking lot of Tommy’s on Main. The murder stunned the city. Looking back, some feel it was the beginning of the street’s fall, even though locals acted quickly to buoy the image of Main as a safe destination. Their efforts were successful—for a while.

Bill Baum: Suddenly, we had this entertainment district that nobody planned. It just sort of happened. [Then] the condo craze came along and people wanted to buy.

Colleen McTague is an assistant professor of geography at the University of Cincinnati; she has conducted studies on gentrification and geography in the area.
Right now, [gentrification] is used to mean redevelopment. The real definition of gentrification came from the ’60s in England, where the gentry class moved into a working-class neighborhood and redeveloped the buildings and the working class_had to move out because they couldn’t afford to live there anymore. That’s really what gentrification is—when there’s so much redevelopment in a geographic location that the current population has to move out.

Mike Markiewicz: There were greedy landlords. Poor artists left to go to Northside. When The Comet opened in 1995 it took most of our customers. Northside became the place.

Katie Laur: They had a dream and they wanted to turn Over-the-Rhine into Mt. Adams. To be fair, in the early days people didn’t wanna get rid of the black presence, they wanted it to be mixed income. They thought we would be richer for it.

Dan Aren: At Jefferson Hall, the residents would come up and put their hands against the window trying to see in, and it felt kind of bad that [I] could afford to get in, but they lived there and they couldn’t. People that live in a place like that, they have that sense of belonging, like it’s theirs, like they own it. And it’s never really theirs until they own it.

Katie Laur: There’s almost no way of discussing Main without discussing Old St. Mary’s Church. They would never, ever sell any of those [church-owned] buildings or move any of them, so they were like the final roadblock to any progress. What the church saw there was alcoholism and bad living and they weren’t about to let go of their toehold.

Julie Fay: We need to be pursuing economic development opportunities. We need to be pursuing things that create jobs. This social service thing and the housing for people with problems needs to be dissipated. They can’t all be here.

Deborah Hammonds: I’m all for new development. If you don’t grow, you’ll die.

Marge Hammelrath: When I heard the news that Michael Baney was shot I just started calling people and said, “Meet in my office at 10 a.m. This is just gonna kill everything we’ve done.” Up until then, [street] people just hung out sitting on corners—and they were neighbors—but they were just drinking all the time. I said, Can we do something about that? So every time we saw someone sitting out drinking, the police made them pour it out. They didn’t like losing their beer so they stopped.

Terence Hammonds: There were always [neighborhood] drunks on Main Street—One-Eyed Eddie or the lady who talked to her pack of cigarettes. [But] they were characters, not people coming down to get pissy drunk and return to their picket fences.

The Riots and the End of an Era

Despite some trepidation raised by the Baney murder, the nightlife and gallery-hopping continued. By the late 1990s, the street was home to high-tech startups, too. But the bright future that seemed to be Main Street’s destiny was eclipsed on April 7, 2001, when an unarmed 19-year-old black man named Timothy Thomas was shot by Officer Stephen Roach in an alley off of Republic Street, sparking three days of rioting throughout OTR and downtown. Cincinnati’s tragic, tumultuous spring of 2001 was followed five months later by 9/11 and an economic downturn. There’s little agreement about how much the riots contributed to Main’s demise. But it’s hard to deny that the entertainment district’s glow was dimmed when the larger neighborhood went through such upheaval.

Julie Fay: The riots weren’t a big deal but it was made to be a big deal by the media. [They] were overstated, overblown. Must’ve been a slow week for news nationally.

Mike Markiewicz: I was amazed the media made such a thing of it. It hurt Kaldi’s. It scared the suburbs.

Denise Kalmus-Weinstein: We didn’t even know there was a riot until [my husband’s] mom called and said, “They’re coming down the street!” They didn’t bother us. During the riots, nothing happened to us.

Leah Spurrier: We had a neighbor who’d just driven in from Cleveland and had no idea what was going on and had a brick thrown through his window and his head was gashed in.

Katie Laur: There was a lotta fightin’ goin’ on between the artists and the policemen because the artists thought it had been all overblown. One of the bartenders said, “I’ve seen better riots at a Hanson concert.”

Terence Hammonds: I found out about the riots [at college] on CNN in Boston when I saw a picture of Kaldi’s with the window broken. My roommate, also from Cincinnati, told me to call my family to make sure they were safe. And my mother said, “Baby, ain’t nothin’ to worry about. That ain’t no real riot.”

Katie Laur: The first Sunday after the first curfew Marge Hammelrath did a nice thing: She laid out trestle tables and got Big Joe Duskin to come and play and I came and sang a song. She got food donated and she just about forcibly made blacks and whites sit down together and eat.

Marge Hammlerath: The cops weren’t happy about it but I said, “We need to heal down here.” People donated hot dogs and brought salads and there was a line of homeless people down to 13th and we got ’em all fed. We needed that day.

Terry Carter: The 2001 riots destroyed everything. After the riots, there were so many shootings. Most of my clientele were your middle- and high-income people, and the last thing they want is a confrontation with someone.

Dan Aren: After the riots I don’t think I went back. Ever.

Julie Fay: Then came 9/11. I think 9/11 killed us as much or more. People weren’t spending money on anything and they stopped coming.

Leah Spurrier: There was an organic neighborhood pre-riot and there was a deteriorating one after the riot, but it happened slow.

Waiting for a Revival

In the years after the riots, every Main Street business that closed or moved was another wound to the beleaguered street. From nightspots like Neon’s and Jefferson Hall Saloon to artsy operations such as St. Theresa Textile Trove and Susana Terrell Gallery, the old timers from the glory days dwindled. New names—Moose on Main, Main Street Blues, Club Clau, Sycamore Gardens—came and went. The OTR Chamber of Commerce and the OTR Foundation kept their offices on the street and Final Fridays continued with whatever galleries remained. Volunteers began a street fair, Second Sundays on Main, to bring visitors back. MidPoint Music Festival, the upstart indie rock event, used Main Street bars and clubs as venues until there were too few of them to accommodate the growing annual gig. For years, Main Street still seemed like the logical priority for Over-the-Rhine revitalization, and many were disappointed that 3CDC’s earliest efforts focused not on Main Street, but on Fountain Square and Vine.

Marge Hammelrath: [The riots] had everything to do with Main Street’s demise. People hung on and hung on until they couldn’t and they lost their shirts.

Deborah Hammonds: Before the riots, you could walk out on Main Street and you had white people lined up. It used to amaze me, the lines of people waiting. And after the riots, it was a ghost town. I no longer felt safe getting the bus.

Bill Baum: It took me a while to realize [the riots had] broken the cycle. It was just too easy to go someplace else.

Julie Fay: Just like the bar scene moves around, the cool scene moves around. The slum seems to be here forever.

Denise Kalmus-Weinstein: It’s like the waters are very still. I’ve been here 21 years. It’s almost like I don’t feel anything anymore. I don’t feel one way or another.

Terence Hammonds: Instead of fixing the entire neighborhood and letting that spread out, it seems like [developers] spend a little time on one spot and let that die off, and spend a little time in another place and let that die off.

Katie Laur: They always say artists find some place cheap to live and then people come along and develop it and run the artists off, which is what happened to me. [Developers] didn’t want me living there, they really wanted me gone. I was some symbol, some face of the past. We ended bitterly, for which I’m sorry, but I never understood what threat I am and when I walk down there now it makes me sick to my stomach. It’s beat down. It looks like something out of a James Baldwin novel.

Can Main Street Rise Again?

The tantalizing smell of success in the Gateway Quarter along Vine Street—chic condos, eclectic shops, and hip cafés—wafts east to Main Street in the form of 3CDC’s crisp signs advertising retail space for lease. Bill Baum is condo-izing Good Fellows Hall at 1306 Main; the “Falling Wall” building in the 1400 block; and the Belmain (the former home of both Kaldi’s and Katie Laur) as a LEED-certified green building. But to some, the death notice for the Golden Age of Main Street was written late last year, when Kaldi’s closed for good. Certainly Main Street is on 3CDC’s to-do list: there’s talk of attracting one-of-a-kind retail and avoiding the sort of boozing-and-cruising establishments that spoiled it as a residential street before. But Vine Street and Washington Park have more pressing development needs. So, ironically, the street that was once touted as an example of urban renewal seems stuck in limbo. A further irony: that puts it closer in temperament to the way it was before the artists, bars, and nightlife arrived. It feels isolated again, ready to be rediscovered.

Leah Spurrier: Over-the-Rhine is a treasure. It’s a national treasure. But everybody has a different idea of what the treasure should be.

Colleen McTague: In order to sustain a population here, there’s got to be economic development and there needs to be commerce. And it would be best if it’s independently owned. Then the money can circulate within the community. For the life of me, I can’t understand why a small grocery store can’t make it here.

Mike Markiewicz: It’s not as shabbily bohemian as it was, but still bohemian. I think it’s more of a neighborhood than Gateway. It’s a nice street. If I have to be anywhere I’d rather be on Main Street.

Julie Fay: I’m optimistic that this street will have a wonderful character. We have people like me who’ve kept my rent low to artists. I’m hopeful this will be a street that caters to a cross-section of people.

Deborah Hammonds: I don’t get back there too often, but Main Street is my heart. There’s still a lot about Main Street that I love. It’ll always be my heart.

Katie Laur: It will change because it always has. If you’re gonna learn about the future, know the past.

Terence Hammonds: Knowing Cincinnati, they’ll wait 20 years or so and do the same thing, not having learned from past mistakes. Maybe they’ll move to revitalize it again. Seems [like] this city is all about the facade, not the whole picture.

Terry Carter: The city has to do more of the police walking a beat, to have an evening presence there all the time. You have to have the police there to make people wanna go.

Marge Hammelrath: It would just be a fabulous thing for our city and for tourists if it were lively with shops again. It’s not going to be a Walmart, but it’s perfect for entrepreneurs.

Bill Baum: If Main Street can’t make it—if Over-the-Rhine can’t make it—Cincinnati can’t make it.

Originally published in the September 2009 issue.

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