The Name Game

Illustration by Ryan Snook

Near the corner of Glenway Avenue and Guerley Road stands Price Hill Chili, a rambling batch of interconnected buildings that opened as a single storefront in 1962. At “PHC” you’ll find perhaps the purest distillation of the west side, particularly the old-school Price Hill variety. On any given night or weekend morning, the place is a busy bustle of diners—many of whom know each other through the intricate web of west side connections that bind us like family. Amid the harried servers, clatter of dishes, and Elder sports memorabilia, people mingle among the tables, stopping to catch up on who’s doing what. At the hostess stand, you can buy shirts that announce “West Price Hill—Where Life Is Good” in black or gray, as a polo, long-, or short-sleeve T-shirt.

But a short walk down Glenway from Price Hill Chili—217 steps to be exact—stands the Covedale Branch of the Hamilton County library system. Next door to the library stands the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts. So is this Covedale or Price Hill? Complicating the question is the Western Hills Professional Building squatting between the restaurant and library. You might wonder, “Where the hell am I?”

A little clarification: The name “Western Hills” is simply a blanket term for this part of town and doesn’t refer to any previously incorporated area. Documents dating back to the 1930s even styled it The Western Hills. The Price Hill vs. Covedale confusion is a far stickier question. It has led to petitions and passionate editorials, argumentative meetings and snappish posts on web forums, even a push to change the official boundaries. West Price Hillians argue that the name already is official. The areas previously known as Price Hill and Covedale were annexed by Cincinnati in 1930 and now exist on the city’s maps under one name: West Price Hill. Case closed.

But many west-siders have informally referred to an amorphous western part of Price Hill for years as Covedale. Fueling their argument, they point to the library and the performing arts center, which was built in the late 1940s as the Covedale Theater. Nearby you’ll find Covedale School and Covedale Avenue, which runs parallel to Glenway Avenue for roughly a mile, through the heart of what Covedalians call Covedale. In fact, they have begun calling that particular stretch the “Covedale Garden District,” featuring quaint streetlamps and charming Tudor Revival homes, mostly built in the 1930s, with sharply pitched Spanish-tile roofs and fieldstone facades. On the west side (and to real estate agents throughout the city), the name “Covedale” implies a step up from “Price Hill.”

Of course, Price Hill is a big area—over six square miles—and its streets vary widely in terms of home values. A good number of West Price Hill homes are far more elaborate than those in the Covedale Garden District, but others, well, aren’t. Likewise, many homes in Covedale are pretty standard Cincinnati fare. The names, therefore, are evocative more of image than reality.

To better legislate what was Cincinnati’s largest neighborhood, the city, in the mid-1970s, officially broke Price Hill into three sections—Lower, East, and West—all of which have images of their own. Within those formal designations, people informally use names like Covedale, Overlook, the Incline District, and Eighth and State. And then there’s a whole other level of socio-geographic naming that goes on. Following west side tradition, it’s even more common for denizens to tag areas with the names of Catholic parishes. You state your location—and a good bit about your background and economic status—by noting you are from St. Lawrence or St. Teresa or Holy Family.

Non-west-siders might scoff that this type of muddle is normal over here, which is one reason why they always get lost when they venture across the Mill Creek Valley. But the confusion recently has led to a battle that undermines the unity for which the west side is known. Last summer the fight about what to call where spilled into the Livable Communities Committee of Cincinnati City Council, where Covedale made known its desire to secede from West Price Hill and become the city’s 53rd officially designated neighborhood.

Secession is, of course, a fightin’ word. Still, I wondered why the West Price Hill vs. Covedale debate had taken on such importance, and why it was shot through with such vitriol. I set out to find the answers—and quickly came to regret my decision. I haven’t suffered through so many tense conversations since Parent-Teacher nights when my sons were in grade school.

The combating groups—the Price Hill Civic Club and the Covedale Neighborhood Association—don’t sound so tough. But both mean business and neither plans to budge anytime soon. The debate jumped to a new level in 2008 when the PHCC, the official body that represents West Price Hill, erected a number of street signs saying “West Price Hill.” A big sign on both sides of the officially recognized borders proclaims, “Welcome to West Price Hill.” For the CNA, those signs, some of which were located in what they call Covedale, were commensurate to firing on Ft. Sumter. The war officially had begun.

Into their front lawns Covedalians stabbed signs announcing “A Proud Covedale Resident” in blue block letters. And right below the bold headline: “Demanding Equal Recognition.” The CNA circulated a petition, gaining more than 500 signatures, objecting to the signs and demanding recognized boundaries. Commentaries written by Jim Grawe, head of the CNA, began appearing frequently in west side editions of the Community Press. In a commentary he penned in October of last year, Grawe declared: “…a few Price Hill zealots…[are] using sophisticated propaganda and repression…[to] stifle public discussion and suppress our Covedale heritage. Now, wielding their political power, they secure public funds to erect West Price Hill signs within the accepted Covedale boundaries, even after being informed that it would upset a great number of local residents.”

In Grawe’s editorials the point is always the same: Covedalians have been crushed under the boot of West Price Hill, and they are fighting back. Last August, they presented their case to the council’s Livable Communities Committee. Hesitant to take the feud before the entire city council, the committee decided the groups should reach a mutually agreeable solution themselves. In the meantime, the signs would remain in place. Committee chairperson Roxanne Qualls suggested that perhaps the signs could be covered up until an agreement was reached.

Mark Armstrong, president of the PHCC, defends the signs. “The boundaries of the city were respected,” he says. “We did this with the city. Despite what’s being said, we’re not trying to change anything. Our task is to promote West Price Hill, and that’s what we’re doing.” Armstrong adds that part of the section Grawe wants to officially recognize as Covedale is West Price Hill’s central business district—the aforementioned Price Hill Chili, library, performing arts center, Refuge Coffee Bar, and a number of other retailers. “On the official map of Cincinnati neighborhoods, there is no mention of Covedale,” Armstrong says.

Grawe, however, points to the city map used in the Cincinnati Metropolitan Master Plan in 1948, which does cite Covedale. He also mentions that Green Township includes Covedale in its list of six neighborhoods. That’s right: to make things even more complicated, part of what is known as Covedale is in Green Township. Another part stretches into Delhi Township. And then there’s the part that’s in Price Hill. Grawe wants to end the confusion.

“People need to have a clear sense of place,” he says while seated in his dining room above the hair salon he owns on Sidney Road. (His opponents frequently note that the building stands just beyond the city limits, so that he isn’t a city resident and shouldn’t be raising such issues.) “And what they’re telling us is that we don’t exist. Covedale doesn’t exist.”

You may be wondering, as I did, couldn’t they just say they’re from West Price Hill? Well, yes. But would their property value drop as a result? That question cuts to the heart of the matter. Covedalians don’t want to list their homes as being in Price Hill. And the only thing they hate worse than people calling their neighborhood West Price Hill is a listing for a home in Price Hill that claims to be in Covedale. Do such house-listing shenanigans really go on? I asked a few real estate agents I know to get a more accurate sense of the situation. None would go on record, and all sounded relieved to end the conversation, which they did as quickly as possible.

“It’s a volatile situation,” one said. I asked another if the same house listed as Covedale would have a lower price—and value—if it were listed as Price Hill.

“There would be a difference in perception,” the agent said before hurrying off the phone.

It’s a hot-button issue that few people, other than Grawe, want to discuss. I couldn’t even get the Price Hill Historical Society to confirm some historical facts. They want no part of this fight. And so, rather than a parochial, largely semantic feud, we have what amounts to a class war, one in which property valuations appear to be at stake. Both sides seem to feel that the outcome could affect the survival of the area as a place “where life is good.”

 

Grawe often says that part of his fight is to preserve the history of Covedale, though there really isn’t a whole lot of documented history to preserve. No record exists, for example, of why the area was named Covedale. In the extensive document the CNA prepared for the council committee to prove that Covedale is a separate locale, 19th century maps of the area do cite the name. On the other hand, they also cite Warsaw, Cedar Grove, and St. Peters, all of which have receded into history.

Like many west side communities in the 19th century, what we know as Covedale was mostly farmland. The names on maps usually were applied to tiny business districts that included little more than an inn, a blacksmith shop, maybe a schoolhouse, and a general store. Though mentions of a place called Covedale can be found as early as the 1830s, according to The Cincinnati Historical Society’s The Bicentennial Guide to Greater Cincinnati, Covedale was established in the 1920s as people moved farther west from the city. Price Hill had been established much earlier. Evans Price started a community at the bottom of the hill, on the western side of the Mill Creek Valley. His son Rees continued to develop the area, and Rees’s son William helped to build the incline that connected what was then called “Price’s Hill” and the city.

Better roads, extended streetcar tracks, and the opening of the Western Hills viaduct eased travel, but the culture remained isolated and entrenched—German, Irish, and Italian Catholics—and that’s the way they liked it. What they didn’t like was the migration, beginning in the 1930s, of Appalachians to the bottom of the hill. As the Appalachians moved slowly up the hill, previous residents moved farther west, fusing with areas such as Covedale. Though that name remained in use (and Grawe is quick to whip out photos and advertisements to prove it), the smaller places sort of became known collectively as Price Hill—and when the area was annexed, the “sort of” became official.

 

While attending high school in Price Hill, I don’t recall any talk of east and west. Price Hill very definitely was “upper” and “lower.” And those designations weren’t just geographical. “Lower” meant lower in just about any way you can imagine. “Lower” meant the Appalachians, sometimes more uncharitably referred to as “hillbillies” and “river rats.”

Folks from “upper” looked down on them while also fearing they would spread up the hill, bringing crime, drugs, and the ruination of their property values. Of course, people from outside Price Hill did not make such a distinction. They included all Price Hillians in that characterization. Sometimes they used euphemisms such as “blue collar” and “working class,” but we knew what they meant. When I was at Elder in the blow-dry 1970s, other schools called all of us “greasers”—a rabble of hillbilly hot-rodders who slicked back their hair like Elvis and exuded the personal sophistication and upward mobility of The Fonz. Of course, no one hates a stereotype more than someone who fears being lumped into it, so the distinctions on the west side remained hard and fast.

This sort of social or ethnic stereotyping (and segregation) goes back even further. During World War I, a wave of anti-German sentiment crashed across the U.S., even in good old Zinzinnati. Germans were called “huns” and “krauts.” In Price Hill, developer John Mueller went so far as christening a new street “Relleum,” his own German-sounding name spelled backward. Though anti-German sentiment faded, the street is a reminder of America’s fickle characterization of ethnic groups as acceptable—or not.

In Price Hill today, the ethnic character is changing again, which is part of the reason the argument about names has reached a new intensity. The first decade of the 21st century saw the demolition of several large low-income housing projects in the West End and Westwood—Laurel Homes, Lincoln Court, and English Woods. Their destruction was part of a national trend toward decentralizing poverty. Looked at more cynically, many dollars were being invested in gentrifying downtown areas, and destroying those places was part of “cleaning up the neighborhood.” No doubt many Cincinnatians applauded the effort to give the disadvantaged a helping hand, while secretly hoping that the hand didn’t extend too far into their own neighborhoods.

Through national economic assistance programs such as HUD and Hope VI, some of the displaced residents were issued Housing Choice vouchers (commonly called Section 8). In the early and mid 2000s, after the housing projects were demolished, only 26 of those vouchers were used in Price Hill. Still, west-siders feel they have absorbed far more than their fare share of the people displaced from public housing —many of whom are African-American—because they lack the political punch of the east side elite. They can point to the most recent 2010 numbers from HUD, which list East Price Hill as having 520 Section 8 housing units, West Price Hill with 345, and Westwood with 889. By contrast, the combined neighborhoods of Hyde Park, Mt. Lookout, Mt. Adams, the East End, Linwood, Columbia-Tusculum, and California contain a total of 21. Add Pleasant Ridge and the total reaches 284.

As early as 2003, in an issue of New American City magazine, Melva Gweyn, one of the founders of a community group called Westwood Concern, said, “We’re pretty well saturated with Section 8. Since they have expanded [Section 8] so much in our area, we have had a rising crime rate, and people have left the area because they have been accosted by people on the street.” In other words, the issue isn’t that the west side opposes decentralizing poverty as much as it opposes recentralizing it in an area that has long cherished its separateness from the rest of the city.

Cincinnatians reading the newspaper or watching the local news now are hearing about violent crime and gangs and drugs in “Price Hill.” The crime may have occurred in Lower or East Price Hill, but even those at the top of the hill fear that their neighborhood’s reputation as safe and clean is eroding. And Covedalians want no part of that street cred.

“[The PHCC’s] point of view is to market Price Hill by claiming Covedale [so they can] say, ‘See, Price Hill isn’t so bad,’” says Grawe. “They’re claiming all of this to extend the boundaries and saying it’s all Price Hill.”

Armstrong maintains that’s not true. “We haven’t changed the boundaries at all,” he says. “The signs are placed where the boundaries always have been.”

 

The two sides finally met in late September, at a PHCC meeting. If Qualls hoped that they’d reach an agreement, she was wrong.

“It was the most uncomfortable meeting I’ve ever attended that I was invited to,” Grawe recalls. “We wanted them to read our document and then we’d meet again. They wanted to settle the matter right there—and to give us an earful.”

Armstrong remembers it differently: “They brought no solutions, only their demands.” The sides parted having accomplished nothing. “At this time it’s a non-issue,” says Armstrong. “There are no plans to meet again, and it’s not going to come up anytime soon. For the most part, things are quiet on the western front.”

Grawe, however, plans to continue making noise. Armstrong sounds like he wishes Grawe and his Covedale secessionists would just go away. And when you think about it, both positions seem like stereotypical west side attitudes.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love Price Hill,” says Grawe. “My goal is not to embarrass them. But I’m not going to stop.”

“It’s negative drama that we don’t need,” responds Armstrong. “It’s divisive, and it doesn’t reflect well on West Price Hill. I’d rather focus on the positive things happening here and use our energy to keep making things even better.”

And so the debate goes on, as it does among urban neighborhoods throughout the country. For now, life in West Price Hill is still to a large extent good, as the T-shirts claim—no matter what name you call it.

Originally published in the March 2011 issue.

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