#CM50: Growing Up

As our city shrunk over five decades, it has also blossomed into a major metropolis and matured in its approach to civic challenges.

I don’t remember the first time I laid eyes on the Regency Tower, but it had to be in late 1967, the year it opened—and the year I graduated from college. Peggy Wulsin, the aging matriarch of the Baldwin Piano Company’s founding family, had sold the land to a developer because, as she said to one of her friends, she wanted to ensure something that would “stabilize” the neighborhood.

Illustration by Andrew Holder


“The Hermitage,” the family home she was surrendering, sat on 14 wooded acres at the intersection of Madison Road and Dana Avenue and for generations had been a landmark in Hyde Park. Its loss was symptomatic of the age: Large estates in urban settings had become white elephants.

None of which, at the time, was of any real concern to me. Preoccupied with post-graduate obsessions—including a job—I did not immediately focus on the new structure or, more precisely, on the way it obscured the Withrow High School clock tower. The latter, of course, sits at the west end of Erie Avenue on a precise axis with the street; at that time, it defined all the space around it, forward and back and side-to-side.

Throughout my childhood, and for many years prior, this tower had been the centerpiece of one of the East Side’s most picturesque vistas—a tall and pristine adornment at the terminus of a lovely, canopied street featuring handsome, two-story houses. Now, suddenly, the Regency Tower, 20 floors of gray cement, seemingly as wide as it was tall, overwhelmed all that. I could do nothing but mourn.

It is this transition—from small to large—that, for me, is the most significant thing to have happened in Cincinnati over the past half-century.

I still do. At the same time, and with the glorious benefit of hindsight, I now recognize something about the Regency that escaped me then. The new apartment complex, with its vast spaces and ability to house hundreds rather than just one family, was a harbinger of the many ways Cincinnati was about to change.

Just past mid-century, our beloved and familiar Home-by-the-River was about to evolve into a metropolis with institutions and amenities targeted to serving vastly larger populations than we had known before. A place that many had forever thought to have a small-town feel was going to feel small no longer.

Although the transition would not take place overnight, it would surface fast enough. And when it did, nothing seemed the same.

The city we live in today is no more the city we lived in 50 years ago than Procter & Gamble is the same company it was 50 years ago. And for all the remarkable things that have happened along the way, it is this transition—from small to large—that, for me, is the most significant thing to have happened in Cincinnati over the past half-century.

A couple of anecdotes bolster my case. In 1971, when I was single and working downtown, I was asked by a friend to go to the airport on a Friday night and meet a young woman coming in from New York around 9:30 p.m. As I say, I was young and single and by 8:30 or so that evening had consumed enough good spirits that others in our group thought it best that I not drive from Hyde Park to the airport. So what did we do? We called the airport and had our visitor paged! Can you imagine? Yes, this woman reminds me now (I eventually married her), there were several “courtesy” phones, and when she picked one up, a friendly voice confirmed her name, then said, “Hi, Hon. Got a pencil?” The voice told her to take a cab to our address. No problem! (A corollary to this story: John P. Williams, former president of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, told me that the airport in those days had only one runway. In fact, the airport was built with four runways, but Williams’s faulty recollection perfectly illustrates our yen to see the past as so much simpler in so many ways.)

The second anecdote involves a fund-raising activity that my young wife became involved in soon after we were married, in 1973. It was to sing and dance in one of the many pick-up musicals coordinated by Eleanor Strauss, wife of noted local architect Carl Strauss, to generate money for (among others) the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Eleanor’s pool of acolytes included lyricists, singers, and dancers. The lyricists would write words with local relevance set to tunes from popular Broadway musicals; the others would sing, dance, and sell tickets. And maybe they would raise about $35,000.

Today, in the context of hundreds-of-dollars-a-head galas and extravaganzas, replete with professional entertainment and dinner-by-the-bite, it all sounds so innocent, even quaint. But in those days, it was a meaningful contribution to the charity. (Another corollary: Dick Rosenthal, local philanthropist and former proprietor of F&W Publications, Inc., recalls his mother competing with other ladies to sell CSO subscriptions. She was the leading salesperson many years and, for her efforts, was offered an honorary seat on the CSO board. Another era entirely!)

That was the Cincinnati I knew growing up. Fifty years ago, the Reds still played at Crosley Field. The Cincinnati Opera performed at the zoo. Coney Island, not Kings Island, was our amusement park. Federated was still above the Shillito’s department store; Shillito’s was still thriving downtown, as was Pogue’s—thriving sufficiently that, not many years prior, the two stores were influential enough to compel city planners to create two I-75 exits, at Seventh Street and Fifth Street, in ridiculously close proximity because neither could stand seeing traffic diverted toward the other. McAlpin’s and Mabley & Carew were still with us. Graeter’s employed charmless ladies to scoop the cones, and our neighborhood shopping districts were mostly intact, with German bakeries, produce markets, and hardware stores.

Buddy LaRosa, one of several people I talked with for perspective on this story, opened his second pizza outlet in 1967. Although he had been born in the basin, he was by then living on the West Side (where he has remained), and he remembers vividly the many other restaurants popular nearby: Habig’s and the Window Garden in Westwood, Captain Al’s on River Road, Forest View Gardens on North Bend Road and Shuller’s Wigwam in College Hill (all now gone). Mount St. Joseph College, he recalls, was a shadow of what it has become.

LaRosa, ever the businessman (“I have a ‘good, better, best mentality’”), also recalls that many locally-owned businesses were changing hands about this time: Drackett (makers of Drano and Windex), Andrew Jergens Company (makers of soaps and lotions), Heekin Can, Kahn’s Meats, Lunkenheimer Valve, and all of the city’s local breweries: Burger, Hudepohl, Wiedemann, Red Top. (With 75 pizza outlets in the region today, LaRosa’s business has clearly gone the other way. I asked him why that is, and his answer was succinct: “Vision. Passion alongside vision makes it happen.”)

Of course, it is always possible that memory plays tricks, but I feel like it was more the norm, 50 years ago, to go almost anywhere—to a musical at the Shubert, to the record booths at the Song Shop, to have a soda at Mullane’s—and run into someone you knew. Unquestionably, a certain intimacy has been lost.

But here’s the irony: The city of Cincinnati today, within its official limits, is a good deal smaller than it was in 1967. Our population is slightly less than 300,000. (By the same measure, it is smaller than Columbus and Cleveland and even Lexington.) Local population peaked with the 1950 census, at 503,998. Ten years later, it was virtually the same, but by 1970 it had slipped to just over 450,000, and it has continued to drop steadily.

Conversely, our metropolitan statistical area (MSA), which now includes 15 counties in Ohio (five), Kentucky (seven), and Indiana (three), is a whole lot bigger. Although the way the government defines MSA has changed frequently since 1950—adding more counties as population within them boomed—we are by any reckoning about 40 percent larger today than we were in the middle of the 20th century. Which is to say, our MSA count in 1950 was just over 1.5 million; today it is just under 2.2 million.

Buildings like Western & Southern’s Queen City Square and the ever-expanding Children’s Hospital complex, two riverfront stadiums, Kings Island, ArtWorks murals, Lumenocity, Riverfest and Oktoberfest, programming at Fountain Square, and a mushrooming Mason are all manifestations of this larger world. All take nourishment from the much larger urban environment we now inhabit.

Roxanne Qualls, former Cincinnati mayor, told me, “We have purposely transformed ourselves into a major city. We did it with a lot of vision and a lot of dollars. The central riverfront and Over-the-Rhine have provided psychological and sociological momentum for a new community perspective, one that says, ‘Yes, we can be a major city.’ They have made a physical difference by reclaiming and redeveloping important public spaces for people who want to be downtown, and they have made an attitudinal difference by encouraging people to live in our neighborhoods as well—places like Pleasant Ridge, Corryville, Mt. Auburn, and Walnut Hills. People want an urban experience, a place that’s walkable, with restaurants, easier commutes. Now they see that they can have exactly that in many places within the city. Other investments—the Contemporary Arts Center, Music Hall, Memorial Hall—have all contributed. Everyone has had vision, and vision is what motivates people to implement strategy.”

Qualls seems to back up, or at least lend credence to, my own view of how the city has evolved in 50 years. But how might others come at it? Does our evolution from smaller to larger really stand up as the biggest change in 50 years? In search of a broader consensus, I questioned a number of Cincinnatians. Not surprisingly, and to a person, they view what has happened through the prisms of their own values and priorities.

“We’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into political correctness,” said Lee Carter, longtime community volunteer and chair of the Children’s Hospital board of trustees for 12 years, from 1996 to 2008. “It used to be that Gene Ruehlmann and Bill Gradison, on City Council, could get together with a few prominent business leaders, and Bingo! Whatever was needed was a fait accompli. Now it’s much more complicated. We have to deal with people we didn’t have to deal with before. But I think it’s a good thing. It’s no longer ‘we’ versus ‘them.’ It’s empowering people in a given situation to effect change. That’s what leaders do.”

In many ways, Carter’s mantra is collaboration between disparate interest groups—not necessarily a sign of a bigger city, but certainly of a more mature city.

Ann Santen, former general manager of WGUC and head of the search committee that brought CSO conductor Louis Langree to Cincinnati: “In 1967, the city already had a fine reputation for the arts. But then, in 1970, Thomas Schippers became the conductor of the CSO, and Music Hall was filled with this charismatic, blue-eyed god. A year later, the opera moved from the zoo to Music Hall. The biggest difference in the arts between then and now is the depth we have today. Along with the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, we have a CSO that commissions new works; we have MusicNow, which brings international artists and new music; we are playing repertoire from the ’30s and ’40s that we never had before; and we have Concert Nova, featuring the CSO playing unusual repertoire in nontraditional venues. We even have a May Festival that uses visuals, which is helpful in attracting younger audiences.”

Santen might also have cited how much more live theater we have now than we did 50 years ago, how impressively the Cincinnati Ballet has developed, how substantively the Contemporary Arts Center has evolved, and how enhanced is the Taft Museum as a result of its recent facelift. All evidence of a growing community.

Marian Spencer and the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., both long-time civil rights activists, agreed that in terms of race relations and civil rights much good has been accomplished—but there is still a considerable distance to go.

“Minorities are represented on council, and this has been a better place to live for it,” Spencer said. “The school system is open to everyone, everyplace. We’re more aware today of the need to get minorities involved in the organizations that run the city. The very fact that a black woman is running for mayor says a lot. Still, there are never enough changes for me. I always say, ‘Faster, better, broader!’”

“In 1967, with the Avondale riots, the city was on fire,” Lynch said. “They were part of people saying, ‘We’ve had enough.’ There was another riot in ’68. The only way people could get their message across was to act it out, to burn it down. And…change for the better came. We got programs that made a difference. We got a Metropolitan Religious Coalition that tried to bridge the gap between people and make us more tolerant. Now we have the ability to go where we want and do what we want. But we don’t have the money or the jobs that enable it, so we can’t participate the way we’d like to.

“After the riots was a rough period in Cincinnati. We saw a lot of white flight. People said they needed to go to better schools, so they left the public schools and took all their money and resources with them. We were not integrating well. Now all the jobs are in the suburbs, and we can’t get to them. My whole life has been lived on the hope that maybe it will get better. We have had to suffer, but that’s good. Only through suffering do you achieve redemption.”

White flight. Could there be a better descriptor of significant change over the past five decades? Keep in mind our dramatically declining population census during the ’70s and ’80s. While hardly unique to Cincinnati, it is key to our metropolitan spread and an ongoing reminder of the gap between black and white that still characterizes our city.

If I can point to any consensus on the biggest change in Cincinnati over the past 50 years and, correspondingly, the most important change, it is the transformation of Over-the-Rhine. The revival of the riverfront (The Banks) is a close second. Introduction of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), the public-private partnership that has enabled both, wins high plaudits as well. People who feel this way often come to their conclusion after a rueful recitation of what was not happening in Cincinnati, or was happening—in their views—the wrong way, for most of the decades between 1967 and now.

The core city was a black hole, developer Bill Baum told me. A visionary who launched the redevelopment of upper Main Street in the early ’80s, he added, “We thought if the city had any hope of expansion, it would be into the cornfields to the north. Then we saw these nice, fun buildings close to the core, victims of classic blight, and we thought maybe something could change. We felt if we could get to the point where the average Joe felt he could live, work, shop, and dine here, we might have something.”

Neil Bortz, father of the modern Mt. Adams, remembers plans for (and construction of) new office buildings in the 1980s, but nothing for entertainment, nothing for housing. “In the ’80s we blew it,” he said. “Downtown was going nowhere.”

Current Vice Mayor David Mann, who returned to Cincinnati after law school in the late ’60s just as the Dubois Tower (now Fifth Third Center) was re-shaping Fountain Square, watched as, subsequently, the Westin Hotel replaced the Albee Theater, a network of skywalks came and went, the convention center metastasized, an early ’80s Urban Land Institute study declared that the city needed more people living downtown (“but the business community could not get excited about it”) and “only Jim Tarbell (local businessman and city councilman) and Marge Hammelrath (former director of the now-defunct Memorial Hall Society) seemed interested in Over-the-Rhine.”

Tarbell, for his part, told me that what we’re doing now is what we should have been doing in the ’70s, that the lack of attention to housing downtown was a woeful oversight in the various master plans and programs for redevelopment of the city. “We were, and we need to be, the leader of the region,” he said. “It was all about being smarter and more generous. If we had brought to urban renewal for housing the same clout that we brought to businesses, we’d be riding high.”

Fifty years ago, he said, the city “still had integrity.” But with the exodus to the suburbs—perhaps first signaled by Union Central Life’s relocating to Forest Park—and the dispersal or destruction of such long-time downtown institutions as St. Xavier High School, the Cox and the Palace Theaters, the Interstates’ displacement of 40,000 people in the West End, and—worst of all—the loss of so much of our inner-city population, we are forced to play catch-up to the city we aspire to be.

“We can’t get back to 500,000,” Tarbell told me. “We haven’t got the infrastructure. But we could get to 400,000.” His implication: More is better. From which I extrapolated: More is richer, stronger, livelier, healthier.

The redevelopment of Over-the Rhine encapsulates all of those qualities. People who want the best for Cincinnati and have been frustrated that the last 50 years haven’t brought more of it recognize that.

“3CDC is astonishing,” Baum said. “That’s where the fun is.” His development of Upper Main was, in its way, a template for OTR.

“The impact of 3CDC is extraordinary,” Dick Rosenthal said. “The riverfront, which was warehouses for much of my life, is just amazing.”

“OTR has been a turning point,” Neil Bortz said. “Now we’re beginning to have an image. For so long, we were caretakers—modest caretakers—of what our forefathers had built. Now we’re a city on the move. Our doors are open for business.”

Damon Lynch Jr. expands the geographical bounds of what has changed almost miraculously, but his view echoes what the others are saying: “The most important thing that has happened, in my estimation, is the development of downtown. I have books from when the city was densely populated, and I like it better now. There are a lot of attractive buildings, but the Freedom Center is my favorite—not only for the architecture, but for the reason it was built. I know a lot of people would disagree—Carew Tower is the most important—but the Freedom Center came at a pivotal time in history and brought about far wider recognition of the savagery and hopes for salvation that it represents.”

Buddy LaRosa, who recalls living in tenements by the river when he was a kid, agrees: “The redevelopment of the riverfront is the most important change that has come to our city.”

Add it all up, and I suspect that the way Cincinnati has morphed over the last half-century will always be in the eyes of the beholder. I started this project thinking our evolution from small-town feel to large metropolis environment was most defining. Now hearing so many other points of view, all valid, I am less certain.

Reflecting on the fundamental character of Cincinnati, John Williams said, “The world has always moved on relationships, and this community particularly exemplifies that. Cincinnati is big enough that we have a little of all the good things, but we also have crime, under-performing education, childhood poverty. I’ve always called it a big little city. Things have gotten done because it’s small enough that if you want to make a difference you can. Here a small businessman can rub elbows with P&G executives. The opportunities, which create institutions like Children’s Hospital, enable us to play way above our game.”

Bill Baum had a similar thought: “It’s a big little town. It’s fun to go to New York, but you do feel overwhelmed. Here, it’s nice to be part of what’s going on.”

Big little town. I can accept that.

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