For our August 2017 issue, we explored Cincinnati’s rebuilding boom.
Avondale, Northside, Clifton, Walnut Hills. What do these neighborhoods have in common? Sidewalks. Front stoops. Street after street of orderly homes and apartment buildings that prioritize people, not cars. A blend of residential and commercial spaces, single-family homes, and apartments. In short, density. But it doesn’t end there: These are historic districts as well, each with a cohesive design and a unique personality that sets them apart within the city.
“In Cincinnati there are some blurred lines in between neighborhoods—sometimes people don’t know if they’re in Walnut Hills or East Walnut Hills. But by God you know when you’re in Mt. Adams. You know when you’re in Mt. Lookout,” explains Jeff Raser, principal architect at Glaserworks. “And great old neighborhoods have great old cores that have heart and soul in that space. There is no doubt where the center of Hyde Park is—it’s Hyde Park Square. That may not be the geographical center, but that’s the center.”
From the 1880s until around 1920, Cincinnati’s nascent neighborhoods enjoyed something of a building boom. Over-the-Rhine, for example, saw massive investment in multi-story residential apartments, thanks to the beer barons who ran the city in the late 19th century and needed homes within walking distance for their employees. In places like Oakley, whole blocks of tidy single-family homes sprang up virtually overnight. And the original electric streetcar system, which began operation in 1889, built a network of tracks that crossed the city, connecting people from Westwood to Madisonville—240 miles of track, according to the Cincinnati Street Railway Company’s in-house newspaper in 1941. “That helped the development pattern tremendously,” notes Raser. “Cincinnati made very efficient use of our land by having a good transportation system.”
Many of the buildings and homes that we now consider historic gems were designed to accommodate the realities of early 20th century urban life: walking and the use of public transit. This critical mass of development happened well before America became the car-obsessed country that it is now—a cultural shift that dealt a deathblow to the first streetcar generation in the early 1950s. Homes that were built after the car became king tell a very different lifestyle story, prioritizing double lots and two-car garages over walkability.
That original streetcar system may be gone, but the benefits of its good design live on well into the 21st century. These neighborhoods continue to be at the top of homebuyers’ lists because they are either continually exceptional or ripe for redevelopment. And as each precinct takes its turn in the rehab boom (looking at you, Norwood), we can remember why our original urban plan worked in the first place: When you live in a well-designed neighborhood, you feel part of your city—part of something larger than your own little lot in life. “In a neighborhood like Over-the-Rhine, for example, most buildings aren’t architectural gems in and of themselves. OTR is the whole being greater than the sum of its parts,” Raser explains. “It’s the fabric of the neighborhood that makes a street wonderful.”