A few weeks ago I was at a party in Hyde Park, Cincinnati’s answer to Beacon Hill, talking to a man my grandmother introduced me to as a “real wheeler-dealer.” He told me that his son had gone to Oxford, and that he’d come back home to live in Over-the-Rhine, run for City Council. “You two should link up,” he said. “I can barely keep up with everything happening downtown. You wouldn’t recognize it.” This disturbed me. It’s not in our nature to change quickly.
Cincinnati isn’t a place prone to the usual cataclysms. We had a big flood in 1937 and a locally memorable one sixty years later, but today we’re cut off from the river by levees and highways, and for most of us, all the Ohio can threaten is annoyance, not damage. We had a little earthquake a few years ago, so weak that it barely registered on my Facebook news feed, and our tornadoes are usually about as fierce. The Depression was mild here because it led to a resurgence of river traffic. We had no real housing bubble. We were never burned by the British or Sherman or terrorists.
It’s a quiet town of about 330,000 people bedded down into the hills of Southwest Ohio, which is a confusing area to be from. East Coasters usually call us Midwestern, which is just wrong, topographically speaking, because Midwestern cities are flat, and Cincinnati is almost all hills. Truly Midwestern cities remember that they were on the frontier not so long ago. They’re grafted onto the landscape, not a part of it. When Norman Mailer wrote about seeing Chicago as a “city on the plain,” he meant that on some nights even the burliest Midwestern city looks alone and defenseless on the prairie, as if a tornado or a tribe of Indians could sweep it away. Indianapolis feels that way to me, and so does Omaha. But safe in the Ohio River Valley, Cincinnati feels as smugly permanent as Boston.
Because we’re just barely north of the Mason-Dixon line, Cincinnati is often included on lists of Northern industrial cities, but that’s not really right either. A few weeks ago I was in Nashville, a city I love, and a friend from Canton, in Ohio’s flat Midwestern north, told me, “It figures you’d like it here. You guys are already Southerners.” We did develop a manufacturing economy, and Cincinnati is still known as “Porkopolis” for all the pigs that used to be processed here. But even that name is misleading. As much as anything we were, like Atlanta and Knoxville, a transit center on the way north for all those stuffs that did so much damage to the Southern soil: cotton, tobacco, coal. In the 1880s, at the height of the pig years, we earned two-and-a-half times as much distilling bourbon as we did producing pork.
Even the truly Southern Cincinnatians get confused sometimes. Riding back on the Greyhound from Nashville, I sat next to an electrician on his way home from Dallas to Covington, Kentucky, right across the river from downtown. When I asked him how he liked Texas, he said, “Man, fuck those guys. They hated me because I’m a Yankee.”
Things change so slowly that lovers of the city have developed a whole disorganized campaign to convince people that things really do happen here. Every Cincinnatian my age can probably remember a social studies teacher or parent, flush with civic pride, saying “You know, the Russians pointed a missile at us too.” Walking down Spring Grove Avenue near J. B.’s Honky Tonk and Emporium a while ago, I passed a big brass sign marking where, in 1932, some long-gone company produced the world’s first glass-door oven. Growing up here felt like living outside of history.
So our cataclysms have always been riots, because you riot when you think that nothing will change otherwise or when you’re very, very bored. Researching this piece, I went to the big library downtown and asked the local history librarian for a general interest history of the city. She thought for a minute and said “Honey, I don’t think anyone has ever written one of those,” but she was game to look. In the end we found a book in German from 1896 that had a fairly comprehensive history section.
I flipped to the table of contents, and almost every single entry that wasn’t a sketch of an eminent German dealt with some kind of social uprising. In 1789 “Der Erste Volksverssamlung” appointed William McMillan, a Virginian, like most of our early settlers, to be magistrate of the new city, and soon afterwards he led an attack on a military garrison he thought too rowdy. In the 1830s, a free black community established itself here, leading to the “Abolistionisten Aufruhr,” and by the 1840s, Cincinnati was a Dubai-style boomtown, a swaggering, tough, proto-industrial city of the future. This was when we began getting the only serious influx of immigrants in our history. There were some Jews and more Irish but mostly Bavarian Catholics. They established themselves in Over-the-Rhine and the West End, the two neighborhoods surrounding downtown, and opened beer halls and parish churches, which, in the name of temperance, native Cincinnatians occasionally tried to burn down. This led to both “die erste Kampf mit dem nativischten Loafer” and “der Kampf mit dem Know-Nothings.”
Once the Germans settled in, they even joined some of the later riots, which were all directed at the state: “Der grosse Courthaus-Riot,” “Das Niederbrennen des Courthouses,” and “Der Sturm auf die County Jail.”
This last, in 1884, was one of the bloodiest in American history, and it’s classic Cincinnati: 40,000 brewers and clerks rose up demanding cleaner government and ended up behind barricades shooting at the Ohio National Guard. Fifty-three people were killed, and two weeks later, the city held an election in which it returned the same political machine it had risen up against.
The Germans came to Cincinnati thinking it would grow into an industrial giant, and you can still sense in them an unfulfilled ambition. Procter & Gamble and Kroger groceries were founded here, and in the late 19th century we became a world capital of machine tool milling. But our fundamental bet was on the river and we realized far too late that Chicago would eclipse us by becoming a rail hub. There never was another boom time, and the Slavic and Southern-European migrants who came to the US in the early 20th century mostly avoided Cincinnati and went to Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Instead we had people better suited to the local spirit—blacks leaving the Deep South and Appalachians, who began fleeing the coalfields in the 1940s.
Now the Germans mostly live on the bluffs and in the suburbs of the West Side, and the German men especially are easy to spot at a baseball game, loud and red-nosed from years of drinking and lawn mowing. The Appalachians took the Germans’ place in Over-the-Rhine and the West End, before they too left and moved out along the river and up into the little choke valley that separates the Eastern and Western hills.
Slum clearance began in Cincinnati in the early 1960s.
In 1962, the city replaced the narrow and hilly old Mill Creek Expressway with a new section of Interstate 75, running it through the heart of the West End, one of the city’s densest neighborhoods. “They got the word and they had so many days to get the hell out,” a city councilman later said. At least 15,000 people, mostly poor blacks and Appalachians, were forced out of their homes.
Fifteen thousand people would have been about 4 percent of the city’s population at the time. Displaced black families moved into neighborhoods like Avondale, where my moneyed grandfather was living, Walnut Hills, and Mt. Auburn, all on the central East Side slopes up the hill from the West End and Over-the-Rhine. These areas were early suburbs for the carriage-owning set of Cincinnatians looking to get away from the factories and the Germans in the basin, and many of their old mansions were subdivided and rented. Whites began trickling out of what were briefly some of the only integrated neighborhoods in the city, and middle-class blacks struggled to accommodate the refugees. Then we had a serial killer.
No one knows if the Cincinnati Strangler was just one person, and the suspect police eventually settled on was only convicted of one murder. But someone, or some combination of people, began raping and garroting middle-aged and downright elderly white women in the same central East Side neighborhoods that were just beginning to decline.
The most common story was that a black man, sometimes short, sometimes tall, sometimes mustachioed, sometimes clean shaven, would show up at the door of an apartment house, ask a woman to speak with the caretaker, and subdue her when her back was turned.
Seven women were murdered between 1964 and 1966 and several more were attacked. I asked my mom about the time, and she said, “It was like everyone was on house arrest. My friend and I snuck out one day to walk to the Frisch’s Mainliner,” which is a diner in one of the whitest, safest suburbs in America. “The Mariemont police picked us up, because we were white girls walking, and lectured us all the way home,” back within the city limits. Hardware stores and locksmiths ran out of deadbolts. Finally, in December 1966, police arrested a former cab driver named Posteal Laskey for the killing of a woman four months earlier. That night, with Laskey in custody, a 79-year-old white woman was attacked in her apartment by a black man who came asking for the caretaker.
Laskey was convicted anyway, without physical evidence, by an all-white jury. The attacks did stop, but Black Power groups began putting up posters in Avondale calling him a martyr. In May 1967, he was sentenced to death. On June 10th, Martin Luther King came to Avondale and gave a sermon on non-violence. The next day a cousin of Laskey’s was arrested for blocking an Avondale sidewalk. Riots broke out, and eventually spread across the central East Side and down into the West End and OtR.
We had more riots after MLK was assassinated, but neighborhood ties are very strong, and we didn’t have a great white exodus the way many cities did after the riots of ’67 and ’68. Instead we developed a simple, quiet system of segregation. Hyde Park and Mt. Lookout were white; Walnut Hills, Over-the-Rhine, and the West End were black. But it was complicated. White people were able to eat in a white-owned diner grandfathered into a newly black neighborhood and could continue to live in some of the more extravagant Walnut Hills mansions, but black people did not cross from Walnut Hills to all-white Hyde Park unless it was to wash dishes. White people could go to Over-the-Rhine, because it had Music Hall and some historic restaurants, but they would never go into the West End. It wasn’t, demographically speaking, more or less of a ghetto—just somewhere we didn’t mix.
I’m living in Little Rock, Arkansas, now, where one of my regular bartenders told me that he roots for the Cincinnati Reds because there aren’t any black guys on the team. (This is actually untrue; there are two African-American Reds, and one of them, Brandon Phillips, is an All-Star.) Still I’m always shocked when I drink with him, because black men—guys in white T-shirts, who say, “You know what I mean, man?” every third sentence—can come in and drink, in pairs, without him caring or seeming to notice. You get the sense in Little Rock that there are white-on-black brawls every so often, and someone will occasionally call someone a nigger, but the social order seems totally safe.
This is the exact opposite of Cincinnati. An Over-the-Rhine bar owner once explained the success of his place to a local journalist by saying that he “wouldn’t let the locals come in and panhandle the customers, use the bathroom, and steal the toilet paper.” On Main Street I’ve seen black men come into a bar and watched the bartender pick up the phone to dial the local precinct before they even sat down. “You’re disturbing people,” is what they usually say—and, in a sense, that’s true.
I was born in 1986 in a big house in Mt. Auburn, an old annexed suburb just up the hill from Over-the-Rhine, and for the eleven years I lived there I was the only white kid on the street. It was the kind of street white Cincinnatians patronizingly call “black middle class”—as though if you’re black in Cincinnati, and you live in a neighborhood where only 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and there are only dope boys at one end of every block, you’re doing pretty well.
I had a great time, playing baseball down the block at the no-outlet and eating pork chops at the neighbors’ after school. I played outside every night until dark, and no one messed with me unless they weren’t from the neighborhood, in which case they were usually just shocked into saying something mean. One of my strongest childhood memories is of riding my bike past a girl standing at the corner of Ernshaw and Burnet and hearing her involuntarily blurt out, “Ew! A little white boy!” As soon as she said it she covered her mouth and walked away.
Anywhere else we would have been gentrifiers. My dad had raised my sisters from his previous marriage poor in Over-the-Rhine, but my mom came from a diminished East Side fortune, and they settled somewhere in the middle. But in Cincinnati in those days, serious gentrification just wasn’t something that seemed like it could ever happen. The city was too divided. We had the second-highest income inequality rate in the nation, the sixth-highest level of segregation, the third highest poverty rate.
The actual city of Cincinnati is about 55 percent white and 43 percent black, but there are only a couple central neighborhoods that are even close to integrated, and surrounding Hamilton County is chalk-white and conservative. Whites dominate the city power structure almost completely. City government has remained largely an exercise in carrying out the will of certain families, like the Lindners of Chiquita and the Peppers of Procter & Gamble, associated with our big corporations. In 1948, corporate money pushed through a referendum ending proportional representation on the city council, and for much of the ’50s, a local historian told me, “city policy was decided over with lunch Neil McElroy,” then-president of P&G. They would eat, and McElroy “would point his finger at the business leaders and tell them how much they had to pay for each policy initiative.”
Cincinnati’s leaders avoided full-scale white flight by giving middle-class whites everything they wanted, subsidizing downtown department stores and building freeways and stadiums, and paying for it all through sales, not property taxes. And the police department remained a province of ambitious German and Irish boys from the West Side. To this day, nearly 20 percent of all our police officers, including Chief Thomas Streicher, come from just two West Side high schools.
Between 1995 and 2001, this police department shot and killed fifteen black males under the age of 40. The last shooting, of an unarmed 19-year-old named Timothy Thomas, set off the latest riots, but things were so bad that I think they would have happened anyway.
The 2001 riots were the biggest American riots since Rodney King, and they unfolded slowly, without the sudden flash of violence that would have suggested a response to a single injustice.
Thomas was killed at 2:13 AM on the morning of Saturday, April 7, five months after another unarmed black man, Roger Owensby Jr., was killed by police who sat on his chest until he suffocated. The weekend passed peacefully. A local group called the Black United Front organized a community cleanup of the vacant lot where Thomas was shot.
On the Monday, April 9, the City Council’s Law and Public Safety Committee held a meeting at 3 PM at City Hall. The entire council came, as did Mayor Charlie Luken, and Chief Streicher. About 150 protesters came, led by the Black United Front.
The meeting started if not calmly then not unlike many city council meetings, where black militants occasionally show up to yell “nigger” at council members and screaming matches are just a fact of city business. But Streicher refused to give an account of the shooting, arguing that he’d be commenting on an open criminal investigation, and after years of protecting police officers, he finally tipped over the bucket. The protestors became so angry that he was given a three-officer “human shield” detail, as the Enquirer described it. Fed up, Mayor Luken left the room, and a teenage protester took over the Mayor’s chair. Trying to prevent what was occurring “was like trying to push water back up a hill,” Streicher said later.
Around six, the crowd debouched from City Hall and moved four blocks north, to District 1 Police Headquarters, where it swelled to about a thousand people. At this point some in the crowd, like Obalaye Macharia— a poet I know as the guy who sometimes does Wednesday night readings at the public library—clearly wanted to start a riot, and people began throwing bottles at the police officers blocking the entrance to the station. “I left to round up the members of the artistic activist group I belong to. I ran from City Hall all the way to the West End. It was like—it’s on,” Macharia later told Cincinnati Magazine.
But all of the larger local black organizations tried to calm things down, to the point that the local Fruit of Islam spent several hours guarding District 1 from black protesters. “We’re here protecting the community. We’re here to keep order in the community,” one of them told the Enquirer. Eventually the Nation of Islam left but the crowd stayed, and around midnight police officers began firing beanbag ammunition and teargas into the crowd, which dispersed into Over-the-Rhine and the West End.
Things had stayed mostly peaceful for three days, longer than the entire life cycle of most riots. By comparison, the Rodney King verdicts came down at 3 PM, and looting had begun by early evening. In Cincinnati there were reports of white and black strangers hugging and crying at the site of Thomas’s killing.
But on Tuesday, a youth protest began at an Over-the-Rhine corner just north of the downtown business district. It moved south, and people began attacking hotdog vendors and smashing windows. Then suddenly the whole downtown area ringed by Over-the-Rhine and the West End was completely lawless. Police held the line at Central Parkway, the border between Over-the-Rhine and the downtown business district, and the looting and burning spread up to Avondale and Walnut Hills, where the last riots occurred. Dozens of whites were attacked by black rioters in a city where black-on-white crime is very rare. The attacks became the story of the riots for many white Cincinnatians, and now, if you Google “Cincinnati Riots”, the second hit is a video put up by a white supremacist, titled “2001 Cincinnati Race Riots–Over 100 Whites Assaulted.” I was in eighth grade, and I remember realizing how serious things were while waiting at a friend’s house to meet a group of German exchange students coming to tour our school. The bus driver who brought them from the airport hadn’t been listening to the radio and drove straight through Over-the-Rhine. He got them caught in a rain of thrown objects, and the bus showed up windowless, the German teenagers cowering on the floor. The unrest went on for four days and the city was shut down under curfew for two more.
The period immediately after the riot was a chaos of ideas. Liberals started putting cheery bumper stickers on their cars that read, “Work for Peace and Racial Harmony in Cincinnati.” Jim Tarbell, a bar owner and City Council member, convinced much of our artsy population (there are no hipsters here, just “artsy people”) that the destruction that occurred during the riots had created one last best chance to save Over-the-Rhine by gentrifying it. Carl Lindner—then-chairman of Chiquita and by far Cincinnati’s most important political figure—seemed to think a new baseball stadium would bring us all together. The United Nations sent a team to ask our police to be nicer to black people.
The only thing everyone agreed on was that we could never ever have another riot. We’re a dowdy city, as Life once put it, and it wasn’t fun getting calls from acquaintances who saw the riots on CNN.
Two concrete things happened. First, the Cincinnati Police Department entered into a collaborative agreement with the Black United Front, among other groups, and agreed to set up a Citizens Complaint Authority and restrict its use of force. This appeased no one, and national black groups launched a boycott of the city. Bill Cosby wouldn’t even come here.
Then, sensing that race relations weren’t improving, our local patricians decided to make them a non-issue. In 2003, P&G, Kroger, Chiquita, and others came together to form the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, with the explicit mission of “revitalizing” the basin neighborhoods. 3CDC is an almost entirely corporate project, with a mandate to build condos (you used to be able to buy one direct from their website) and attract “diverse businesses” to areas of Over-the-Rhine that used to be almost completely black. Since 2004 they’ve spent $206 million dollars to buy up historic buildings and convert them to market-rate apartments, in a neighborhood where the median household income was, at the beginning of the campaign, $8,600.
This campaign is by far the biggest change the city has seen in my lifetime. Over-the-Rhine is on the National Register of Historic Places, which means it’s essentially illegal to tear a building down. 3CDC, a corporate creation, is the first serious group to come in with the money to do renovation up to both the National Register’s standards and to the city buildings code. So it has been able to write the future.
It’s very hard to say how many people have been displaced by the renovations, partly because a lot of OtR building were already vacant and partly because 3CDC usually refuses to buy and upgrade inhabited buildings. Which means that the hard work of emptying rent-controlled buildings goes to landlords before they sell, and every month or so you hear stories like the one about 1316 Race Street, where thirty-three residents were offered $75 each to leave within two weeks, so that the building would be empty at the time of sale.
A little before the riots, my mom inherited some money, and we moved to a house way out east, near the city limits. The East Side is the kind of place where people remember where you went to school, who your parents dated before they married, and where your grandparents liked to sit at Music Hall. In the 1880s, the Culbertson family used to have a mansion next to the Pogues’s up on Grandin Road, and they still come over to visit us on Christmas Eve. I know a great number of families that have fallen from wealth, but almost none who have risen to it.
I commuted every day to a high school in Over-the-Rhine, where 3CDC was just beginning its campaign. We weren’t rich, even by Cincinnati standards, but life on the East Side hills, where almost every neighborhood is clearly black or white, poor or well-off, let me think that at least the white middle class was holding steady.
It was, on the East Side. But on the West it was crumbling, in part because the riots gave us an excuse to ignore the poor white neighborhoods that line the valleys along the Ohio and the Mill Creek. Next to the gelled class structure of the East, the West Side and its suburbs always seemed different. It was rougher—I’ve been beaten up twice on the West Side, never on the East—but freer. Over there the culture was one that made it seem possible to start a plumbing business or a car dealership and get Cincinnati rich, like Marge Schott, the openly racist, dog-loving, bibulous former owner of the Cincinnati Reds. Eastsiders would cringe at the sight of you, as they did at the very thought of Marge, but then Eastsiders never seem to rise out of the city like she did. All of Cincinnati’s national luminaries—Schott, Pete Rose, John Boehner, Charles Manson–are from the West Side.
I got to know some of the Appalachian areas of the West Side well. They are very poor and deeply strange, but also magically close and caring, little urban settings for a Synge play. There were always stories like that of my dad’s friend Walt, an ex-con who helped me rebuild our roof last summer and froze to death sleeping on a porch this winter, but also clean and sober local characters with names like Hubcab Bill and Snake-Man Scott, whom you could visit if you wanted to buy things like hubcaps or snakes. There were a lotof kids born with fetal-alcohol syndrome,, but there were also many of those scolding, white-haired women who sit on porches and keep the whole block in line. I remember one charity Thanksgiving dinner where Roscoe Morgan, a local bluegrass musician, played the Woody Guthrie song “Hobo’s Lullaby.” There was a fat, genial German cop in the audience, and when Roscoe sang the line about how “there’ll be no policemen” in heaven, he stopped and smiled and said, “except for this one here, that is.” All the women in the audience cooed, “Yeah, except for this one.” It was that kind of neighborhood.
These quarters always seemed like separate domains, literally looked down on by their neighbors up the hill and removed by class, family ties, and dialect from the rest of white Cincinnati. But of course they aren’t really, which makes it all the more disturbing that they’re falling apart. Stable poor neighborhoods don’t spread their problems around. Collapsing ones do. Black Cincinnati already learned this lesson.
This is the problem: Cincinnati is trying to become a pleasant, liveable, 21st-century city without solving its 20th-century problems. When I was a kid, our model seemed to be Memphis—a diffuse, suburban metropolis powered by company headquarters and with a downtown kept alive by a destination entertainment district. The city even hired the developer behind Memphis’s Beale Street to come and help turn Main Street into the same sort of party strip. Now, predictably late, the model has shifted to something closer to Portland. What has stayed constant is an understanding that Over-the-Rhine is the city’s key neighborhood, and blindness to the problems in the rest of the region. The city has put its full force into remaking the area: soon there will be a streetcar running through it, and 3CDC now advertises page after page of condo developments on its website, not quite grasping the extent to which “condo” has become a dirty word to the creative class types they’re trying to attract. But these efforts have been shockingly successful. The New York Times just did a “Surfacing” piece on OtR, which included the words “rockumentary,” “mixologist,” and “textured-cotton sundresses” in less than five-hundred words of text. All of the stores and restaurants the article mentioned have opened in the past year. The city is still losing population–according to the latest Census it has shrunk to fewer than 300,000 residents from a high of 500,000 in the 1950s–and the hope is that OtR, the largest intact 19th-century neighborhood in the country, larger and frankly prettier than the West Village or the French Quarter, will become cool and that its transformation will bring the city back from the brink.
Nothing unexpected so far. Every mid-sized city in the country is trying something similar. And Over-the-Rhine is just one neighborhood. But no other city has our recent history, and we’ve seen these conditions before. When huge sections of the West End were razed to make a path for I-75, sending poor blacks to East Side neighborhoods that couldn’t absorb them, the displacement precipitated three riots and the decline of entire sections of the city.
Though Cincinnati has not collapsed, like some cities in the industrial North, it is worse off now than it was then. It has lost jobs, though not catastrophically. Cincinnati was always a headquarters town first, industrial center second. Kroger, Chiquita, Macy’s, Great American Insurance, and Procter & Gamble are all still based downtown, though the city has had to give many of them tributary payment in the form of tax breaks and subsidized parking garages. P&G continues to make soap in the original Ivorydale plant.
But what that has meant is that the better-off East Side neighborhoods have been able to ignore our deindustrialization, while the Appalachian neighborhoods and blue-collar West Side have suffered it quietly. And of course our black neighborhoods, like black neighborhoods across the country, have gotten much poorer. East Price Hill, which is overwhelmingly white, saw its poverty rate triple in the 1980s. By 2000, even Westwood, which used to be a fortress of the Bavarian bourgeoisie, had whole census tracts where the median household income was only about $16,000. I recently spoke to Mike Maloney, a demographer who moved here from East Kentucky, and he told me that “the basins and valleys on both sides Ohio and Kentucky form one contiguous poor area fifteen miles long,” and that now on the West Side there isn’t one solidly middle-class area left between the far reaches of Westwood and the Mill Creek. Add to this the East Side, still starkly segregated between the poor black areas that developed in the late 1960s and rich white neighborhoods, and there’s nowhere stable for people priced out of Over-the-Rhine to go.
Now that formerly middle-class West Siders “are losing Victorians and moving to trailer parks in the suburbs,” and the plan in Over-the-Rhine is explicitly to drive criminals, drug addicts, prostitutes, and implicitly a large portion of the area’s poor black residents into the hills, it’s hard to drive around without feeling like the whole project is falling apart. Cities are compacts: middle-class West-Siders, our property tax base, used to agree to help inhabit Cincinnati because it was cheap, the schools were serviceable, and everyone from the local parish lived around the corner. But we have nowhere to absorb refugees from OtR, and it makes sense that many of them will move to the partially integrated neighborhoods that suffered most during the recession. “White people still live in North Avondale because they can—barely—still find schools where their kids won’t get beat up,” Maloney told me, reflecting a basic fear here. Now two very 21st century processes–city-sponsored gentrification and the decline of the white lower-middle class–threaten to force on us two very 20th-century urban processes: ghettoization and white flight. “We’re not yet at the tipping point of becoming a poor, black city with just a few white enclaves,” Maloney told me, “But we’re close.”
I left Cincinnati, but I come back often, and when I visit Over-the-Rhine, I’m always surprised to see how cruel a little city can be. This rapid change doesn’t suit us. The School for Creative and Performing Arts, the jewel of the Cincinnati public schools, recently moved to a shiny new building on Washington Park, around the corner from Music Hall and from the Drop-In Center, our local homeless shelter. The city and 3CDC are building an arts quarter around the square.
A decade after the riots, the homeless people in Washington Park are literally so thick on the ground that a police officer who used to joke with me outside school accidentally ran over a sleeping woman in his patrol car last year, killing her. Just a few weeks later, my mom, who is on the Drop-In Center board, got a call from the mayor, under pressure from 3CDC. You have to move this place, he said, somewhere further from all the beautiful new stuff. “Don’t you care about the city?”
In 2009, Esme Kenney, a white eighth-grader at SCPA and a friend of the family, was murdered by a black man who walked away from an Over-the-Rhine halfway house. The killing, like the Cincinnati Strangler trial, became one of those low moments of urban life, when unspoken mistrust and tension find an outlet in a news story. SCPA is central to the plan to remake Over-the-Rhine, and politicians and radio hosts quickly tried to turn Esme into a symbol of why the area needs to be remade right now. Roxanne Qualls, the vice-mayor, gave an interview after the killer was sentenced to death, suggesting that the Drop-In Center would be guilty if it stayed in the arts quarter and a homeless person attacked a student. She didn’t mention that the killer had left OtR, and that Esme was actually attacked near her house, on the West Side.
I came to town last October for the dedication of a memorial to Esme, at SCPA. It was a cold, rainy day, and after I left I ended up wandering around Over-the-Rhine, trying to buy a bottle of water. I found myself in one of the remaining no-go areas, a maze of old row houses a few blocks away from the streets targeted for redevelopment. I was looking for a corner store that must have closed years ago and stopped a woman to ask where it was. She shook her head and said, “Come in the house, we have water.” I went up into a classic old Over-the-Rhine apartment: grates, not just bars, at the windows, linoleum floors half a bubble off level. I gave her daughter a dollar for the water and mentioned how much things had changed since the riots. “Not really,” she said. “They talk about they’re going to sell this building. It’s still Cincinnati, wherever we go.”