The Contradiction of Nostalgia-Based Redevelopment (an excerpt)

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I am currently writing a longer piece about race and class in OTR, focusing on the last 15 or so years, but this history is irrelevant without an adequate backdrop, because much of what is occurring now is being done in the name of a problematic nostalgia for a golden age of more than 100 years ago. The following excerpt is an early draft discussion of Michael D Morgan’s recent book, “Over-the-Rhine: When Beer was King.”

For decades, a forward looking people’s movement has existed in Over-the-Rhine but in only ten years, the reactionary organizations (e.g 3CDC, Downtown Cincinnati Inc., etc) of change have turned their backs on meaningful dialogue, looking back over 100 years to a golden era, forgetting other portions of our history which included racist riots and, if the rumors are true, the origin of the “Jim Crow” character. In policy and rhetoric, 3CDC chooses to look back and does so with blinders, ignoring material conditions in the past and present. They claim the problem is crime and blight while refusing to look toward the root cause of those conditions: built-in inequality in an apparently color-blind, gender-blind and class-blind system.

A recent history of this golden era is indicative of the problematic nature of the nostalgia-based redevelopment. This nostalgia has usurped the Cincinnati area’s position as home to an important abolitionist heritage including Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Lane Seminary–interest in underground beer stores have overtaken interest in the underground railroad. While this is nevertheless an interesting history, telling these stories in isolation is part of the process of an ethnic cleansing of the OTR’s past. We need to look back only ten, twenty or thirty years to hear stories of black struggle or triumph, while the golden age was some 100 years ago.

Michael D. Morgan’s Over the Rhine: When Beer was Kings tells of OTR’s roots, beginning in the mid 1800’s and blossoming a few decades later. OTR’s founders, German immigrants, were trained by the struggles in the Rhineland in the 1830s and 40s (OTR being home to a number of “forty-eighters”). When in 1855, Know-Nothing’s launched an assault on the votes (literally destroying the ballots) of those living in the German-American wards, the resulting violence in defense of the right to vote is rightly looked on as fully justified.  Without the support of the police, the German defense turned offense is lauded.

German-Americans marched from their fortified positions in Over-the-Rhine and engaged the Know-Nothing’s in a gun battle. The Germans drove the Battalion of bigots from the Vine street bridges. [Spanning the Miami and Erie canal–or the “Rhine.”] (Morgan, 49)

The Miami and Erie Canal, now Central Parkway, served as the dividing line between the Germans and the Know-Nothings–ethnic enclave in the North against reactionaries in the South. This geographic division would be echoed in the 2001 uprising, but sympathies with the minority in OTR would not.

Morgan’s book highlights two anti-German riots in 1855 and 1883, but ignores several others in the century which were at least as important to the development of the city. These riots, not having taken place in OTR and not having been directed at Germans, are not relevant to the historical picture that Morgan attempts to paint. But these riots were at least as being important in the development of the city’s racially and economically divided neighborhoods.

In 1829, 1836, 1849 and again in 1862, the city experienced tumultuous racial strife. The race riots in the 1800s set the stage for further riots in the next century. Ignorance, hate and competition for resources including jobs and living and recreations space were at the heart of much of the racial tension in Cincinnati” (Bunch-Lyons, 108).

If we are to paint an accurate materialist history of Cincinnati, as a history of an industry surely must, we cannot ignore these other incidents. For the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor also existed outside of OTR, and the reverberations permeated through the entire city in every case.

Morgan seems almost afraid to even acknowledge other recent historical trends as important to the history of Over-the-Rhine, “waves of appalachian migration in the mid-1900s dramatically changed Over-the-Rhine and so did a shift in racial composition that occurred in the latter part of the twentieth century (153).” The latter “shift” is the black migration into OTR following white flight. Morgan’s omission is telling–the entire book is a whitewashing of the history. Of the struggle in the later period he simply states “these stories are as compelling as the story of the neighborhood’s original era, but they are of the place that had become obsolete (153),” choosing to ignore 50 years of history because it is apparently irrelevant. This is a racist and classist erasure, an othering of poor whites and blacks reminiscent of the process of unpeople-ing in Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

Morgan skips right over the 2001 uprising, the formation of the Over-The-Rhine people’s movement, and all the other stories of creation to focus on the only noteworthy kind of development–that which has occurred in the last decade and may offer a return to the German heritage. It would seem that, to Morgan as many others, the only history of OTR, is one of German influenced prosperity, followed by racialized decline. And, as he concludes, the only suitable solution, must start with the return to its roots in beer culture dominated by “moerlein,” “bockfest” and “lager.” This prognosis fails to reconcile actual conditions present in the area. Where do poor blacks fit in a community being built on a German-influenced ideal? What is the role of an underclass whose history is ignored? Do they have a role?

Citations:

  • Bunch-Lyons, Beverly A. Contested Terrain: African-American Women Migrate From the South to Cincinnati, Ohio, 1900-1950. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Morgan, Michael D. Over-the-Rhine: When Beer was King. Charleston: The History Press, 2010.