Media and Neoliberalism in Cincinnati (an excerpt)

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I earlier wrote about nostalgia based redevelopment, criticizing a recent book about Over-the-Rhine’s brewery history (that ignored other important history). This is a critique of Laure Qunlivan’s Visions of Vine street from the same source as the first excerpt.

The media tends to serve the ends of the representatives of capital in the region. A survey of articles in the Cincinnati Enquirer and Cincinnati Post from the 1990s shows and organizational distrust of both social service and some non-governmental organizations. A Post article from 1994 simply stated “Over-the-Rhine has a new tenant and its name is money,” (Griggs, 1994) establishing what the paper felt was the most important defining element of the previous residents: their poverty. Dutton describes a “systematic refusal” to mention the existence of resistance in the neighborhood:

This is not an ignorance that comes simply from not knowing.  It is an active ignorance, an avoidance that is constructed as a systematic erasure of the community in order to make it invisible.  For example, in all the ink that has been spilled about Over-the-Rhine, no mention is made of the People’s Movement.  It receives no mention in the ULI report.  Nor is it mentioned in the 1998 Changing Plans for America’s Inner Cities: Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine and Twentieth-Century Urbanism, a book that now circulates as the reference of choice among the city’s elite.  The most explicit example of invisibility is expressed in the Cincinnati Enquirer’s three-part, “in-depth” front-page coverage of Over-the-Rhine. [1999:4]

The article set up the binary very clearly:  “The beer gardens, concert halls, restaurants and theaters left, along with the Germans, replaced by dives, prostitutes, drug addicts and alcoholics.” No mention of struggle.

As has already been made clear, there are plenty of problems to report, but very little of the negative reports in the corporate press are directed at groups like 3CDC, DCI, the OTR Chamber of Commerce. The relationship has typically worked the other way as well, in 1996, one of the Star of Over-the-Rhine Awards, given by the OTR Chamber of Commerce, was awarded to the Post (this saying nothing of the times it has been award to Police officials, 3CDC and capital firms). It is clear whys this relationship is the way it is, Margaret Buchanan, publisher of the Cincinnati Enquirer sits on the board of 3CDC along with Kenneth Lowe, the president of Scripps, a media conglomerate which owns WCPO, the local ABC affiliate. Thus, the largest print and tv news sources in the city have indelible ties to the largest corporations. And the corporations, through these sources, have dominate say over economic decisions; the media can not claim to be unbiased in this discussion.

After the uprising, WCPO aired Visions of Vine Street a documentary about OTR’s redevelopment. The I-Team, the hard hitting investigative journalism department at the station tracked the history of Vine Street, with Laure Quinlivan, now a city council member, as a guide, and Jim Tarbell as the brain trust on all things OTR. The documentary, though presented as a legitimate investigative report, shed any interest it might have had in actual investigation. Quinlivan spoke of the need for the neighborhood to become something different, conveying that OTR is better than riots, or if it is not, it was time to transform it into something that is. “The riots were a wakeup call to improve the neighborhood where all of this happened: Over-the-Rhine, the heart of our city” (2001). It presented the redevelopment in a way similar to this paper, drawing ideological lines, but in both the rhetoric and more latent semiotics of the report the ideological affiliation is firmly with the platform of the gentry, though Quinlivan might be the last to admit it.

Jim Tarbell, then a City Council member, is the hero of Quinlivan’s report and is presented as a true urbanist–someone who makes his home in the city, rides his bike to and from work, and appreciates the history of Over-the-Rhine. Of course, the nostalgic vision is evoked again and again as one of the reasons to fix up Vine Street. The description of the beer halls and theaters from the turn of the century stand in stark contrast to the apparent lack of culture in the neighborhood at the time of the riots. Juxtaposed next to Tarbell is Buddy Gray and the OTRPM. Showing a still shot of a dilapidated building in winter, Quinliven narrated “his vision was wildly different, he sees Vine Street as a haven for poor people.” But to essentialize Gray and the OTR People’s Movement in such a way is to do it a disservice. In failing to be open about her ideological position Quinlivan falls into the trap of normalizing the actions and activities of one side, typically business owners, large capitalists, the police, public officials and people like Tarbell; while denigrating groups that present an alternative, even if the consequences of the actions of the two are similar. Her refusal to disclose ideology makes all of her references Red Harrings. On the other hand, Gray was never one to shy away from explaining not only his own ideology, but where it stemmed from. Gray’s aim was not to create such a haven, but to make it a place where the poor wouldn’t be shuffled around or expelled as development occurred. In archive footage taken before his murder, Gray states

What’ll happen is the same thing that’s happened in every city historic district in the United States: Prices rise, land speculation increases because it’s fashionable, poor people can’t afford to stay in the market–they go.

The double standard manifests in a number of key instances. In a description of ReSTOC, Gray’s affordable housing group, Quinlivan cites a city report stating that work was not being completed on the buildings in a timely manner (implying that the volunteer group doesn’t have the resources necessary to take on all of their projects). Just a few minutes later, Quinlivan interviews an outside developer who owns buildings but hasn’t started work on them, casting his as the victim of the city budget (money that could have been spent on his buildings was given to ReSTOC). As Tarbell and Quinlivan stand outside of an unfinished building owned by ReSTOC, Tarbell quips “signs do not a neighborhood make” pointing out the ReSTOC logo on the facade. If Quinlivan were making the documentary today, she would be remiss not to mention the dozens of buildings in the neighborhood that are owned by 3CDC, paid for with public money or bought with tax credits, and sit vacant. Hindsight proves to be a handy companion.

In another comparison, Quinlivan reports of the success story of the Ensemble Theatre, located between Central and 12th while another theater a few blocks North has been shuttered for 30 years. According to Quinlivan he owner of the second theatre didn’t take responsibility like the Ensemble group. Quinlivan fails to mention that Ensemble’s funders included a Taft heiress and the former owner of the Bengals franchise.

Her unspoken ideology allows Quinlivan to draw such simple conclusions about what will bring OTR into the future. Her prescriptions for the neighborhood foreshadow the course redevelopment would take in the ensuing decade (and no doubt onward). The report demonstrates ideological stances against local groups operating outside of the market, and in favor of entrepreneurial groups and individuals, especially those connected with the OTR Chamber and Jim Tarbell. In the end, for Quinlivan, the victims are not the neighborhood residents, it is not Timothy Thomas; the victims are those who can’t make the profit they rightfully deserve in the market just waiting to be exploited.

Alongside the Post and the Enquirer, there is another significant media corps driving redevelopment today. There are well over a dozen blogs devoted to OTR, tracking niche parts of redevelopment, focusing on various aspects like the installation of bike lanes or the renovations of breweries. These blogs play an important role in building support for the process, connecting groups that may be interested in learning about OTR through photographs or other creative media and the developers themselves. Though in the end, many serve simply as press release mills for 3CDC and the city. A deeper analysis of these blogs may be in order, but suffice it to say (for now), that in a survey of the photographs on UrbanCincy.com, one of the oldest blogs, of all pictures of people enjoying themselves in Over-the-Rhine (and potentially the entire city), there does not appear to be a single one with a black person (politicians aside) in the foreground (though, there are at least a half dozen with single or multiple African Americans waiting for the bus).