Uses and Users in The Gated District

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Written as the final to a urban sustainability class I took in my spare time this fall. I republished it with slight modifications here.

It’s not just us keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Besźel and everyone in UI Qoma. Every minute, every day. We’re only the last ditch: it’s everyone in the cities who does most of the work. It works because you don’t blink.-China Mieville, The City & The City.

The buildings, parking lots and alleys in the northern half of the block between Cincinnati’s Republic and Vine, 12th and 13th streets, offer a unique perspective to look into issues of race, class and the way that we understand and talk about history in a changing urban environment. It’s not an uncommon block in the neighborhood, Over-the-Rhine (OTR): on the Vine street side, a row of three and four story buildings with storefronts below and housing above sit adorned with the vestiges of their Italianate style. On the Republic side, a single housing development is all that’s left of what were probably similar buildings all constructed in the late 1800’s.

This is the heart of the Gateway Quarter, the ideological entry point into a revitalizing OTR. This is OTR with all its romantic heritage of german, beer loving, culture. On the corner of Vine and 13th, the Lackman, named after the brewer who paid for the building over 120 years ago sits with its big open doors welcoming crowds into the cramped bar. Lackman’s operation would be sold to Hudepohl, a mainstay of Cincinnati brewing history, in the 1930’s, but today the bar harkens back to the turn of the 20th century, even using the old winged-L logo.

South of the Lackman is the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, then the Masjid AsSahaab, then the Contact Center and finally, before a parking lot, the Recovery Hotel. Aside from the Mottainai Lofts on Republic Street, the rest of the northern half of the block (hereafter referred to as “the block”) is parking lots and an alley running North-South between the rows of buildings.

This alley is of particular interest, and allows for a more recent historical situating of the space. On an early morning in April 2001, Timothy Thomas, a 19 year old black man was evading police who were pursuing him after a traffic stop. After ten minutes Thomas ran down that alley and was killed at close range by Officer Stephen Roach, who claimed that Thomas’s movements to adjust his pants looked like he was reaching for a gun. The result was an uprising that lasted a week and disrupted earlier efforts to gentrify OTR, then centered around Main Street three blocks East. The city government’s ineffectiveness and sometimes belligerence in the face of angry protesters only made the situation worse, and Roach’s eventual acquittal on the manslaughter charges that Fall, were just the latest cause of racial strife in the heavily segregated city. OTR is a poor black neighborhood today, but that might not be immediately apparent when walking around this block, and certainly not if you read what is written about it in the press. More than just being the location of Thomas’s death, this block offers a fitting ground to explore the gentrification of the neighborhood and these tenuous relations in the city as a whole.

A closer look at this block exposes the racial and class divides that mark gentrification in the places it occurs. In the Mottainai Lofts and the Lackman, 1,000 square foot condos selling for at least $150,000 contrast with the affordable housing of the other buildings, with their renters paying a few hundred, at the most, a month. Individually numbered parking spots sit behind electronically triggered gates for residents of the lofts on this block and the next. The cars sitting in these spaces offer some more suggestions as to the class makeup of its users: porsches, jeeps and others, mostly late models, come and go in the district which is always sold as walkable space.

The users of the spaces come from disparate groups as well; a walk down the block is again useful. The Lackman is host to a generally well dressed white hipsters and young professional crowd who may be inclined, after a few drinks, to buy a fifty-five dollar bottle of bourbon whisky exclusive to the bar. In the Worker’s Center, there is more likely to be a multiracial group of staff, immigration and food justice activists and a modest stream of workers needing assistance in job disputes. At the Masjid, an Islamic temple and community center with a black and West Asian congregation, calls to prayer interrupt the bustling OTR every few hours. The Contact Center provides support for, and organizes with, local families, mainly black, on issues related to economic justice and civil rights. And the Recovery Hotel offers transitional housing for homeless people in the process of coming off the streets and suffering from addictions.

Quite a clear line can be drawn between the users and uses of the Lackman and the remaining four storefronts. While the Lackman is a bar and social space, the other four are social service agencies without a business-customer relationship. The rhetoric of mixed use, ever important to OTR’s boosters, might seem to be relevant here, but examination of the users is also important. It’s unlikely that a regular and maybe even a one time customer at the Lackman would ever need to use the services of the agencies. And it’s almost impossible that the residents of the lofts would ever have a reason to set foot inside those doors. This also works in the other direction: certainly the faithful mosque-goers, and (we can only hope) the Recovery Hotel’s residents wouldn’t ever find themselves as patrons at the Lackman. What role does mixed use have if the users are so divided?

The Mottainai lofts are named after a Japanese concept meaning to reduce waste or not to let things go to waste. Marketing material for the lofts boast of bamboo floors and recycled materials in the bathrooms and kitchens but most notable is the mention of a bike rack for residents in a building which also has a dedicated parking lot. What does this say of Mottainai’s mottainai, if half of the surface the property sits on is for carbon guzzling vehicles? No one is without contradiction, certainly, but like other aspects of sustainability related to gentrification, the claims seem to be a facade, a selling point, greenwashing the lofts to make up for something else. These lofts are best used as a metaphor for the general approach to sustainability under neoliberalism. Will sustainability come through conscious consumption? For many in OTR, as in many of Cincinnati’s poorest neighborhoods, riding a bike isn’t a matter in preference, but affordability.

The gates and barred windows separating resident and outsider aren’t uncommon in OTR. But while older establishments aim to keep out burglars, here 6 foot tall fences protect parking spots as much as they do the possessions in the vehicles. These aren’t fences so much as hedges.

Finally there is the conception of the history of the block. as much as marketers would like, it’s impossible to talk about the history of OTR without mentioning the death of Timothy Thomas and the ensuing uprising. But they do try to avoid it, or prioritize other stories. The website OTRLiving.com tells of the rumor that corners were the preferred location for bars like the Lackman, so that law enforcement could be seen coming. Timothy Thomas, on the other hand, may have never seen Officer Roach as he rounded the corner before he was shot. A plaque on Republic reminds visitors of the street’s original name–Breman–renamed during the anti-german hysteria of World War One. And what of the name given to this section of OTR—”The Gateway Quarter” a recent marketing move likely meant to, in some small way, untaint what OTR had come to represent in Cincinnati’s popular culture in the years after 2001. Where is the plaque remembering Timothy Thomas’s untimely death? This historical space matters as much as the real thing and, as we see, the same kind of re-imagination occurs in the physical and ideological world.