Gentrification is not an “Experiment”

Standard

On Monday, the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a story about Republic street, focusing on the divisive elements of the changing social makeup of OTR. Last fall, I wrote about the same location, more or less, focusing on the northern half block bounded by Vine, Republic, 12th and 13th.

The article is interesting, and goes into more detail that I was able to, being constrained somewhat by a requirement in the assignment to base the presentation I gave (the notes of which the piece was adapted from) on quiet observation of the space in the spirit of Bill Cronin’s “place paper” assignment. (Incidentally, this is the second time Bill Cronin has been impactful in my life: in 2011 he blew the lid off ALEC’s role in the anti-union legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere. When the right-wing backlash to his research exploded, a few of us in Cincinnati organized the first protest against ALEC, after which we were leaked all of the organization’s model legislation–leading to an expose in The Nation and other liberal media outlets).

The Enquirer’s story radically diverges from mine in what it draws out of the space. By claiming the street, along with the rest of the neighborhood, is an “experiment,” it conveys a sense that it’s premature to make conclusions about the course and future of gentrification in the area. “This is the type of street where the city could lose its soul,” the article states. It goes on to explore about the divisions between old residents and new ones, but misses the mark when it ignores the reality of the separation. While the new residents interviewed wax poetically about the changes occurring, the story neglects both the ideological role it has played in the transformation, especially in the obfuscation of the workings of gentrification (probably somewhat due to the presence of the paper’s editor on the board of 3CDC, the corporation overseeing the redevelopment), and the fact that Republic street is an anomaly in the neighborhood south of Liberty street, one of the last places where there are large developments of affordable housing still in existence.

The language is equaling troubling; here’s how the story summarizes the immigrant history of the neighborhood: “It is a street of beginnings. It is where German immigrants first arrived. It is where the Appalachians unpacked their bags when they moved to the city. It is where poor blacks came to replace them both.” In other words, Germans built the space, Appalachians stopped off for a stay in the vacant neighborhood, but blacks actively replaced them. There is a subtle hint of the language of dispossession, necessary for understanding the history of the neighborhood, no doubt, but it implies that blacks were the agents of that dispossession.

But we can see the more recent, arguably more relevant black history being overwritten. As I noted in my earlier piece, the remaking of this space included the bulldozing and paving over the memorial to Timothy Thomas in the alley where he was shot, while a plaque commemorating the de-Germanification hangs on a pole just 100 feet away.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The residents of the affordable housing on the block tell a different tale. Antoinette Jones, highlights the divide and draws attention to what the Enquirer misses about gentrification even while it’s right in front of them. “She said the restaurants and bars on Vine can sound and feel like an amusement park dropped into her neighborhood. “You see them coming out and they’re having their fun,” Jones said. “Where’s our fun at?”” While the fate of Republic is apparently is still being determined, this is not the case for any of the other North-South streets running parallel. With the pending relocation of the Drop Inn Center to Queensgate, with the Washington Park renovation and 3CDC’s move from Elm to Walnut, renting out their old office space to startups and restaurants, the blocks west are all but gentrified. And none of that compares to the scale and effectiveness of the transformation from apparent slum to high price playground of Vine and Main streets, and seeping into the cracks (Walnut and Clay) between. We know what gentrification leads to. We can analyze the data before our very eyes. Capital has won, poor people have lost.

But I don’t know that we should expect republic to be much different than anywhere else. The clashing divisions written about in the story are today really shades of what they once were, and, perhaps, are more farcical proof of diversity than the reality of such divisions. Two blocks east of Republic illustrate this best, perhaps, with 3CDC’s new offices on the corner of Walnut and 12th opening up just across the corner from the offices of the Homeless Coalition, the most advanced social service agency in the neighborhood, both in terms of the radical nature of the staff and their willingness to challenge the powers behind gentrification (pick up any copy of streetvibes to understand this). Now they are to be permanent neighbors. But bubbling beneath the surface is the contradictions of the neighborhood as a microcosm of society, these two organizations are diametrically opposed and dialectically intertwined; one grows out of the other, just as the poverty of the residents in the section 8 housing on Republic flows from the wealth of their neighbors living in condos one building over. This diversity can’t be permanent. Nothing is.