Gentrification is not an “Experiment”

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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.

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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.

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.

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Race and Violence

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A response to one of the final questions in a history class I took over the summer term.

Race remains a major point of conflict in Cincinnati. While blacks make up just less than half of Cincinnati’s population (no race constitutes an outright majority), there are clear racial imbalances in education, employment, criminal justice and housing. The last major outburst in response to the inadequacies were the 2001 riots following the killing of 19 year old Timothy Thomas by a city police officer after a traffic stop (and the mishandling of the situation by the mayor, city council, and police department).

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Many Little Kenyon-Barrs

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This is part of a new series exploring the question: “How Does Gentrification Work?”

Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority’s (CMHA) 2014 annual plan calls for the demolition of 1455 units of public housing across Hamilton county. This would disperse the population, probably in excess of 5000 people, throughout the county. CMHA controlled properties stand at 99% occupancy, and the federal funds identified to build new housing are already disbursed, so the residents will likely be given Housing Choice (Section 8) Vouchers and be pushed back into the private housing market. The extent of the plan is striking, with large developments like Stanley Rowe and Winton Terrace set to be vacated and razed along with nearly the entire neighborhood of Millvale, each project accounting for 200 to 500 units of the total amount. There are two primary questions to be explored: Why is the housing being demolished? And where does this fit in with the pattern of displacement at the city-wide level?

To understand housing policy in Cincinnati, one must first understand the city’s geography. Like any modern city in the United States, Cincinnati is heavily segregated. Though neighborhoods like Avondale and Over-the-Rhine (OTR) serve as the de-facto centers of the black population, the city has no main dividing line between black and white halves–in a city that loves to talk about imagined differences between the East and West Side, no given cardinal direction can be identified as the black-side of town. Cincinnati’s black population, about 45% of the total, lives in several pockets strewn throughout the city. Many neighborhoods are upwards of 90% black–Avondale, Bond Hill, Madisonville, Millvale, Villages at Roll Hill (Fay Apartments), The West End and Winton Hills and others. These neighborhood are also among the most impoverished. City wide blacks face very high rates of poverty–46% of blacks compared with 22% of whites are in poverty. Additionally, blacks face high levels of police discrimination and an unfathomable unemployment rate, relying on public services to a much larger degree than their white counterparts. Of the roughly 13,000 families on the waiting list for CMHA assistance, either for vouchers or for public housing, about 12,000 are black.

With its stark delineation of black and white neighborhoods, Cincinnati ranks as one of the top segregated cities in the country. The disparities in the racial makeup of neighborhoods and the way that poverty follows racial segregation, call into question whether residents who would be dispersed under the regime of de-concentration of poverty would be welcome in new communities.

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