This week, I’ve been hiding out in Cincinnati.
I’m the guest of writer and nonprofit leader Rick Pender and his wife, Joan Kaup, activist and director of a Cincy group similar to Austin’s Entrepreneurs’ Foundation. They live in a five-story former candy factory they’ve transformed into residences and offices in the Over the Rhine district just north of downtown.
Developed by German immigrants who lived and worked alongside a canal that gave the area its name, Over the Rhine was predominately African American by the end of the 20th century. Those residents now mix with equal numbers of newcomers who have opened cafes, shops and attractions in the handsome brick buildings that line the narrowish streets.
Just across the street, for instance, I’ve wined and dined at Taste of Belgium, Bakersfield — a tacos and tequila joint — and Twelve Fifteen, a coffee and wine bar. This kind of evolution has been happening not just here or in East Austin, but from Harlem to Haight Ashbury: First come the hippies, then the guppies, yuppies and buppies, followed by the hipsters.
And if anyone thinks that the hipsterization of Austin is unique, they need to travel to any city of size between Portland, Maine and Porland, Ore.
Back to Cincy. Now that this process is underway, the rest of Central Cincinnati is likely to follow because of geography. The 18th and 19th-century parts of the city sit on a shelf-like basin above the Ohio River. The high hills around this two-square-mile area defined it as strictly inner city when that was considered down-market. Now the natural boundaries work in the other direction.
Cincy was once the manufacturing center of the country and its sixth largest city. So content were its leaders with its river-and-canal traffic, they let Chicago take the lead on railroads. That city has ruled the Upper Midwest instead ever since. Mark Twain supposedly said that, if the apocalypse came, he’d ride it out in Cincinatti, where everything happens 10 years late.
Among the first to reclaim Over the Rhine were artists. It is now home to the Art Academy and a K-12 public school dedicated to the arts. Small theaters proliferate and the 1880s red brick Music Hall hulks over Washington Park. This enormous structure remained home to the city’s symphony and opera for decades and will soon welcome some of the city’s ballet performances, too.
Artists were also crucial to the enormous changes in South and East Austin, not always to their benefits, since they tend to get priced out when property values rise. From anecdotal evidence, it looks like Cincy’s artists have wisely secured their places in OTR.
Changes rarely come without tensions. When a local public-private partnership transformed Washington Park, activists protested that it was a thinly veiled plot to evict the homeless. Now the clean, safe, well-lit and well-landscaped park is active day and night with families of all races and classes. A project well done.
A few homes have been fixed up — along with the addition of some new apartments and condos — between the park and Findlay Market, a cool, indoor-outdoor affair that, like the Music Hall, never went away. But blocks and blocks of large townhomes are boarded up, banked for the day when they, too, can return to full functioning. Unlike Detroit, they are not routinely torched.
At its peak, Over the Rhine was home to 50,000 people and was, in the 1850s, the most densely populated district in the country. During the late 20th century, that number declined to 5,000. It’s headed back up to 15,000 now. But imagine all the first-rate building stock Austinites could only dream about.
For the past eight years, these changes have been overseen by Mayor Mark Mallory, a charismatic leader and former Congressman whose family has taken leadership roles for generations. I met him at a press conference called for the start of a mural that will be painted on the five-story west side of the Pender-Kaup place. When I asked, Mallory said his options are open at the end of his term: Statewide race, private consulting or a spot on the Obama team.
All his for the taking. Mallory tried hard to get a trolley system underway, but, as we know in Austin, urban mass transit often hits obstacle after obstacle.
The mural, by the way, will be taken from a work by a teacher at the Art Academy across the street. ArtWorks, a group that has already executed 57 murals in 32 Cincy districts, employs students during the summer to execute these wonders.
Anyway, more vacation musings on Cincinatti soon.