CINCINNATI — To be able to tell their story, I had to see that window.
The window of the Cornerstone Apartments compound located in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine (OTR) district by Green and Republic Street. Going inside the building should not have been an issue. John Hancock, one of the Cornerstone residents, agreed to meet me by the parking lot entrance on Race Street and walk me over to the affordable housing community’s common area, where the shattered window stood.
The window overlooked the intersection and the Over-the-Rhine Recreation Center across the street. The shattered glass appeared to be a bleak reminder of the constant dangers and grievances the residents faced beyond the oasis they crafted for themselves in a quickly changing neighborhood.
One innocent bystander was wounded, and if any of the Cornerstone residents — mostly senior citizens and working class families — had been sitting at the table at the time of the shooting, they could have been killed.
The people who live at Cornerstone may be representative of the population of working class Black Americans who have followed the rules of respectability and financial propriety in their personal and professional lives, but remain living in subpar conditions. These conditions are a result of inferior public services, lack of capital, stigmatization and varying forms of violence and destabilization that often plague their communities.
At the receiving end of gentrification, their experience may be symbolic of the tensions Black Americans wrestle with fundamentally: the challenge of coexistence with and consideration of varying circumstances of the community, in order to elevate the community as a whole.
“You go out there and they say, ‘This is the hood,’” said Vickie Watkins, 63, a Cornerstone resident, referring to the people who loiter directly outside her apartment. Once a shoe saleswoman, Watkins originally viewed her unit as her sanctuary in which she would enjoy her retirement. “This is not the hood. This is our home.”
Observing the Cornerstone residents means watching them grapple with their disappointment and aggravation toward the people on their street, and their distrust of the police officers whose duty it is to keep the peace. And, to add insult to injury, their predicament stands in stark contrast to the protections and community relations enjoyed by the local affluent white people living just blocks away.
To appreciate the frustrations of Cornerstone residents, I had to understand how the neighborhood has been changing.
Most of Over-the-Rhine has a polished and ritzy feel to it. Cincinnati’s poster child for gentrification has chic and shiny storefronts, and immaculate streets and townhouses. But a stone’s throw from the Cornerstone residences, you can see row after row of dilapidated buildings.
Findlay Playground, located about two blocks north, at Vine and Findlay Streets, had been closed for nearly two years. The shutdown was a response to an overwhelming amount of crime, including drug dealing and substance abuse. City officials wanted to renovate the park and transform it into a safer, more attractive space for children and families. The plan was to reopen it by the spring or summer of 2019.
But the prolonged shutdown had unintended consequences, much to the displeasure of the residents of Cornerstone. The park closure pushed drug dealers, homeless, mentally ill and inebriated people into their streets.
This intersection—once so clean and quiet, so carefully maintained by the humble, hardworking people who lived and worked in the streets’ affordable housing and non-profit organizations—now had to compete with crowds of displaced locals holding their daily kickback.
Some residents were glad that Findlay was finally shut down. Others were annoyed that poor and working class Black residents were being kept out of their favored, frequently used recreational space.
“Having this problem with the community park closed has affected this whole neighborhood,” John Hancock, 55, said. An artist whose day job is as a contractor, Hancock has lived on Green Street for three years. “They need to open the park back up so people can have somewhere to go.”
As a child, Hancock lived in surrounding neighborhoods like Mount Auburn, Corryville and further out, in Seven Hills. He remembered his mother warning him as a boy about the gentrification that was to come in the ‘70s.
Before arriving on Green Street, he lived in Hartwell, a neighborhood also hit by rising rents. Coming to Cornerstone felt something like destiny because he beat out over 200 people for his affordable unit. He thought living in the excitement of Over-the-Rhine’s revitalization would inspire his artwork and give him a sense of community, but has largely been met with disappointment.
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“I feel like we are a part of Over-the-Rhine that has never been able to feel like they’re a part of the development that’s going on,” Hancock said, his presence demanding a special, humble kind of reverence. “A lot of it is because of the gentrification. A lot of it is because it seems as if the powers that be, the development is pushing this certain segment of communities or streets onto us.”
Comments from locals and a study of Cincinnati’s demographic history reveal a common American phenomena, also manifest in Over-the-Rhine: Black people clustered in poorer parts of urban locales, segregated. In Over-the-Rhine, the loitering and resulting disturbances are stemming from the frequent incidents of displacement suffered since the early 1900s and continued by the gentrification of the early 2000s.
Cornerstone residents said working-class Black people living in Over-the-Rhine believed developers, city officials and other stakeholders were waiting to revitalize the last parts of the neighborhood until more white and wealthy residents moved in.
“It’s not hard to see what’s really going on,” said Mr. Hancock, frustrated that more affluent white residents who now live in the revitalized townhouses and apartments immediately surrounding the park are catered to in ways their Black neighbors are not.
“It is clear that the park is closed because it was a nuisance to the people who moved in down here,” Hancock said. “And I get that, but do something about the nuisance with the park…not shut it down. Put more law enforcement, have more law presence there.”
Hancock went on, saying that while race is a problem Black people are frequently forced to discuss, those in power don’t openly acknowledge the underlying elements of class and racial politics that have shaped the developments of the area and the park itself.
“We want the people who’s in control to look at it as what it is and to see that it’s not fair,” he said. “It’s not humane.”
“Kickback” is a bit of a misnomer for the crowds by Green and Republic, which sometimes swarm from around 50 milling locals to hundreds of revelers. The loiterers, often from surrounding neighborhoods like Avondale and Evanston, blast their music well into the night. They shuffle their lawn chairs down the street to chase the shade. Others play dice games, openly drink alcohol and smoke weed just like they once did at Findlay Playground. The area began to be colloquially referred to as “The Living Room.”
Cornerstone residents lamented all of this nightly activity, which dated as far back as 2018, when the park closed. They said the police, by their negligence, were not doing enough to discourage the crowds. They said the police barely even left their cars or spoke to the people on the street when they did pass through.
All of this had a harrowing effect on Green and Republic Street residents. A few complained of health problems, like insomnia and the onset of depression and anxiety. Those who lived in ground floor apartments with street-facing entrances said they were now too afraid to even walk through their front doors, and had resorted to entering the compound through the parking lot. One asthmatic woman said she could no longer open her windows because of all of the weed smoke emanating from the street.
Watkins, her sister, told me she had begun taking refuge in her daughter’s home in another neighborhood to relieve herself from all of the stress. Others said they no longer allowed their children and grandchildren to visit them, out of fear of putting them in danger. That, because not only had drug dealers come to dominate the area, but because the latest shooting marked the third on Green Street in recent months. Hancock had become too ashamed to tell other people where he lived.
A number of Cornerstone residents were excited that a journalist took interest in their troubles and eagerly sat down to talk. But Hancock was the only one who spoke on camera for the television report, while others feared that being seen on camera would make them easy targets. Hancock knew the risks but felt the situation on the street had become so bad that he had nothing to lose.
Perhaps that’s because this wasn’t the first time he’d been targeted by bad actors in the area for taking a stand to improve conditions on the street. When he first moved to Cornerstone, Hancock developed a habit of picking up trash along the street after the loiterers. Other residents eventually joined him, but not before he weathered drug dealers and passersby throwing garbage at him, and derisively taking his picture.
“But I never stopped. And the more I did it, it began to have an effect on people,” Mr. Hancock said. “And then I started getting their trust and their respect.” Referring to the drug dealers and loiterers, he said, “They thought I thought I was better than them because I wanted to take care of where I lived at. And today, I can walk out my door and dope dealers will start picking up trash.”
During the interview, Hancock spoke passionately about the activity on the street, about how it was harming him and his neighbors. He spoke about his frustration and disappointment with the police. He spoke about the need for Findlay Playground to reopen as fast as possible, so that Over-the-Rhine’s low-income, disadvantaged residents of color could have a comfortable, practical place to socialize that was more accessible than the distant, already gentrified spaces in the area.
He also spoke about the empathy he felt for the loiterers who had been harassing him and the other residents of Cornerstone. While virtually none of these people were from the immediate area, all of them were Black. Hancock spoke with an edge then. He recognized that they shared the burden of Blackness, and that under slightly different circumstances, he could have been in their shoes.
The arc of change
To an outsider, the frustrations of Hancock and his neighbors may seem like petty, solvable transgressions. In truth, they are symptoms of the city’s history of stunted efforts at urban real estate development in the early 1900s, as well as the pitfalls of Over-the-Rhine’s gentrification a century later.
Anne Delano Steinert, a visiting professor at the University of Cincinnati and the vice chair of fundraising at the Over-the-Rhine Museum, said she lived in Over-the-Rhine in the early 2000s when the gentrification was first starting.
“Over-the-Rhine was a very different place then. It was very much a low-income neighborhood and largely an African American neighborhood. And certainly the neighborhood Over-the-Rhine today, below Liberty street, is drastically different. I think as you move north from Liberty Street, you’ll see pockets of the old 1980s, 1990s Over-the-Rhine. But it’s clearly a different demographic living below Liberty Street…and moving northward pretty rapidly.”
Steinert explained that Over-the-Rhine was a densely populated area in the 1800s, as residents were stuck occupying the basin that constitutes OTR, the neighboring West End community and what is now considered to be the downtown area. The opening for African Americans to make homes for themselves in Over-the-Rhine was in part because anti-German sentiments were billowing in the city once America declared war on Germany in 1917, driving out much of the German community that originally constituted Over-the-Rhine.
Around this time, African Americans slowly began migrating to and settling down in Cincinnati from the South, but these populations grew dramatically by the 1910s. Over-the-Rhine became one of the prime locations for Black people to settle down, and they often sought out opportunities for industrial jobs in sectors like clothing, printing, and liquor, as well as mechanics, iron and steel.
That population started thinning out once inclines were installed that gave more affluent residents the option of moving into nicer, more technologically advanced homes in the hillsides by the end of the century.
Still, the population of African American migrants continued to grow in the greater Cincinnati area, going on to become 11% of the city’s population by 1930, at almost 50,000 people. But the upward mobility of African Americans was derailed by the Great Depression. The catastrophic moment in America’s economic history also left over 50% of Black Americans unemployed, and many were further disadvantaged by the instances of displacement and declining conditions of properties in their communities.
Over-the-Rhine’s socioeconomic makeup was also heavily impacted by changes happening in the close by West End neighborhood. Even though OTR remained untouched in Cincinnati’s mid-20th century redevelopment, thousands of Blacks in the neighboring district of West End lost their homes to the construction of Interstate-75 that now connects Cincinnati to Dayton. Steinert explained further that a large number of these people would then migrate to Over-the-Rhine, and how this migration “sets off a wave of white flight out of Over-the-Rhine, which was a working class and lower class Appalachian neighborhood at the time. So that the population of Over-the-Rhine drops drastically.”
Scots-Irish Appalachians from other southern states, however, did join the neighborhood. Along with Black residents, they took advantage of subsidized housing that was generated by a new, federal Section 8 tax credit system for landlords. This also meant that a number of landlords who were disconnected from the community were buying a lot of properties at low costs, leading some buildings vacant for many years.
The poor conditions yielded high crime rates, the emergence of diseases like tuberculosis and cholera, as well as the downfall of local Black businesses and organizations by the 1970s. Little structural change was made in the 80s and 90s, a time in which Blacks would make up 80% of Over-the-Rhine.
The downward spiral of Over-the-Rhine began to slow, then reverse itself as leaders like housing advocate Buddy Gray rose to prominence in the 1970s. For decades, Gray leveraged a movement to stop displacement and preserve the neighborhood for low-income residents, holding demonstrations and buying out buildings with city grants through his organizations, which advocated for the poor.
Gray’s work was polarizing; supporters viewed his strategies as necessary steps to change Cincinnati’s handling of housing options for the lower class, as well as Over-the-Rhine’s overall economic state, but detractors charged his approach was impractical, and that his buying up buildings (many of which remained vacant) blocked opportunities for development. Critics went on to say that his properties were all too often converted into warehouses that exacerbated criminal activity in the neighborhood, causing more problems than he was creating solutions. Given OTR’s continued blight, taxpayer funds for revitalization went further south to the Central Business District.
Still awaiting revitalization
The legacy of Gray’s impact on Over-the-Rhine, and its options for affordable housing and development, is unresolved. The 46-year-old was fatally shot in 1996 in his office by a homeless man he once helped. Cincinnati lost the figure who had most prominently and forcefully fought against gentrification in Over-the-Rhine for the past 20 years.
Significantly, five years later, in 2001, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas was shot dead by a police officer in an alley by Vine Street, after being chased down for a number of minor warrants. Thomas was unarmed when he was killed.
His death carried the weight of local African American communities’ frustrations with police brutality; he was one of the more than a dozen young Black men to be killed by the police since 1995. In addition to being restricted to distressed areas like Over-the-Rhine that were crumbling from poverty, violence, poor schools and dilapidation, the deaths of Gray and Thomas freshly catalyzed the call for change.
Civil unrest in the neighborhood stretched on for days, and Black activists engaged in an economic boycott of Cincinnati. The social turbulence prompted city officials to face the dire conditions of Over-the-Rhine head-on and build a foundation for economic and housing reform. The Cincinnati Center for Development Corporation (3CDC) was born in 2003.
Following the advice of a New York real estate consultant, then-Mayor Charles Luken coordinated with the president and CEO of Procter & Gamble to launch the privately-funded entity that provided community designing and economic development to OTR. Using federal money mandated to revitalize blighted areas, the entity bought up and rehabilitated properties throughout the neighborhood. Over 100 historic buildings were restored while dozens of new buildings were built. 3CDC also kept subsidized housing and refurbished parks in the area while discouraging criminals with the increased presence of cameras, enhanced lighting and the shutting down of liquor stores.
Almost two decades later, the look, character and feel of Over-the-Rhine changed tremendously, as young, affluent professionals revel in the neighborhood’s new, artisanal, glamorous flare. But it’s the low-income Black locals who have long-lived in or traversed the streets there who feel alienated and dismissed with all the changes.
Timothy Thomas’ name continues to have a strong presence in Cincinnati, and he became especially relevant during the explosive unrest over police brutality and racial injustice in the summer of 2020, following the police killing of George Floyd. It was not uncommon to see his name in fresh graffiti or his face drawn in a mural somewhere around town, like the one on Vine Street, where his image accompanies Samuel DuBose and Breonna Taylor, among others.
Despite the praise 3CDC has received for revitalizing Over-the-Rhine, there is a fervent group of individuals from marginalized backgrounds who argue that 3CDC has not fulfilled its objective: to create a community that is sustainably diverse in race and economic classes. They claim it has failed to consult with OTR’s disadvantaged residents to note and implement changes that would improve their quality of life and help them maintain a presence in the district. As a result, OTR’s underprivileged have resorted to huddling on sidewalks and pockets of the neighborhood that have yet to be fully redeveloped. So pockets of the neighborhood, like Green and Republic Street, remain blighted.
“It’s part of the gentrification,” Mr. Hancock said. “And then you have the kids not having anywhere to go. Kids visited that park,” he said, referring to Findlay Playground. “It might not have been the best thing for them. But they had a place to go and now they don’t have anywhere to go. They’re hanging out on the street.”
Mr. Hancock and the Cornerstone residents would soon get what they wished for. But, as some feared, that wasn’t enough to stop people from congregating and engaging in illicit activity on their street.
City officials reopened the park on July 18, a development that came three weeks after I first reported on the issues its shutdown was causing in the area. The police department also assigned direct patrols to the area on condition that they’d leave if called to a scene in another part of the city.
It has been six months since the park was reopened. Despite this, the gates that fenced off the public while it was closed are still up on Findlay’s more affluent side. These days, groups of people can be found playing cards on the picnic tables bordering Vine Street. Families and small children are occasionally seen inside the park, as are those experiencing homelessness. Police officers on patrol are an altogether rare sight.
At Green and Republic Street, Mr. Hancock told me that the activity there had calmed down dramatically in the weeks after the press attention. He said that officers were patrolling their street more, and that drug dealers began to act more civil and deferential towards him.
But activity eventually picked up again by the end of August. Hancock and the other residents reported that the noise, the drug dealing and the unruly loiterers had returned. Not only was the air foggy again from the clouds of smoke, but it was also thick from the blasting music and clusters of people walking throughout the street. One woman had set up a table selling t-shirts in front Cornerstone, and another set up a barbershop on the sidewalk.
Some of the residents partnered with the small businesses and non-profits on their street, as well as the Urban League, to form a community safety group and block watch. Residents have also met with the police to devise solutions that would eliminate the violence and illegal activities. They have additionally met with the city council, as well as the Over-the-Rhine Community Council, to address their quality of life concerns.
On Dec. 16, the city council voted to grant Green Street residents with permit-parking on the block in an effort to preserve space for them in the street and discourage people from congregating in the area.
Still, morale is low among the residents. The gun violence, drug sales and other disruptive, problematic activity continue, and city officials haven’t responded quickly or forcefully enough to these issues to satisfy residents. At the time of writing, Hancock said an innocent bystander was injured in yet another shooting two days before.
The city did, however, sign off on a new capital improvement program with 3CDC by mid-October, designating the firm as the primary company to manage recreational improvements in and around Findlay Park. The city agreed to put forward $50,000 for the project out of a reserve for one-time expenses and emergencies that would then be matched by 3CDC.
Hancock doesn’t have any plans to move out of Over-the-Rhine. Still, his once defiant, rigid voice now sounds more like a defeated murmur when he talks about his frustration with loiterers. But through it all, he defends their humanity, the Black men and women who ended up less fortunate.
“These people stand out here and they celebrate what life they have,” Mr. Hancock said. “They should have somewhere to go to celebrate what life they have. Even if it ain’t the life you want.”
Monique John covers gentrification for the WCPO. This dispatch is part of a series called “On the Ground” with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter: @themoniquejohn.