Cincinnati History in Perspective, Part 2

By Dr. Mark Mussman


The Minority of housing in Cincinnati was built before 1970. This means that while some housing has modern amenities, much of the housing was built before electricity, modern wiring, or even sewer systems (as in the case in Over-the-Rhine and the West End). The 1960’s and 70’s represented the tail end of the Great Migration of American Black families moving out of the South, and going as far north as possible. Unfortunately, once they arrived, they were still under the control of local jurisdictions who were not advocating for a free and equal society. The shadow of Jim Crow, the Black Codes, and segregation, were heavy in urban areas, like Cincinnati. Little had changed since the 1940’s, when none of the major corporations in Cincinnati had hired even a single Black person to work. Another great migration was coming out of the Appalachian mountains, coal miners were being replaced by machinery, and they became unnecessary. On top of these two groups, both Black and white, there was another type of displacement that was occuring: Urban Renewal.


In Cincinnati, one of the most significant neighborhoods to be lost was Kenyon Barr, which is now, the West End and Queensgate. This neighborhood is to the west of downtown Cincinnati. The neighborhood was the epicenter of the Black community in Cincinnati. It was known as a “mixed income” neighborhood, with the bosses living on the same block as the workers. There was a long history of struggle and success, including Millionaire’s Row, and the more seedy places around the intersection of Kenyon and Barr Streets. Some of the first Black schools started here and later moved to Walnut Hills and other neighborhoods. When Kenyon Barr was raised for the West Side Highway, now I-75, it was just one of many Black neighborhoods that were destroyed, including Buck Town, due to the lack of value Cincinnati whites place on the lives of Black residents. Over 25,000 Black people were forced out of Kenyon Barr, virtually overnight, because Cincinnati’s white ruling class wanted the highway to come closer to the downtown, rather than stay on the Mill Creek.


By the mid 1960’s, there were three groups of people (Great Migration, Appalachian, and Kenyon Barr residents) who were expelled from their homes and landed in Over-the-Rhine. Only to find the living conditions to be substandard, with many buildings containing many apartments without heating, electricity, and even bathrooms. Some apartment buildings shared a single bathroom on the ground floor. The 5 story tenement buildings were already seeing degeneration and disinvestment, and the families who were displaced to Over-the-Rhine weren’t in any economic position to obtain ownership of them. Slumlords let the buildings deteriorate while taking what money they could from the residents. Often forcing residents to flee from one slumlord to another. Once again, the instability of housing was having a dire effect on the ability of Over-the-Rhine’s 30,000 residents to gain a foothold for their children.


People in the neighborhood started to understand that ownership of the land was the only way that they could remain in the neighborhood to create stability for the next generations. They saw the need for social service organizations to help people who were being excluded from quality services, education, health care, housing, and shelter. Cincinnati, once known as the “City of Steeples,” because of the many churches in the urban basin (which includes Over-the-Rhine and the West End), became a catalyst for community organizing. In the church basements, residents and clergy gathered to meet the economic and social crises head-on. Knowing that people needed to have better quality housing, they created ReStoc, which worked for decades to preserve old buildings for affordable housing. They created the Over-the-Rhine Housing Network, an organization to obtain and manage low-income and subsidized housing. They created the Shelterhouse because they recognized that Cincinnati needed a low-barrier shelter. They knew advocacy was important, so the Contact Center and the Homeless Coalition were created to push for systems change. In the ensuing years, other organizations were created like Peaslee Neighborhood Center, and religiously-influenced organizations like Tender Mercies, Power Inspires Progress (Venice on Vine), St. Francis Seraph’s outreach programs, Mercy Housing, and the Mary Magdalen Shower House. The tireless efforts put into these life-giving organizations constitute what we now call the Over- the-Rhine People’s Movement.


Each of these organizations has seen opposition from the City of Cincinnati and other fronts. For example, it is illegal to create a shelter in the city, so after buddy gray’s apartment was too full for persons homeless, and the roof caved in at the Main Street building that was being used as a shelter, the city forcibly removed the shelter from the Teamster building at 12th and Elm. This happened several times before they were able to get the permit to keep the shelter there. The struggle to get Peaslee into the hands of the people was years long, and involved the untrained labor of mothers who didn’t want to lose an important asset in their neighborhood. When Over- the-Rhine Housing Network and ReStoc knew that the Recovery Hotel was needed, the City denied the permit, yet the community came together and found a workaround, which enabled the Recovery Hotel to open.


Even as the population continued to decline into the 1990’s, the People’s Movement remained steadfast in their commitment to the quality of life issues of residents in Over-the-Rhine. But they were up against a federal designation: Historic Neighborhood. Residents had fought this designation because they knew this would result in less affordable housing and more displacement from the neighborhood, and they were absolutely correct. Developers had long fought the People’s Movement, and the apparent leader, buddy gray, for entrée into the neighborhood. Developers and other business interests felt that the work of Urban Renewal was yet to be complete, so they set their sights on Over-the-Rhine, as it abuts the downtown business district. With the largest collection of 19th Century German Italianate architecture in the world, developers were eager to create a new neighborhood under the guise of “mixed income.” They began with Main Street, which had been home to many people for decades. 80 year-old women were being taken out of their apartments, handcuffed, face-down, on stretchers, by the Sheriff, so that their apartments could be turned into condos for the wealthy, white, elite. The neighborhood was able to stem this tide, after many trips to City Hall demanding that these developers be held accountable for their apparent crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, accountability did not last.


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