Updated: Jul 14, 2021
By Dr. Mark Mussman
People look back at Over- the-Rhine in the year 2000, and call it things like an economic wasteland, a drug infested slum, or the most dangerous neighborhood in the country. It’s clear that these comments come out of a certain group of people who wish to exert ownership, or who feel they weren’t making money off of the approximately 8,000 residents. Many underground economies exist because of racist drug policies, or even racist permitting processes. Even though Over-the-Rhine was considered these negative things, there were many small mom-and- pop businesses, and even some larger, like Gold Star Chili, Kroger, Devaroes, yet most of the businesses catered to people who lived in Over- the-Rhine. Hair and nail salons, corner stores, hardware, art, post office, bars, clothing, and Findlay Market were places that residents found refuge in a world that was uncaring and difficult to them. Over-the-Rhine still had the Urban Appalachian Council headquarters on Walnut Street, which was the first stop for many migrating families out of eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee. There were three elementary schools, a couple of private schools, and a public high school. The arts were thriving in the neighborhood, which seems to be a precursor for gentrification.
In April of 2001, there was a catalyzing event that brought the focus back onto Over-the-Rhine: the execution of Timothy Thomas by Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach. The aftermath of this event led to a complete change in the way of life in Over-the-Rhine. After Stephen Roach killed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, as Thomas fled down a dark alley in the middle of the night, Thomas’ mother, and many other mothers and community leaders, went to City Hall to get answers about what happened. Thomas had been one, of more than a dozen, unarmed Black men killed by the Cincinnati Police in a few years. The mothers and grandmothers demanded to know why, and how they could protect their children. The young, appointed Councilmember, John Cranley, told them they would not get answers, and asked everyone to leave City Hall. Unable to get a direct answer from the Police Chief, these concerned residents left City Hall, only to be greeted by riot police. This is what sparked the Rebellion in 2001, which is the largest city rebellion in recent American history.
After a chaotic few days, the Cincinnati Police decided to do a “slow-down” and abandoned the neighborhood. This is when outside forces were able to take hold in the neighborhood, and this is why the neighborhood became known as the most dangerous neighborhood in the country. It is due to the complete economic breakdown that was occurring due to systemic racism and the oppression of low-income residents, coupled with an unjust Justice System, and the lack of access to quality healthcare and education. Most crime that occurred was on paper - drug deals, etc., but there were strings of homicides, due to the fact that the police let it be known that they were not going to be patrolling or responding in Over-the-Rhine. People in the neighborhood were working together to create a stronger neighborhood, and for many, life continued as normal.
At the time, the Drop Inn Center (Shelterhouse) was still operating daily on 12th and Elm, providing meals for people, and shelter at night. Peaslee’s Steel Drum Band was in full swing. Streetvibes was being published with the legendary Jimmy Heath at the helm. The Homeless Coalition was fighting against unjust panhandling laws and encampment sweeps. The Contact Center was registering people to vote and fighting against the Welfare to Work policies of the Clinton Administration. The Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center (at the time, the Interfaith Justice and Peace Center) was gearing up for a many year fight against the illegal and unjust War on Terror. Mercy St. John was providing meals twice a day out of their sandwich windows. The Catholic Worker House was merging and providing a substance-free new beginning to men who needed short-term housing. And all the while, the Mary Magdalen House provided showers, clean clothing, and dignity to our neighbors from their storefront location on Main Street.
The operations of the Over-the- Rhine People’s Movement could not be stopped because the need was so great. Nightly curfews over the city were applied only to Black and low- income residents, as parties and bar operations continued in Mt. Adams, Hyde Park, and other affluent neighborhoods. Mayor Charlie Luken told everyone to “go home and watch tv” and the nights became quiet around the edges of Over- the-Rhine. Before Office Roach was aquitted of the misdemeanor charges brought upon him, the 2001 so- called Terrorist Attacks took place on September 11th. This event changed the trajectory of the organizing in Cincinnati, as everyone was impacted by the event, no matter where you lived in the City. Once 9/11 happened, the passion around fighting for justice seemed to fizzle out, and people began to focus on systemic changes.
The federal Department of Justice (DOJ) came to Cincinnati and found that the Cincinnati police had been training their officers to use racial profiling as the base of their operations. Timothy Thomas had been pulled over many times for driving without a license, due to racial profiling. The DOJ required the Cincinnati Police to change policies, which wasn’t the first time the Cincinnati Police were required to change, as they were required to hire women and Black officers back in the 1970’s due to the pervasive level of racism in the department. After 2001, the police began to participate in Community Problem Oriented Policing (CPOP) only because members of the Black community fought to see systemic change. Due to the pressure from Black citizens and the Department of Justice, a Citizen’s Complaint Authority (CCA) was created and police are to keep Contact Cards (information estimating the age, race, gender of everyone they come into contact with during their shift). The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) has fought these changes many times, and often is out of compliance. The CCA keeps a record of police officers who are known to be racist, yet they have little power due to the FOP.
Today, Mayor John Cranley will say that the killing of Timothy Thomas, or as he inaccurately calls it the Race Riot of 2001, was the catalyst of the renaissance of Over-the-Rhine. But it’s clear that the white ruling class had been conspiring to take control of the neighborhood since the 1980’s, if not earlier. (Just a note: Race Riots have always been when white people destroy and kill people in Black neighborhoods. Calling the Rebellion in 2001 a “Race Riot” is entirely racist. Calling it a Civil Unrest is slightly better, but we know “Rebellion” is accurate because the DOJ showed unequivocally that the Cincinnati Police Department was operating unjustly, and rebellions are fights against injustice.) It was only after the Rebellion in 2001 that the Mayor at the time, Charlie Luken, and a Vice President of Procter and Gamble (P&G) colluded to create a extrajudicial organization that would have little to no governmental oversight: Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation, also known as 3CDC.
3CDC has become the largest purveyor of violence in Over-the-Rhine since it’s entrance into the neighborhood around 2008. Before 2008, 3CDC briefly operated as the City’s Planning Department due to funding cuts, used public funds to build the parking structure at the Banks for an entertainment district, and privatized Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati. 3CDC paid as little as $1 for much of the property that 3CDC acquired from the City, including Fountain Square, and later, Washington Park.
3CDC has directly removed low- income and Black residents from their homes, as well as, small businesses. 3CDC has indirectly removed Black and low-income residents from the neighborhood entirely. We have seen a loss of more than half of the Black residents since 2001, and the trend continues today. 3CDC’s idea of affordable housing is not attainable to the residents, and only continues to further push residents from their homes. They operate as a quasi-governmental organization, with a backdoor to City Hall, where they are able to get millions in public funding that could be used to create and sustain affordable housing. 3CDC does not consider low-income people as their base because their board is hand-picked by the Mayor, and their membership is mostly Fortune 500 companies like Kroger, 5/3 Bank, P&G, and Macy’s. They have no regard for low income families, unless they are asking the public for donations. As a private non-profit organization, they operate as a shadow government, which not only gets funds from all sorts of public sources, but also directly from property taxes. In 2019 and 2020, they are working to expand their ability to receive property taxes directly, as they have an insatiable thirst for power and control over the neighborhood.
Fortunately, the many founders of the Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement had the foresight to own their property to create stability in the neighborhood. These organizations are continuously fighting back against the abuse of 3CDC, but because 3CDC has no public oversight, it is a daunting task and struggle. Over- the-Rhine Community Council, a public neighborhood group, often votes against 3CDC proposals, but Cincinnati City Council overrides the community council wishes, or 3CDC just does what they want anyway. Until City Hall challenges, rather than protects, 3CDC, it will continue to be an uphill battle to fight for the rights of Black and low- income residents in Over-the-Rhine.