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Disappearing Communities

By Dr. Mark Mussman

Over the years, Over-the- Rhine has been changed by outside forces. People who live in the rich, white neighborhoods, have come into our small neighborhood and stood for one thing: displacement. Their explicit goals: to displace corner stores, to displace crime, to displace our institutions, to supplant their version of public goods onto our assets. We have lost so many of our neighbors over the last few years, that we know at least 2400 units of housing have been lost to gentrification, never to return.

But let’s not confuse progress with the status quo. As I’ve written before, the changes happening in Over-the- Rhine are not progress, as they are just the wealthy making decisions for everyone who has less resources. This is not progress. This is the status quo.

The Cincinnati Recreation Commission has been at the center of many of the losses we have succumbed in the neighborhood. The loss of our public pool at Ziegler Park, the potential loss of Imagination Alley, the potential loss of Findlay Playground. There has been a makeshift fence around Findlay Playground for months now - displacing the normal patterns of residents who utilized the park for years, perhaps even decades. The alley, Goose Alley, which borders Findlay Playground has been sold or leased to private owners on the west side of the alley. This prevents the public from taking in the murals that are along the wall there - a public art project that many will never get to enjoy, due to privatization.

Larger questions of ownership of Findlay Playground have been discussed in my articles before, but it brings into the light how vulnerable our public assets are due to gentrification. It’s easy to understand gentrification if you understand the word displacement. Gentrification is displacement. The story of Over-the-Rhine goes back a long time, and it wasn’t some sort of German utopia - even if that’s what current developers claim as they fetishize our history. The Adena, Hopewell, Osage, and other Native Americans were killed and pushed back by the colonizers who arrived at the Ohio river shore. They were displaced, yet their story is never considered as part of the history of Cincinnati.

The displacement that is occurring today is the fall-out from the Great Depression, and the federal policies that resulted from the depression. The Federal Government desired to create social economic policies to uplift the populace out of poverty. However well intended, African American people were systematically cut out from that plan. Moreover, African Americans were labeled “vermin” by the same government that is meant to represent them. The Home Owners’ Loan Act (HOLA) was part of the New Deal, and it prioritized white people and communities over people of color. It is regarded as one of the greatest tools that created generational wealth that white families have today. Black people were denied participation in the program, so much so, that over 98% of the loans went to white people. Black people, even if they could participate economically, had the door shut in their faces. Today, the wealth gap persists between Black and white communities, largely because of the discrimination that was legal at the time, (yet still persists today.)

What does this have to do with Findlay Playground? Well, following the money available, approximately 120 billion dollars (1930-1970 dollars), the white people who participated in HOLA, used the federal money to create white-only communities, which we affectionately call the “suburbs” today. Racial segregation policies, such as restrictive covenants and straight up “Whites Only” ordinances, were not found to be unfair until 1968, after the HOLA program ceased giving out the low interest, fixed rate, mortgages. White wealth was created through home ownership, and Black families were shut out of both the opportunity to participate in HOLA through redlining, and they were shut out from communities of wealth through legally supported racist housing policies. So what were their options?

Black families were forced to live in areas centrally located to the cities, which have seen the most disinvestment and the most loss of wealth. From the 1960’s to the early 2000’s, these inner city neighborhoods were vilified, strangled by disinvestment, and told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Meanwhile, the federal government infiltrated movements to improve the conditions in Black neighborhoods, while simultaneously destroying them with an influx of illicit drugs and the eve of mass incarceration. The police continued their legacy from the “slave catching” days and separated as many families as possible to create chaos in Black communities. So, what do Black communities have left, when the City has abandoned them, the wealthy Whites have created their own separtist communities, and the grip of racism keeps them from getting “out of poverty” even though they do all the things that they are told to do? Cincinnati still has no possibility of upward mobility for African American residents to this day.

Our only assets then, besides our neighbors, are our public assets. Most of the buildings in Over-the-Rhine are massive, owned by out-of-state landlords, or local white people, who are out to make a buck. Fortunately, the Over-the-Rhine Peoples’ Movement was able to acquire buildings, because without those, we would have very little control over housing in Over-the- Rhine. But, for the most part, the only assets that we share together are our parks, our playgrounds, our schools, our sidewalks, alleys, streets. 3CDC took aim at each of these public assets and has worked to privatize them and force out the existing residents for new, whiter, wealthier, ones. This has been totally at the expense of low-income Black residents and moderate to low income white residents, who enjoyed the first wave of gentrification and are now being forced out for the next wave of wealthier white people with generational wealth.

Today, the police have become such a fixture in our neighborhood, that it’s not uncommon seeing them driving the wrong way up Republic Street, or sneaking around corners in their cruisers, creating an atmosphere of distrust and hostility. The main role of the police is to split families up, not keep them together. The main role of 3CDC is to displace poverty to another location, not uplift people out of poverty. The main role of the CRC should be recreation, but it’s becoming more clear that their bottom line is a financial consideration. So, as they strive to make Findlay Playground “income generating” they are literally siding with wealthy over our neighbors who find themselves being squeezed out of their own neighborhood by generational white wealth.

I wonder if the Director of the CRC, who is making the decisions behind the sale and lease of our public lands, knows the specific history of Over-the- Rhine. I wonder if he understands the important role of public assets and the current attack upon them. I believe that if he understood the pain and anguish that we experience when we lose our public spaces, that he would work harder to defend them, rather than look at them as ways to make money. The CRC Director is not a Cincinnati native, which follows the trend of hiring outside of our own community. His view of Cincinnati started in 2016 when we arrived to start as the Director of Recreation. His understanding is not the same as someone who grew up “Down da Way,” and who spent their youth on the basketball courts that have been lost now. He doesn’t see the city from our perspective, and his interactions at our community council meetings show that he is only concerned about the almighty dollar, not about the enrichment of the youth and community who are the true owners of the public assets on which he sits. His position is not one from unencumbered racism and class warfare. Cincinnati has a specific history, which didn’t start, nor end, with the German immigrants, but which is a rich cultural tapestry of many immigrants and migrants who deserve to access our public assets.

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