I was born in Cincinnati in 1950 into a first generation German family named Beck. My nana, grandpa, momma and our extended second-‐generation family of aunts and uncles all lived together in a historic Ohio farmhouse. The home was one of the first built in the Ohio Valley by an English family surnamed Edwards. It was reputed to be part of the Underground Railroad, sheltering runaway slaves in the coal cellar.
Cincinnati was settled in 1788 on the banks of the Ohio River across from Kentucky. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, free Blacks and runaway slaves came across the river seeking better lives and less prejudice. After the Great Depression of the 1930s Appalachian families from rural Kentucky hills crossed the Ohio with new dreams.
Cincinnati was an immigrant crucible of Germans, Jews, and the Irish. In reward for their hope, the city gave many immigrants small opportunity and large restrictions,
The 50’s were a conservative era in segregated Cincinnati. Our white family visited the neighborhood of Over–the-‐Rhine once a year just before Christmas to shop at Findley Market, the oldest operating food market in Ohio. That’s where Aunt Martha would buy a goose for Christmas dinner, like straight out of Charles Dickens. Going to the market was like going to another world for me; I loved it!
Over-the-Rhine got its name from working-class German immigrants who lived on one side of the Erie Canal and laughingly referred to it as the Rhine River. A historic urban area that has undergone recent gentrification, I have come back home to “Cincy” to explore the trendy, now predominately white neighborhood called “OTR”.
My first stop is the old location of The School for Creative and Performing Arts on Sycamore Street. The history of the magnet school involved a mandate to integrate. When I taught Theatre at SCPA, directors double cast all black and white actors, singers and dancers with “non-traditional casting” based on talent, not race. The school has now been converted into pricey condominiums for ex-suburbanites.
The newly built arts school near Music Hall admits talented students grades K-12. It is tuition free for kids from all of Cincinnati’s neighborhoods based upon potential. Eric Kunzel helped establish the funding for the new SCPA near historic Music Hall. Maestro Kunzel conducted the Cincinnati Pops in its hay day and invited the SCPA children’s choir to perform at Music Hall on many occasions. The kids dreamed big.
Today I listen proudly to the young female vocal group called “The Baby Grands” singing in the renovated Music Hall. It is a mixed group of twelve young women with individual artistic dreams, singing their hearts out on that hallowed stage in Over-the-Rhine. As I embrace their dreams of finding fame through the arts, I remember the reality of Harry Belafonte’s statement about racism made in October of 2002:
“If you walk into South Central Los Angeles, into Watts, or if you walk into Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, you’ll find people who live lives that are as degrading as anything that slavery had ever produced, They live in economic oppression. They live in a disenfranchised way.”
Over-the-Rhine is now franchised. There’s a Graeter’s Ice Cream parlor, and an upscale Taste of Belgium restaurant in the same block as the millennia’s’ favorite soul food restaurant The Eagle. I go to The Eagle for lunch, and sit next to a couple of white businessmen in suits, eating free-range fried chicken with collard greens.
I can’t help but wonder, “Where have all the black neighborhood street folks gone? Where are the poor, white Appalachians living in the fringes of Over-the-Rhine?
As I leave The Eagle, I run into an African American in a wheelchair selling the newspaper Streetvibes. In an article titled Disappearing Communities, Dr. Mark Mussman states that Over-the-Rhine has been drastically changed by outside forces.
People who live in the rich white neighborhood, have come into our small neighborhood and stood for one thing: displacement.
Dr. Mussen’s research mentions that at least 2400 units of housing have been lost to gentrification, “never to return. Cincinnati still has no possibility of upward mobility for most African American residents today, Most of the buildings in Over-the-Rhine
are owned by out-of-state landlords or local white people who are out to make a buck.”
Understanding economic displacement is complex. I scan the Cincinnati Enquirer for a few quick headlines: “Cincinnati’s poverty rate among five highest for US cities.” The city’s poverty rate grew faster than the nation as a whole in 2002 to 2017. In the Cincinnati Public Schools, 81.9 percent of students qualify for meal assistance.
Median household income has not recovered from the 2008 recession in seven of Greater Cincinnati’s fifteen counties. Poverty is worse in 1/3 of those counties.
Statistics in Cincinnati show that the Great Recession stole wealth. Some jobs came back after the recession but financial security didn’t. Family medical expenses keep rising. When forced to leave Over-‐the-‐Rhine, the only place to go may be to public housing, which is so tight as to be considered realistically unavailable. There are only 43 affordable rental units for every 100 extremely low-‐income households.
The alternative is living on the streets with the rest of the local homeless population.
“On the streets” in reality means staying in a homeless shelter with 86% of the homeless population in Hamilton County. According to the 2017 census, 1,692 of the homeless are children. And that number is on the rise in Over-‐ the-‐Rhine. I think of the talented neighborhood children at the School for Creative and Performing Arts. And I think of the beautiful play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, which opens with the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes. The first line of the poem begins: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
The dreams of displaced people from Over-the-Rhine are not just detoured. They seem to be dead. But I can’t end my Cincinnati homecoming journey with such negativity. I know that it is time to recognize that our differences shared become our personal riches. We have to move heaven and earth to find homes and finally come home.
I have read about the work that the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church has done to provide warm beds for the homeless when the temperatures drop. It isn’t a home.
On Sunday I go to Quaker meeting. As I study the bulletin of the Cincinnati Friends Congregation, I discover their organization called “Tender Mercies” with the mission to provide “Security, Dignity, and Community” to homeless adults in Over-‐the-‐Rhine.
Security means a housing environment where residents’ safety is priority. Dignity means housing that allows residents to develop economic strengths. Community is housing that offers family while affirming the individual.
I learn: “The Quaker congregation achieves its mission by maintaining 134 units of permanent housing in six buildings in Over-‐the-‐Rhine. Our model of housing addresses the root causes of homelessness by providing community supportive services through Bethany House. Bethany House empowers homeless and at-risk families with solutions to achieve housing stability and long-term self sufficiency.”
And so the dream is renewed: to respect our differences by helping others, as we would like to be helped. Respectfully, I quote: ”There but for the grace of God, go I”.
By Melissa Lilly