Over-the-Rhine, an infamous Cincinnati area, was declared to be the nation’s most dangerous neighborhood in 2009, according to crime statistics provided by local and federal law enforcement agencies. Though there are many who would dispute this assertion, it is one that has garnered much acknowledgment, particularly due to the civil unrest that erupted in 2001. However, Over-the-Rhine’s notorious reputation has recently undergone a transformation as local efforts to revitalize the area have met with increasing success. It is an area steeped in rich cultural history, with much to offer both residents of and visitors to Cincinnati. Revitalization movements such as the one occurring in Over-the-Rhine are laudable efforts aimed at unlocking a neighborhood’s potential through infrastructural and cultural improvements and preservation.
Because neighborhoods can establish customs and values, it is essential to the American tradition that attention be paid to such small communities, particularly when crime and economic deterioration start to take root. The Over-the-Rhine case exemplifies the exceptional principles of American society: the predominant actors in improving the neighborhood have been individuals willing to take risks, not government agencies.
Traditionally, Over-the-Rhine was a community of German immigrants, who began arriving in the 1830s. By 1900, there were 45,000 people living in the neighborhood. The German language and culture flourished in the area, manifesting in the numerous German-language schools and newspapers, German churches, breweries, and the like. Over-the-Rhine is home to 362 acres of 19th-century German and Italianate Revival brick buildings, an architectural prize. Even today, German culture holds a prominent place in the hearts of Cincinnatians: the city’s Oktoberfest is the second largest in the world, yielding only to Munich.
However, the German population declined heavily during the years surrounding World War I, as a result of strong anti-German hysteria. German immigrants moved away from downtown, settling in places such as Price Hill, and they changed their German-sounding names. Scots-Irish Appalachians started to occupy Over-the-Rhine, sparking an effort by activists in the late 1960s to cultivate an urban Appalachian identity. The efforts ultimately failed, and another exodus ensued. The new vacancies were filled by African Americans who had been forced to relocate from the West End because of the construction of the city’s new interstate highway system. The federal Section 8 tax credits for landlords provided these incoming residents with substandard subsidized housing. The prevalence of subsidized housing concentrated the city’s poorest residents in Over-the-Rhine for the next few decades.
Crime accompanied this poverty, culminating in the 2001 riots. The event sparked concern among public officials and large corporations, as the dangerous conditions in Over-the-Rhine reflected badly on the city. In an effort to turn the tide, the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) was created. The organization is free from ordinary political constraints and has been able to invest roughly half a billion dollars in Over-the-Rhine, saving numerous historic buildings, constructing new ones, reclaiming parks and community centers, and reducing crime.
Before and during 3CDC’s efforts, many brave souls decided to take part in the neighborhood’s mending by moving their fledgling businesses into the area, despite the continued risks of crime and the neighborhood’s bleak economy. Though 3CDC had the largest role in making the transformation possible, it is worth noting the central importance of the individuals who took it upon themselves to risk their fortunes and futures in order to contribute to the neighborhood’s transformation. Their efforts reflect a pioneer spirit and desire to protect a place of cultural and historical importance. This neighborhood revitalization exemplifies what makes America exceptional: a self-reliant, can-do spirit that requires only that government get out of the way and let the people build, maintain, and restore communities on their own. Over-the-Rhine should be a beacon for the nation’s other floundering neighborhoods. If you’re in need of assurance that a nation devastated by wars, crime, and government intrusion run amuck can be revitalized one piece at a time, just look to Over-the-Rhine.
Read more about Over-the-Rhine here.