This is an issue that seems to weigh heavily on the minds of urban living Cincinnatians right now. Before I get started on my discussion, I’d like to direct you to the blog that got me thinking about all of this. Over at UrbanCincy there was a post concerning this issue a few days ago, and also a really nice discussion about it in the comments. In the spirit of blog camaraderie I’d like to commend UrbanCincy for backing up and looking at the big picture.
Now it’s my turn. Let’s start from my own personal square-one on this issue. Before I first came to Cincinnati I spent the first 18 years of my life in Washington DC. After the 1968 riots, many of the building in DC were left as burnt out husks of its former city-dom. While many people tried to pioneer back into the city, many also failed. The dilapidated image and preconceived notion of danger kept many people away from a lot of areas. DC was hurting, and with no money coming in, a lot of the areas just kept sliding down the proverbial slope into looking worse and feeling more and more unsafe.
Lucky for me I had parents who really didn’t give a damn. If there was something to do in the city, we’d do it. For all the talk of how dangerous it was (we did hold the “Murder Capital” claim for a while) we never had any issues. In 1992, The Shakespeare Theatre moved its productions to a theater on the edge of Chinatown. At this time, Chinatown was nothing to write home about. It had fantastic Dim Sum, but was pretty seedy and constantly looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years. Much like Cincinnati, I loved the area dearly, but wished the city would look after it a little bit more.
In 1997, the MCI Center was built right in the heart of the Chinatown district. This was a pretty big development for the area. With more people coming in, more restaurants had to come to so that people could enjoy a good meal before a Caps game. Cut to 2008, after a huge development push in 2006, and Chinatown is a major shopping and dining area in the district. Of course, it’s not necessarily the hip boutiques that people love so dearly, but the amount of money that area pulls in, in terms of both retail and simply bringing people down into the heart of DC, is an invaluable sum. A same sort of revitalization has happened with the U St. corridor. Once a semi-dangerous neighborhood (I personally never had problems when going to the Kaffa House or Black Cat, though others did) it’s now a bustling bar and restaurant scene giving the neighboring Adams Morgan area a run for its money.
The fact of the matter is that, in a good city, the downtown area should never be dead. Now, you can claim the Gateway Quarter isn’t dead, and I’d agree that that is an important step in the revitalization, but those of us who live down here know that eating options get cut down considerably once the 9-to-5 crowd heads home. We also know that in recent years tons of bars have closed or pulled up stakes and moved to Newport (lookin’ at you Jefferson Hall). There have been plenty of good developments in the past year towards revitalizing the city, but in order to really make the city somewhere to make other places jealous, we need to get over this whole gentrification issue.
With the right amount of apathy, cities can be static places. People stop caring, they find excuses not to beautify an area and bemoan the fact that people are even trying rather than trying to support them. As we look at the examples of DC above, it should be clear that cities should exist as agents of flux. There should be up-times and down-times. A certain group of people will live there then and a certain group of people will live there now and still another in the future. Is gentrification inevitable? It should be if we want the city to be successful. Most of the buildings being rehabbed presently are vacant and being turned into gorgeous additions to the downtown landscape. Will habitated buildings be bought out eventually? If the Gateway Quarter goes well, yes it will. You who bemoan gentrification basically have two options: The first one is that you have a downtown that you never go to because you would never want to push all the low-income residents out. The second is a downtown you go to, that is fun, vibrant and that, with a few easy inclusionary zoning steps, could easily be a lovely mixed-income area.
Of course there are steps to be taken so we don’t blindly rush towards the cash. The result of gentrification is inevitably a much higher cost of living for the residents who live in OTR presently. There are ways to create mixed income neighborhoods that work. It’s not low income residents that scare suburban folk away its the amount of illegal activity that goes on. This sort of thing will go down as more people take a chance on living downtown, as the city takes more interest in watching over the newly developed areas and as stores and restaurants stay open later to cater to all of these people. In order to make gentrification work, and believe me it can (though rarely ends up as the ideal), it takes more than ethical development and ramped up police presence. It also takes people just going to these newly open businesses, eating at the restaurants and moving into the many houses and apartments that are around downtown.
In order to make this work we have to make our presence known here. Let 3CDC know that you don’t just want beautiful new buildings, you also want OTR’s history and current population to remain a part of the new development. (It’s not going to be hard, there are plenty of places for us all to live in downtown) Shop at the Vine Kroger and the newly opened Avril Bleh Groceries. Go to Rohs for your hardware. Whatever you can do downtown, do it. Buy your plants and gadgets in the Gateway Quarter. If you want a downtown to be proud of, full of the old and new, the young and old, the poor and rich, you have to spend a little money to get there. We can be a model city if we just start working with the wallets in power instead of just berating them for gentrification to come, especially considering the fact that, for the most part, they’ve only gutted and rehabbed vacant buildings.