By Hillary Copsey
Walnut Hills, a neighborhood inside Cincinnati’s urban core, is having a big year.
After the community suffered the loss of its only grocery store, the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation acquired the property and announced a $50 million mixed-use project. Renovation began on the Paramount Building, another key piece of commercial property at the heart of the neighborhood’s business district. Esoteric Brewing, the city’s first minority-owned-and-operated brewery, will open there in 2018. Meanwhile, more than 250 residential units are under construction.
But the most interesting thing happening in Walnut Hills might be what’s not happening any longer.
About five years ago, residents came together with the help of the redevelopment foundation to clean up and reclaim an overgrown, littered alleyway. Five Points Alley, picked free of trash and weeds, became an outdoor gathering space where the redevelopment foundation organized pop-up biergartens. Hipsters from all over the city came to drink in the alley, and developers took notice.
So did residents. They saw lots of people who didn’t live near them, who often didn’t look like them, flocking to their neighborhood, to the alley they’d revived.
The residents spoke up.
And the redevelopment foundation listened. The biergartens stopped.
“It wasn’t helping our reputation in the neighborhood,” said Kevin Wright, executive director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. “It was helping outside, bringing people in, but not in the neighborhood.”
Residents saw people who didn’t live near them, who often didn’t look like them, flocking to their neighborhood for the pop-up biergartens. Residents spoke up. The biergartens stopped.
All over Cincinnati, neighborhoods are betting resident-centered redevelopment efforts — ones that take into consideration the people, history, and geography of a neighborhood — will lure entrepreneurs and developers that serve and retain the existing community even as they draw in new businesses and people.
Walnut Hills, poised on the edge of a revitalized city center gaining national attention, is one of those neighborhoods. Once considered a second downtown, with a bustling black business district, Walnut Hills remains 75 percent African American. The community has pockets of concentrated poverty, where the annual median household income is less than 13,000 and unemployment is above 20 percent. Even in better off areas of Walnut Hills, income and educational levels are below the city’s average. But the neighborhood also is historic, walkable, and centrally located — all of which is attracting developer interest.
Walnut Hills is asking the question: Can you have redevelopment without gentrification?
SUCCESS AND THE CAUTIONARY TALE
As baby boomers and millennials look toward urban settings, Cincinnati is on the upswing. The region represents the largest economy in Ohio, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, and it’s one of the fastest growing economies in the country.
Redevelopment in Cincinnati’s downtown and the historic Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighborhood, home to the largest intact collection of Italianate architecture in the world, has landed the city on a plethora of national best-of lists. A decade ago, OTR was a primarily African-American community known for crime, homelessness, and crumbling buildings, but in 2016, real estate services Cushman & Wakefield listed the neighborhood as one of the 15 coolest in the country. Most recently, citing OTR restaurants, hotels and art amenities, Jetsetter included Cincinnati as one of the seven most hipster cities in America.
Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., the corporately-funded nonprofit known as 3CDC that has managed the development of downtown and OTR, points out that vacant buildings account for 95 percent of its redevelopment projects. And, while builders are renovating buildings into $500,000 condos, 3CDC is building units affordable to people earning 50 percent of the city’s annual median income. The affordable units are identical to market-rate ones in the same building, 3CDC representative Joe Rudemiller said.
Although no data exists that tracks people displaced by OTR development, a 2015 housing inventory of the neighborhood showed a loss between 2001 and 2014 of more than 2,300 housing units affordable to households earning 30 percent or less of the area median income. The same study showed a nearly 200 percent increase in owner-occupied housing in OTR between 2000 and 2014, and a 37 percent decrease in renter-occupied housing.
The development momentum in downtown and OTR is pushing into other parts of the urban core. There’s pent-up demand for urban living and limited supply. People in Walnut Hills and other neighborhoods reference OTR as a cautionary tale: We want development, but not like that. We don’t want to drive people out. We don’t want the neighborhood to change.
Like many American cities, Cincinnati has a history of development and urban renewal targeting low-income and/or minority neighborhoods for improvements that often lead to the disappearance of pre-existing communities. In the middle of the 20th century, interstates 71 and 75 sliced through historically black neighborhoods in Cincinnati. In Walnut Hills, that interstate construction converted two main roads, McMillan Street and William H. Taft Road, as one-way pass-throughs that allowed suburbanites to buzz downtown. After four decades, residents finally convinced the city to return the roads to two-way streets in 2012. Meanwhile, Walnut Hills went from 20,000 people in 1960 to 6,500 in 2010.
Across town, a whole section of the West End was obliterated in the late 1950s; more than 7,000 homes in a community of primarily black residents were razed for industrial development. Melvin Grier was a teenager when his family was forced out of the West End in 1959. The only thing that remains of his childhood neighborhood is a piece of retaining wall. Grier stayed in Cincinnati and became a photographer, working for years for the Cincinnati Post. Not every neighborhood is entirely demolished, Grier said, but development does have a way of pushing people out. New development comes in, a neighborhood gets rebranded, property values rise, rents go up, and families have to leave.
“People who talk about urban renewal — they typically live in places where these things never happened,” Grier said.
“Everybody wants these things. There’s just a built-in fear of being displaced — because, in the past, they have been.”
According to a 2016 market analysis, Walnut Hills housing values increased by about 16 percent between 2010 and 2015. People worried about rising rents and taxes are unlikely to get excited about development, even if it means positive things such as updated transit options, improved infrastructure like sidewalks, new restaurants and retail, and community events.
“Everybody wants these things,” Wright said. “There’s just a built-in fear of being displaced — because, in the past, they have been.”
‘HAPPY IN ONE WAY, SAD ANOTHER’
George Smith has lived in and around Walnut Hills all his life. At 58 years old, he’s watched the neighborhood change and change again. Buildings left vacant and neglected. Drug dealers loitering on corners. Buildings rehabilitated and full of life again. Crime driven out to other neighborhoods.
“I’m happy in one way, sad another way,” Smith said. “The new things they’re bringing in to make it better, they’re not putting in stuff for low-income people, and that upsets me. Everybody that’s low-income is not bad people. It should be a balance of things for everyone.”
Smith, who uses a wheelchair and lives on a fixed-income, pays about $400 a month in rent thanks to subsidized housing. When he hears about new housing units charging $1,300, $1,800 a month and not accepting housing vouchers, he worries.
“I would be devastated if I had to move from Walnut Hills. I really don’t want to leave,” Smith said. “This is my community. I know everybody. I move out of my area, I don’t know anyone. It’s kind of scary.”
The Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation organized in 1977 as a nonprofit tasked with developing affordable housing. Five years ago, on the verge of closing, the foundation broadened its mission, rebranding itself as “a catalyst for sustainable and positive change” in the community. The foundation still develops property, coordinating public-private partnerships, revitalizing public spaces and preserving historic buildings; however, it also creates cultural programming, enhances social services and encourages civic dialogue.
Board member Christina Brown has said the redevelopment foundation, along with the community, are figuring out as they go what equitable development means and looks like.
The Walnut Hills Reinvestment Plan, finalized in 2016 after a lengthy public input process, includes the support and development of low-income housing and programs that help existing renters and homeowners. The redevelopment foundation advocated for the use in Walnut Hills of form-based code, which allows communities to approve development based on the existing landscape and to encourage walkable development. The foundation also has developed an “equity scorecard” to evaluate future development projects. Wright talks about the need for tax abatements that would keep retail rents low for more local entrepreneurs, and prevent homeowners from getting hit with massive tax hikes as property values increase.
“(Equitable development) takes real intentionality from everyone involved,” Wright said. “You need policy workers on your side, and even then, there’s going to be displacement. It’s unintentional, but that’s how capitalism works.”
Peter Moskowitz, author of How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, agrees. Community boards and input can help mitigate gentrification, he said, but generally aren’t enough to prevent it entirely.
“Urban redevelopment without gentrification is theoretically possible, but in our current world really never happens,” Moskowitz said. “Because almost all land is privately held, anything that makes an area more desirable will inevitably increase the price of that land, which increases the price of living, which prices people out. If city and state governments took things like rent control and publicly owned housing seriously, that impact could be mitigated.
“If, say, there was universal rent control, building a new park wouldn’t affect the buildings around that park,” Moskowitz added. “But as of now that rarely happens. It’s nearly always beautification and improvement without protection.”
“Urban redevelopment without gentrification is theoretically possible, but in our current world really never happens.”
Which is why listening to fears like Smith’s and acknowledging their legitimacy is part of the work of Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. “We have to have open and honest conversations about gentrification,” said Wright. “We have to say, ‘We know the status quo is not OK. But we are aware this could have side effects.’
“We have to consistently show up — to council meetings, open storefronts, community gathering spaces. We have to listen. We have to to go where people are, not expect them to come with us. People just want to feel respected.”
And that means acting, when possible, on the things they hear. When people complained about the biergartens, they stopped. When Kroger closed and left the neighborhood without a grocery store, the redevelopment foundation helped organize three different mobile food-buying options.
This year, Smith joined the Walnut Hills Community Council safety committee and he’s raising money to start a Little League program in the community. He is sometimes critical of the redevelopment foundation and the development it has brought. But Smith also is featured on a mural, “We Are Cincinnati,” created by artist-researchers funded by the redevelopment foundation to gather residents’ stories and celebrate the people of Walnut Hills. Artist Benjamin Thomas said the goal of “We Are Cincinnati” is to draw attention to the people most affected by segregation and gentrification and to inspire relationships that might help people like Smith, whose face now smiles on the parking lot of Parkside Cafe, a neighborhood gathering spot.
‘OH! THAT’S DIFFERENT’
Community Coordinator Aprina Johnson, who runs the artist-researcher program and other outreach efforts for the redevelopment foundation, didn’t want to work for a community development corporation. She calls herself a “creative activist.” In the early 2000s, when Johnson was a teenager, her family had to leave her childhood home as developers bought up rental properties in Northern Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati. She has worked in OTR and seen friends get priced out of the neighborhood.
“I’m usually the person on the outside of the CDC, throwing rocks at it,” Johnson said.
But in 2015, she saw a presentation on the work being done in Walnut Hills. She was struck by the Scholar House, a $12.2 million proposal that would turn a former Dollar Store into apartments for parents going back to school, with a childcare center in the development. Johnson, who had been a teen mom, said that kind of a resource would have made a difference for her. She liked, too, that the redevelopment foundation was proactively looking for people who might be displaced by development.
“I thought, ‘Oh! That’s different!’ … They added the human component,” Johnson said. “I wanted to be a part of building history there.”
“Cultural and racial displacement often comes from retail by and for one type of customer, owned by one type of customer.”
Johnson and Gary Dangel, healthy outreach coordinator and a longtime resident and volunteer, lead community building efforts for the redevelopment foundation. They’ve empowered people with mini-grants to start community programs and provided public services, such as the mobile food markets. They also try to listen, Johnson said, when people are “furious and fearful,” and they bring those concerns back to the redevelopment foundation and its partners.
The conversations around Five Points Alley and the biergartens changed the discussion about development strategy, Wright said. Hearing that people wanted businesses that reflected the community, the redevelopment agency began working closely with MORTAR, a nonprofit organization that helps minority entrepreneurs build or start businesses. MORTAR’s mission is to help people grow and develop with their communities, and several Walnut Hills businesses, including Esoteric Brewing and the barbecue joint, Just Q’in, are owned by MORTAR graduates.
“Cultural and racial displacement often comes from retail by and for one type of customer, owned by one type of customer,” Wright said.
EVERYONE HAS RESPONSIBILITY
The biergartens, before they were stopped, attracted developer interest and led to the rehabilitation of a crumbling firehouse. The restaurant that landed in the building, Fireside Pizza, has become a neighborhood gathering space attracting both the young professional couples new to Walnut Hills and long-time homeowners like Kathryne Gardette.
Gardette owns an older home on Morgan Street, where she now counts the owners of brand new condos as neighbors. The new neighbors don’t chitchat much, said Gardette.
Gardette also owns two other properties in Walnut Hills and grew up making Saturday trips to Peebles Corner to shop at Ebony Records, the beauty store, and the jewelry store. She remembers pushing her shopping cart in the mid-’90s around Walnut Hills to pick up everything from fresh meat from a halal butcher to clothing and craft supplies while suburbanites whizzed through the neighborhood they deemed unsafe.
“You can find things in the neighborhood,” Gardette said. “You need to ask yourself how comfortable you are going into the places where you can find things. … Just because it looks like a hole in the wall, does it stop you from going in?”
The new neighbors don’t chitchat much.
She remembers when the redevelopment foundation was barely hanging on. She remembers fighting for two-way streets. She said she believes Wright and his staff are trying hard to be open, honest and cordial with the neighborhood.
She’s also holding her breath, she said, waiting to see how increasing property values affect her tax bills.
She remembers a time when Walnut Hills was a community where the trash collector lived next to the judge who live next to the school teacher. That was a strong community. It also was a segregated community. She’d like to have that kind of economic integration without the racial segregation. That will take hard, intentional work from the redevelopment foundation, from developers, from the community itself, she said.
“We all are 100 percent responsible for moving this community forward like we want it to be,” Gardette said.
And that means, for her, gently making sure her new neighbors know Walnut Hills is a place where people always say hello.
Banner photo by Hillary Copsey
Hillary Copsey is a writer living in Cincinnati and founder of the Make America Read newsletter, which encourages people to read more and more widely to build compassion, critical thinking and civil discourse.