Will Over-the-Rhine Be Able to Hold On to Its Neighborhood Leaders and Organizers?

Each year the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce recognizes outstanding individuals and businesses within the neighborhood at their annual Star Awards event. This year’s event will take place at The Transept on Wednesday, March 16 at 4pm, and will feature Harvey Lewis as the keynote speaker.

Last year, Jai Washington was honored with the Individual Contribution of the Year award for her years of involvement in the neighborhood.

Washington told UrbanCincy that she was pleasantly surprised to receive the award last year, but says she has long been in love with Over-the-Rhine for a variety of reasons.

“I was nominated by good friend and coworker at the Peasley Neighborhood Center,” she said. “I believe it stems from two things – I have been involved with community most of my career, but I have also become more involved and present at the chamber as their community outreach liaison. They were able to see in real-time what I’m involved with in the community.”

Her engagement, however, extends far beyond her current roles at the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce and the Peasley Neighborhood Center. Over the years Washington has worked or volunteered at Inktank, Elementz, Future Leaders OTR, ArtsWave, Black Family Reunion Festival, Cincy Cinco, and even at Fox19 for some time as a citizen reporter.

While being firmly connected with Over-the-Rhine, Washington says that she actually first became connected with the neighborhood while living in Wyoming and commuting to OTR for work at Iris Book Café on Main Street. After that, in 2009, she started Cincinnati Conscience – a radio show on Media Bridges – which is what many people still know her for today.

“This provided me a fertile ground to meet people,” Washington explained. “I would interview people in the neighborhood who were trying to make a difference.”

Of course, such a rooted history in Over-the-Rhine means that Washington has seen the neighborhood change over time. That change, she says, has brought both good and bad particulars with it; and it is her hope, in her next endeavor, to help raise the level of conversation and discourse about what is happening in the neighborhood.

“I think the changes are beautiful and bittersweet. OTR, in its rawness in the 80s and late 70s, had this bad rap of being an island of misfit toys, but it was also a place of refuge for me early on in life. I found it difficult to find my place in the city, but OTR was this place where I was welcome, and it didn’t matter my race, gender, or sexual orientation. History, necessity, and location brought us all together.”

This shared story, as Washington explains it, is defined by the city and neighborhoods in which we work and live. These physical and cultural experiences, regardless of who you are or where you come from, are things that can tie people together.

“I want to be a facilitator of our shared story,” Washington explained. “Political correctness has done us a disservice in that we’ve lost shared stories; and I want to provide the opportunity to people to share these stories in a very professional way.”

One such way she might go about doing this is through guided walks. By engaging people in such activities, Washington believes people can connect in a very raw manner while also connecting with the city’s past.

“I want the world to know that the misfits matter. They are still here holding the place for those coming here now,” Washington concluded. “We have gone from a place for the misfit toys, to Disneyland; and I’m not sure I will be able to afford to live here much longer.”

“The middle is being whittled away; and I’m saddened by that because I’ve invested so much in this community.”

Many efforts are being made to maintain Over-the-Rhine as a diverse and inclusive place, but as the pace of development gains more speed, it will become more important than ever for city leaders to determine priorities and craft policies in a way to make sure OTR doesn’t lose one of its stars.

We will find out who will be this year’s individual stand-out next month.

  • matimal

    Maybe OTR will get new leaders.

    • Certainly this is true, but I think there is a larger issue here. Community organizers are often either lower on the income spectrum and have time and passion to do that work, or are retired or very wealthy…also giving them lots of time to do the work.

      The question is that as OTR’s prices continue to go up, will the neighborhood be able to retain its community leaders that fall within the former category, or will it only be able to keep those in the latter?

    • ED

      Related question: how permanent, sustainable and contained will the Disneyfication of Vine St be? To me, once you get OFF Vine St does it actually feel like a neighborhood.

    • Jesse

      I don’t know if I’d call it disneyfication. It’s not like there’s a Planet Hollywood and a Nike Store. That’s a good thing. I get your point though. I think the changes are good for the city as a whole but not so much for long term residents.

      I may be lacking in imagination but I don’t see how OTR was ever going to be a pleasant resident-oriented neighborhood. It was either going to be the crumbling, crime infested mess it was before or the kind of place it is now. It was originally built to be a bustling place that catered to the whole city. It’s becoming something like that again.

    • Neil Clingerman

      The West End would be a very good candidate for residential neighborhood to contrast with OTR.

    • ED

      Quoting the article…yuppiefication, boutiquification, hipsterfication, etc. Lachey’s was the tipping point for me but it has been a successful sports bar.

    • Yeah I don’t think two blocks of Vine St makes OTR Disney. You can go to any mall for that.

    • charles ross

      OTR (and west end-brighton) is still a vast horizontal expanse of antique slums and wrecks with a few shiny spots. But this passion play of pioneering boho rehabbers, community leaders, poverty preservers and disneyfication has happened in lots of cities. I lived near NYC when Soho, Tribeca and Brooklyn had scary blocks.

      I laugh (not out loud) each time somebody mentions “high prices” or “housing shortage” – there are TONs of houses still – you just have to ransom them away from the slumlords, “investors” and rats. Same thing as we pan the picture out to uptown and west – thousands of glorious old buildings rotting away are owned by neglecters. New construction should always include considerations of affordability but not all in one huge tract.

    • Neil Clingerman

      Looking at it from Chicago, Cincinnati is a funny funny place. Either OTR is a drug infested crime den of squalor, or its “Only the Rich” and gentrification as a whole is evil. Though IMO both crowds even though they couldn’t possibly be more different in their political philosophy as a whole hate change. Cincinnati didn’t change too much from the late 60s to the mid 00s so a lot of people can’t even process that maybe there is a different future of Cincy other than on of perpetual slum or decline.

    • EXACTLY. Most people either think OTR is a “ghetto” or a “yuppie playground” as you stated. In reality, there might be a few blocks of OTR that fit one of those two labels, but the vast majority of the neighborhood (dozens of blocks comprising hundreds of buildings) are somewhere in the middle.

    • ED

      A narrative popularized especially by CityBeat

    • Jesse

      I don’t know. It’s pretty normal for people to want to control their environment. OTR has always been our most highly visible neighborhood. The whole city feels like they have a stake in what happens there.

      I saw the same issues brought up about high profile neighborhoods in both Seattle and Portland when I lived in the northwest. Cincinnati did not invent the concept of gentrification. It is discussed other places. Gentrification has only recently become a real thing here. The people of Cincinnati will take a stab at solving the problem just like people in Seattle did when it first became an issue there. We won’t find a solution but it’s natural to try.

    • Neil Clingerman

      Cincinnati is in a unique position of being far enough behind the gentrification curve of a lot of other places that it can come up with creative solutions to it if/when it becomes a problem.

      Right now however, the more pressing issue is preventing large swaths of the city like say lower price hill, the West End, Camp Washington, South Cumminsville etc from turning into the North Side of St Louis – a way to prevent this is to have some neighborhoods in the core go up in value to prevent the ones that are dangerously low from being completely and utterly abandoned:


    • Jesse

      I’m skeptical that there are solutions but I’m glad others are more optimistic. It would be great if we could succeed where others have failed and balance revitalization with inclusion.

      And I couldn’t agree more about the other neighborhoods you mentioned. A successfully redeveloped (gentrified for people who prefer to think that way) OTR would be a great stabilizing force. The city-wide benefits of a revitalized OTR far outweigh other concerns at this point.

      Some would say stabilization of places like the west end is really just the first phase of gentrification. That may be true but I’ll take it over the alternative.

      Good discussion.

    • ED

      Again, quoting the article…

    • ED

      I laughed when I saw this next tenant coming to OTR

    • Neil Clingerman
    • Neil Clingerman

      Even if Lachey’s doesn’t really appeal to either me or you, its at least the product of someone local. 3CDC has been pretty good about keeping chain stores limited (though slightly to a fault, as I’d be okay with a few here and there just not a dominance of them) and the only national level chain I can think of is “Kit & Ace”.

  • ED

    I’m glad you didn’t mention Ryan Messer. He talks out of one end about championing diversity in OTR, then on the other end he’s covertly flipping properties with shady craftsmenship at prices that are clearly gentrification engines.

    • Neil Clingerman

      On the flip side he’s also running a leadership program targeted at disadvantaged African Americans and sent a group of them to Germany last year: https://www.gofundme.com/oid0e4

    • So covert that everyone has always known it. I didn’t realize rehabbing and selling property was a crime.

    • ED

      Compared to other local developers, trying to make a 300% profit to value on his 14th St property, reduced from 400% is conning people and pure gentrification, especially when he openly complains about contractors he’s trying to stick other people with.

      And I’m not sure everyone is aware of his financial interests in the streetcar, using Qualls to sell the above property, and expanding his interests up Vine St along Ph. 2. It’s not wrong, he’s just not the right person to be the face of OTR he thinks he is.

    • Neil Clingerman

      I wouldn’t call that conning people if the demand is there (and it is). He’s pushed pretty hard for the inclusion of a percentage of affordable housing as well. I think Messer is a pretty good mix of pro-business and pro-community.

    • ED

      Speculation doesn’t equal demand, Hyde Park is the only neighborhood at a $600k median home price. There’s a market for ownership that’s between luxury and low income that’s always overlooked in the gentrification debate.

    • Neil Clingerman

      Its absolutely baffling that many Cincinnatians think this is speculation. There isn’t a real boom yet its just a change to a formerly stagnant community and there is PLENTY of supply left to convert in the immediate area. Take a look at what’s going on in San Francisco, Seattle or NYC if you want a dose of what the real world considers speculative real estate pricing.

      If you want a Midwest example, try the West Loop in Chicago and even then Chicago still has affordable neighborhoods near downtown after 20 or so years of strong gentrification on the north and northwest sides.

    • ED

      It’s speculation by definition because most OTR rehabs are investment properties. Overpricing, like the original $840k ask on the Messer building, leads to an inflated and unrealistic market especially when there are so many rehabs.

      Same thing is happening in Northside- median home price is $130k but flippers asking double or more when it’s not even at top 5 neighborhood for rehabs.

    • Neil Clingerman

      These prices are pennies when viewed in the national context particularly the ones in Northside. There are also plenty of underdeveloped neighborhoods like Covington, The West End, much of Clifton heights etc that are way undervalued given their proximity to downtown and quality of the historic housing stock. The only really high price areas in OTR IMO are right off Vine Street and by Washington park, you aren’t going to see these kinds of prices even nearby off of Court Street.

      When demand goes up price goes up, and that’s whats happening here, its just that Cincinnati hasn’t seen this kind of demand for decades, a few years of decent leadership has gone a long way to setting the direction different than what you are used to.

      Here’s a broader view, look at San Francisco where there is geniunely a crisis:

    • Neil Clingerman

      Also you aren’t really seeing global wealth start to poor in and invest like you see in say Seattle: http://www.seattlebusinessmag.com/article/foreign-investors-seattle-real-estate

      Cincinnati is barely even on the radar – Indianapolis developers have a few projects in the pipeline and there are one or two projects being funded by NYC money. Its not overheated or else more people would notice.

    • matimal

      “covertly”? It seems to me he’s working both ends at the same time, something that Simes might seem to support.

    • ED

      Cincinnati is a small town and money is still money

    • matimal

      Is that good or bad?

  • Matt Jacob

    Always looking for more leaders to step up and contribute towards rebuilding our neighborhood. The OTR Community Council currently has 2 openings to fill for anyone who lives in OTR. Come to our February 22nd meeting at the OTR Rec Center at 6pm to find out more.