Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Cincinnati Corporate Interests vs. Preservation: A History Lesson

People in the Lytle Park area, residents in OTR, and preservationists city wide are all outraged at the loss of the buildings on Arch street for another "corporate box" building. The feel CPA isn't representing them, and there was no "transparent process" and that this was a "done deal" months before any public comment. Worked out in backroom meetings and they may well be right.

This was, and is, predictable , the city of Cincinnati has a history of back room deals where corporate interests take precedent over mere neighborhood interests. To understand why this is allowed to happen you only need look back at history to see it.

City workers showed up to take photos of "blighted" buildings like these in 1959, the car in the photo is only 2 years old,

One day men began arriving in a neighborhood in Cincinnati, the year was 1959.  They were white and that made them stand out in Kenyan-Barr an almost exclusively black neighborhood west of the city courthouse. They had cameras and signs and they were taking photos of all the buildings. Something was up but the average resident had no clue that soon their neighborhood would be destroyed, that they would be homeless, scattered to the winds of Avondale, Walnut Hills, OTR, causing the mass white flight and leading to the deterioration of the city.

This "blighted building" held a local barbershop. Note the level of architecture lost

Kenyan Barr is the neighborhood you probably never heard of in Cincinnati. It was, in the 1940's and early 1950's our Harlem.. Built between 1850 and 1890, unlike OTR which was built as tenement housing, K-B was a neighborhood of Rowhouses and single family homes with commercial corners and area with even larger mansions  and not been a struggling neighborhood  with newly arrived immigrant's, but rather a neighborhood of those who had made it already. By the 1940's as people moved out to better areas it was mostly a   rental district and was overwhelmingly black, though it had a vibrant business corners. There were poor living there but ether were middle class blacks as well who lived there and owned businesses and employed people. There were 2800 buildings, with 500 shops,churches and other non residential facilities. TEN THOUSAND families , almost THIRTY THOUSAND people called Kenyan Barr home.

This Second Empire 'Blighted' Mansion still had its original wrought iron fence
The city first planned its destruction in the 1948 Master plan, that was a plan drafted largely by politicians and with the input of "corporate interests'. People were already moving farther out and the city accepted the idea they would not move back, the city needed however to build a highway to get them there and places for them to work. That plan called for the entire demo of the West End (3100 buildings), but by 1956 more detailed plan was drafted that kept the Dayton street area as there were some influential white families still living there.

No that's not Brooklyn, its Cincinnati, there were hundreds of 3 story single family rowhouses. What would this be worth today within walking distance to downtown. According to the city these were "blighted"
The  Kenyan Barr Master plan was published in 1959. It proposed the complete eradication of the neighborhood due to 'code violations'. The city had spent several year making sure that 'code violations' were placed on all but FOUR buildings in the neighborhood (same playbook the city used starting in 2002 in S Fairmount, by the way, for MSD to drive down property values and make the argument the area was 'blighted' and that project would be an improvement).

Elegant French Second Empire Duplexes were in Kenyan Barr, Gorgeous detailing, but these were signs of a "Blight-Ridden" neighborhood that should be demoed for an industrial park
The city 'promised' relocations and new housing conditions but that did not happen. People were given 30 days to get out, some were placed in Laurel but most were left to their own devices. People left the neighborhood often with only that they could carry with them. There were no lawsuits, no community meetings to save the area...this was 'progress'.

This corner building was built as a single family townhome. With its elegant bays what would it be worth today?
In its place would be 'Queensgate' an industrial park that would insure that work would remain downtown and not be built in the suburbs. The city and Feds spent 43 million dollars, the land was sold to corporate interests for 7.8.million. By any measure Queensgate was a failure in Urban renewal, another example of short sighted urban planning and sacrifice of an entire neighborhood for immediate corporate interests. In fact the book "Common Ground" by J. Davis which chronicles this, is often required reading in Urban planning courses and is a prime example of what "Not to do", yet we keep doing it.

Is it that the buildings are "blighted" or did corporate and city leaders just think the 'wrong people' lived here?
Look at the photos here (over 800 are on line at the Cincinnati museum site more photos Kenyan Barr Collection). What would 2800 buildings downtown be worth today? These were far higher end buildings than OTR and most were single family. This would have been our Brooklyn, our Dupont Circle. A restored Kenyan Barr would have generated far more in property taxes than Queensgate ever will. Cincinnati could have been a premier historic destination . We are but a shadow of what we could have been, and we still repeat the same mistakes, in the same city offices, with the same corporate players.
We look back now and say "how stupid we were"...yet, here we go again.

Rest in Peace, Arch Street, you were not the first, and if something major doesn't change, you will not be the last.

No comments: