Over the Rhine Again

In a historic Cincinnati neighborhood, will new investment end years of frustrating neglect?

 

Over-the-Rhine
The Cincinnati neighborhood known as Over-the-Rhine,
a 362-acre collection of houses, businesses,
churches and community gathering places
just north of the central business district
was once a virtual "foreign land" within
the city.

Credit: (Cincinnati Preservation Association)

"Are you a Star Wars fan?"
"Sure," I say, though I don't understand what the Force has to do with redevelopment in Cincinnati.
I'd come to talk with Darrick Dansby about Over-the-Rhine, an architectural treasure of a neighborhood that we can see out the window of Dansby's 14th-floor downtown office. From this height, Over-the-Rhine looks like a Bavarian village, a tidy grid of 19th-century row houses and tenements spiked with Germanic church steeples and bell towers. We're too high to see that down below, at street level, hundreds of those buildings sit vacant and boarded up while drug dealers hang out on corners.

Dansby works for a powerful development corporation called 3CDC. Officially, those initials stand for Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation. But in Over-the-Rhine, an impoverished and mostly African American neighborhood, 3CDC is shorthand for "white guys in suits." After all, the business elites who run corporations like Procter & Gamble and Kroger back 3CDC with tens of millions of dollars. Never mind that the stereotype isn't always true: Dansby is black, and on a Friday morning, he is wearing jeans and a red shirt, fashionably untucked. Suspicions are aroused easily in the shadow of skyscrapers.

What's causing angst these days is that 3CDC has been rapidly buying up empty buildings and weedy lots in Over-the-Rhine. Six years ago, 3CDC didn't exist. But in 2001, when a police shooting triggered race riots in the neighborhood, the business community decided it had to get involved, and with city hall's blessing, 3CDC became its vehicle. Since then, the development corporation has become Over-the-Rhine's biggest landowner and its chief power broker. Not only is it positioned to decide the fate of one of the nation's largest collections of 19th-century buildings—a veritable museum of Italianate, Queen Anne, and Greek revival architecture—it will also have a big say over who can afford to live and work there.

Dansby's job is to manage both the portfolio and the politics, and it's the latter that has him thinking of Star Wars. In the previous weeks, Dansby has hosted a series of what he calls "rap sessions" to explain 3CDC's intentions to the community.  Thinking back on them, he sings a few bars of the menacing brass line that signals Darth Vader's entrances: Dun dun dun, don de dun, don de dun. "Sometimes when I walk in the room, it's like the evil empire of 3CDC has arrived," Dansby says with a laugh. "A lot of people think we're out to displace folks and knock down buildings. They're making a lot of assumptions about things that aren't true."

For more of this article, look for the March/April 2007 issue on newsstands or e-mail us to purchase a copy. 

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