A Brief History of Over the Rhine

August 1, 2010

(pic pilfered from the NY Times)

Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine (OTR) at glance tells a unique story even amid its degradation and slums.  Much of the architecture that remains was crafted in the Italianate style, looking back on a prosperous era long before these buildings were abandoned.  Through economic degradation, race riots, shifting demographics, and zoning projects, OTR is now classified as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States with many of its occupants involved in drug trade, prostitution, street and domestic violence.

German immigrants, as a result of the German 19th-century revolutions which pushed for pan-Germanism and greater political freedom inside a largely autocratic government, poured into the OTR area.  The Rhine, naturally, refers to one of the principal German rivers and the name “Over the Rhine” alluded to the area north of the Erie canal where the Germans largely settled.   There they set up a beer brewing industry, the profits of which earned OTR the nickname the “Beer Capital of the World.”  In this era, OTR was considered a pleasure and holiday resort.

By the 20th century, the wealthier inhabitants moved to the suburbs.  Their numbers were not replaced since new immigrants sought jobs in more industrial cities.  As a result, OTR slowly began to deteriorate.  Anti-German sentiment during the Wars also fueled degradation as the Prohibition movement was used as a means of fighting the German beer industry. Economic demise plagued the community as the beer industry was shut down.  It also, oddly enough, aided the preservation of old historic buildings.

When the Mill Creek Expressway was constructed to accomodate vehicle usage, the black neighborhood in the West End was destroyed, with many of the denizens moving into the OTR area.  There they clashed with the Appalachians, who had settled in OTR during the war to find work amid the booming war economy.  As African Americans started to mobilize and fight for social status, particularly after the death of Martin Luther King, violence escalated in the area and many whites fled to the suburbs.  Desegregation only led to more tension, and blacks were able to take control of OTR by their strength of numbers and their passion to obliterate racial struggle.

Although the idea of slum clearance had been posed, it had been ruled out in the past because slum clearance resembled the type of “cleansing” exercised by Nazi Germany and Soviet countries.  Buddy Gray, the leader of the OTR People’s Movement emerged as the centrifugal politician interested in fighting against displacement, petitioning the city to invest in permanent low-income housing.  He defied potential zoning laws, saying that these were created only to make the best tax base possible and would displace the poor.  The city acquiesced to his demands but later found that it failed to balance the demographics of OTR and help the industry in any way.

Economic downfall increased all the more after the 2001 race riots when a white officer shot an unarmed black man, and all during post-September 11th.  During the riots, violence rapidly shot up and both officers and whites fled to other neighborhoods, and businesses shut down as visitors avoided the area.  The once-ambient nightlife of OTR went obsolete. 

 The deserting of OTR left over 1200 buildings vacant and greatly lowered property value.  The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, however, has steadily been pouring in money to renovate these vacant buildings and slowly turning them into hip apartments for yuppies to move in, as the location is very near the downtown area.  This, however, pushes the original denizens of OTR away from their old areas.

Prince of Peace historic church on Race Street

Above is a picture of the church I came to know this summer.  For two weeks, teams from Georgia, Pennsylvania, California, and New York poured in to administer to the physical and spiritual needs of the OTR community.  The program, founded by Pastors Paul and Yohann, strives to serve the people by integrating community and sharing the gospel.  P. Paul and Yohann, by using their own money accumulated from their years as medical doctors,  bought and renovated one abandoned house near the Prince of Peace Church to open to the OTR people and shelter those who come to help serve the area. 

Reflecting on how the original grassroots African American community came together to ardently fight for the rights and comparing that to the present degenerative state of OTR was sobering.  Those that have once bonded together have fallen apart, unlike in South Africa where a period of healing between the white and black communities was given after the end of apartheid.  I remember describing OTR as a town I might have read in Madeleine L’Engle’s sci-fi novels, a place existing without a concept of time.  With low employment rates, the streets are filled with people who bustle about without any particular destination.

Compassion for these people and a strong desire to share the message of the gospel have enabled P. Yohann and Paul to stay in the area for ten years, although the OTR people have become so familiar with their ministry that they know exactly how to pick their words so that evangelizing becomes more difficult to do.  Yet still, with the whole sincerity of their hearts, P. Yohann and Paul have slowly earned some friendships in that area, starting with one schizophrenic man who dutifully attended their church every Sunday. 

Walking through the streets of OTR, it is difficult — even amid the architectural evidence — to imagine that at one time it used to be affluent and cultured.  On the very last day, my team encountered one man named LaMont who yelled at us from the bench he was sprawled upon.  “Ya’ll know where you’re at, right?  Google it up!”  When we told him we knew we were at OTR, he yelled, “Then why are you just standing there acting like ya’ll are safe?  Know what I did?  I killed two fucking niggers last night!”

V. from my team wanted to have a moment to talk with LaMont and in a span of a few minutes, a remarkable change came over him.  After praying together, LaMont actually became friendly, soliloquizing about why God doesn’t send down ice cream directly to him when he prays for it.  As we walked away, LaMont kept shouting after us, “God’s angels!  He’s sent his angels to us!”

The problem, however, is the retaining of this faith after the program ends, leaving P. Yohann, Paul, and a small handful of members to deal with everything by themselves.  There are stories of going out to evangelize and leading a soul to Christ, only to find that the very next day, these people have already forgotten what has been taught to them.  There have been doubts as to whether the ministry actually helps.  There have been questions posed regarding the renovations of the area, and what this means for the ministry as the people get pushed further down the block.  P. Paul remains optimistic, saying that the pushing might actually encourage integration between the white and black neighborhoods, but skeptics cite the harm it might potentially have.

P. Paul is currently suffering from MSA, a rare disease that shares many similar symptoms with Parkinson’s disease.  Yet he has not this physical burden come in the way of his ministry, nor has he fallen into despair.  At the core he is filled with an unshakable spirit and peace.  The last view I had of him, one member from the Kairos team in California was wheeling him through the streets of OTR, the city he came to love, his patch of Jerusalem where, like Jesus, he wept over the plight of the lost.

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