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Over-the-Rhine column gives incomplete history, inaccurate portrayal of the city

By Julianne Ballog, Guest Column

The following is written in response to a piece published in The Miami Student Magazine.

Upon first seeing the title, "Over the Stereotypes: Why Over-the-Rhine is a Hidden Cincinnati Gem," I was hopeful that the article was going to provide a fuller perspective of the city I have come to know through my experiences with the Urban Teaching Cohort and other programs. Unfortunately, the article further perpetuated the single story of the "revitalization" of Over-the-Rhine that is happening at the expense of the most vulnerable and oppressed, those who have called OTR home for decades.

The article neglects to give the entire history. A deeply buried history needs to be told and we need to have critical conversations about the social forces that ensure this history is not absent from the current narrative about Over-the-Rhine.

The article jumps from WWII to the 2000s, pointing to the 2000s as a time of decline in the community. There is a large chunk of time that goes unaccounted for when the history of the community is told in this way. The article states, "by the beginning of 2000, OTR had become notorious for its poverty and crime with the poverty rate up to a crazy 58 percent." Left out was an examination of why the poverty rates were so high. Left out was a complex discussion of the social structure and forces that took hold in those years. Left out was the history and continued presence of the People's Movement in Over-the-Rhine, a coalition of community members and grassroots organizations that have addressed social practice and human rights for over 40 years.

Police brutality, racism, discrimination, education inequalities, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, lack of affordable housing and economic opportunity. None of these complex issues stand alone. They interlace and interconnect to create a system that brings people down and often keeps them down. During the time period cited in the article, the symptoms of a much larger systemic problem manifested as poverty, drugs, gangs and homelessness in the community. However, the blame should not be placed on community members, but on historical, political and social realities that have been kept in place due to systemic injustice.

The main issue with the perspective in the article is that it takes a deficit stance. 3CDC is narrated as the hero, the savior, the only driving force that was working toward "betterment" of the community. What is missing is the grassroots and community organizations of the People's Movement. OTR was not a helpless, ruined neighborhood waiting to be saved. Despite the social issues that have continually been an oppressive presence in Over-the-Rhine, there has always been a strong community of people, who, out of a deep sense of love and compassion, continue to work to improve their conditions and the community at large. There is a deep history of organizations that have fought and continue to fight to create neighborhood education centers for the children who weren't receiving equitable education in the public schools. Organizations that provided creative outlets for their members in the form of music, art and dance. Organizations that continue to do everything in their power to provide affordable housing options, shelters and temporary housing when needed. Organizations that both seek out and create jobs for people experiencing homelessness, even if they happen to have a record, providing other educational resources so they can rise above their current status. The community has resources to help people overcome social and economic barriers, but those resources are also being pushed out of the community. Over-the-Rhine was socially rich before 3CDC came in and gentrified the area. Development has come at a hefty cost for some of the long-time residents who have been priced out of their housing and made to feel like strangers in their own community.

We want to be clear, the community has never been opposed to development. They merely, like any members of a community, wanted their voices heard and their needs addressed.

Developers like 3CDC had the opportunity to come into Over-the-Rhine and work with the existing community to build upon what was already there and to listen to their needs and desires. Everyone could have been included in the process of transformation. Yet, instead, 3CDC came into Over-the-Rhine and pushed out the community that was already there, worked to eradicate the existing resources and organizations and abandoned the needs and desires of the people. What is happening in Over-the-Rhine is called gentrification and much of the community has been pushed out and ignored through this marginalizing process.

The vision for Over-the-Rhine was supposed to be a mixed-income neighborhood that brought diversity in all aspects. The vision was supposed to be inclusive of new residents and the long time residents who lived there long before 3CDC came to town. The vision was to create a place where you had a mixture of restaurants, housing and activities that brought everyone from all social categories together. This was the vision for the new Over-the-Rhine, but it is not the one that exists. The one that exists has brought many into the community while pushing those who were already there out.

The article mentioned the newly remodeled Washington Park, but significant pieces of that story are missing. During the development of that project the desires of the community were completely disregarded. The community lost its deep water swimming pool and basketball courts. Before the park was remodeled, people experiencing homelessness were rounded up by the police for merely hanging out in the park or sometimes drinking on a bench. The claim was that to 'clean up' the park, but what that really meant was getting rid of certain people. Now you can walk by on a Saturday and see people drinking from a cold beer that was served right in the park.

The new restaurants might be nice, but keep in mind an average dish costs over $20. This caters to a particular crowd, not a variety. The housing is increasingly becoming unaffordable for the vast majority of residents. Apartments now cost over $1,000 a month, and the homeless shelter was moved across the interstate and out of the neighborhood. Yes, it is important to develop an area, but not at the cost and removal of folks who called the neighborhood home for years or even a lifetime.

I, too, encourage everyone to take that hour drive to Cincinnati. But, I urge you to take a different perspective. Grab a slice of pizza at Venice on Vine, volunteer for Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, visit Peaslee Neighborhood Center to hear about the Over-the-Rhine People's Movement, visit Miami University's Center for Community Engagement and check out the brilliant youth artists of Elementz. Look past those single stories, those stereotypes and find the other perspectives of history and voices that are being silenced in this push to claim victory in a neighborhood that has been colonized and co-opted.