Rust Belt Finale: Learning from Downtown Cincinnati

November 30, 2006 5 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Our Rust Belt comparison finale takes us to the Queen City, the nation's 25th largest metropolitan area. It is considered to have been the first major American boomtown, rapidly expanding in the heart of the country in the early nineteenth century to rival the coastal metropolises in size and wealth.

However, by the end of the century, its growth unexpectedly stopped and it was surpassed in population by many other inland cities.  Cincinnati is also known for the distinction of having the largest collection of nineteenth-century Italianate architecture in the country, primarily concentrated in the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood, just north of downtown.  

On the negative side, the city is a poster child for strained race relations. Cincinnati was a bordertown between the seceded Confederate states and the Union during the Civil War. There have been many incidents of race-based violence before and after the Civil War with the most notably recent one being the 2001 Cincinnati Riots.  To this day, neighborhoods are highly segregated. This separation was not explicitly created in law books or social procedures, but it is easily seen when considering the density of one racial domination of a particular area. There are also more highly integrated neighborhoods, but these are often surrounded by more demographically polarized neighborhoods.  Is there something we can learn from this socially conservative city when it comes to downtown development?



1. The city is the home of America's first professional baseball team and National Football League team.

2. The city's fire department was the first to be paid for their services in the country.

3. The city has several nicknames, including the "Queen City". "The Queen City of the West", "The Blue Chip City", "The City of Seven Hills", and "Porkopolis".

4. Cincinnati's city population topped out at 503,998 in 1950 before falling to 331,285 in 2000. 

5. The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, opened in 1866, links Cincinnati and Covington, Kentucky.  This bridge was the prototype for the Brooklyn Bridge, also designed by Roebling.

6. Cincinnati has an abandoned subway.  It was abandoned during construction in 1925 due to cost overruns and is used today as a conduit for fiber optic and water lines. There have been several attempts by SORTA to utilize the subways for a modern light-rail system within Hamilton County. All of these initiatives have thus far failed when placed on the ballot, with the most recent failing 2 to 1 in 2002.


Cincinnati Population 2005: 331,310 (City); 2,113,011 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1819)

Jacksonville Pop. 2005: 782,623 (City); 1,248,371 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1940: Jacksonville (173,000); Cincinnati (455,610)


Cincinnati is home to major corporations including Procter & Gamble, Kroger, GE, Federated Department Stores (Macys & Bloomingdales), Convergys, Chiquita, Great American Insurance Company, E.W. Scripps Company and Fifth Third Bank. The city serves as the corporate headquarters to 10 Fortune 500 firms.



Just as soon as you begin to enter the downtown area, way finding signs, directing visitors to garages, are installed at stop lights to limit confusion and the possibility of a traveler getting lost.



There's no uniform signage regulations in Downtown Cincinnati.  Nevertheless, all garages contain signage designed to attract customers to their facilities.

Although this image is taken of a garage's facade that does not have an entrance, its a good example of one with leased street level retail and dining.  The idea of using large banners to advertise tenants has also been implemented.


The idea of restaurants and bars installing attractive menus to their exterior is something rarely seen in Downtown Jacksonville.  However, it is a popular and successful way to gain the attention of those walking by.




Over-the-Rhine is one of the largest National Historic Districts in the United States, treasured for its massive collection of 19th Century Italianate structures. Many of these buildings sell for under $50,000 with the knowledge that renovation costs may equal the price of sale.  Its name comes from its builders, German Immigrants. In this district, one could hear the German language, read German newspapers, eat German food, and even visit German-style houses.

Central Parkway separates Over-the-Rhine from Downtown. The street has as long and complex a history as Over-the-Rhine. It was originally the site of the Miami and Erie Canal.  Most early Over-the-Rhine residents crossed the canal to enter Downtown every day. In homage to the Old Country, they called their neighborhood Over-the-Rhine, imagining the canal to be the Rhine in Germany.  By 1906, the canal had fallen into disuse after competition from railroads, and parts of the right-of-way were soon picked up for its next use by the Cincinnati and Lake Erie Railroad. An electric streetcar line ran along this route to connect Cincinnati with Columbus and Toledo, but other parts of the canal remained stagnant pits of dirty water. In 1920, the Cincinnati Subway began construction in the former canal, but it was abandoned by 1928 following wartime inflation despite tunnels and stations remaining in good condition to this day. That year Central Parkway opened on top of the abandoned subway's right-of-way.

During the 19th century, Over-the-Rhine was one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the Midwest, if not the most densely populated. As the center of German life in Cincinnati, there were more than 50 breweries in the neighborhood alone. At the turn of the 20th century, the population of the district reached 45,000.  During the later 19th and early 20th centuries, Germans began abandoning their ethnic enclave, amid a more general trend of slowing European immigration.  At the same time, African-Americans fleeing the economic and social climate of the antebellum South became especially prevalent within the neighborhood

In April of 2001, a Cincinnati police officer shot an African-American teenager in Over-the-Rhine just blocks from the boy's home. When members of the community demanded an explanation of the events, they received no response from the city, and some turned to rioting to express their frustration.  The 2001 Cincinnati Riots in both Downtown and Over-the-Rhine just days after the shooting were seen as a result of frustration on the part of African-American city residents who did not feel that they had adequate means to achieve justice. The city acted to contain the rioting and enacted a citywide curfew.

Gentrification and adaptive reuse have brought new faces to Over-the-Rhine in recent years. Attracted by its large collection of historic rowhouses, Italianate architecture, and the sense of community that comes with "stoop sitting" culture, artists and others weary of traditional neighborhoods began a transformation in sections of the neighborhood that today makes Over-the-Rhine Cincinnati's most creative, culturally- and economically diverse neighborhood.



Findlay Market is Ohio's oldest continuously operated public market and one of Cincinnati's most cherished institutions. Findlay is a gathering place for people from all over the city. It routinely attracts perhaps the most socially, economically, racially, and ethnically diverse crowds found anywhere in Cincinnati.  Located in Over-The-Rhine, the market is open Wednesday through Sunday and a year-round home to several indoor merchants selling meat, fish, poultry, produce, flowers, cheese, deli and ethnic foods.  On Saturdays and Sundays, the Market also hosts dozens of outdoor vendors, street performers and special events.

Findlay Market is another example of a farmer's market oriented in a fashion that allows synergy to take place between it and adjacent buildings.  The historic building on the corner is being renovated into lofts.  The image below shows the building's rear which is all glass.



This national model for affordable and low income housing is being developed on the site of a former public housing complex, just outside of downtown.  When complete in December 2007, it will consist of 1,022 newly constructed town homes.  250 of which, will be home ownership units, 338 market rate and 434 public housing.  The total development is expected to cost $151.8 million, with $15 million coming from the City of Cincinnati.

City West is designed to be an urban neighborhood, instead of an apartment complex with huge parking lots separating the buildings from the streets.



Headed back to "Where Florida Begins".  Photo taken on I-40, just outside of Knoxville, TN.