Revitalizing Neighborhoods: Over-the-Rhine

Metro Jacksonville visits what is believed to be the largest most intact urban historic district in the United States: Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine

Published June 21, 2012 in Cities -

About Over-the-Rhine

Over-the-Rhine, sometimes shortened to OTR, is a neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. It is believed to be the largest, most intact urban historic district in the United States. Over-the-Rhine was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 with 943 contributing buildings. It contains the largest collection of Italianate architecture in the United States, and is an example of an intact 19th-century urban neighborhood. Its architectural significance has been compared to the French Quarter in New Orleans, the historic districts of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina, and Greenwich Village in New York City. Besides being a historic district, the neighborhood has an arts community that is unparalleled within Cincinnati. Over-the-Rhine is bordered by the neighborhoods of Downtown, CUF, Mount Auburn, Pendleton, and the West End. Over-the-Rhine was voted best Cincinnati neighborhood in CityBeat's Best of Cincinnati 2011 and 2012.

A Brief History of Over-the-Rhine

The Miami-Erie Canal in Over-the-Rhine, before it was drained in 1920.  The canal once connected the Ohio River in Cincinnati with Lake Erie in Toledo.  The canal was drained for a downtown subway project.  When the subway project ran out of money in 1925, the tunnels were covered and replaced with Central Parkway.  The subway is recognized as the largest abandoned subway tunnel in the United States.

The term "Over-the-Rhine" originates from the reference to the Miami-Erie Canal as the Rhine River of Germany. The revolutions of 1848 in the German states brought thousands of German refugees to the United States. In Cincinnati they settled on the outskirts of the city, north of Miami and Erie Canal where there was an abundance of cheap rental units.  Not subject to municipal law, the neighborhood attracted German immigrants, bootleggers, saloons, gambling houses, dance halls, brothels, and others who were not tolerated in the City of Cincinnati.

The Christian Moerlein Brewery around the turn of the 20th century.  Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

German entrepreneurs gradually built up a profitable brewing industry and by 1880 the city was recognized as the "Beer Capital of the World" with Over-the-Rhine its center of brewing.  With over 32,000 residents per square mile and poor sanitation, epidemics of cholera, small pox, and typhoid fever were common.  By 1915, more prosperous residents left the dense city for newer suburbs, while new immigrants were attracted to fast-growing industrial cities in the Great Lakes region.  The largest economic blow came in 1917, when Prohibition abruptly shut down Over-the-Rhine's 30 German-American owned breweries, sending the neighborhood into decades of economic decline.  Ironically, while this decline prevented new development, it helped preserve much of the neighborhood's historic architecture and integrity.

Looking north along Vine Street in 1973. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

In 2001, the neighborhood was home to the Cincinnati Riots, the largest urban disorder in the United States since the Los Angeles riots of 1992.  This event effectively killed the neighborhood's revitalization of the late 1990s.  In 2001 there were an estimated 500 vacant buildings in Over-the-Rhine with 2,500 residential units. Of those residential units 278 were condemned as uninhabitable.  In February 2006 the city reported that Over-the-Rhine had the highest crime rate of the city's neighborhoods.  However, the number of serious crimes plateaued from 2002 to 2005, after which crime began decreasing at a rapid pace.

Recent revitalization efforts in the neighborhood have caused crime to relocate to other pockets of the community.  For example, in July 2009 a rise in prostitution was reported along McMicken Avenue; police said that new development was pushing the women out of other parts of Over-the-Rhine into a smaller area.



Over-the-Rhine has been praised for its collection of historic architecture. The New York Times described the neighborhood as having "a scale and grace reminiscent of Greenwich Village in New York." When Arthur Frommer, founder of the Frommer's travel guides, visited Over-the-Rhine he described it as the most promising urban area for revitalization in the United States, and claimed that its potential for tourism "literally could rival similar prosperous and heavily visited areas."  Most of Over-the-Rhine's ornate brick buildings were built by German immigrants from 1865 to the 1880s. The architecture of Over-the-Rhine reflects the diverse styles of the late nineteenth century—simple vernacular, muted Greek Revival, Italianate and Queen Anne.

Findlay Market is the oldest continuously operating farmers' market in Ohio.  It was among the first markets in the United States to use iron frame construction technology and is one of the very few that have survived.

Washington Park is bounded by West 12th, Race and Elm Streets in Over-the-Rhine. The park is owned and operated by the Cincinnati Park Board. The nearly six acre park was a Presbyterian cemetery before it was acquired by the city in 1855. The park has an old-fashioned bandstand and many trees. Several American Civil War cannons and busts of Civil War heroes Frederick Hecker and Colonel Robert Latimer McCook, who commanded the German 9th Ohio Infantry (Die Neuner) are in the park. There is also a bronze tablet (1931) given by Sons and Daughters of the (Die Neuner) 9th O.V.I.  The Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Central States was held here in 1888 with great success. It was, in addition to the celebration of Ohio's remarkable progress, designed to celebrate the settlement of the Northwest Territory.

Cincinnati Park Board and nonprofit 3CDC are starting renovations for Washington Park in August. The renovations are estimated to cost $46 million. This includes expansion of the park from 6 acres to 8 acres and construction of a parking garage beneath it for up to 450 cars. In a similar renovation of Fountain Square, 3CDC used profits from parking to pay off loans it took out to develop the project. Construction is expected to take up to 18 months to complete.

Music Hall, completed in 1878, is Cincinnati's premier classical music performance hall. It serves as the home for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Opera, May Festival Chorus, and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. In January, 1975, it was recognized as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The building was designed from the start with a dual purpose - to house musical activities in its central auditorium and industrial exhibitions in its side wings. It is located at 1241 Elm Street in Cincinnati, Ohio across from historic Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine, just minutes from the center of the downtown area. Music Hall was built over a pauper's cemetery, which has helped fuel its reputation as one of the most haunted places in America.

The School for Creative and Performing Arts.  In 1996, a group of local benefactors led by Erich Kunzel, long time Maestro of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, formed the Greater Cincinnati Arts and Education Center (GCAEC) to, in Kunzel's words, "transform the area around Washington Park into a unique arts community that would include a new School for the Creative and Performing Arts." The GCAEC committed $31 million, the Cincinnati Public Schools $34 million, and the State of Ohio $7 million, to combine SCPA with the Schiel Primary School for Arts Enrichment in one building to create the first public kindergarten through twelfth grade arts school in what the GCAEC called the "nationally unprecedented public school system – private sector partnership".

In 1890, Cincinnati was the 3rd largest beer producer in the country by population, annually producing 4.2 barrels of beer per resident and shipping it across the country and around the world.  

The brick breweries were typically designed in the Romanesque Revival style, and larger complexes often covered multiple city blocks. To produce the lager style beer common by 1860, typically very deep basements were dug or tunnels were cut into hillsides for the lagering process. At the height of production, 18 of the 36 breweries in greater Cincinnati were operating in Over-the-Rhine and the West End. Prohibition in 1919 closed most of the breweries permanently.

Dating back to 1933, the Red Top Brewing Company (left) was the 14th largest brewery in the country around 1950, but by 1957 had gone out of business and closed the last operating brewery in Over-the-Rhine, at the time.  The Red Top facility along Central Avenue and Dayton Street was housed in the former Hauck Brewing Company's brewery.  Founded by Cornelius Hauck in 1882, Hauck ceased operations in 1927 after failing to make a profit selling near beer during Prohibition.

The Red Top Brewing Company, like many others, ceased operations when the market saw increased infiltration from national brands such as Schlitz, Pabst, Blatz and Budweiser. Today, the neighborhood is home to a Samuel Adams Brewery, which is housed in the former Hudepohl-Schoenling brewery and the recently opened Christian Moerlein Brewing Company.

Historic Restoration

In 2011, the Over-the-Rhine Foundation, which works to prevent historic building loss in OTR, won 3rd place in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's nationwide This Place Matters community challenge. In 2006, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has listed the status of Over-the-Rhine as "Endangered." Since 1930, approximately half of Over-the-Rhine's historic buildings have been destroyed. More will follow unless currently deteriorating buildings are repaired. Between 2001 and 2006, the city approved more than 50 "emergency demolitions," which were caused by absentee landlords' allowing their buildings to become so critically dilapidated that the city declared them a danger to the public. Reinvestment could have saved them. Due to the situation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared Over-the-Rhine one of Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places in 2006. Over-the-Rhine was included in the 2008 book, Frommer's 500 Places to See Before They Disappear, which noted the district's "shocking state of neglect".

A Rebirth In The Works?

Built in the nineteenth century during a period of extensive German immigration, Over-the-Rhine became notorious for its poverty by the end of the twentieth century. In 2001 Reason Magazine dubbed it "ground zero in inner-city decline." Since the late 1970s, advocates for historic preservation and low-income housing have struggled over how to preserve the neighborhood without causing mass displacement of the poor. The 2001 Cincinnati riots brought international attention to Over-the-Rhine, and accelerated a century-long trend of population decline. Low property value allowed developers to buy and renovate a large number of historic buildings. Since 2004 hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in revitalization projects, and since 2006 the crime rate has decreased each year. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, "in just six years, developers have moved Over-the-Rhine from one of America’s poorest, most run-down neighborhoods to among its most promising," and according to the Urban Land Institute, Over-the-Rhine is "the best development in the country right now."

Despite poor national economic conditions, Over-the-Rhine's population has increased 2,030 residents since bottoming out in 2007.

1900 - 44,475
1960 - 30,000
1970 - 15,025
1980 - 11,914
1990 - 9,572
2000 - 7,422
2007 - 4,970 (2007 data from Cincinnati Drill)
2010 - 7,000

Phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar project will be a "figure 8" loop between Over-the-Rhine and downtown Cincinnati.  A future phase will extend the system to the University of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Zoo.  Image courtesy of The Transportpolitic

Redevelopment projects underway include a $14 million expansion and renovation of Washington Park, a $18 million underground parking garage, a new $80 million K-12 arts school and a streetcar line.  The Cincinnati Streetcar is a 3.9-mile fixed rail starter project that will connect Over-the-Rhine with downtown Cincinnati.  According to a 2007 feasibility study, Cincinnati stands to gain between 1,200 and 3,400 additional residences, raise an additional $34 million in property taxes, and yield $17 million in retail activity per year from new residents.  The study concludes that the benefit-cost ratio of the downtown and Over-the-Rhine line would be 15.2 to 1, which means for every dollar Cincinnati spends it will recieve $15.20 in return.

Image courtesy of the City of Cincinnati

A Lesson for Jacksonville

Like Over-the-Rhine, several urban neighborhoods in the vicinity of downtown Jacksonville have struggled through decades of economic distress and decline.  However, what's slowly taking place in Over-the-Rhine indicates that when a city invests in itself and quality-of-life, privately financed market rate development tends to follow.

Article and photographs by Ennis Davis

This neighborhood tour was given to Metro Jacksonville's Ennis Davis by Lisa Bouldin-Carter, Executive Director of the Community Land Cooperative of Cincinnati.  The Community Land Co-op is an alternative, grassroots approach to ownership of land and housing.  The non-profit acquires land and housing through gift or purchase.  Properties are then held by the Co-op forever, giving the community long-term control over the land's future use and development.  Houses are repaired or rehabilitated and then leased or sold to low- and moderate- income families.

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