How 'Revitalization' Erodes Black Neighborhoods And Communities

Oct 31, 2019
Originally published on October 31, 2019 4:51 pm

The wind is sharp while a yoga class does downward dog in Washington Park. The people working out are mostly white, although the neighborhood is nearly 90% black, according to census data.

Even though some long-term black residents have stayed in Over-the-Rhine, upscale coffee shops and yoga classes like this one can create cultural and symbolic displacement. "It's a way of saying we're not catering to you," University of Cincinnati Sociologist Elaina Johns Wolfe says. "We're actually catering to these new residents and this business isn't here for you, it's here for them."

Some critics see new development as investment in communities, but Johns Wolfe says long-term residents aren't always the people benefitting.

Census data shows the West End, Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton saw a 50% increase in white population between 2002 and 2017. Johns Wolfe says some white people are attracted to culturally rich communities and can have a savior complex, where their voices redirect the concerns of the community. 

Cincinnati and Hamilton County public officials are trying to attract new development while maintaining existing businesses in the area. Meanwhile, housing advocates and tenants are demanding officials don't push them aside.

According to Xavier University's Community Building Institute (CBI), Over-the-Rhine lost 3,000 affordable housing units between 2002 and 2015. Johns Wolfe says for better or worse, OTR is the local poster child of what new development can do to a community. "What happened in Over-the-Rhine beforehand was that city residents had disinvested in that neighborhood," she says.

'We'll Always Be 500 Feet Behind'

OTR and the West End may dominate news conversations about displacement but if you look around, it's happening in many neighborhoods around the city.

Since the first public housing was built in 1938, the demand for affordable housing in Cincinnati has outpaced what's available. Former UC historian Fritz Casey-Leininger says developers and white residents resisted public funding being used for public housing, especially for black people.

Now, the gap is widening, which causes greater risk of displacement. CBI's housing study says the risk of displacement increases as homeowners and landlords struggle to get their hands on cash to maintain affordable properties.

Rachel Thompson grew up in Madisonville and stands in front of her old house on East Lodge Street. She says she remembers the house being a lot bigger. In a nostalgic tone, she remembers that black families and homeownership were the symbol of the neighborhood. "Miss K. lives there with her family; Mr. Russell lived there," she says. "This is where you came when you wanted homeownership and it wasn't overly priced."

Life took Thompson and her family elsewhere, but she kept the lessons she learned in Madisonville about being self-sufficient. After a couple of years, she decided to return to her old neighborhood to raise her daughter. Her rent was $650 a month.

Over four years, the rent crept up with promises of ceiling fans, hardwood floors and a new bike ramp that she never saw. Her nostalgic tone abruptly snaps into the reality she's facing.

One month she was a couple of days late on her rent and was forced to choose between moving out or waiting for the eviction process. "And it feels like we'll always be 500 feet behind," Thompson says. "No matter if we follow all the rules or try to show we are good people."

Thompson is working 100 hours a pay period to make ends meet. "I'm working," she says. "I mean, I'm working a lot and it just seems like I can't get my head above water. It almost feels like you're drowning." Her work schedule, she says, has prohibited her from learning the ins and outs of her new community.

UC Psychologist Maria Espinola says being forced to move can shift someone's sense of security. "There is a sense of loss that sometimes is connected to losing your sense of control and your ability to predict the future," she says. Espinola says after just two or three years, community members can already be attached to their neighborhoods.

What's Next For The West End? 

Casey-Leininger says in the 19th century, white working-class poor people lived in the West End. The neighborhood was the first stop for immigrants because of its cheap housing. "As both poor whites and blacks were coming up from the South for industrial jobs, basically, landlords decided that the only place blacks would be allowed to live was the West End," he says.

Over time, black communities were shuffled to different neighborhoods to make room for various city projects. Some of the largest were the construction of the Redbank Expressway, I-71 and I-75. Now the conversation centers around the construction of the new FC Cincinnati stadium in the West End.

New projects mean new branding. Communities like OTR are being marketed for their German roots without acknowledging the decades African Americans called the neighborhood home. Johns Wolfe says erasing a group's history has multiple effects.

"One of them is breaking up community, because you've now told a group of people their history in this community doesn't matter," she says. "That you are actually saving this neighborhood from them so it can go back to its German heritage."  She says when we talk about displacement, we must talk about community.

Displacement and affordable housing aren't new conversations for Cincinnati, but experts see the past as a roadmap for how to move forward.

This week, Council Member Greg Landsman proposed a package of legislation that would require City Council to do more to protect people from evictions. It passed Wednesday

"We can either spend massive amounts of money on police trying to keep control," Leininger says. "Or we can spend the money to insure people have good housing, health care, that their kids go to good schools, that they live in safe neighborhoods."

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