For nearly 3 years now, every time I drive or walk around my hometown OTR, less and less of what matters there smiles back at me. Even Pleasant Street, which wasn’t super pleasant before it changed, used to do that. I find myself wandering down side streets I’d taken for granted for decades, thinking they could carry the weight of a near two centuries existence; reminding me of why I call it my hometown. But that sense of place (genius-loci) in OTR is harder to find but in smaller and smaller pockets. I can find it in some of the buildings…the architecture that got it all going in the first place. However, even the buildings are getting too many face-lifts; like a faded movie star and it’s pretty sad.
What stuns me visually and affects the genius-loci, are the sullen and wrought faces of a new population I don’t know where to put on my mental OTR map. The faces grip their bags, a leash, a phone…headed toward what looks like it must be the summit meet of a lifetime. Whooshing past any long-time resident (you can tell who they are, you just can)…carrying a visible mandate requiring anyone to step aside of their stride.
I’m in OTR frequently; I used to live there. I drop a family member to work at SCPA. I meet fellow writers, on Main only, thank you, we have family parties at MOTR Pub, shop at Findlay Market. And for the last 2 years, I’m out of breath with my inhales, as I try to assimilate the rapid changes and disappearance of much of what was held sacred in this neighborhood for generations; and I know I sound like Pete Hamill and his New York.
Very important people tell us: “Redevelopment is good for the economy, it’s essential to the prosperity of our city. The buildings in OTR were decaying and they needed help.” Okay, sure…I get it. But why help in the form of a double-wheeled, gentrification steamroller? I’ve studied too much urban-planning via the school of William H. Whyte to buy into this fast, and touted by some, as the only highway to coolville. I know entrepreneurship is good for a city’s soul. OTR has sustained itself with working for a living a long time; initially organic in its growth and sustainability, now a more ominous and over-directed presence does the work.
Sunday I drove through OTR on my way back from Covington. Like any other day down here, I noted the newbie dog-walkers picking up the poop. Groups of white people strolling only up to a couple of buildings above 14th & Vine, then they stop timidly short. I head north on Elm Street……and see Towne Properties has draped weather-proofing nearly an entire block over intrepid chain-link; they’ve bulldozed 1/2 block to construct another shiny surface. I glance down 15th Street toward Central where a friend Cedric lived until recently; his entire building of coolest ever Cincinnati artists had to vacate; the owner has money-stars in his eyes.
Driving up Elm Street toward Liberty, and just when I couldn’t keep taking all the change in one more time, anymore; I spot what I call the real signs of spring in OTR…There’s a sidewalk barbecue, you know the kind, the real deal. I get out of my car. In front of a small market, James Brooks sets up his grill, and offers the best from Findlay Market. I ask James if I may take a photo. He’s hesitant…but he let’s me take photos of his helper and the good grill. James tells me “Even if they keep moving me up the street, I’ll just keep moving.” James says he’s been living in OTR most of his life. He points out that a guy he knows across the street has bought a house and fixed it up, and another one down the street. He has hope for the inevitable not to be inevitable.
James eventually excuses himself saying, “I have to get back to the natural order of things here.” I look down the block from the green store-front to the massive wall of redevelopment encroaching up Elm. All I can see is one more vivid contrast between that which is and that which is soon to be. There is no place in-between for my eyes or imagination. But I think James might see more. I hope James Brooks finds a crack in the sidewalk as big as a city block, so he can fill it with all the barbecue he can grill. I surely do.