Google “what to do in Cincinnati,” and you’ll find one unanimous answer: visit the neighborhood called Over-the-Rhine (OTR for short) and its historic centerpiece, Findlay Market (in continuous operation since 1855). I was somewhat surprised by this answer. I’d heard those names before – but not because I’d already been there to sip single origin coffee or buy handmade beeswax candles. No, those names are familiar because OTR is where my family’s American story begins.
The maternal branch of my mother’s family arrived in America just after the turn of the 20th century, when OTR was a burgeoning neighborhood for recent immigrants. My great-grandmother, Anna, arrived in Cincinnati from Austria-Hungary in 1904; her future husband arrived from Austria-Hungary two years later. My grandmother was born in their OTR tenement house, on Bank Street, in 1910. She grew up playing in OTR’s streets and shopping at Findlay Market with her mother. Some decades later, my grandfather would own a pharmacy just a few blocks away.
Slowly over the years, the immigrants moved away from OTR, and the neighborhood started to decline. By the time he retired in the early 1960s, my grandfather had taken to keeping a handgun behind the counter of his pharmacy. But even after she had left for the suburbs, Anna continued to return to Findlay Market, every week, by bus, to buy her groceries. I imagine it must have felt like home.
On the Sunday of my recent visit, we took a shiny new streetcar from downtown to the gentrifying OTR. Findlay Market was as charming as promised, with the adjacent brick row houses painted cheerful pinks and yellows, and flower baskets overflowing, and stalls filled with an abundant selection of produce, meats, breads, plants, and handmade everythings. It was bustling with a weekend crowd of hipsters and families with strollers. The tunes of a busking musician and the smells of something deliciously fried filled the air. It displayed all the qualities of a neighborhood on the rise.
After we finished our gourmet coffee and scones, we got back in the car and went in search of our roots. A block or two away from the Market, the spiffy exterior of OTR starts to change. The buildings become more dilapidated, the storefronts more forlorn. Less than a mile from the gleaming beacon of Findlay Market, we arrived in the section of OTR where my great-grandparents made their first home in America.
If you mentally squint, you can see the beauty of this neighborhood: narrow streets lined with elegant brick row houses, some of them still painted in lively (if peeling) colors, like a veneer of makeup stubbornly applied by an aging beauty queen. But without the squint, the neighborhood is heartbreakingly derelict. Where once an immigrant community thrived, now poverty reigns. Many of the houses are boarded up. Numerous empty lots mark the places where buildings finally succumbed to age and the bulldozer. At the end of one block, an imposing school, with the elaborate decorative finishes common to the early 1900s, sits abandoned and broken.
We couldn’t find the place where my grandmother was born. The entire block seems to have disappeared. Later, after some careful study of Google Maps, I developed a theory that their block had been renamed when a larger thoroughfare had been cut through the neighborhood. But if the Street View pictures are correct, their house is long gone and it's probably not a street I could wander down alone.
Perhaps the rebirth of OTR will continue to spread, and growth and prosperity will return to these streets. Perhaps someday it will look more like its old self. There are signs of progress, and hope: where my grandfather’s pharmacy once stood, the empty lot has a tidy lawn and a small picket fence. And there is one certain harbinger of coming change: That derelict school building now bears a sign announcing “Lofts.”