Cover Story: Choosing the City

Urban pioneers find refuge from suburbia

Nov 21, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Jim Tarbell likes the city life.

A boy about 8 years old stood in an alley, watching a man slumped over a steering wheel. The boy wanted to help, but he didn't know the man was suffering a diabetic attack. The boy paced the alley for a couple of hours, alone.

Finally, Jim Tarbell realized what was happening and called for medical assistance. He learned the boy was visiting a cousin in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood where Tarbell lives.

He asked the youngster his name. The boy had trouble remembering his first name, then mispronounced his last name. It was getting late, about 8 p.m. — too late, Tarbell thought, for the boy to walk home alone. He offered a ride. The boy passed.

His mother, he said, wasn't home.

When Arnelle Dow moved to Milton Street on Prospect Hill in 1976, one of her neighbors lived without running water, an elderly German couple whose house had no plumbing. The man walked to a neighbor's house every morning carrying a bucket.

He was blind, and his wife had become senile. Fighting desperately to stay with his wife, the man refused any assistance but the help of church friends who came occasionally to change the cardboard covering a broken window.

Eventually, someone helped the pair move to a place where they'd receive living assistance.

"He was so happy reporting to everyone how they were in a facility where they were cared for," Dow says.

The people who bought the house after he moved found money hidden throughout it — to the tune of about $6,000.

"He was living in destitution and he was capable of something very different," Dow says.

Neighborhoods should be places where people look out for each other, where boys in an alley can find an adult when they need help and old people can live in dignity.

Before Jim Tarbell became a member of Cincinnati City Council, he was a neighbor. He was, and still is, one of many who choose the inner city as their home. Bucking the siren song of suburbia, they choose Over-the-Rhine and Mount Auburn because of the neighborhoods' historic background, their future potential and an appreciation of the urban lifestyle.

Tarbell grew up in Hyde Park when it was a mixed-income neighborhood. Walking through the streets, he says, he had role models wherever he went — shopkeepers and neighbors who knew his name and cared about their community.

If he did something wrong, they corrected him. If he did something well, they supported it. If something fishy were going on, neighbors made sure it was taken care of.

They were the eyes, ears and heart of a healthy community, the kind of neighborhood Tarbell would like to see Over-the-Rhine become again.

"We're in here because we have an artistic focus, more of an urban focus that keeps us here," he says.

Tucked at the end of Broadway Street, his home, built in 1860, is a beautiful place to visit. Restored wooden floors and high ceilings, wooden molding and an ornate staircase recall what Over-the-Rhine used to be.

Tarbell is on the phone, fighting with the city he helps run, trying to save the remnants of a limestone curb lining the street in front of his house. An untrained eye wouldn't give the curb a second glance. But Tarbell sees the stone lining the street as it used to be, before it was covered with layer after layer of asphalt.

It matters to him. It matters to his neighbor as they look at the curb on the other side of the street, replaced with plain old concrete.

It's new, it's pretty. What's the problem?

It's not what it's supposed to look like, they say. It's abandoning history for a modern quick fix, they say. The limestone will last a lifetime, they say. The concrete? Well, it's just plain old sidewalk. It stands for nothing.

"We don't teach civics," Tarbell says. "We don't teach urban history."

Leslie Bradford has lived in Mount Auburn the better part of 40 years. He moved there in the 1960s, when a surge of young people were buying what were essentially abandoned shells of houses.

"Most of the people that bought in were concerned with architecture and historic preservation," he says.

The front portion of Bradford's Greek Revival house on Prospect Hill was built around 1819.

"When you sit in the house and just try to appreciate all the conversations that went on in that living room, the building is still sitting here," Bradford says. "Probably someone in the same living room we're sitting in was talking about, 'Should we vote for Abraham Lincoln?' Those are things I think we in our society don't appreciate. You just can't tell me that all those people who have lived in this building, that their energies — these buildings have to have absorbed that energy."

As a college student at the University of Cincinnati in the 1960s, Bradford had an interest in preservation. He worked with city council to demonstrate Mount Auburn's potential.

The Mount Auburn Community Council was given property, but the building was too small to be turned into apartments and the lot was too small to be turned into a playground. Bradford was interested in buying it and fixing it up, but children started a fire at the site. He lost interest for a while but later was offered a deal: He could buy the house for $100.

"In the purchase of it was a clause that I had to live in the neighborhood and I couldn't sell the house for seven years," he says.

If he decided to sell later, the community council had the right of first refusal.

Preservation of old houses is good in itself, according to Bradford, as is integration — whether it takes the form of whites moving into black neighborhoods or blacks moving to white neighborhoods.

The idea that Mount Auburn has always been integrated, Bradford says, is one of the things that drew him there in the 1960s.

"It's still a diverse neighborhood," he says. "Even though there's been improvement happening, some of the people who lived there when I first moved in are still there."

An article in The Cincinnati Enquirer in the 1960s featured four residents of the neighborhood, Bradford says; three still live there.

Arnelle Dow was single when she moved to Milton Street in 1976. When she bought her carriage house on a land contract for $14,000, she was breaking new ground. Other single women lived there, but not alone.

"It was a little risky, I suppose, but it didn't feel like it was," she says.

She recalls 50 to 70 of her neighbors, all working to renovate the houses on her street during that time, working together — sharing tools, sharing stories.

In those days, the members of the community council would also watch the homes of neighbors to protect them from burglaries. Neighbors would get together on short notice to attend a city council meeting if an issue on the agenda affected their neighborhood.

"I sort of miss the camaraderie that a unified cause brings," Dow says. "It was really a group effort of like-minded people."

Saving a part of history was a common goal. The neighborhood had been largely abandoned when she arrived, according to Dow.

"It looked like some place in one of those countries being bombed," she says. "Not only did they not live there, but they were going to be torn down."

A batik artist, Dow used her ability to work with her hands to transform her house into the home it is.

Little house in the city
Over-the-Rhine, according to Tarbell, consists of 360 acres.

"Within that area is the largest collection of Italianate architecture of any one district in the country," he says.

The architecture, the diversity and the culture of Over-the-Rhine keep Tarbell and others in the neighborhood.

Not far from his home is Music Hall, home of the fifth oldest symphony in the country and the oldest community choral festival in the Western Hemisphere.

"Culturally, there's no district in (the Tristate) that compares to this," Tarbell says.

Closer still is St. Paul Church, where mosaic tiles depicting angels are engrained in the floor and where it's easy to forget the neighborhood has been home to an outbreak of shootings this year.

Dow, who's originally from Iowa, was inspired by the houses on Milton Street and expressed her love of them in her work. Neighbors who found the frames of old vanity mirrors in their homes passed them along to her to use as frames. Capturing her own little piece of history, she re-created views of the street in batik.

"The houses just stayed a theme because they were, to me, a symbol of neighborhood," Dow says. "I was drawing the neighborhood before I moved there."

That doesn't mean her time on Milton Street has always been easy. The first two weeks Dow lived in the house, she had no water. Whenever a house sat vacant, its water service would be turned off at the street. In order to hook it back up, she says, the street had to be dug up.

"I had to get water," she says.

Meanwhile, Dow showered next door.

Soon after she moved in, her house, built into a hillside, was infested with termites. Exterminators couldn't easily drill into the hillside to kill them, and termites began to go up through the floorboards of a room added on.

Dow solved that problem, but others cropped up. A portion of her roof, lower than the rest and collecting rain that led to leaks, had to be raised. Early on, her cat caught a rat in one of the abandoned houses on the street and took the prey into her house while she had company.

In the past, Bradford says, getting a loan to renovate an inner-city home was nearly impossible. Once he wanted to borrow $3,000 from a bank to buy a furnace.

"They refused to take the house as collateral because they considered it a liability, but they would loan me $10,000 on my name," he says.

In fact, Bradford says, when he first moved into the neighborhood, only one bank would make loans in the inner-city. Because it was illegal to discriminate based on neighborhood, banks had to come up with creative ways to avoid the truth. According to Bradford, one bank said that they didn't do loans on any house over 35 years old.

"I asked them how they stayed in business, because every house in Cincinnati was over 35 years old," Bradford says. "They never wanted to say they redlined. We're still talking about racial tension in Cincinnati in 2001. You can imagine what the racial tensions were 40 years ago."

Insurance was another expensive hassle.

"For about five years I was paying $3,000 a year — that's $15,000," he says.

In the end, the insurance company would no longer cover his home, so he turned to Ohio Fair Plan, a group that insured houses most companies wouldn't. His premium dropped to $300 a year.

Bradford says the money he paid in high premiums could have been invested in improving the house.

"Do I improve my building or do I pay my insurance?" he says. "Well, you've got to pay your insurance if you have a mortgage."

Tarbell moved to Over-the-Rhine as a young man, buying a house on Spring Street for $500. It had no lights, no gas and no hot water. The bathroom was an outhouse. But it was an adventure, a risk worth taking for someone invested in the community.

At one point, however, things got a little too rough even for Tarbell. A bar behind another Over-the-Rhine home he lived in had begun to attract problems. People played craps behind the bar throughout the night. People seeking drugs stood outside a nearby house yelling for a man inside.

The neighborhood the Tarbells had chosen so their children would grow up around racial and economic diversity had changed from mixed-income to no-income. The lesson the parents wanted to teach was getting lost in the chaos, so they moved to Clifton for a time.

"The kids were getting a kind of one-sided view of those sorts of things," Tarbell says. "Our children were 4, 6 and 8 and there was yelling and screaming."

After living in Clifton, Tarbell returned to Over-the-Rhine, moving to a house a block away from the one he'd left. He wanted to be part of the fight to help Over-the-Rhine live up to its potential.

Just as Over-the-Rhine melds into Pendleton, which melds into Mount Auburn, perceptions — and, more to the point, misperceptions — have hurt the inner-city neighborhoods this year, according to Bradford. Rioting in April made the area seem far more crime-ridden, more dangerous, than it is.

"I get furious at this city when they blow everything out of context," he says. "It was all blamed to be happening in Over-the-Rhine, and that's because most people don't know the boundaries of Over-the-Rhine. The perceived riot has had no affect on our neighborhood."

Bradford says that he can understand people's mistrust of the police, saying he's noticed that law enforcement reacts to people differently, depending on what part of town they're in. He points to the amount of effort made to quiet noisy car radios in Eden Park on Sundays but the lack of attention paid to the noise coming from bars on Main Street. Bradford, who can hear the noise blocks away, says he can't imagine how people living even closer are able to sleep.

"It's those subtle little things that we do," he says. "It's not just what the police do. It's all these little things, the double standards that happen that drive me up the wall."

Walnut staircases and drywall
The rioting sometimes obscures larger issues, according to Tarbell.

"We have all those confusing violent images out there," he says. "The real issues are you've got to put an economy back in the neighborhood. People had a wonderful life here who made the least amount of money, because they were close to the resources."

Over-the-Rhine's troubles have their roots in the West End 40 years ago, during construction of Interstate 75, Tarbell says. The highway displaced many people, a large number of whom flocked to Over-the-Rhine.

At about the same time, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) began taking over some of the buildings. When Liberty Street was widened, it also disrupted the flow of the neighborhood, according to Tarbell.

"The neighborhood was politically weak and vulnerable, so it all got put here and in the West End and Avondale," he says. "It tipped the balance. Whereas these neighborhoods were very well balanced economically, HUD came in and spent millions of dollars to make it essentially a low-income ghetto."

Commercial development dropped precipitously, insurance companies became apprehensive about the neighborhood and banks backed away from investment in the area.

"Our standards for dealing with poor people took a tremendous downturn," Tarbell says.

Walnut staircases were torn out and replaced. Drywall and metal replaced more pleasant-looking original material. Old carved doors were torn out and cheap new ones put in. Ceilings 11 or 12 feet high, providing a sense of space in a neighborhood with few open areas and air movement in the heat of summer, were replaced with false drop ceilings.

"The HUD mentality was, 'We're dealing with poor people, they're not going to appreciate something like this anyway,' " Tarbell says.

Bradford, too, recalls the changes that took place in Cincinnati when the highway came to town. Older, larger homes in Mount Auburn and Over-the-Rhine were divided into apartments; any unit with a kitchen sink could be designated as an apartment, he says.

"Almost overnight what was a single family neighborhood became multi-family," Bradford says.

During the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Cincinnati used Model Cities money to tear down houses built on the hillsides. The idea was to see nothing but wooded hillsides when a person stood downtown and looked out at the surrounding hillside neighborhoods, Bradford says.

Some inner-city homes took another hit after the Model Cities money ran out and houses were ignored. According to Bradford, antique dealers paid kids to steal fireplace fixtures and stained glass and leaded glass windows.

Some efforts to help actually contributed to the deterioration, according to Tarbell. In 1971, he says, Over-the-Rhine was home to six social service agencies. Now, he says, 36 are in the neighborhood.

"I bet you it's 3-1 social service to every resident," he says. "What we've done to a fault in Over-the-Rhine is social service."

But the issues facing the neighborhood are complex, according to Miami University Professor Tom Dutton, who's on the board of the Over-the-Rhine Housing Network. He says the root of the problems facing Over-the-Rhine have nothing to do with social service agencies or low-income housing moving into the neighborhood, but rather result from a range of factors such as population loss as people migrated to the suburbs and changes in the economy.

Dutton says there's a difference between non-profit housing groups on one hand and HUD and private housing developers on the other. While he's glad HUD provides people with housing, people's needs go beyond having four walls in which to live, he says.

"There is a major difference between non-profit housing developers and low-income for-profit housing developers," he says. "The outside absentee HUD guy is hardly any different than the typical absentee landowner."

The goal of the non-profit groups, according to Dutton, is not just to address the housing needs of people in Over-the-Rhine but also to establish a sense of community in the neighborhood and to build citizenship.

The non-profit housing groups also try to be sensitive to maintaining the appearance of the buildings they work with, he says.

"The standard is very high," Dutton says. "We are being very sensitive in trying to bring buildings back up to their esthetic grandeur."

Gentrification or evolution?
According to Tarbell, most people in his neighborhood are either on some sort of mission or live there because they can't afford to live anywhere else. As low-income residents start to earn money and become upwardly mobile, he says, they move to a neighborhood where they see more opportunity.

The task now in Over-the-Rhine is to keep people who don't have to stay and to fill the approximately one of every 3.5 buildings sitting vacant, Tarbell says.

"What's happened to post-World War II America is a combination of newfound wealth, wide-open spaces and the automobile," he says. "We forgot about the planning principles that go into a pedestrian neighborhood."

Early in his interest in Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton, Tarbell heard St. Paul's Church was going to be demolished and replaced with parking. He asked the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to let him watch over the property instead. He lived in a building next door in 1974 and 1975.

During that time, concerts, dances and community council meetings were held at the former church.

At 5 a.m. Christmas Day, Tarbell says, people would follow luminaria in the street to St. Paul's Church in Pendleton. There they waited for the sun to rise, shining through a stained glass window showing Jesus and his followers, a window that won a first-place prize in the Chicago World's Fair in 1896.

It was at such a gathering that Tarbell met his wife.

Today, the former church is used for special events, and the Verdin Bell Co. has its offices in the back.

Tarbell says that, when he first moved to Over-the-Rhine in 1971, 20,000 people called the neighborhood home. Today, only 6,000 remain.

He believes investment to rehabilitate a number of the buildings would generate interest in the neighborhood.

"You need about $100,000 a building," he says. "That's what it costs to make the bottom line affordable. When you're finished, you have something that's really unique."

The cost to tear down a building and replace it is about the same as the cost to rehabilitate and preserve it, Tarbell says. The bonus is preserving a piece of history.

If Over-the-Rhine were to become more of a mixed-income neighborhood, he says, wealthier residents wouldn't live in isolation from people on the other end of the economic spectrum and would be mindful of what those people go through. Poorer residents, in return, would see their employers and police officers in neighborhood settings. Mentoring would go on between youth and community leaders.

In other words, he says, people would look out their windows on a vibrant community rather than the metal bars that cover many first-floor windows in the neighborhood now.

Jim Verdin of the Verdin Bell Company — which owns five buildings in the neighborhood, containing 160 art studios — has bought Joe's, a Pendleton Street bar that had been around since Prohibition. He's restoring the building as a coffee house/deli and more studios.

Leaning on a half-finished deck behind Joe's, Tarbell looks at the back yard of a home he used to live in. He points to the spades, hearts and clubs adorning the top of a wooden fence.

"That's a Tarbell fence," he says.

HUD wouldn't build a fence like that, he says. It's the kind of attention to detail that comes with taking ownership.

In the past, Tarbell says, most buildings in Over-the-Rhine had private owners who usually lived on site.

"Forty years later, it's basically the same formula that works," he says.

Bradford balks at the term "gentrification."

"I like to think of a neighborhood evolving," he says.

Neighborhoods change, Bradford says. For example, as older people decide their homes are too large to maintain, they sell them to younger people, who fix them up again.

Bradford moved to Mount Auburn in the 1960s, when parts of the neighborhood were largely abandoned.

"The people who bought in the neighborhood really didn't displace anyone," Bradford says. "Nobody got displaced in my neighborhood — it was a vacant neighborhood."

Bradford offers his tenants low rent in exchange for their labor. Much of the renovation on the properties he owns was completed because of the work of the tenants, some of whom went on to buy and renovate their own homes.

"Because of that, my tenants have been with me in many cases 20 to 30 years," he says.

With improvement come new problems. Property taxes on the houses on Dow's street — which, she says, had remained the same since the 1940s — recently went to the homes' current market value. A house in the same block as Dow's that sold for $10,000 in the past recently sold for about $250,000. With the increase in values comes a large increase in taxes.

"I think our taxes are probably 500 percent more than what they were when I moved in," Dow says.

But Dow is glad she's called Milton Street home.

"I felt like I was saving a little piece of history," she says. "It's the only neighborhood I've ever lived in that's really diverse. I really love the diversity."

Different groups of people have moved into the neighborhood in waves through the years — from history buffs to empty nesters to professional women. With each wave, a few choose to remain.

"All along the way you keep a few of those people," Dow says.

Dow met her husband, whom she married in 1983, at Arnold's — the downtown bar Tarbell used to own. A potter from Scotland, her husband left his home on the River Ness, complete with a waterfall in the backyard, to join her in Cincinnati's inner city.

On trips to visit his homeland, Dow says, she realized her home, built in 1880, wasn't old by Scottish standards.

"I realized I didn't know what 'old' was," she says. "We don't even have old. Old is 100 years here. Old to them is 500 years." ©