Cover Story: Main Street Gets the Business

(The battle to develop Over-the-Rhine insulted Chinese Americans)

Nov 10, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

A Chinese American Council was formed to respond to a developer's negative remarks, led by (L-R) Charleston Wang, Quinn Li, Richard Wang, Chenliang Sheng and Charlie Zhang

What started in fall 2003 with an off-color joke at a business luncheon ended with Cincinnati City Council chambers packed full of outraged local Chinese Americans and a city declaration to honor the Chinese New Year.

Councilman John Cranley, a big fan of the Beale Street entertainment district in Memphis, had invited its principal architect to Cincinnati. Cranley and Mayor Charlie Luken floated the idea of paying John Elkington a $100,000 consulting fee to transform Over-the-Rhine's Main Street into one of the entertainment districts that were the developer's forté.

That, in short, is what brought Elkington to stand before the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce and say that his second rule for development is, "Never rent to a Chinese restaurant."

It surprised the luncheon listeners so much that no one can quite remember Elkington's first rule of development. But they let it go. Until CityBeat started wondering how the merchants and residents of Main Street felt about inviting an out-of-town expert in to save their street.

"You're considered more of an expert when you're from out of town," said business owner Dawn Schwartzman. "Why are we going outside when we've got the talent right here?"

At the end of an interview to find out what ideas set Elkington apart — initial reports of his visits implied that he could land Hard Rock Café and ESPN Zone here — we asked the garrulous developer what he meant by his second rule of development.

Sure, it was a joke, he said lightly, but then continued: "I just made that a policy. Chinese businessmen are hagglers. They use different math."

CityBeat's reporting on this conversation (see "No Chinese Allowed," issue of Oct. 1-7, 2003) lit a fuse that burned slowly for a few days before blowing the lid off the quiet, self-contained Chinese-American community in Greater Cincinnati.

Many of the Main Street merchants were upset by the proximity of their group photo to the story's headline, "No Chinese Allowed." They weren't the bigots, they said, but the page design made them look so.

Then local Chinese Americans started to hear about comments reported in the article. A flurry of e-mails followed. Local businesswoman and activist Barbara Chin, who then owned three Chinese restaurants, including Shanghai Mama's, banned Elkington from eating in her establisments. Elkington roundly denied making the comments to CityBeat.

An ad hoc committee of 16 leaders in the 500-strong local Chinese-American community formed (see "Occidental Slip," issue of Oct. 15-21, 2003).

S.B. Woo, president of a political action committee that advocates for Asian Americans, threatened to inform its national members of Elkington's ideas unless he apologized. He forced Elkington to redo two drafts of an apology until he actually sounded contrite and stopped blaming CityBeat. Elkington released the third draft without the approval of Woo or the local Chinese-American community that was part of the deal.

"The letter casts his racism as a minor faux pas and the fault was CityBeat's and that all is now fine and it's full steam ahead," said attorney Charleston Wang, host of Asian American hour on WAIF (88.3 FM). "Mr. Elkington is a clever operator, and a round goes to him."

In the midst of the brouhaha, Luken announced, "If (Elkington) said this, he's disqualified from being hired by the city."

Finally, Chinese Americans packed into City Hall for public comments to rail against Elkington's racist comments until council members promised not to hire him and passed an emergency resolution to honor the Chinese New Year (see "Council Hears from Crowd," issue of Oct. 15-21, 2003.)

Councilman Jim Tarbell called the turnout "one of the most unusual displays of unity in chambers" he'd seen in five years on council.

Elkington disappeared until this June, when CityBeat learned that Cranley had convinced Vice Mayor Alicia Reece and Councilwoman Laketa Cole to accompany him to Memphis (see "Elkington Redux," issue of June 6-12, 2004). Elkington's company made their hotel arrangements, and they roamed Beale Street to see the development there.

Reece and Cole filed for reimbursement from the city for the trip. Cranley said that they were in Memphis for myriad reasons and his "friend John" merely helped hook them up with accommodations. He also forbid Elkington, who had initially returned calls, to talk to CityBeat.

"They said that they won't hire him as a consultant, that's fine," said Elizabeth Na, president of the ad hoc Chinese American Council that had formed the year before. "But if they went ahead and hired him as a developer, that's no different."

Then Na asked the question that, more than Elkington's offensive comments and fat-cat smugness, really underlies the whole affair: "Is he the only one in the country who can do it?"

It seems that many city leaders believe only outsiders have the magical answers to the city's woes. Witness the hire of Stephen Leeper, the expert from Pittsburgh, as head of the newest development corporation charged with "saving" downtown and Over-the-Rhine (see "Leeper of Faith," issue of March 17-23, 2004).

There's been no sign of Elkington since June. Nick Spencer, the Cincinnati Tomorrow founder and former City Council candidate who had been one of Elkington's biggest critics, put his own money where his "organic development" rhetoric was and went in on buying closed Walnut Street nightspot The Cavern, reopening it as alchemize.

Meanwhile, business on Main Street remains in flux. Have a Nice Day Café, Bar Cincinnati, Davis Furniture and Divas on Main salon closed while Mainly Art expanded. Unique Cincinnati spots Cafécito, Kaldi's Coffeehouse and Mr. Pitiful's remain open. Main City Bar moved a block south.

Elkington or no, there still aren't any Chinese restaurants on Main Street. Nor are there homogenized national chains like ESPN Zone. Yet. ©