Chris Frutkin believes in Over-the-Rhine. He believes in its potential as "economically a prosperous neighborhood with a mixed income-base." "It can be the diverse community that it is," he says, "culturally, ethnically, economically."
As the new president of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce, Frutkin thinks there's more to Cincinnati's oldest neighborhood than gang-shootings, drug-dealing and civil unrest. In fact, he believes OTR could rival other historic districts in the United States — Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S.C., and St. Augustine, Fla. — that have flourished over the past decade, pulling in tourists and their mad money from all over the country and internationally as well. It's just a matter of funding and structural rehabilitation.
"Over-the-Rhine is the largest district in the country of an architectural style called Italianate, from the 1860s to the turn of the century," Frutkin says. "It's the largest district like that, so you've got this mass, which really makes an impact. If you go to Charleston or Savannah, they have really nice communities, but they're not as big as ours."
Though historic cities have cashed in on their cultural appeal, cities like Savannah had the added benefit of being the subject of John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which topped The New York Times best-seller list in 1994 and became a feature-length film directed by Clint Eastwood in 1997.
All that media power is bound to draw some national attention. In Savannah's case, a heady tourism industry has been the result.
Over-the-Rhine is far from the beauty of Savannah and farther still from its burgeoning tourist trade. But Frutkin claims it could compete on the same level.
"The idea of living and working in those kinds of communities is very appealing," he says, "because of the culture and history and beauty of it. We could have as much if not more beauty, because it's just a matter of rehabbing (the buildings of Over-the-Rhine)."
After growing up in a variety of locales from Connecticut and South Carolina to Indianapolis, Frutkin moved to Cincinnati to be closer to his relatives and earn his degree in entrepreneurial studies with an emphasis on real estate at Xavier University. He started City Center Properties, which now owns thousands of square feet of retail, residential and office or light-industrial space in Over-the-Rhine.
Among those is the old Hale-Justis Building, a former plumbing and heating supply warehouse that Frutkin and his partner Barry Randman have transformed into residential lofts to meet the increasing trend of living downtown. His success rate has been exceptional. When asked if the future of the Hale-Justis Building looks good, Frutkin replies definitively, "Yes, absolutely. Absolutely."
But it's not all about business. Frutkin has always had a deep love for historic architecture.
"My mother was a history major, and I grew up loving history," he says. "Coming to Cincinnati was just opening up a whole new world. Here's all this history and culture that Indy sure didn't have. And I particularly love old buildings, so getting into Over-the Rhine was natural for me."
Frutkin's love of buildings spills over into his family life as well. Frutkin met his wife, Jennifer, through the OTR Chamber: He was a board member, she was director of marketing and communication. Two years ago they bought the Victorian-era house in which his great grandfather grew up in Clifton's Gaslight District. Jennifer has since become vice president of City Center Properties and given birth to their son, Crawford.
Just as getting involved in the history of Over-the-Rhine was a natural step, so was Frutkin's graduation rise to leadership of the chamber of commerce. But the role has not been without difficulties. Many of the over 500 businesses in Over-the-Rhine are small-time outfits that struggle day-to-day. With the onslaught of the April riots — Frutkin prefers to call it a "civil disturbance" — many of these businesses are at risk of folding. Add to this the fact that people who patronized them before April have been reluctant to return.
"The biggest challenge right now is getting a response to these riots and getting the city to perform," he says of the city's poor record of basic urban services in the neighborhood, such as regular trash collection and adequate policing. The chamber is in the process of putting together a wish list of services and demands, a united effort to get the city's attention.
But that's for the city. What about getting customers back to fuel the businesses?
"The solution is the people who patronized these businesses just need to continue doing that," he says. "Now is not the time to stop. That's all we're asking people to do: If you were a patron of Over-the-Rhine before, then just please continue."
The role of president has been ironic as well as challenging. On the afternoon of April 10 — the height of looting, arson and mayhem — Frutkin watched from his office at the corner of Central Parkway and Jackson as Cincinnati police officers herded protesters and rioters alike out of downtown. He implies that riots in Over-the-Rhine were a result of this action.
"The first day we watched as the police pushed these guys who were rioting downtown up Vine Street and into Over-the-Rhine," Frutkin says energetically. "I mean they were just pushing them right up. They had both sides of the street lined and they barricaded Central Parkway. And then guess what happened? You know. They could have marched them into Northern Kentucky or onto the bridge or into Hyde Park. I don't think any neighborhood should be treated that way, quite frankly. Solve the problem. Don't send them off to some other area."
But Frutkin is hesitant to blame the police for the destruction Over-the-Rhine suffered.
"I don't think this was a police decision," he says. "I think the police have a thankless job. Up here, it is somewhat lawless. After 50 years of bad policy, basically concentrating poverty and low-income housing in one neighborhood, you're bound to have to have troubles. It's symptomatic."
To work for what you believe in is hardly easy, but Chris Frutkin continues to toil away for his vision of Over-the-Rhine, even if the payoff is sometimes minimal.
"I'll tell you, I have a lot of friends in the 'burbs who make a lot more money, but they don't have as much fun as we do," he says with a laugh. "They don't. Even in the worst times, we're having more fun." ©