001 Cincinnati’s West End with Josh Junker

Urbanist and activist Josh Junker (twitter) talks with us about the destruction of Cincinnati’s West End.

Show Notes

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Cincinnati was incredibly crowded, outside of New York we had the most densely populated urban core in the country. 

What was historically called the West End was anywhere east of Mill Creek west of Central Parkway and Central Avenue. And then south of Harrison Avenue and then the Ohio River on the south. It took up about half of the urban basin of Cincinnati and it grew to be a really prosperous and dense neighborhood. By 1890 it had 84,000 people living in it. 

Cincinnati through its history till around 1835 was growing very slowly, it was the largest city west of the Appalachians, but it wasn’t anywhere near prominence. Around the 1840s West End started developing and then it was annex to the city. It wasn’t even in the city until the 1840’s. Around 1840s through the 1870s, the entire urban basin area of Cincinnati which includes downtown Pendleton over the Rhine and West End, just exploded in population [00:01:00] because so many people were coming to Cincinnati.  

Both sides of my family has lived here since the mid 18 hundreds. My dad’s side has been here since 1870s and my mom’s side has been here since the 1850s. They have been here for a while. And that’s how I get to hear all of these stories about Cincinnati. I heard stories about how crowded it used to be back then. My Aunt Marie, her mother told her stories that they didn’t have any sanitation or anything. They had to find a pot to do their business in. They would have a one room apartment for a family of five. 

At that point Cincinnati was incredibly crowded, outside of New York we had the most densely populated urban core in the country- because it was built that way, they had to build where they could because the terrain surrounding was almost impossible to get up to the hilltops very easily. Cincinnati developed really unique compared to other cities, cuz they had only a four or five square mile area to really develop. 

That’s what led to [00:02:00] population concentrated in a small area. Then after around the 1880s or 1890s, it started declining of bit population as people were moving up to the hilltops. 

We were one of the first boom towns – the economic prospects with the river is what allowed Cincinnati to grow. It used to be is downtown had a lot of people Over the Rhine was the most dense part of the urban basin, but the West End was the area where if you still wanted to live downtown be close by, but live in a nice little mansion. That’s where you lived at.

There’s a row on Dayton Street that still exists. It used to be called Millionaires Row because a lot of Cincinnati rich people decided to live there. The Upper West End was pretty well off. But if you go down to the lower West End, it was like a lower middle class neighborhood that, that started changing around the [00:03:00] 1870s, 1880s, when a lot of the immigration would mostly go to before then that was over the Rhine. 

If you’re in the west end, in the late 19th century I can’t even imagine what the smell would be like in the west end of Cincinnati. Not only did you have a lot of overcrowding because of how dense it was, we also had slaughterhouses, which is how we became known as Porkopolis. We had so much slaughtering of pigs around that time. I believe we were the top meat producer in the United States at that point. So you would smell a lot of byproducts that come with slaughterhouses, not good smells.  

This all starts to shift a little bit – in 1918, there was a organization founded by progressives called the Better Housing Organization that looked at the conditions of housing in the urban basin in Cincinnati, said this all needs to change. A lot of them had good intentions. But if you read more and more into it, [00:04:00] the more and more you question the validity and the meaning behind their intentions. Especially when you consider a lot of ’em had the policy of we don’t want you moving out to the suburbs. We still want you to live here. Even if someone wanted to move out to the suburbs, they’d be like, no, you can’t do that. You still have to live here. If you were an African American coming up from the south, as the Great migration was starting , the only place you could really go to was the West End. You couldn’t go anywhere else.  

They built the first federal housing project in 1937 was Laurel Holmes. Here’s the interesting thing. They don’t tell you unless you research into public housing. It was not integrated at all until the late forties and fifties. Laurel Court wasn’t built for the African-Americans that primarily lived on that neighborhood. It was built for whites only, even though it was in that neighborhood that housing wasn’t available to the black Cincinnatians that lived there. They eventually built after [00:05:00] that Lincoln Court, which was the early forties housing project, just south of where Laurel Homes was. 

From the thirties, it became clear from the city and how they acted, that they saw the West end as a slum, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They don’t really do much to repair it. The Better Housing League does some stuff, but they don’t really do enough. And again, their intentions weren’t entirely crystal good. 

Post World War if you look at what happened there, the entire urban city of Cincinnati had a 1% vacancy rate In 1950 there was almost nothing for rent, or for sale in the city. They desperately needed to build housing, but Cincinnati had been trudging along since around the thirties thinking, oh, we’re just gonna stagnate a little bit. And All of a sudden they got this great big amount of people where we went from 450,000 to 500,000 in one decade. And If you look at the statistics of the neighborhoods, all the urban core neighborhoods, which is [00:06:00] predominantly where people migrating into Cincinnati first get their starts – all those urban neighborhoods had significant growth.  

The West End grew significantly in population. In the mid fifties, the entire city says, okay, we had the interstates coming through. We just need to combine all these projects and we need to get rid of the neighborhood because we need an industrial area.  

The city says we need a huge bond issue and we’re gonna create a better neighborhood for West End. We’re going to destroy the slum so people have better living conditions and so that we can create more jobs within an industrial sector right next to downtown. All the suburbs read through the lines, and they voted against it because they knew what the city was gonna do. They knew that all the people in the West End are gonna be displaced and they’re all gonna come up into the neighborhoods that we live in. So they voted against it because they saw that as a problem for [00:07:00] us . 

Ironically it was the West End that got the bond issue to pass in the first place because they overwhelmingly voted for it. Which is crazy to think of, but if you look at the campaign and what the mayor was saying, and what the city leaders were saying, you would think, okay, they had a plan for relocation. They were gonna build a lot of residential units around the West end to give them better living conditions. I can actually have a shower and a tub and everything. I can get a nice job while I’m at it too. That’ll be great. That’s where a lot of the mentality of West End residents came in. That’s why they voted overwhelmingly for it.  

That bond issue is what started the Kenyan Bar Renewal project. It runs into some hurdles almost immediately. They were gonna destroy about 10, 600 housing units. They were gonna displace all existing persons that lived in that area. 26,900 people. 97% of that population was [00:08:00] black. The city said we will help them with relocation assistance. We will compensate them for what they’re going through. Now, some of the property owners might have gotten them, but the vast majority of those who lived in the West end, I’d say 95% of them were all renters. All they got from the city and the federal government was a hundred dollars in moving expenses. And that was it. Each family got a hundred dollars in moving expenses.  

That’s not what they were sold.  

Fair Housing Administration looks at it and is like, you have a way too big of an urban renewal plan. You have to split this project up. This is too big. They phased it into each year from 1959 through 65. Over a period of six years, they would tear down all those 10,600 housing units. But if you look at the relocation report that the city did in 1958, the city said,, we’re gonna displace 13,300 families in the next [00:09:00] three or four years. We’re gonna convert some mansions into apartments. There’s a lot of vacant land. We have a new tax provision that makes it a lot more developer friendly to build apartments and stuff. CMHA said they were gonna do everything possible to help. There’s gonna be a lot of construction, so no one really has to worry.  

But that’s not how it ended up. They didn’t really have a full plan, for , we’re gonna build a crap ton of housing here. And even the public housing they had, it still wasn’t nearly enough for how much public housing demand and need there was from the residents that lived in the Kenyon Barr renewal area.  

By 1959, they take 3,500 photographs of every single building that exists in the area – those are now in archives at the Cincinnati Museum Center. They start tearing down everything. By 1958, there had already been a decent amount of clearing from the [00:10:00] Richmond Laurel Renewal Project. But it really accelerated from late 1959 into 1960. By 1960, they cut through what they were gonna build 75 through. The existing neighborhood west of 75, as it would’ve been, still hadn’t been torn down yet. By 1961 and 62, that’s when they started really speeding up the entire clearing and razing process of the neighborhood. 

The West End in 1950 had 67,522 people. In 1960, it was 41,800, and that was before they had done the vast majority of the razing. 

By 1961, they had torn down half the houses in the project area, 5,000 housing units being destroyed in two years. It’s crazy to think of. The city starts panicking in 1963, they start trying to get industrial places to move in. And they don’t get too many bites. The reason they made this plan is [00:11:00] they based their conversations with industrial magnets and people around Cincinnati saying, Hey, if you made an industrial area right by downtown, I might think about relocating there. They based a lot of their Kenyon Bar renewal plan was all these businesses are really interested in moving in here. It’ll be great. We’ll have a lot of investment. We might even attract someone like Ford to build a huge plant there that would create a lot of jobs. 

That’s not what happened.  

By 1965, they had torn down the last house in the project area. The area was basically left clear.  

The city ran into a multitude of problems. They were building some housing in the suburbs, but they weren’t building enough of it. The city caused self-induced white flight from a lot of their neighborhoods. Some of the neighborhoods wouldn’t have changed so drastically if they wouldn’t have torn down 13,000 housing units downtown. That dichotomy, really becomes clear in 1967 and 68, we had some race riots. It becomes clear why this [00:12:00] happened. They were promised a lot of stuff and the city fell through on almost every single one of them. 

50,000 people were displaced in the West end. West End had 67,000 people in 1950. 21,000 by 1965. And then by 1970, that was 17,000. So it went from 67,000 to 17,000 in a span of 20 years. 

The West End today has a population of only 6,800 people live there. They tore down Laurel Homes in 2000 to build a huge City West project that was supposed to put single family homes and town homes. They had so many issues with the contractor that they tore down Laurel Homes and only half built it back up. They lost more housing units doing that.  

The West End now is at a crossroads. The Great Recession really impacted the West End there [00:13:00] was two or 300 homes just destroyed. The city had the policy around 2009 that anything vacant. It’s never gonna be valuable enough again in the near future to renovate. So we gotta tear it down cuz it’s a blight. There hasn’t been that much investment. Over the Rhine has gentrified. it’s still continued to lose population. It’s displaced people there and a lot of ’em have moved over to the West end. What makes West End a little bit different is they have so much housing that’s deed restricted, low income, that it would be hard for a developer to come in and say, Hey, we wanna make this all market rate instead of affordable anymore. But that’s about half the neighborhood. The other half isn’t like that, and it may be considered affordable housing now, but there’s no affordable housing protections to keep it affordable. 

The West End used to have 120 different restaurants and bars in its neighborhood. It has one or two now. There’s no grocery store, there’s a couple of corner stores, but there’s nothing that’s like a grocery store. They have to walk all the way over to downtown to go to the [00:14:00] Kroger store downtown.

The owner of FC Cincinnati wants to draw in a NBA expansion team. They wanna put an arena there as one of the plants they’re looking at. Another one would be to build a six or seven story apartment complex there that would have three to 400 housing units. The good thing is they are doing a West End Choice Neighborhoods program through hud that they’re gonna build a 500 million renovated housing. They’re gonna add about 100 net units. So everything that they’re tearing down, they’re building again, they’re not doing like what the old public housing, which was they teared down 10,000 housing units and give you 1500. That will be a net good thing.

So the West ends is at a crossroads. It started growing for the first time since 1950 and 2020 it was down to sixty six hundred and twenty ten and it’s up to 6,800 now. That was the first population gain it’s had since 1950. These next 10 years are gonna either, see a great neighborhood that retains some of its history, that honors its history that [00:15:00] allows those who are still there to still live there, build some development around there. 

In my opinion, I think having a better 75 project to allow roads and rebuild the street grid would be wonders. In my opinion, the best plan moving forward would be to look at old Queensgate and target that for some housing growth and demand that there’s gonna be. and leave the west end, put some development here and there, but not move in aggressively like three c did it over the rhyme because if you do that, then yeah, there’s some net good, but there’s also some really net bad from that.

And it’s been a net bad situation because even though the neighborhood, you can walk around it or whatever and visit it they displaced a crap ton of people from how they were doing it. And there’s less housing in 2020 than there was in 2010. Even though they build all that housing over the Rhine, there’s less housing in there. 

Cincinnati’s really at Crossroads right now. And the west ends at a crossroads. The [00:16:00] decisions they make in the next five years will absolutely be what Cincinnati will be in 2050 or not. If we don’t right the wrongs we did and the city doesn’t acknowledge its past and thinks really visionary of what they want to do, cincinnati might still grow and everything, but we will not be the city that we could be. Decision makers have to step up. 

My name is Joshua Junker and I am from an inner ringing suburb just outside of Cincinnati called White Oak.