A Tour of Tenements (and Potties)

I have taken food tours of Findlay Market, beer tours with the Brewery District and haunted tours of Over-the-Rhine. Last week, I even watched a virtual tour of Over-the-Rhine at the Over-the-Rhine Community Housing celebration.

But now, there’s a new tour on the market and it involves potties.

IMG_0697Well, tenements plus potties. The history of tenement buildings is best told by exploring the history of plumbing throughout the ages.

Just ask Anne. Anne Delano Steinert, Julie Carpenter and a crew of devoted historians and neighborhood lovers have developed the Over-the-Rhine Tenement Walking Tour. The purpose of the tour is to raise money and awareness for an eventual Over-the-Rhine Tenement Museum.

Have you visited the Tenement Museum in New York City? That’s the goal. Well, a bit less lofty. But the aim is to share the history of Over-the-Rhine and surrounding area not through Italianate single-family homes, beer halls or German food, but through a specific way of living, tenement-style.

Anne explains to participants how to detect which pieces of a building’s puzzle came first, why there was an addition and then possibly, another. And how toileting played a role in all three structures.

What we see through Anne’s eyes is the density that once existed in Over-the-Rhine and the surrounding basin. In 1850, the population in the basin was near 40,000 people. By 1921, that number has risen to 130,000. We learn about women’s work and why there are small windows and iron hooks on the third floor of many three-story tenement buildings.

The tour guides create a vivid sense of crowding through their many statistics and stories, sharing how some families occupied the same building throughout generations. And some families – entire families – lived in cellars.

Participants witness human and industrial progress through the ghost outlines of backhouses, unevenly laid bricks and porch toilets. Anne gives us the tools to imagine a life unlike one we now live, whether housed in overnight shelters, pricey condos or single-family dwellings.

FullSizeRender copy 13The most impactful lesson was how enthusiastic Anne and Julie are about creating a placeholder for the history of Over-the-Rhine. As an offshoot of Over-the-Rhine Foundation and hoping for non-profit tax status soon, the OTR Tenement Museum aims to connect, as do the other tours I’ve participated in over the years.

But something about the Tenement Tour is different.

This is not a who’s who of politicians or brewers, or which race can lay claim to OTR as its home or which religion or culture was predominant in the founding years.

This is the best tour to learn about the day-to-day minutiae. Of piecework sewing buttonholes. Of the popularity of French flats (not a style of shoe). And how did one shovel out a potty in the cellar.

Yes, this tour is about the how.

For every tour taken, I am struck by the passion, energy and tension around the neighborhood, and scrutiny of who once came or who left this 360-acre square. As if we all own a piece of it. And we do.

We all want to make history. But more so, we want to play a role in the re-telling of OTR, to show others what we see, know what we know.

The Tenement Museum will happen because of the OTR Foundation and individuals like Anne and Julie, dedicated to the preservation the neighborhood in its many and varied forms. Unfortunately, the physical space will be five years in the making because of landowners such as one from NYC who is banking twelve buildings, one with an important potty, waiting for OTR to “take off.”

While the tour does not, at this time, include entrance into the buildings, Anne has gained entrance and reenacts what she’s found. And there is plenty of evidence on the exterior of the buildings along the stops, from which to imagine and learn.

So, while the public waits for this program to take root within a physical space, the OTR Tenement Walking Tour is one perspective worth having, standing up – or sitting down.


* Facts and figures are attributed to Anne and her team. They did all the work. Please forgive errors in the retelling.

* To learn more about upcoming tours and the museum, click here. The FB header page contains a link to sign up for the newsletter.

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