Holding It Together – Gettin’ My 52 On in the West End

img_9220At the near center of West End stood Bard Alley. But the dramatic tension did not end there. Walking the West End over the course of two days, I experienced the neighborhood as a divided one. Liberty Street and Interstate 75 act to define and divide.

As I started just past City Hall, mediating upon the neighborhood itself, I was struck by the fact, south of Liberty feels “residential”. There were many developments and rows of townhomes that gave this side of the West End its distinct feel. Of course, most would not have been possible without the destruction of the neighborhood itself.

In the 1950’s, the interstate tore through what was a diverse, on its own terms, neighborhood. Second, the demolition of failing public housing produced a more mixed income population at City West, the largest housing build that had happened in Cincinnati since WWII.

There remains, in this part of the West End, the first Jewish cemetery as many Jewish settlers started their life here, before migrating to up the hills. Central Ave, once known as the “Barbary Coast,” contained a multitude of saloons and brass rails. Along 12th and Central sat the city’s first hospital (and lunatic asylym).

The Wesley College for Women once sat where Hays Porter Elementary is today.  And Taft Information Technology High School is just up the street, with its occasionally bright Friday lights of football.

Mound Street was once an actual mound and the Cincinnati History Museum wing, in an obscure corner, houses a tablet excavated on this site. On my walk, I found no such evidence of mounds, but I will be looking the topography with a different set of eyes. I find it fascinating we sit on so much history and plow it over.

img_9210Messer Construction is currently building their headquarters here. Unfortunately there were a few historic buildings torn down to make way. (I’m not sure what condition they were in). And with more traffic will come more concerns. But I suspect Messer will plan to be a good corporate neighbor.

Note: There have been past skirmishes over where downtown begins and the West End ends. As early at 1940’s, Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighborhoods, still referred to areas encompassing City Hall as the West End. The writers claim George Street, between 7 and 6th (think Cincinnati Bell) was the city’s tenderloin district. At the turn of the century, the War Department ordered the doxies closed. (No fun, right?)

But another history to this part of the West End, is not steeped in brothels or bars, but in what was established as firsts.

img_9202Ironically, the book I’ve been reading made no reference to the 1886 first African American high school established here in the West End, Gaines High School. But the guide does reference the founder Deacon Gaines, who fought for the passage of the law to give African-Americans rights to public schools, as the person who gave land to form Westwood. The guide also does not mention Saint Ann’s, which was the first African-American Catholic congregation to exist here in the city.

Along the walk, I strolled past the Lincoln Rec Center with its Olympic-sized pool to swim laps, and the West End Y with some of the best staff, where kids run in and out all day reminding me of why I live here, and why I want more for them.

img_9218Just up the street is the Qkidz building. The movie, The Fits, was based on this dance group, discovered via Youtube. Hundreds of young African American girls come through these doors for the sisterhood and the dance.

I turned back up Liberty past the Fire Station training tower. I’ve yet to see a real fire here, but seriously, I’m ok with that.

fullsizerender_3I landed past my center, Bard Alley, and walked up and down the space. The alleys are the best parts of my journey here in the West End. There are numerous alleys to peruse, some strewn with garbage, others just overgrown. But Corn Alley, Bard Alley, Pink Alley. The names alone cause me to smile.img_9299

fullsizerenderAnd finally, what gives me rise when I stroll these streets is the connection to shoes. The old David Shoe Company.

Day Two

I began my walk down Liberty, passed the Stanley Rowe apartment towers, and headed towards one of my favorite, little-seen stretches of homes along Livingston Street. As I rounded Freeman Street, and wound my way around this part of West End, I stopped to mourn many beauties whose time had come and gone.

The First German Reformer Church had a brief stint as the site of a Foxy Shazam video (not my style) and future arts center, but the church, owned by a former band member, appears more decrepit by the day.

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Across the street, an older gentleman sat perched on a black milk crate, squinting into the sun. His name was Carl. He’s lived there for 25 years.

“Trying to hold the neighborhood together,” he told me. He lamented the vacancies that hurt his eyes each morning.

“Wish we could do more for the kids right there. I always seen them kids yanking at the vines that grow over the that wall, to terrorize the dog on the other side.”

We both laughed, yet I knew what he meant.fullsizerender

I continued making more turns in, out and around some areas I hadn’t trekked I before. Citylink is located here, despite initial protests. Citylink offers multiple social services in one setting. They even have a new partnership with Findlay Market. Little known fact. I was once locked inside Citylink’s lot. I had been enticed by their garden, and the presence of figs, so I entered the lot without realizing it was a open locked gate. Preparing to leave, I couldn’t get out. Finally, I made my way inside the building, thanks to the generosity of a client, who found my escapade humorous. What an Italian will go through to see a fig.img_7991

Over more protests, St. Vincent de Paul will be expanding operations on Winchell. I once read there were 23 social service groups for 6,000 residents in the West End. And we must find a way to spread this out, not for land value sake, but for the sake of all citizens. Read more about the controversy.

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View from Union Terminal looking out to the driveway.

Turning back around and heading for home, Union Terminal caught my eye from the street. Lincoln Park once stood where the drive to the museum center is now. What a loss of greenspace and splendor.

There were many gems in the West End, those along Dayton Street and others yet to be realized. Sam Adams and and the Kaiser Pickle company to boot.

There is plenty more for me to explore in the West End, The Sands school turned senior housing, for instance. Perhaps in 2018. The neighborhood will hold my frustration, curiosity, and imagination for many walks to come.

The bard once said, “And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”

John Harshaw wrote the definitive”Cincinnati’s West End” about the African-American experience in the 40’s and 50’s. The read is a great walk through history. Perhaps if I write more about the West End, this neighborhood, “holding it together” through the dedication of community councils and businesses, will rise beyond imagination.

This is the seventh in a series of #GettinMy52on. I plan to walk Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods during the year leading up to the city’s 2017 election, in search of what has made Cincinnati relevant to me.

Read Casey Coston’s intense overview of the West End in Soapbox Media.

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