A Cincinnati neighborhood, beset by economic collapse and lifted by generosity

Over-the-Rhine has struggled its way to a fragile existence. But now, like so many other places, life has slammed to a halt.
The Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati on Tuesday, April 14.

Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood was just hitting its stride, after years of turbulence.

New restaurants were popping up, long-struggling theaters were selling out, work was plentiful and the quaint streets were crowded. All the risks the neighborhood had taken for years suddenly were paying off.

Then everything slammed to a halt due to the novel coronavirus — potentially undoing years of work and investment. Hundreds are unemployed, businesses are completely closed or seeing a fraction of their usual traffic, and there’s widespread fear that the worst is still ahead.

“You watch the neighborhood build year by year, day by day, to get to where it is now, and you know it still has a long way to go . . . and you see how many people are intent on making that happen. And then it’s like somebody just stopped the world,” said D. Lynn Meyers of the Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, which has weathered numerous crises in its nearly 35 years, but never something like this. “It took over a decade to get to where we are, and it could take a month to lose it, and that scares me.”

The fear of the virus was high in Over-the-Rhine, which is densely populated and has a large homeless population. The community has had only three confirmed cases among its roughly 5,400 residents, an unexpected success, but the effort to curb the spread has itself exacted a heavy price.

Over-the-Rhine is one of hundreds of urban neighborhoods across the country that have undergone a renaissance in recent years, as young professionals have searched for walkable communities with character and short commutes, empty nesters have looked to plant themselves in cultural districts, and city leaders have sought out the kinds of high-income residents who had previously fled to the suburbs. These transformations are usually deeply dependent on people having money to dine at expensive restaurants, shop at Instagram-worthy boutiques, and gather with others to experience the arts.

An empty business in Over-the-Rhine on Tuesday, April 14.
A hopeful message in Japp’s, a bar in Over-the-Rhine.
LEFT: An empty business in Over-the-Rhine on Tuesday, April 14. RIGHT: A hopeful message in Japp’s, a bar in Over-the-Rhine.

Many of these neighborhoods have long been fragile, teetering between renewal and decline.

Hundreds of Over-the-Rhine’s longtime residents were pushed out by increasing rent prices as the area gentrified, but there are still remnants of the neighborhood that once was — soup kitchens, a food bank, subsidized housing, nonprofits that help those without homes, and a public elementary school where 99 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.

Nowadays, nonprofit leaders who have weathered years in a city with one of the nation’s highest poverty rates are often moved to tears as they talk about the growing and unprecedented need among both the long-distressed and those vaulted into chaos by the pandemic.

“The cascade of poverty is going to get really bad here really fast,” said Chris Schuermann, the executive director of St. Francis Seraph Ministries, which provides free meals and other services to the homeless or those on the verge of becoming homeless. “I hate to say that the worst is yet to come, but that’s what I keep telling my children.”

The closed front of Union Hall in the heart of the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. The building has been turned into a mini mask factory, where start-ups print masks that are shared throughout Cincinnati.

‘It was just a shock wave’

On the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day — as brunchers gathered and mimosas flowed, and as servers disinfected tables and doorknobs — Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) announced that business as usual would end for restaurants and bars at 9 that night. Although most owners were closely following coronavirus news, the announcement still felt sudden.

Joe Lanni, of the Thunderdome Restaurant Group, which is based in Over-the-Rhine and has five restaurants in the neighborhood in addition to dozens in the region, said the announcement was a “gut punch” to him and his two partners.

A few days before the governor’s announcement, Lanni had been working on deals to open new restaurants — and just a few days after it, the three partners were gathered around a speakerphone telling their 1,300 employees how to file for unemployment.

“It was an extremely tear-filled conference call,” he said. “It was shocking and terrifying to the whole team. . . . There is all of this positive momentum, and then boom, all of a sudden they get a call that we’re shutting all of the restaurants down. It was just a shock wave.”

In interviews with more than five dozen people who live, work or invest in Over-the-Rhine, no one disagreed with the governor’s decisions, and they credited him for preventing a widespread outbreak in the neighborhood. Their only complaint is that many states didn’t move as aggressively, or might reopen sooner, which could extend the economic crisis for the neighborhood.

DeWine announced Thursday that outdoor dining can resume May 15, and restaurants can begin seating diners inside on May 21. Last week, Thunderdome reopened a few of its restaurants for carryout and delivery.

Boomtown Biscuits and Whiskey, located one block east of Over-the-Rhine in the Pendleton neighborhood, tried to switch to carryout. The two-year-old restaurant has an all-day brunch menu and would get calls from people asking if they were open and promising to call back on Saturday.

“I kept telling them: Guys, brunch is not a thing anymore,” said Christian Gill, the executive chef. “As much as I want to brunch with you, I don’t have mimosas. I have mimosas made with the tears of all of my staff in an orange juice, if you would like that.”

A glove on the ground in Over-the-Rhine.
A note in the window of Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen and Social Center in Over-the-Rhine on Tuesday, April 14.
LEFT: A glove on the ground in Over-the-Rhine. RIGHT: A note in the window of Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen and Social Center in Over-the-Rhine on Tuesday, April 14.

Three days into the experiment, Gill decided to fully shut down. He and his managers stuck around to help the staff of 24 file for unemployment and pick up some perishable food.

Opening the restaurant was a dream for Gill, but this year was already a tough one. In January, his business partner died, devastating the Boomtown staff and forcing Gill to handle the business and food sides of the operation.

“It has been one blow after another for us as a restaurant,” Gill said. “What am I supposed to do? What are the right options, the right choices to be made?”

While most laid-off or furloughed workers have filed for unemployment and are likely to receive a stimulus check, restaurant owners like Gill say they’ve received little relief from the federal government. Everyone is hesitant to take out loans that they may not be able to repay.

Daniel Wright closed his three restaurants and one bar in Over-the-Rhine, plus another in the Cincinnati suburbs, laying off 150 employees. He said he can’t imagine reopening all five locations without some sort of relief from the government or his insurance company.

“At some point, it’s easier to just walk away than it would be to take on more debt in order to survive this,” he said.

The neighborhood’s major developers are waiving or dramatically reducing rent for their tenants, and a gift-card matching program will infuse $600,000 into area businesses.

Jose Salazar, a James Beard-nominated chef with two restaurants in Over-the-Rhine and one downtown, closed two of his locations and furloughed 90 of his 96 workers. With some corporate and nonprofit help, he has been cooking and distributing meals for industry workers who have lost their jobs — allowing him to bring a dozen workers back. His downtown restaurant is open each evening for those needing a meal, groceries and other necessities.

“We’re usually the last ones to ask for help but the first ones to want to give it out,” he said. “No matter how often we say: ‘Hey, we’re here for you, we’ve got you, we’re going to help you out,’ there are going to be those people who don’t want to ask for help, don’t want a handout and are embarrassed to some degree.”

A near-empty street in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood on Tuesday, April 14.

A ‘hopeless and desperate situation’

Over-the-Rhine got its start nearly 200 years ago, when German immigrants passed over the Miami and Erie Canal — now the paved-in Central Parkway — and were reminded of the Rhine, a major river in Europe. They filled Over-the-Rhine with rich experiences that reminded them of home.

For generations, Over-the-Rhine was a working-class neighborhood — often a mix of immigrants, Appalachian whites and African Americans. As the years went on, the poverty increased, and so did the crime.

In April 2001, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in the neighborhood, prompting four nights of protests that caused millions of dollars worth of property damage. Several people were injured and hundreds arrested. Some activists refer to it as “the uprising”; newcomers often refer to it as “civil unrest” or a “race riot.”

The troubles added urgency to local business and community leaders’s desire to swiftly transform the neighborhood. Two years later, the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) was born. Since then, it has invested more than $1 billion in the area, with much of that money coming from corporations headquartered downtown.

The rapid development has almost tripled the median income. Yet many of Over-the-Rhine’s remaining low-income residents have long struggled.

An old couch on the sidewalk in Over-the-Rhine on Tuesday, April 14.
A mural on a wall in Over-the-Rhine on Tuesday, April 14.
LEFT: An old couch on the sidewalk in Over-the-Rhine on Tuesday, April 14. RIGHT: A mural on a wall in Over-the-Rhine on Tuesday, April 14.

For those newly in need, it has been difficult to apply for unemployment and government assistance; centers that once helped with this process are shuttered. Those who could work often don’t have anyone to watch their children, as schools, day-care centers and after-school programs have all closed.

Rothenberg Preparatory Academy — the neighborhood public elementary school — closed so quickly that the school resource coordinator, Tasha Kimbro, was unable to grab the food, clothing, hygiene products and other items that she kept at the school to give to students.

“Rothenberg was their safe space. . . . They get love, they get food, they get clothes. I have kids who don’t have all of the tools to be clean, from preschool to all of our sixth-graders,” Kimbro said. “I am just worried they’re not being able to maintain their own self-confidence, because that’s what I tried to help with a lot. It just sucks.”

People line up outside Our Daily Bread for a hot meal on Tuesday, April 14.

Three days a week, the school district distributes meals outside the school, and Kimbro has been supplementing them with donated groceries and other necessities. Anyone who needs food can take it, she said, no questions asked.

Half a mile away, at Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen and Social Center, which remains open for carryout, Executive Director Georgine Getty has struggled to provide the most basic necessities to her clients.

The kitchen serves only weekdays. Churches and other groups used to serve meals on Saturday and Sunday; in their absence, Getty now passes out pull-top cans of food on Fridays to cover the weekend.

When the library closed, those without homes no longer had access to the Internet, phones, bathrooms or fresh drinking water. She installed a portable bathroom and outdoor hand-washing station — then realized people were drinking that water. The city paid to set up outdoor water spigots.

“I never thought I would be so excited about fresh drinking water — I mean, this is developing nations stuff,” she said.

Georgine Getty, executive director of Our Daily Bread, brings hot meals to a quarantine center set up for homeless people displaying symptoms of the novel coronavirus in Over-the-Rhine on Tuesday, April 14.
Workers prepare hot meals at Our Daily Bread on Tuesday, April 14.
LEFT: Georgine Getty, executive director of Our Daily Bread, brings hot meals to a quarantine center set up for homeless people displaying symptoms of the novel coronavirus in Over-the-Rhine on Tuesday, April 14. RIGHT: Workers prepare hot meals at Our Daily Bread on Tuesday, April 14.

Each day, she sees new faces in the line, including a family of seven now living in a minivan and nonviolent offenders who were released from jail to relieve overcrowding. Everyone is dirtier than usual, and hungry in a way she didn’t used to see. They can’t see her smile at them from under her mask.

Hanging over everything is the virus. If one person on staff gets sick, the kitchen will probably have to close. If one of the diners gets sick, the virus will probably spread through the already-vulnerable population.

“Homeless service leaders who I love, respect and have worked with for years — the toughest folks I know — are starting to reach their breaking points,” she said. “We share a five-minute cry or a supportive text and then get back to work.”

While Hamilton County has committed more than $1 million in federal funds to book hotel rooms for those who were living in the shelters when the crisis hit, advocates say many people are still sleeping in their cars, on the streets or in encampments.

Samuel Landis, who runs the nonprofit Maslow’s Army, used to offer free haircuts and pizza in a plaza just south of Over-the-Rhine every Sunday.

Over the past six weeks, Maslow’s Army has booked hotel rooms for more than 200 people without homes who were left out of the county’s efforts.

Teri Larkin and Kathy Schickel hand out meals at Our Daily Bread on Tuesday, April 14.

First, Landis booked rooms at the downtown Quality Inn, but when the rates rose, everyone moved to a Microtel in nearby Kentucky — until the local mayor pressured them to leave. The group is now at a hotel in Cincinnati, though grant money and donations are running out. Last week, he had to ask more than half of his guests to leave so that he could continue helping those most in need.

“I was in tears most of the day,” he said. “I know where they’re going back to, and it’s a very hopeless and desperate situation.”

All around, there is crisis.

Millions in federal stimulus dollars are starting to arrive — but that infusion has prompted the city of Cincinnati to ask several nonprofits to give back 25 percent of the city funding they received. The city is already several million dollars short this fiscal year, and it has furloughed a quarter of its workforce. The next fiscal year, which starts July 1, is expected to be even worse.

The Freestore Foodbank has seen its warehouses quickly depleted — and officials have been urging those who are newly unemployed to apply for food stamps so they can buy groceries instead.

The county court system has stopped eviction hearings for now, but there are widespread reports of landlords threatening to kick people out as soon as the moratorium lifts.

Maya LaLonde organizes masks from a 3-D printer in Union Hall on Tuesday, April 14.
Grace LaLonde, 18, puts masks together at Project Speed Mask on Tuesday, April 14.
3-D printers make masks at Project Speed Mask on Tuesday, April 14.
TOP: Maya LaLonde organizes masks from a 3-D printer in Union Hall on Tuesday, April 14. BOTTOM LEFT: Grace LaLonde, 18, puts masks together at Project Speed Mask on Tuesday, April 14. BOTTOM RIGHT: 3-D printers make masks at Project Speed Mask on Tuesday, April 14.

Before the world slammed to a halt, Preston Bell Charles III said, his music career was finally “blooming.” He has been a fixture at the Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine, jamming on his violin — mostly classical with some rock thrown in.

All of Charles’s gigs have been canceled, except for a wedding in September, and he moved in with his brother’s family. He is still working part-time for his father, who owns a funeral home, and helping care for and educate his three children.

When schools closed, there was a scramble to find a laptop for Charles’s 12-year-old daughter, who attends Cincinnati Public Schools. Meanwhile, his 5-year-old son received a laptop from his suburban school district.

“I thought I was just going to continue phonics, but now you want me to teach my son how to use a computer properly? I mean, he’s 5, he does respect things — but it almost feels like too much,” said Charles, 37.

Charles doesn’t think he qualifies for unemployment and, because he didn’t file a tax return last year, he doesn’t expect to receive a stimulus check.

He began to cry as he described friends who have reached out to offer help — one hired him to play a front-yard concert, another sent him some money when he desperately needed it.

“It’s been tough, but I am still surviving,” he said. “I don’t think I have been in a struggle like this since I was 19 or 20, just trying to figure things out, and it has been different now with three kids. . . . I feel blessed that I have my health and that my kids are safe.”

jenna.johnson@washpost.com

Editing by Cathleen Decker. Photo editing by Natalia Jimenez. Design and development by Allison Mann. Copy-editing by Ryan Romano and Thomas Floyd.

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