I arrive in Cincinnati today for a five-day pre-production trip for a new documentary, tentatively entitled Rebirth of Over-the-Rhine. My co-producer Joe Brinker has arranged a slew of meetings. My goal: to determine whether I’m interested enough to pursue the emerging story of this neighborhood people call Over-the-Rhine, which according to our research is on the cusp between decay and renaissance. Potentially, it’s a compelling American story that will resonate nationally.
I’m hardly in town for an hour when we sit to lunch with Councilman John Cranley. At first, he’s guarded, but soon realizes that our intentions are above-board. We explain we’re interested in telling a positive story about progress in the area, and that our chief interests are the business and social entrepreneurs who are making a difference. Cranley gets fired up and goes into detail about the policy measures and investment facilities that he believes are responsible for the changes. And he rips off a dozen names and numbers of people for us to follow up with. Great start! Next, Joe and I are drinking coffee with the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Peter Bronson. Bronson wrote a book called Behind the Lines: The Untold Story of the Cincinnati Riots, which I had read so I was eager to talk. Ultimately, Bronson turned out to be an affable guy, but with a singular focus on safety and security issues. To be honest, he didn’t strike me as somebody who spends much time in Over-the-Rhine, however. Next, Joe and I had an appointment with Michael Spalding and Roula David, the co-owners of Vinyl, a funky new restaurant in Over-the-Rhine. I’d seen an article on them and their daring plans to open several chic restaurants in this depressed neighborhood, so I really wanted to meet. We sit on the brick veranda of Vinyl as the late-afternoon sun begins to set. I look around and the architecture is as distinctive and historic as the best I see on a daily basis in Washington DC. Yet, most everything is more run-down (I would learn later that there are about 500 vacant buildings in this area; and that it’s been named to the National Historic Trust for Preservation’s 11-most endangered list). As we talk, Michael and Roula greet passersby: young professionals on their way home, a few homeless people they knew by name, and even Marge Hammelreth, the Executive Director of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation.
I start to realize that Cincinnati is a small town. And Over-the-Rhine is smaller still. Logistically, this is not a bad thing for a documentary project. Michael and Roula are the real deal. Both live and work in Over-the-Rhine. Both are putting their money where their mouth is, fixing up old properties, conceiving of hip bar concepts, making a buzz. By the end of summer, they say, they’ll have three restaurants nearby. For my first day ever in Cincinnati, not a bad start.