Today, I received a welcome phone call. We received our first donation for Rebirth of Over-the-Rhine, the documentary film I’m co-producing with Joe Brinker about the renewal of Cincinnati’s urban core. I hope to begin production in a few months.
Friday in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine is a flurry of life, as documentary research leads me to politicians, ex-con weightlifters, millionaire arts patrons, and a cabal of partying idealists. First, friend and co-producer, Joe Brinker and I meet Bill Baum, principal of Urban Sites. Baum’s been developing property for a quarter century in Over-the-Rhine, through all the bad times, and is leading the charge during this new phase of activity. His speciality: preserving the historically significant facades while renovating the outdated, cramped tenaments into modern, spacious lofts. Coming from DC, I’m amazed at the low cost of these condos, especially since downtown is just a few minutes away by foot. Baum is soft-spoken, straightforward. Later, I would talk to Jeanne Golliher, Director of the Cincinnati Development Fund, who says that “there is a special place for Baum in heaven”; and that his renovations in Over-the-Rhine “are setting the standard.”
Joe and I take several hours to walk around Over-the-Rhine and meet people: do they think things are changing for the better here? Somehow I’m soon engaged in a benchpress competition with Ken at Lord’s Gym. Orlando, who’s the volunteer, explains the mission of the gym, that it’s an outreach of the nearby Lutheran Church. Across the street, Washington Park is a big green space that, if it were cleaned up a bit, could rival the best that Boston or DC have to offer. But there are at least 20 or 30 people drinking out of paper bags, just sitting around — and barely a stone’s throw from a school! On one side is Music Hall, which is absolutely stunning. Later, I would watch a documentary, Music Hall: Cincinnati Finds Its Voice, which gives a great history of the arts in the life of Cincinnati.
After some famous Cincinnati chili for lunch, we meet Reverend Damon Lynch of The New Prospect Baptist Church. Lynch figured prominently in Cincinnati’s 2001 riots. Many people paint him as an apologist for the riots, and to some degree they are right. But I see him as an advocate for the poorest of the poor. Maybe one of the most vocal they have. Lynch’s quote that sticks with me: “There’s a difference between economic development and community economic development.” As this project continues, I’ll need to get a better handle on Lynch’s perspective. Is it the same as that of Over-the-Rhine’s 80% African-American population?
Joe and I race up to the Kroger Building, downtown, to meet with Vice-Mayor Jim Tarbell. “Cincinnati’s First Citizen” as some people refer to him, have a love affair with this throwback of a councilman: he rides a scooter around the city; owns a bar; has an infectious smile; is a keen historian; loves his city. I acquire bits of the Tarbell legend throughout the day: he squatted in a St. Paul’s Cathedral to save it from the wrecking ball, he formed the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce back when there wasn’t any commerce, he dresses up in top hat and tails for Opening Day, in hommage to the hometown Reds. Why can’t all councilpeople be like this, I wonder? From an upper story overlooking the exquisite architecture of Over-the-Rhine, we attend Class Tarbell: History 101. And after two hours of historical vignettes and charming asides, I feel energized . . . and realize: I’m going to make this documentary.
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.