Many urban neighborhoods have declined over the years. In Cincinnati, none has declined more than bucolic Mount Airy.
Situated at the northern reaches of Cincinnati, Mount Airy was once considered a suburb in the city, with its manicured lawns, four-bedroom homes and quiet streets. “Almost Country … in the City!” was the title of a 1980s brochure that urged people to visit or move in.
Now, the neighborhood shares signs of decline that have marked its inner-city counterparts. In fact, it is the Cincinnati neighborhood that has fallen the most over the last four decades, when measured by income, employment and other quality-of-life indicators, according to a long-term, in-depth study. It is, by that measure, a forgotten neighborhood.
“It’s changed,” said Cincinnati City Council member Kevin Flynn, who grew up there in the 1960s and ‘70s and still makes his home there. “Some for the good, a lot for the bad.”
- More than 36 percent of Mount Airy families live below the poverty line.
- Unemployment more than doubled from 1980 to 2009, rising 149 percent.
But Mount Airy still possesses durable assets. Tops among them is Mount Airy Forest, 1,459 acres of trees, hiking trails, horse trails, picnic areas, a dog park, a giant treehouse, a disc golf course and a beautiful arboretum.
The water towers are a neighborhood landmark, an imposing castle-like structure situated on the highest point in the city.
Mount Airy also benefits from a small group of people working to enact a positive change. But they’re working against a decades-long tide that has altered even once-solid neighborhood institutions.
Little Flower School, once the grade-school home to more than 600 mostly Catholic kids, closed in 2008.
The largest employer in the community, Mercy Hospital Mount Airy (formerly Providence Hospital), closed in 2013 and was demolished.
Even the water towers, a sturdy Mount Airy symbol and a linchpin in the city’s water system since 1927, are deteriorating around the edges, and are fenced off.
Mount Airy was incorporated as a village in 1865, and voted in 1910 to join the city of Cincinnati.
Maybe the most visible sign is Mount Airy’s quarter-mile-long business district, once a center of the community, now spotted by vacant storefronts, empty lots and heavy traffic.
Flynn and other long-time residents remember it with nostalgia.
“We had an IGA on the corner," Flynn said. "There was a bar-restaurant next to that. A barber shop, a real estate company, a bank, a laundromat, an appliance store, a dry cleaners, a carryout pizza place, a dentist, another bank. There were actually three banks on one block in Mount Airy. There were four restaurants. There was a bakery. There was a delicatessen. There was a variety store. It truly was a community.”
In the mid-1990s, over the objection of Mount Airy Town Council, the corner grocery store across from the towers was torn down to make way for a Thornton’s gas station with 16 pumps, bright lights and a convenience store.
Now, the southern entrance to the business district, the busy intersection of North Bend and Colerain, is occupied by Thornton’s, a Taco Bell and a Warsaw Wireless store.
The majestic towers, where neighborhood activists want to erect an entry monument as a way to create a new community identity, sit on the fourth corner.
Neighborhood leaders took their first big step in April with a ribbon cutting for ... a parking lot.
To an outside observer, a new 20-space parking lot might not seem like much. But to neighborhood activists, it represented years of planning, negotiation, buying property, design and construction.
“It took a lot of time, a lot of meetings, a lot of effort, a lot of proposals. Stick-to-it-iveness,” said Corless Berry, a resident and member of Mount Airy CURE or Community Urban Redevelopment Enterprise.
The lot will be more than a place to park cars off of busy Colerain Avenue, although that’s a big purpose. Plans for the landscaped site include a mural, neighborhood grill-outs and music. It even has a name -- Mount Airy Commons.
“We’re looking to attract some investment and some new businesses,” said Mark Menkhaus, a resident and retired Cincinnati Water Works employee. “We want businesses to see that there is community investment and there’s community support.”
The next steps will be tougher, following a plan coordinated by consulting firm Urban Fast Forward.
CURE wants to buy a two-acre site across from the water towers that is now mostly vacant offices and a lot littered with tires and other debris. It’s asking for a grant of $350,000 from the city’s Neighborhood Business District Improvement Program to make the purchase. The group has no immediate plans for the property, but wants to secure it and perhaps prevent the next gas station or fast-food franchise from locating there.
The group also wants to upgrade the streetscape, maybe with plantings, bike racks and storefront improvements.
Those improvements might also help slow the traffic on Colerain, one of the region’s busiest thoroughfares. Traffic planners estimate that 30,000 cars a day pass through. That might seem like gold to a business owner’s eyes, but the problem is many of the cars zip through (way over the 25 mph speed limit) on their way to somewhere else.
It can feel unsafe, noisy, even chaotic.
A stop light in the middle of the block (common on Downtown streets), or stricter enforcement of the speed limit would make pedestrians feel safer and encourage walking around. Other changes can help slow traffic: Allowing on-street parking at all hours; planting trees and and adding landscaped areas along the sidewalks. But those take money, and maybe more importantly, political will.
Mount Airy needs the help of City Hall and the state of Ohio to slow the traffic. Colerain, U.S. 27, is a state-maintained highway, so changes will need state sign-off. It's complicated and time-consuming. Cincinnati City Council members should bring together the neighborhood groups and the area's state legislative representatives (Sen. Lou Terhar and Rep. Catherine Ingram) to push for state involvement and funding.
Then comes recruiting new businesses, developing a vacant lot or two, and creating the momentum that gets noticed and attracts people.
What kind of businesses will be sought? Those decisions are still down the road, but neighborhood leaders talk about businesses that will reflect another major change – Mount Airy’s racial demographics.
In 1970, the community was nearly 100 percent white, and heavily Catholic. Today, Mount Airy is more than 50 percent black.
Median household income: $42,000 (the city median is $35,000)
Below poverty level: 36 percent (Cincinnati is 27 percent)
The public Mount Airy Elementary is probably 98 percent African American children, said school resource coordinator and neighborhood leader T.J. Smith.
It’s still changing.
“We have easily have 10 to 15 new children at the school who are from Nepal,” she said.
She and her husband moved to Mt. Airy in 1990, and bought a house at the corner of Colerain and Hawaiian Terrace, a street that is home to at least a half-dozen apartment complexes.
“We were the only black homeowners on the street,” she said.
As a leader in Mount Airy Town Council and CURE, she has seen the obstacles that racial suspicions can produce.
“My goal has been to unify people, not divide them,” she said. “We all have to work together. That’s the only way we’re going to combat the crime and other issues. You work together. You communicate, and you challenge each other to reach out and take a step and help each other.”
Maybe a place to do that is a new shop in the business district, Authentic Cutz. Tez Headen opened the barber shop about a year ago. Here’s how it happened.
“I used to cut my own hair, and I thought I was doing good. Then I was cutting everybody else’s hair. Then I said, ‘Let me go ahead and get in school and see what I can do.’"
With his barber’s license in hand, he opened the shop with three barber chairs that are often busy with little kids, middle-aged men and retirees. People stop in to schmooze.
“You got retired veterans here. You got every day working class here. You got your millennials, your entrepreneurs, your minorities here too,” his business partner and fellow barber La’Don Pope said.
Sounds like the start of a good business plan for downtown Mount Airy.