CINCINNATI -- The Over-the-Rhine of today is a destination. An institution. A brand.
But, of course, we all know it wasn't always like this. It's also not the first time it was considered "cool."
In the 1990s, Main Street, in particular, was a hot spot for youth and suburbanites alike. Bars like Neon's and Mr. Pitiful's found footing, and popular stops like Kaldi's and Rhino's, although they are now closed, forever left a mark.
Riots in 2001 wiped out most of the momentum, and there was no overall revitalization effort from the city. Today, growth on this street is still slow compared to some of its counterparts, mainly Vine. But many -- those who lived and worked here at the time -- say it played an important role in the neighborhood's story.
This is their look back.
'Walking the walk'
Kevin Pape moved to Over-the-Rhine in the late '70s, to a spot at the corner of Liberty Street and Sycamore. There was a family tie to the neighborhood; his great-grandparents had lived on nearby Milton. But, mostly, he was intrigued. He thought it was an interesting place and wanted to see where it could go.
Professionally, there was a draw, too. Pape, who works in cultural resource management, historic preservation and archaeology, moved his 4-year-old firm, Gray and Pape Heritage Management, to OTR in 1991. His office at 1318 Main St. required months of extensive renovation.
"(My business) had grown to a point where I really needed an office, and Wes Cowan, who was the curator of archeology at the natural history museum at the time, and a couple partners were interested in renovating property in Over-the-Rhine," he said. "But they needed a tenant, and at that time … well, nobody else was interested. It was one of these chicken and egg things -- if we build it, will they come? --but I said I would commit to moving here because, to me, it was a matter of walking the walk. If I'm all about historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization, I wanted to be part of it."
Gray and Pape still stands today -- and at the same address. But it didn't exactly receive a ribbon-cutting welcome.
"We move in, and we're a professional services firm, right? So there's people here working eight-plus hours a day," Pape said. "Some longer. And at the time, we would just park on the street.
"Well, the city noticed we were parking on the street, so what do they do? They come and install parking meters. There were no parking meters on Main Street or Woodward or anywhere else until we moved in. We were like, 'What the hell? It's already hard enough for us to make this work, and you come along and put in these parking meters? OK, fine.' But what really got us, they started giving us tickets. These were two-hour meters, and we'd go plug the meter after two hours, but we were ticketed multiple times. So, basically, the city was punishing us for being here.
"That is a complete metaphor for the relationship between the people who were trying to revitalize Over-the-Rhine and the city's attitude at the time. The city was just totally disconnected," Pape said. "They had turned their backs on it a long time ago."
Terry Carter, for one, liked that the city was absentee. While known mostly today for his namesake restaurant, Terry's Turf Club, Carter ran Neon's, formally known as Chuck's, for nearly 20 years, starting in 1987-88. It was one of the first anchors in what became known as the Main Street Entertainment District.
"We just knew how to do it," he said. "They (the city) stayed out of our way."
For the first three years, Carter says, he slept at the bar, on the floor, because he couldn't afford a burglar alarm. To catch people breaking into cars, he would lie in the bed of his truck -- peeking through bags of trash piled on top. He paid extra for off-duty police officers to stand guard at night.
But he likes being on the outskirts. That's kind of his M.O.
Take Terry's Turf Club, for example. Located on Eastern Avenue in Linwood, it's bordered by Mount Lookout, Hyde Park, and Mariemont. It was a "crack and heroin bar," he said, before he came along. Even Neon's was considered a "hidden gem," he said, tucked around the corner on 12th Street.
"I'm just a cutting edge area kind of bar owner," Carter said. "I'm right next to the money. That's the reason I bought the place down there (in Over-the-Rhine). I was close to the city, and I knew I could pull them out of Downtown. People like places that are not contrived."
Kaldi's is a constant in any conversation about Over-the-Rhine in the '90s. A coffeehouse/bookstore, and later a mini-restaurant/bar, it was the heart of Main Street.
Co-founder Sonya McDonnell fell in love with the neighborhood and its architecture in particular. The shop opened in 1992 at 1204 Main St. and was ever-popular with artists, students, business professionals and the like. It was the place to go.
"Maybe it was just the time, but it was a very social place," McDonnell said. "There were a couple of startup companies based in the neighborhood, and they would meet there. The band Over the Rhine signed a couple of their record deals at Kaldi's. In the evenings, we had (live) music. And this was all before people starting carrying around laptops, so there was a lot more interaction. A lot of interesting conversations."
And there were other mainstays: Mr. Pitiful's, Jefferson House, Rhino's, Japp's -- once a wig store -- both Main Street and Barrel House breweries, and more.
By 1995, "there were 17 bars" and counting on and along Main Street, Carter said. Soon national acts such as Have A Nice Day Cafe and Banana Joe's infiltrated, too. That meant younger, college-age crowds. Carter said that, at one point, he asked city council to stop issuing liquor licenses. Others say the entertainment district had already started its slide.
"It was a problem at nighttime," Carter said. "For the locals and for traffic itself. The cops would have to block off the streets at 2 o'clock in the morning. And when there's alcohol (involved), people get a little rowdy. We (at Neon's) didn't allow that."
"It certainly reached critical mass, and it did get to a point where it turned a lot of people off," Pape said. "Most of us were committed to growing a community, and we saw the proliferation of those kinds of bars as the antithesis of that."
Then a fateful day in April left the neighborhood -- and Main Street -- forever changed.
'Something dramatic had to be done'
April 7, 2001. A perfect spring night.
Around 2 a.m., a young black man, Timothy Thomas, 19, is spotted by a white, off-duty police officer, Steve Roach, outside The Warehouse, a Vine Street nightclub. The officer approaches. Thomas runs.
A pursuit ensues. The chase ends in a dark alley and a single gunshot. Roach said he thought Thomas was reaching for a gun and fired once, hitting the teen in the chest. Thomas was pronounced dead an hour later.
He was unarmed.
Thomas' death struck a nerve -- he was the 15th African-American killed by Cincinnati Police since 1995. Riots ensued.
Charlie Luken, who was serving his second stint as Cincinnati's mayor, declared a state of emergency and announced a citywide curfew in an effort to quell the violence. Teens looted stores, arsonists set fire to Findlay Market, and a police officer was shot in the days following Thomas's death.
It would take years for Cincinnati to heal. In 2002, the city signed a Collaborative Agreement, along with the U.S. Justice Department, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Cincinnati Black United Front, in which the police department promised to change its use of force policies, to document encounters with residents, set up an independent civilian review process, and launch community problem-oriented policing.
In 2003, 3CDC, or the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., was born; the planning development had, the year before, drafted a “different kind of” comprehensive plan for the neighborhood - and thus began the redevelopment of Over-the-Rhine as we now know it. For once, there was deep financing for broad-scale revitalization.
"I think the riots convinced people the city could never be successful without the redevelopment of Over-the-Rhine," Luken said. "Now there are issues of gentrification and all those things, which we're mindful of, but Over-the-Rhine was in such a tragic circumstance, something dramatic had to be done."
However, many considered the shooting -- and the events that ensued -- a death knell for this incarnation of Main Street. "Everybody scattered," Pape said.
"Between Michael Baney (a member of the country band the Goshorn Brothers, who was robbed and killed on Main Street in December 1995), some other incidents, and the riots, of course, Main Street lost its energy," Luken said. "It lost its hipness. Its luster.
"You can't attribute everything to the riots, but it was a time when the redevelopment in that part of the city just stopped. It was perceived as unsafe."
McDonnell said fear kept visitors away. She was in Denmark when the riots -- a term she uses loosely -- began. She found out while watching CNN. Kaldi's sustained damage, some broken windows, but the hardest hit would come later.
Business dropped 50 percent, she said, in the aftermath. McDonnell eventually sold Kaldi's in 2005, and the coffee shop closed for good just three years later. She now owns Pendleton Pilates, but thinks about her Main Street days often.
"For our business, (2001) was our best year," she said. "We were in our best month right before it happened. And then...
"The media coverage -- it was just relentless," McDonnell added after a pause. "It just added to the problem. It was frustrating, because we were all very close to the situation. It seemed like any time something happened (after that date) it was just all over the news."
Carter, too, made his exit around 2003. Business at Neon's "fell off quite a bit; the whole ambiance changed," but he was really just ready to retire. He spent a few years traveling and fishing -- but eventually wound his way back to Cincinnati. He opened Terry's Turf Club in 2007, and Neon's survived, too, until recently.
But it was a different time back then.
"I like what's going on in Over-the-Rhine now. I hope it does well," Carter said. "But there's also a price to pay -- I call them the 'golden handcuffs' -- now that the city's involved. Sometimes I'm a little jealous that they (business owners today) didn't have to go through some of the things we went through. But that's progress."
Pape, for one, thinks Main Street is better present day. It's quieter. More wholesome. Its growth, much like in the '90s, is still largely organic -- versus the corporate-style revitalization that is 3CDC, and the result, Vine Street.
"I think 3CDC has been phenomenally successful," Pape said. "But there's this other camp of people who are like, 'Wait a minute. We contributed a lot, too. It may not have been to the same scale, but it was our vision and our passion.' A lot of people put so much of their lives, and their own money, into this vision for what Over-the-Rhine could become.
"But all their efforts, as well-intended and as well-funded as they were, were still small scale," he continued. "I didn't even fully get the scale issue (until recently), but Over-the-Rhine is huge (roughly 362.5 acres, and over 1,100 buildings). You would get small to mid-level developers who would take one, two or three properties here and do something. And another developer would do the same thing over there, two, three, four properties, and so on. You had these little dots, but they weren't connected. For so long, Over-the-Rhine had this ebb and flow.
"These people kept fanning the embers; they kept the fire alive," Pape said. "Honestly, if those people had not done all those good deeds, and made those efforts and investments, there would not have been a willingness or even the remnants for 3CDC to move things forward."