The West End at a Critical Moment

 The West End at a Critical Moment

Much of the Tristate may be excited for a new stadium, but there’s a reason the West Side remains wary

By Dan Hurley

The debate over the location of a new stadium for FC Cincinnati elicited push back from residents of both Oakley and the West End. For Oakley residents the concern was primarily about potential disruptions due to increased traffic on already crowded neighborhood streets.

For many residents of the West End, the reaction was sharper, and frequently framed against the way the neighborhood had been treated in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. For people outside the West End, the anger and fear that the proposed soccer development set off may seem excessive, especially given the passage of time, but no other Cincinnati neighborhood has ever been so manipulated by city planners promising better things than the West End.

In post-World War II Cincinnati, the West End was the principal home for almost 80 percent of the region’s African American population. It was not only the primary residential neighborhood but a vital community with an infrastructure of family businesses, stores, schools, churches, entertainment venues and social agencies. African American doctors and lawyers, even if they lived in Walnut Hills, usually had their offices in the West End. The Ninth Street YMCA was “a safe place” according to Bill Mallory, Sr., where African American leaders could talk frankly and be confident that what they said wouldn’t get back to white leaders.

But in the eyes of city planners led by Cincinnati’s first director of urban renewal, Charles H. Stamm, the West End was a “complete slum.” The Kenyon Barr section of the West End (named for two streets in the area), contained over 2,800 late 19th century residential, commercial and retail buildings. Landlords had subdivided the residential buildings into 10,300 dwelling units to provide homes for over 40,000 people. Only four of those buildings did not have pending code violations in the late 1950s. From the planners’ perspective, the best renewal strategy was to “treat the area as raw land, clearing everything,” including wiping out the historic street grid.

The planners proposed three uses for the cleared land. First, the construction of the Mill Creek Expressway, which became I-75. Thomas McDonald, The U.S. commissioner of public roads expressed the fundamental assumption of the time: “Cities need expressways so badly that they are worth almost any cost.”

Second, northeast of the expressway, a relatively small area was designated for new residential development (nothing happened until the mid-1980s).

Third, the larger area to the southwest of the expressway was projected as a light industrial park, which was rebranded “Queensgate” by a public relations firm hired by the city. The hope was that given access to the proposed expressway and the existing rail yards, in combination with its proximity to the city center, Queensgate would compete favorably with industrial parks popping up beyond the city limits.

To create cleared land, all 40,000 people had to move elsewhere and every building had to be leveled. Interestingly, in the spring and summer of 1959, a year before the wrecking balls were turned loose, city employees photographed every structure and empty lot in the redevelopment zone.

Over 2,700 photos from that project survive as the Kenyon Barr Collection in the Photo Archives of the Cincinnati Museum Center. These are not artistic images. Executed by bureaucrats, they simply document doomed “slum” structures. But if you look closely, a more dynamic human story emerges.

Whenever children are in the area, they can be seen smiling and mugging for the camera. Adults in the photos, however, whether sitting on a stoop or leaning out of a window, look glum. They know that within the year they would be displaced.

For the city planners leveling the West End was all about leveling buildings in the name of progress. For the African American residents, it was about the destruction not just of buildings but the destruction of the fabric of a community. Over 40,000 people relocated to Walnut Hills, Evanston and Avondale and other neighborhoods. Plus, hundreds of small businesses never recovered, church congregations scattered and social organizations that once provided the glue that made a community out of a geographic neighborhood disappeared. All of that goes a long way to explaining the anger and frustration that fueled the riots of 1967 and ’68.

Given that experience, it is easy to see why current residents of the West End are suspicious of new promises of progress brought by city planners.