Alice Skirtz – March 2003
Presentation of this paper included showing the 8 minute video “Signs & Sighs of Over-the-Rhine.”
Some revile and rebuke it, others love and defend it, and still others seek commercial and financial reward from it. This paper comes from my nearly 35 years of social work experience based in OTR which began in the late 1960’s, a time when more than 25,000 people lived and worked in what was then called a slum. That terminology was soon abandoned by planners and developers, and it became “an inner city neighborhood.” As one of 52 neighborhoods defined by the City of Cincinnati, each with its own relationship to City government, OTR is the longtime home of poor residents, those with mental illness, and minority populations of many stripes, all of which brought social service agencies, also of many stripes. It is the location of the largest collection of Italianate architecture in the United States, that extraordinarily appealing commodity which brings historians, conservationists, and for-profit developers to OTR. The combination of poverty and minority in direct conflict with for-profit development was woven into inflammatory words “concentrations of poverty” and codified into a City Ordinance in 2000 to control public funds for affordable housing in neighborhoods like OTR. OTR is now home to fewer than 8,000 residents and was drawn to the national spotlight with the “riots” of April, 2001, after the shooting of unarmed teen Timothy Thomas by the Cincinnati Police.
The history of OTR provides a wonderful mix of metaphor and magic, even in its name. In mid-19th Century, most of the area’s German immigrant populations lived in the community bound by the Miami Erie Canal which is now Central Parkway. Access to the community meant crossing the canal, i.e., the Rhine, hence the moniker OTR. No doubt “OTR” was an ethnic slur, as most who lived there were German immigrants, as well as derelicts, drinkers, gamblers, and poor people. The community was well known for saloons, burlesque houses, pool halls, dance halls, beer gardens, theatres, and concert halls. By turn of the century, that is the 20th Century, OTR was ripe for reform. The storyof Carrie Nation’s temperance mission to OTR is told in the WPA Writers Guide
In 1901, Vine Street was honored with a visit from Carrie Nation. Remembering the little lady’s way with a hatchet, saloonkeepers placed advance orders for quick replacements of their glass windows. But Carrie did not lift her hatchet arm as she marched up Vine Street; she seemed awed by the formidable array of saloons, beer gardens and concert halls. Asked why she had not broken any windows, she replied: “I would have dropped from exhaustion before I had gone a block.”
The influence of German immigrants and culture defines part of OTR even today. Street names Goethe, Schiller, and Von Seggren remain, but Bremen Street was renamed Republic Street during the anti-German hysteria of World War I. Some buildings retain German lettering in now faded signs such as the remnants of the Apothke sign at Vine and McMicken; the German Mutual Insurance Company von Cincinnati at 13th and Walnut which later built a grand main office at 12th and Walnut complete with a glorious statue of the Goddess Germania. Church signs still bear German letters – Sainte Marien, Deutsche Protestantische St. Johannes Kirche, and Nast Kirche. Like the enduring presence of German culture, OTR retains its status as friendly to the arts and arts institutions – Music Hall serving the symphony, opera, and ballet; Ensemble Theatre and Know Theatre; and the School for the Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) soon to be joined by The Art Academy.
Recent history reveals OTR as a site of continuing colorful behavior which would certainly stymie Carrie Nation, but has attracted this generation’s reformers of all sorts including City Council, County Commission, and “do-gooders” of several sorts and purposes – the latter want to rid the community of crime, drug dealers, prostitution, homeless people, poor people, those with mental illness, addictions, and non-profit developers of affordable housing.
While this is a paper for the Noonday Club (100+ year old women’s writers club similar to the men’s Literary Club), it began as a documentary project for my studies at The Union Institute & University. My challenge was to develop a plan for a documentary pertaining to my field of interdisciplinary study framed as the Public Idea of Poverty. My love affair with OTR provided the context for the project. Initially I naively thought I could tell the story of a poor community by documenting the retail signs of the neighborhood. So I set off with digital camera in hand in a community where I know main streets and back streets, where social work took me to dark alleys, fourth floor walk-up apartments, and basement sleeping rooms with earthen floors, and more importantly into the lives of people who live in OTR.
In my many years of social work, I have rejoiced with the OTR mothers as we saved the Peaslee School building for community purposes by buying it from the School Board (when we started fundraising, the $209,000 needed for purchase might as well have been $200m); I have received the call from University Hospital in the middle of the night asking me to come to identify a woman from OTR who died in the emergency room and whose only identification was my business card; I have shared the relief when City Health Commissioner Arnie Leff granted the DropInn Center a license to operate as a “home for adjustment” thereby guaranteeing its continued existence for single homeless men and women; and, I wept with the entire community when Buddy Gray was assassinated after months of hateful phone calls and day-glo red signs posted throughout OTR denouncing him shouting “no way buddy gray.” This is my community by affinity with those who live here, and my challenge was to tell the story with retail signs.
Retail signs in OTR are colorful and speak to the richness and diversity of the community by way of announcing what’s for sale. More of those later, I discovered that while some signs in OTR define and claim the community of old Germania, contemporary graffiti and gang tags painted on every conceivable surface make similar claims on the community and geography. These contemporary signs range from the bright multi-colored, boldly designed murals spanning warehouses and brick buildings to gang tags of smaller proportions detailed to mark turf. The long mural on the Husman Potato Chip building at Walnut and Back Streets is glorious, artistic graffiti painted by neighborhood people incorporating the Husman name in abstract lettering. Husman’s courted the mural as an antidote to the continual repainting the graffiti of vandals staking out turf. A similar, but unplanned engagement with the community is found on the Carlton Moving Company on West McMicken commemorating the life of nationally known graffiti artist John Zimkus who was killed by a drunk driver on Ludlow Avenue in August, 2001. These are signs of turf and life.
Turf may be the most important commodity in OTR for both developers and gangs. Gang turf has become inextricably woven into the lives of retail drug and prostitution businesses. These tags are usually spray painted on any available surface, walls of buildings, the plywood of boarded up windows, utility transmission boxes, fences, and surfaces above and below billboards to stake out a gang’s or dealer’s territory. The colors are rich, the message may be sinister or as simple as initials. The artsy tag of the “freaks” is seen in the rounded letters resembling Pillsbury doughboys bunched together to spell the letters of the work freak. Other tags use the five pointed stars believed to indicate a subsidiary of the Bloods gang of the west coast. Another uses the stylized letters ROB, with two x’s placed like eyes looking out of the “O” and sometimes an arrow below to indicate geographical direction of the demarcated turf. And, others are very local such as the “Nati-boys” and the “E-town” gang. Some are named in the vernacular of rap music, such as “murda hill” and “Hell Town.” As I began to photograph retail signs and German signs, I had inadvertently captured pictures of these gang tags. In my collection of signs of commerce were dozens of gang tags in rich detail, many clustered in locations to mark turf, all of which had previously gone unnoticed.
I had begun this journey with the plan of documenting retail signs, hoping to capture the vibrancy and richness of the OTR neighborhood beginning with retail signs advertising food. The Kroger sign at 1428 Vine Street should be in a grocery store museum as it may be the last of the big blue signs. The Findlay Market signs were difficult to find as the Market is under construction with the latest renovation and expansion, but the merchants’ signs inside the Market are rich in color announcing an array of food products both domestic and imported. In sharp contract to many cheeses for sale at Silverglades in the Market for prices upto $14.99 per found, a few blocks awayis the Free Store where cheese is available to needy families for $0 per pound. The many restaurants in OTR are also purveyors of food, with signs ranging from the down-home Tucker’s Restaurants (daily special cheeseburger platter is $1.99) and the upscale Nicola’s (Visa, Mastercard, and American Express accepted) to the colorful Alabama Fish Bar and theGit Wit It Jamaican Veggie Cuisine and the delightful Stenger’s Mr. Pig sign now serving both sauerbraten and barbecue ribs, with a side of live blues on Mondays.
For many in OTR, meals in these restaurants are unobtainable, and they must turn to the OTR Soup Kitchen for a noon meal, or to St. Francis Seraph Soup Kitchen or the DropInn Center for an evening meal, or to Nast Trinity for a Neighborhood Dinner, especially on holidays and Sunday evenings when the church people of Nast Trinity United Methodist Church and Immanuel African-American Methodist Episcopal Church provide abundant meals.
No review of the signs of OTR would be complete without Smitty’s brightly lit signs hawking men’s and boys’ clothing and check cashing. Smitty’s is but nine blocks north of Tiffany’s, and is open for business when the lights are flashing, lights which are certainly leftover footlights from burlesque days at 14th and Vine. There are few signs in OTR which can complete with Smitty’s for attention getting devices, as competitors’ signs are often painted on plywood or hand detailed on window panes, such as the Cheap Store at 12th and Elm which sells clothing, tapes, incense and candles, or the Free Store which gives clothing to the unclothed and the Garments of Praise on McMicken with provides free clothing along with uplifting Bible verses.
My journey to document retail signs continued to the signs of the “Mom and Pop” corner stores like Bang’s Market at 14th and Race which still announces 6% beer, Jack’s Best for Less “pop, snacks, candles, incense and check cashing,” and Safia’s on McMicken with “lottery, check cash, cigarettes and food stamp.” Other signs of commerce are Quality Tires where used tires are $15, Wolfe Fine Violins with its elegant cutout violin signs, and the store just called Furniture, advertising king, queen, full or single mattress sets complete, cash and carry $59. As OTR is a community without a bank, financial services are handled by many merchants who cask checks and sell money orders, including several who do nothing but cash checks such as Ohio Check Cashers. SmartMoney is the OTR Credit Union organized in recent years by the Community Council, providing financial alternatives to West End Loans and Barr’s Loan which are pawn shops, and several commercial blood banks known to the community, but unmarked with signs.
As I began to collect pictures of retail signs in OTR, I discovered that retail drug trade and prostitution are advertised by signs as openly and visibly as Kroger’s big blue signs or Smitty’s flashing footlights. Scrawled on the wall at 14th and Republic are the words “Fuck a Bitch” and “Head for $10.” The Pool Room on Elm Street near Findlay Market has perfectly executed graphics of a scantily clad woman in stylized bondage superimposed on top of a male figure, somewhere between S&M and Hustler Magazine.2While these signs are astonishingly clear in their retail commodity, signs for the sale of drugs are less obvious. The cardinal marker for crack houses and illegal drug sales is a pair of shoes tied together and flung over utility wires indicating drugs for sale here. As I took pictures of retail signs, I found shoes on the wires several places, one obvious one at 12th and Vine, in front of “Glossingers Carry Out and Check Cashin’,” providing financial services and smokes for those patronizing the 12th and Vine drug dealer. Another single dealer operates on 14th near Vine, around the corner form visibility from Vine Street. I found another pair on the wires at McMicken at Lang casting a shadow on the domed roof of Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church. Several days later, I realized there were two pairs there, competition had arrived. These open air merchants have other competitors, including an indoor drug market on Broadway Street directly behind the School for Creative and Performing Arts, which displays its shoes sign in the third floor window, and a veritable supermarket at 1328 Vine Street where a cluster of shoes hangs on the fire escape (apparently too heavy for the electric wires) in full view of all customers proceeding north or south on Vine.
These retail drug and prostitution markets rely on other merchants for customer services such as check cashing, cell phones, and scales needed by both dealers and customers for measuring the sale. The sign on J+D Cellular Connection at Findlay and Race has several rows of small print advertising cell phones, Verizon, Sprint, digital scales , snacks, potato chips, candy and cigars with nearby Safia’s providing check cashing and money orders.
This journey to document the retails signs of OTR took a deadly turn, as amidst the retail signs and graffiti and gang tags I found painted memorials to those who have died in OTR, mostly by murder. Memorial signs on buildings tell the stories of lives lost to drugs and prostitution, to lives cut short by gunfire and savage beatings, of life lost to the hard, fast life on the street. This vibrant community has a dark side captured by these heartfelt signs. Using shorthand for “Rest in Peace,” these signs begin with RIP. The last weeks of the year 2002 were particularly brutal as four young men were murdered near the McMicken and Lang Street intersection. Within hours, a desperate message was painted on the building next to the playground, across from the church which read “Thug Holiday, RIP Johnathan, Chuck, Jason, Eric, Kareem.” Not far away another reads “RIP Tom & Charlie.” Others are “RIP Coco & Noodles Butta,” “RIP Antwan Keys, I luv nigga,” “RIP Juan,” “RIP Bud,” and “RIP Mikail Murda Hill.” At 15th and Republic Streets are two RIP signs which are works of art with painted likenesses of the deceased, “RIP Rahshan” and “RIP Big Baby” each carefully painted above the words “Hell Town.” Rahshan is a distinguished looking gent with white shirt and bow tie, Big Baby sports a baseball cap and a warm smile. They could be our next door neighbors or cousinsor sons or brothers.
Early in the new year, signs which say “RIP Nikia” appeared in dozens of places in OTR, memorializing Nikia Mapp who was murdered on January 12, 2003, set afire and left under a construction shed on Stark Street. This murder hit hard in OTR as Nikia was a known prostitute who had bravely testified against two Cincinnati Police Officers who were convicted of soliciting sex in lieu of arrest for prostitution. Even the county prosecutor found voice to praise her bravery in making that testimony. “RIP Nikia” signs painted in big bold letters appeared immediately after the grisly discovery of her burning body.
As I looked at these pictures of the RIP signs of which I now had more than a dozen, I was overwhelmed by extraordinary and inexplicable sadness. These lives lost are commemorated by those who care, boldly painting letters and pictures on buildings and windows and doors and dumpsters. There are other outdoor signs and memorials to the deceased in OTR – Frederick Hecker’s bust in Washington Park, William and Abigail Cutter Woodward’s grave market at old Woodward High School, the huge mural for renowned graffiti artist John Zimkus, and the colorful mural at Buddy’s Place commemorating the life of social activist buddy gray. But the pathos of these graffiti RIP signs scrawled on dilapidated buildings touched my heart in a different way. There is no redemption for the lives of those who deal drugs and purvey prostitutes. There is no condoning their behavior. Yet the pathos in the loss to the larger community and the plaintive cries spelled out in graffiti scream at us – the loss of lives whose skills at selling illegal drugs might have been directed to finding ways to distribute desperately needed drugs for tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS in third world countries; the loss of those whose tenacity for street survival might have discovered cures for cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, or become composers of uplifting music to add to the music of Germania of Bach and Beethoven played in OTR concert halls. This loss is immeasurable. We are all diminished by it, and diminished by our inability to grieve for these lives.
I looked at these RIP signs again and again and found increasing despair as I absorbed their meaning. It was not about the impact of crime on the community nor the illegality of behavior, nor poverty and social ills infesting OTR.It was about our losses of young lives. For comfort I turned to the children’s mural beautifully painted on the side of a house on West McMicken proclaiming in bold, bright colors the Bible story “Wise men came from the east, an angel of the Lord stood over them and the glory of the Lord shone upon them.” For solace I turned to OTR’s own Steel Drum Band. Without fail, the vibrancy of the Band’s Caribbean repertoire played with youthful exuberance by OTR children refreshes my soul and energizes my heart, but at this time I needed something more profound than Calypso. I turned to the Band’s “Joyful, Joyful” cut on the “”Let’s Play It Again” compact disc. First one pan played by one child, bong bong bong bong “Joyful, joyful,” and then the second pan, bong bong bong bong and then the four parts in harmony… “Joyful, joyful we adore thee” Beethoven play by our children, played in a peaceful place in OTR, played where the RIP signs are momentarily a distant memory as respite from the street is found in a safe place, with adults who care enough to teach them music and listen to what is on their hearts and minds. “Joyful, joyful…” bong bong bong from the hearts of children. My despair had been temporarily abated. Joyful, joyful…peace be with you.
1 The Cincinnati Historical Society (1987) The WPA Guide to Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors. Cincinnati, Ohio: The Historical Society, p. 112
2 Note that this Pool Room at 1737 Elm is but 13 blocks north of Larry Flynt’s Hustler Books and Magazines & gifts at 411 Elm Street.
3 German born patriot Frederick Hecker is memorialized with a bust in Washington Park erected by grateful citizens for his service to the community.
4 Nationally known graffiti artist John “Nace” Zimkus was killed by a drunken driver on Ludlow Avenue in Cincinnati August, 2001. The memorial mural is painted on the Carlton Moving and Storage Company building on West McMicken Street, Cincinnati Enquirer August 14, 2001.
5 Social activist buddy Gray founded the DropInn Center shelter for homeless and alcoholic men in 1969. A longtime activist and OTR resident, he was victim of a hate campaign thought to be perpetrated by those who opposed his center’s holding of property. He was murdered by gunshot November, 1996, by a deranged former resident of the Center who had not been known to have guns, nor bear any animosity to buddy.