When I think of Cincinnati, I think about the Rust Belt. Growing up in the Northwest, I learned about the general decline of the Midwest as a center for American manufacturing, often a narrative of loss and economic devastation. When I visited Cincinnati in mid-March, however, I had the privilege of seeing an entirely different story.
It seems a little hackneyed at this point to say Cincinnati, or Cincy, is in the midst of a renaissance or renewal. But what is happening is a reflection of broader national trends. Millennials are flocking to places of community and history. As seen in places like Philadelphia, Buffalo, N.Y. , and Cleveland, one of the main ways millennials are getting involved in community building efforts is through historic preservation, which promotes economic stability and community identity.
I had already heard about the broader story of Cincy’s recent renaissance. The development, led in larger part by 3CDC, a nonprofit corporation funded by the city’s Fortune 500 companies such as Kroger and Macy’s, is a known success story of urban revitalization. Its focus on linking the downtown business district to the historic Over-the-Rhine (OTR) neighborhood, an immigrant German neighborhood, has been helped with city investment in a new streetcar line connecting OTR with the city’s core.
In addition to the corporate and public sectors, there are other players. The Cincinnati Preservation Collective (CPC) is one of the newest organizations working to foster community identity around historic preservation in the Queen City. I came across their existence as “energetic stewards of Cincinnati’s historic buildings” through a local OTR bartender who mentioned an event was happening later that night (definitely grassroots).
Making my way through the Italianate buildings of Over-the-Rhine, largely settled in the 1890s and now the largest and most intact historic district in the country, I arrive at Venue 222, an old flour mill turned dried-fruit warehouse and, later, a hops factory. Inside, it looks more like a block party than a gathering of a fledgling preservation organization started less than six months ago.
The evening “Pitch Party” event showcased nine different ideas in five-minute presentations that took community building seriously. There were projects such as: PlayCincy, an initiative to increase spontaneous play in public spaces; Spring in Our Steps, which aims to enliven old alleyways and staircases; Cincinnati Flag Society, which promotes the use of the Cincinnati city flag; and OTR-A.D.O.P.T., a rolled-sleeves type group founded to stabilize historic structures that have delinquent landlords.
The Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA), the oldest preservation organization in Cincinnati, offered $500 to the winning idea as voted on by audience members. By the end of the evening, two projects, with exactly the same amount of votes, were both selected to receive $500 each.
Seeing this collection of people of all backgrounds and ages, led by an excited core of millennial-aged community leaders, pushed me to learn more about CPC, the event's organizer.
“We are trying to learn from young preservation groups,” said John Blatchford, co-leader of the CPC.
“We don’t want to rush into things,” added Diana Tisue, the other co-leader of the CPC.
I caught up with them at the Coffee Emporium, a popular OTR hangout. The two met a couple years ago when they were living in the same building while attending the University of Cincinnati. (Read about another preservation project Tisue worked on as a student.)
Blatchford’s background is in website design, and he has worked on historic tax credit projects including his own restoration project. Tisue previously founded UC Preservation Action Network, and last September invited John to build the CPC with her.
“While CPA has been the group for preservation in Cincinnati for now 50 years, we are trying to capture the digital generation through grassroots organizing and activism,” says Tisue, who sees the CPC as a way to bring younger people into the preservation field. With this “young energy,” she says, the group has been able to bring together a core group of millennials with various skill sets including graphic design, event management, and specialized expertise in history and architecture.
They see their work as a means to bring more community members around the importance of historic preservation -- a place to talk about the value of place, the importance of built history, but most of all, to connect Cincinnati’s neighbors and build a common, local identity.
As 3CDC brings much of the visible changes to Over-the-Rhine, building community is the challenge CPC takes to task. During the next year, as the organization grows its membership and targets the preservation of OTR and other neighborhood historic structures, Blatchford and Tisue aim to formalize the organization and its strategy to protect Cincy’s most at-risk historical assets. Formalizing partnerships, fundraising, and raising the profile of historic preservation are all long-term goals.
Too often I hear my parents' generation criticize the lack of initiative of millennials. They mark our generation as apathetic and without direction. I found this to be anything but the case in Cincy, a place with plenty of elbow grease, a can-do attitude, and a willingness to connect with neighbors, all through historic preservation.
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