Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine district was once known as the most dangerous neighbourhood in the United States, far worse than the legendary City of Compton. Far, far worse.
Much of this reputation was earned after the 2001 riots which were the climax of decades of growing civil unrest, but there is more to it.
Like most of southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky, Cincinnati had a boom of German immigrants in the mid-to-late 1800s. They quickly set to work, building skillfully-crafted infrastructure and starting businesses, as Germans do. With them they brought the German language, food, music, and beer culture that Over-the-Rhine (“OTR”) is known for today.
The Over the Rhine Foundation states that the neighbourhood is the largest and most in tact urban 1800s-era historic district in the country, as well as having the largest contiguous collection of 1800s Italianate architecture.
OTR sprawls across 360 acres, rivaled most closely by Savannah, Georgia and its twenty historic blocks.
The Over-the-Rhine neighbourhood forms a triangle directly north of Cincinnati’s Central Business District. Central Parkway forms its L-shaped western and southern boundaries, with Mulberry and Liberty Streets to the northeast.
Central Parkway used to be a canal linking the Ohio River to Lake Erie, and most Germans settled on the eastern side. They said that crossing the canal was like crossing the Rhine River into Germany, and referred to their side of town as “over the Rhine.”
By 1900, OTR was one of the most crowded places in the country, with around 45,000 residents. More and more Germans wanted to be in an area closely resembling the homeland they had to flee, and with a community of their own.
German-language schools, churches, newspapers, businesses, and most notably, breweries became the norm.
It was not until after World War I that the strong German community began to break apart, with anti-German hysteria and violence spreading in the United States. Speaking and teaching German was banned, streets or anything else with German names were renamed to something constitutional and generic, and some German citizens who had lived there long before the war even started were deported or attacked.
Many sources tell of German dog breeds like the Dachshund and German Shepherds being rounded up and tortured or killed in the streets as a hateful demonstration. Germans who stayed in the area began to Anglicize their names and lay low as much as possible.
During this same period, around the late 1930s and early 1940s, Cincinnati zoning officials were initiating a new plan to purge all inner city slums, and that included both the Over-the-Rhine community and a historically Black community on the West End.
Interstate 75 was built through Cincinnati, somehow dodging Over-the-Rhine, but residents of West End were force to relocate there.
A second new group of people moved into Over-the-Rhine next, Scottish and Irish immigrants who came in by way of Appalachia. Having previously been employed in the coal mines of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, their work was halted by the Great Depression, and they came to Ohio with hopes of starting new lives in an industrial city.
It has been suggested in multiple publications that the first problems with violent crime in Over-the-Rhine came with these two new demographics of people, who struggled with the previously unencountered heavy presence of legal authority and its penchant to enforce it. Whatever the reason, the newcomers did not play nice with the Germans.
The Appalachian Identity Center, the Urban Appalachian Council, and other efforts were created to help the new residents assimilate, but failed horribly.
Over the years, many people left the tension of this neighbourhood behind, taking job opportunities and other civic resources with them. This left the poorest residents of the city behind in a neighbourhood of buildings that quickly began to dilapidate.
Today there is an invisible boundary within Over-the-Rhine, Liberty Street, that seems to divide that old dilapidating part of Over-the-Rhine from the side that has been invested into and restored. Gentrified, to some.
South of Liberty Street, in the heart of Over-the-Rhine, the blocks are full of brightly painted buildings, tiny gardens, decorated storefront windows of shops, pubs, cafés, and other local businesses.
People were out walking their dogs, sipping to-go coffees, and talking on patios. No one bothered me and I felt reasonably safe, as much as in any other large city.
North of Liberty Street, things got pretty rough.
The worst of it appeared to be along McMicken Avenue, between where it nearly intersects with Central Parkway via Linn Street, extending half a mile down McMicken to an old neighbourhood staple, Schwartz’s Point Jazz.
I have since learned that this area in the far north edge of OTR is called the Mohawk section of town. Until the 1850s, anything north of Liberty Street was referred to as the “Northern Liberties” and was exempt from Cincinnati’s municipal law. Mohawk definitely started as a lawless place.
Drugs and prostitution are so rampant in Mohawk now that city officials sporadically barricade it just to catch a break.
There was a brief period around the 1930s when Mohawk morphed into a bustling center of commerce, hawking the fanciest accessories and appliances anyone could afford. That was short-lived though, and Mohawk became a sort of Wild West again.
The notorious Bavarian immigrant named Anna Marie Hahn lived and prowled around in Over-the-Rhine during the 1930s and 1940s, meeting elderly men and offering to help take care of them, only to poison them and “inherit” their fortunes. She stands out from endless crazy stories about life in Over-the-Rhine because she was a rare female serial killer.
An unbelievable amount of people were standing or lying around in the middle of the street outside of the Imperial Theatre building; half-dressed, appearing to be severely intoxicated, shouting obscenities and threats at each other, and approaching stopped vehicles to harass drivers.
In my city, I used to live right between the Greyhound, a half-way house, a homeless shelter, and the Soup Kitchen, and where I live now, there are always people walking around in the street, so that alone does not really phase me.
The aggressiveness of people out in the streets in the Mohawk section, and even around Findlay Market, was a little disturbing though.
I have read about new developments in Mohawk, and of plans to renovate the old Imperial Theatre and the old Jackson Brewery, Cincinnati’s oldest brewing site. Urban planning primarily revolves around creating art studios and tying in this “New Mohawk” with Cincinnati’s Brewery & Underground Tunnel tourism, but that is going to be a really big bite for anyone to chew.
Over-the-Rhine as a whole seems to have settled deeper into its reputation of being a “hotbed of crime” the past several decades, gaining notoriety for exorbitant violence, drugs, gangs, drive-by shootings, and riots.
In more recent history, the year 2001, there was an explosion of civil unrest, when rioters destroyed a large part of Over-the-Rhine’s original and historic infrastructure. This event led to many changes in how the community is governed, but making Over-the-Rhine a safer and more stable community is definitely a work in progress.
3CDC has partnered with other organizations to invest millions into clean-up, creating social and humanitarian aid programs, providing educational and vocational training and health services, restoring and renovating dilapidating buildings, and helping new businesses open their doors over the past decade, and efforts are still going strong.
And thankfully, a large collection of the original German-built historic structures are still standing in the Brewery District. Nearly a thousand buildings in OTR are on the National Register of Historic Places.
There is a cluster of blocks near Findlay Market, before you reach Mohawk, known as the Brewery District. Centered around Elm & Henry Streets, or close by, you can find Northern Row, Rhinegheist, Oddfellows Liquor Bar, Skeleton Root, and Knox Joseph Distillery
Rhinegeist‘s location in the OTR neighbourhood is in the former bottling plant building for Moerlein’s Brewing Company, which got its start in Cincinnati in the early 1850s, and began operating on this site in the 1890s.
It closed in the 1920s when Prohibition pissed on everyone’s parade, but Moerlein’s made a comeback in the 1980s and started brewing again in Over-the-Rhine. Be sure to visit the Moerlein Lager House, Restaurant, & Microbrewery in its spot over Cincinnati’s Riverfront.
Northern Row, Liberty Street’s former name, is in a worn looking five-story building that inspired the name of its Five Stories Spirits brand.
Its interior is gorgeous and elegant with hardwood floors and brick walls, wrought iron and glass, soft industrial lighting, carved wood, copper stills, and stamped copper tiling.
Over-the-Rhine’s Brewery District is becoming increasingly famous for something else though, its underground.
Between a vast collection of beer cellars underneath former breweries, and the abandoned Cincinnati Subway Project, the entire Over-the-Rhine neighbourhood sits atop a network of tunnels and eerie empty space.
Long before refrigeration appliances were a thing, it was common practice to dig a cellar under your brewery, a place to let beer ferment and stay cold. Since OTR became known as the “Beer Capital of the World” you can imagine there were a lot of breweries, and a lot of cellars.
One of the largest and most well-known cellars is under the old Linck Brewing, and other cellars are connected by tunnels. The Linck Brewing cellars were discovered in 2018, and American Legacy Tours quickly jumped on creating its Queen City Underground Tour and Hidden Caverns Tour to capitalize on it.
Part of the underground network includes the tunnel below Central Parkway, formerly the “Rhine” canal, that was developed to be used for a subway system. In the early days of river transportation, canals were wildly popular, but eventually people realized the connection between rancid water, mosquitoes, and the spread of disease.
So, what to do with all of those pesky canals?
Cincinnati designed and started building a subway system in the 1920s, but with World War I and the Great Depression, construction was halted.
Two miles of the subway were completed, but Central Parkway was built over it out of necessity, in the meantime. Citizens seemed to unanimously agree that the new parkway would do, so the subway plans were abandoned.
Remnants of the largest abandoned subway system in the United States are extremely popular among Youtubers and other urban explorers, but I would not advise a self-guided tour here. Consider buying a ticket with a local tour guide company for safety, legal, and practical reasons.
Tours usually include a visit to the St. Frances Seraph Church and its underground crypt as well.
Check out this cool video I found on Youtube:
Once you are back above ground, try to find the Prost to Cincinnati series of murals that depict Over-the-Rhine’s brewing past.
You can find Revival, Queen City Beer King, and Pedestals and Roots on McMicken Avenue; Grain to Glass, Zinzy Ist Bier, and Top of the Barrel on Vine Street; Billy and Schnitzel on Hamer Street; Munich Barmaid on Moore Street, and Cheers to Cincy Brewing the American Dream on Central Parkway.
Revival by Keith Neltner, is best seen with a beer in hand in Somerset‘s courtyard, below:
Cheers to Cincy Brewing the American Dream (also called Cheers to Cincy, Past and Present!) by Tom Post is featured across the street from Samuel Adams Brewing.
On the subject of public art, read my blog about Cincinnati’s street art magnates, ArtWorks and BLINK, and all of the incredible murals around town.
Keep Cincinnati Beautiful also leads initiatives like Don’t Trash the ‘Nati and other programs to educate, elevate, and beautify the city.
Findlay Market, a place I have mentioned a couple times now, is in the center of Over-the-Rhine.
This is the oldest public market in Ohio that is still operating. Just look at this list of merchants and businesses you can peruse.
Findlay Market hosts a series of events each year, as well as several ongoing public outreaches and assistance programs.
The blocks in and around Findlay Market are definitely some of the most refined in OTR, a focal point on the city’s investments and efforts to clean up and restore the area.
South of Findlay Market is where you will find most of the bars and restaurants that make up OTR’s exciting nightlife.
Now that we have had full disclosure about the good, bad, and ugly of Over-the-Rhine, let me tell you about two places I can not wait to revisit.
Somerset is one of my favourite bars in all the cities (and countries) I have visited. First of all, it has an open-air botanical theme with a greenhouse ceiling and real plants everywhere you look.
As a side note, the odd number of signs in Russian was a comfort to me. I was absolutely in my element.
For a cozier, more intimate setting, there is a second lounge and bar area.
Finding the restroom doors hidden in this wall-papered and lavishly decorated hallway was comical.
Outside, a beautifully-curated garden space surrounds a courtyard full of global imagery and juxtapositioned elements that Somerset seamlessly ties together.
An old trolley car has been converted into a small party room, the most interesting feature outdoors.
Another place I really enjoyed is Taft’s Ale House.
So there is this pretty historic cathedral smack in the middle of a bunch of residential row houses, right? And it has a Frisch Big Boy statue out front, and inside is a famous brewery with really great food. That would be Taft’s.
If you are waiting for a catch, there is none. This place was awesome.
My server suggested I try their Gustav, a honey lager that has consistently won multiple awards over the years. Delish.
She also suggested I try something they had just added to the menu that day, the “Beerbacoa Torte” with beer-marinated beef, avocado, cheese, pico de gallo, and chipotle aioli on Cuban bread, and a side of grilled veggies. This woman did not lead me astray.
I still have so many places on my list to visit like Sacred Beast, Sundry & Vice, Ghost Baby, Japps’s 1879, Longfellow, Nolia Kitchen, Cobblestone, Milton’s Prospect Hill Tavern, and The Lübecker, and we will get there in time.
By the way, if you are particularly interested in William Taft himself, visit the William Howard Taft National Historic Site, just a few blocks north of Over-the-Rhine.
In the area for a while? Follow me on a tour of Cincinnati’s abundant street art and other rad places downtown.
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