Depending on whose side of the story you believe in an early nineteenth century lawsuit between city fathers, Cincinnati was either founded in late 1788 or early 1789. It was irrefutably started on the riverfront. Early settlers built their homes and businesses on the flat area near the river banks. Cincinnati's earliest settlers were predominately native-born, ethnically English, Swiss, and French.
The small settlement grew as a shipping hub, connecting eastern cities with New Orleans and the other settlements that were developing along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The completion of the Miami & Erie Canal in 1828 became the catalyst for making Cincinnati the central trading hub west of the Appalachian Mountains. The canal linked the Great Lakes with the Ohio River, and all the Ohio farmland in between. Corn was the most common staple crop in Ohio. Its abundance and its bulk made it financially inefficient to sell on the open market, so farmers converted their corn to more profitable commodities: They either used it to fatten pigs or to distill whiskey. The amount of swine and whiskey passing through the city gave rise to the nickname “Porkopolis” and a reputation for a hard-drinking citizenry.
The canal that helped grow the city also gave Over-the-Rhine its name. Immigrants from Germanic countries began arriving in Cincinnati in increasingly large numbers starting in the1830s. Although Germans were among the city’s first settlers, they constituted a small percentage of the population until the city’s rapid growth in the mid-1800s. When the Germans started to arrive, the area north of the Miami & Erie Canal was mostly gardens and farmland. The Germans transformed it into a bustling neighborhood. It developed such a high concentration of German-Americans that traveling over the bridges spanning the canal became known as "going over the Rhine," a tongue-in-cheek reference to Germany's Rhine River. At its peak of population, Over-the-Rhine was home to more than 45,000 people, roughly 75% of which were first or second-generation German-Americans.
All ethnicities and social classes called OTR home, but its socioeconomic structure started to change when people with money began migrating to the hillsides in the late 1860s and 1870s. By the late 1800s, the majority of residents were working-class German-Americans. The neighborhood was still the epicenter of Germandom in Cincinnati, remaining the physical headquarters of most of the German societies, but most of the successful Germans lived in Clifton Heights, Mt. Auburn Corryville, or Price Hill. Over-the-Rhine became both famous and infamous. The neighborhood was full of saloons, beer gardens, restaurants, and theatres that catered to tastes ranging from legitimate theatre to burlesque. OTR was also a power center where corrupt Republican Party head "Boss" Cox ran the city through deals and schemes hatched at beer halls like Wielert's (still standing on Vine St.).
Over-the-Rhine's original culture took massive blows from WWI, its accompanying anti-German hysteria, and Prohibition. German culture placed a high value on good beer, and OTR was in the business of making a lot of it. At the turn of the century, there were over a dozen breweries in OTR or near its borders in the West End. Some were small, but several produced hundreds of thousands of barrels a year. Christian Moerlein, for example, was one of the largest breweries in the United States. The Moerlein brewery and several other breweries including Kauffman, Hudepohl, Lion, Schaller, Jackson, and Lafayette employed thousands of neighborhood residents. The booming brewing industry spawned off-shoot industries including barrel making, bottle production, ice delivery, beer distribution and shipping.
The economic and social impact of Prohibition eliminated thousands of jobs and destroyed family businesses. Major economic drivers were lost and the neighborhood’s “German-ness” was no longer celebrated.
Over-the-Rhine remained a vibrant, working-class neighborhood in the early twentieth century; but as improved public transportation and automobiles made it easier for working-class families to live in the surrounding hilltop neighborhoods, the people who could afford to leave OTR's densely packed, small apartment buildings moved away. OTR’s tenements increasingly became home to the working poor. Starting during the Depression, Over-the-Rhine saw the arrival of a new era of American-born immigrants. Appalachians left failing farmlands and coal fields in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee for industrial work in Cincinnati, often in industries located in OTR and its neighboring communities. Because of its proximity to jobs, and because they could afford the small, coldwater tenements that had come to characterize the neighborhood, Over-the-Rhine progressed into an era when the community became distinctly Appalachian. Although this period was predominately defined by poverty, these residents epitomized the Appalachian culture, producing local bluegrass legend Katie Laur, and many other great musicians and artisans.
With the construction of interstates I-75 and I-71, the demographics began to change in OTR. Neighborhoods to the east and west of OTR with large African American populations were eliminated to create major transportation routes. This left poor black families to fill OTR vacancies among poor and working-class Appalachians. Living conditions were cramped, often unsanitary and unsafe. Reformers in the 1960s and 1970s started "renovating" OTR's historic building stock by ripping out historic features and making apartments more energy efficient and easier to clean. By the1980s, a vast number of the neighborhood's housing units were Section 8. Crime rose. Poverty increased. Over-the-Rhine became Cincinnati's most notorious neighborhood.
Drawn by the architecture, the European feeling of the streets, and an underground art scene, visionaries still moved to the area. In the late 1980s and early1990s, small groups of concerned OTR citizens started to band together to improve the neighborhood, founding the Over-the-Rhine Foundation in 1992. Working with other organizations, the Foundation helped revitalize Main Street, restore historic building facades, save historically significant buildings like the Alms and Doepke, and begin work toward the neighborhood's rebirth.
A New Vision
There have been snags along the way, but it appears that Over-the-Rhine is finally turning the corner. The neighborhood is rapidly becoming a different place. City officials are finally starting to value historic buildings and the economic potential of OTR. While a vast amount of opulent and historically significant architecture has been destroyed in Over-the-Rhine, the neighborhood remains the largest collection of nineteenth century Italianate architecture in the United States.
The Cincinnati Art Academy relocated to OTR in 2006, and new theatre companies have created an alternative theatre district around 12th Street. Green businesses and green design are hot topics and local architects are exploring ways to combine historic preservation with eco-friendly restoration with a vision of making OTR America's greenest historic neighborhood. In the spring of 2010, with the help of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation, the Christian Moerlein Brewery purchased the historic Kauffman Brewery near Vine Street, and plans to return a proud brewing tradition to the neighborhood by early 2011. Over-the-Rhine was once world-renowned as a cultural mecca. We believe that this part of our past is preparing to repeat itself.