Tuesday, November 22, 2011

As Uneven As It Comes

America's neighborhoods don't get any more unequal on the income scale than just across the river in Cincy's Over-The-Rhine, and the numbers bear it out in the city's efforts to gentrify the neighborhood in Census Tract 17.

So while two-thirds of Tract 17's 321 households earn less than $10,000 a year and are mired in poverty, a push to gentrify the area has brought a wider mix of incomes to the small neighborhood just outside the downtown business district. Nearly 6 percent of residents there now earn between $25,000 and $49,999. Three percent make $100,000 to $149,999, and yet another 3 percent take in $200,000 or more.

The rare diversity of earnings in Tract 17 caused it to have the nation's most unequal neighborhood income distribution, according to the Census Bureau. And oddly enough, city leaders are striving for that kind of income integration throughout Over-the-Rhine.

Since 2004, Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., a private, nonprofit development group known as "3CDC," has built 200 condominiums, 70 rental units and 100,000 square feet of commercial space in Over-the-Rhine as part of a massive public-private effort to rejuvenate the city's oldest neighborhood.

Its development work stops at the southern border of Tract 17, but the spillover effects are being felt there and throughout the area. Young, middle-class professionals, attracted by the new housing, proximity to downtown workplaces and an energized central entertainment district, have been moving into Over-the-Rhine in increasing numbers.

These mostly white urban homesteaders are providing the income boost that will stabilize the area's tax base and attract more retailers to the mostly black, mostly poor neighborhood that takes its name from German immigrants who settled there in the 1800s.

But Over-the-Rhine's economic renaissance has created some ill will. As 3CDC razes and renovates more buildings, hundreds of longtime residents have been displaced to make way for development. Those who stay fear that they'll be priced out as their neighborhood goes from sketchy to chic.

On the one hand, turning OTR into Cincy's Soho has some considerable benefits.  On the other hand, it's getting rid of a fair amount of low-cost housing in favor of turning the place into hipster central.  There are some really nice shops and place in OTR these days, but there's also a lot of problems still in the neighborhood.  I'm hoping the new City Council will help to make sure that it's a win-win situation for existing residents and the new influx of people.

3CDC's latest project in OTR is Mercer Commons, a $54 million condo renovation which is currently drawing a lot of fire from both the city's historic preservation groups and from community leaders.  The commission has the final say regardless of what concerns critics may raise, and they want to get going on the project ASAP before some $9 million in federal and state funding is lost.  I understand this means jobs, a larger tax base, and further community reinvestment:  exactly what I've been saying Cincinnati and cities across the country need right now.

I just worry about who's going to be around to benefit from it.  The Census numbers do raise something of a concern, I'd think.

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