Miracle on Woodburn

Head northeast on Woodburn Avenue from McMillan and try not to be moved.

Is there a more iconic view in Cincinnati than St Francis De Sale’s Church, that middle German and French Gothic inspired stone wonder with its steep limestone spire towering above Woodburn Avenue’s red brick storefronts and apartments, replete with their witch hat turrets

Driving into the shadow of the 125-year-old church, you’re enveloped by the neighborhood’s architecture and intuitively grasp Cincinnati’s rich European roots. As a friend recently said of the vista, “It’s Prague; it’s Munich.”

The church also marks the juncture of two of Cincinnati’s finest neighborhoods: Walnut Hills and East Walnut Hills.

They’re great neighborhoods because both communities have, throughout their history, always contained an embarrassment of riches: they’re socio-economically, ethnically and religiously diverse, while containing numerous academic, cultural and architectural treasures.

Just know that these neighborhoods will likely drive you mad. For to live or work or spend any serious time in either community can be a lot like spending too much quality time with crazy Aunt Candace. The rollercoaster never seems to stop.

For instance, current housing stock in East Walnut Hills ranges between $20,000.00 and $1.4 million. And while the neighborhood has, over the last 10 years, realized the completion of significant rehab projects (Schoolhouse Lofts) as well as important new construction projects (DeSales Flats); there are also significant numbers of properties either in foreclosure or in danger of foreclosure.  

Walnut Hills’ largest recent construction project, DeSales Flats, directly across from St. Francis DeSales Church, is literally built around a strip of aging storefronts. Those storefronts saw initial superficial improvements at the time of the DeSales Flats construction, but have since stood empty and unfinished.

Similarly, the stately former Fifth Third Bank Building, also at Madison and Woodburn, with its floor to ceiling windows, has sat idle for years after an inchoate bout of rehabilitation.

The neighborhood’s siren song of reasonable rent, close proximity to downtown, and moneyed neighborhoods, such as Hyde Park and Mt Lookout, has lured some of Cincinnati's largest employers, such as Anthem, to expand into both neighborhoods. Other businesses, however, such as DeSales Pharmacy, The Skinny Pig and Lucky John’s Market, open with fanfare but fail to last.

And then there’s the crime. For all its benefits, Walnut Hills has been, for a very long time, awash in crime, primarily drug-related crime. Over the last several decades, drugs were openly sold on the streets and the robbery and violence concomitant with such sales have plagued the neighborhoods.

And yet, in recent years life has begun to look improbably better, especially on East Walnut Hills’ Woodburn Avenue. There are some, in fact, who envision a renaissance in the neighborhood, with Woodburn at its epicenter.

Woodburn entrepreneurs are a diverse lot. They vary in age, race, ethnicity and sex, though most of the newcomers are women. Others can speak to decades, even generations, of survival in the heart of Walnut Hills.

Meet Laverne and Frank Armstead. They have owned and operated It’s About Hair Beauty and Barber Shop, at 2811 Woodburn, for nearly 30 years. They’re both well-educated Cincinnati natives and eminently likable people.

In the partitioned shop which comprises the first floor, Laverne runs a busy salon for women while Frank cuts hair for the city’s working and professional men. From this shop and their home above, they’ve had front row seats to the neighborhood’s ebb and flow.

Sitting in the sun-filled shop on a quiet summer afternoon, Frank recounts a time not so long ago when crime and drug use were rampant. Lavern’s car was broken into multiple times, including a daytime smash-and-grab robbery directly in front of their shop. Four years ago, Frank was jumped, knocked unconscious and robbed as he walked home from a local tavern after dinner. He recalls a fatal shooting in a reggae club next door.

His memories and experiences are consistent with both statistics and neighbor anecdotes. As recently as 2009, the frequency of crime in East Walnut Hills was three times the national average.

“And now?” I ask.

“Not a problem,” he says.

Given the history of the neighborhood, as told by those who have long lived and worked here, such a transition is difficult to believe. And yet, everyone I meet says the same.

Mike Hunt operates and owns Woodburn Laundry at 2800 Woodburn. He says that he’s the second generation to run the business and notes that the third generation is hard at work inside.

Hunt, in his 50s commutes from Mason every day. He’s spent nearly every day in the Woodburn neighborhood since he was a child. His family owns the building which contains the dry cleaners as well as the building next door. They also own dry cleaners in Hyde Park and Bond Hill.

He says that for years business in Hyde Park and Bond Hill has been strong, while Walnut Hills has crept along.

“Now,” he says, “sales in the other two stores have been flat, and the revenue in the Walnut Hills store has begun to grow.”

He shows me the empty storefront next door, which he’s renovated and recently rented. The tenant, he says, plans to open a shop selling high-end shoes and handbags. 

There’s a disconnect, I think.

Woodburn looks like a pretty humble place to be selling Jimmy Choos. Yet, Hunt’s new tenant is one of a new breed of merchants on Woodburn: entrepreneurs who envision this iconic street as a key component of the city’s next, and best, destination neighborhood. 

Hyde Park South, as it were.

Catherine Mequire, a mature and well-traveled transplant from Louisville, owns Le Bon Vivant, a high-end retail store of gleaming wood floors and high, freshly painted walls and ceilings. Her mother was French, and she has roots in Alsace Lorraine. Her place is a Gallophile’s dream, selling quality French-themed goods, from table linens to French wines, chocolates and breads.

In extolling the neighborhood’s virtues, she notes the its proximity to downtown, Xavier and UC—and to Cincinnati’s more affluent neighborhoods. ?She adds that Woodburn’s rents are far more reasonable than those in Rookwood or Oakley, and on- and off-street parking is abundant.

But Mequire stresses another selling point made repeatedly by everyone in the neighborhood: the people.

Neighbors and shop owners agree that the area’s greatest asset is that the neighborhood is comprised of hard-working people who want to see the neighborhood succeed.

Oomph Boutique is a brand new clothing boutique owned and operated by Arien Agurs, who was born and raised in Walnut Hills. Her career in finance took her to Charlotte, where she opened her first shop.? When she realized that a substantial part of her business was being generated online from Cincinnati, she knew it was time to come home and open a second store.

Oomph, like other stores recently opened and/or coming to Woodburn, is a destination shop. The storefront features floor-to-ceiling windows which throw sunlight on the neat racks of ladies clothing, each item hand-picked by Agurs. Jewelry and accessories are neatly laid out on tables throughout the store. The fixtures and furnishings are upscale, as is her clientele.

There are other businesses either in the planning stages or newly opened, including Kitchen 452, a catering and lunch carry away shop slated to open this fall which will be run by Jen Lile and Leah Reynolds Joos.

Two vintage stores also call Woodburn home: Hi-Bred near Woodburn and McMillan, and The Secret Vintage Store.  

A Woodburn storefront location was an easy decision for Shawna Maria Guip, who Hi-Bred vintage clothing store, at 2548 Woodburn, in September 2011. Guip has long loved the East Walnut Hills neighborhood.

She sees her shop—which sells vintage goods, including what she terms Upcycle postcards (“postcards created with vintage ad materials, the messages often manipulated to offer subversive messages”) as being a natural fit for the other arts-related businesses and galleries in the neighborhood.

In conjunction with PAC and Manifiest Gallery, existing art galleries in East Walnut Hills, Guip is revitalizing the neighborhood’s once moribund art walks, or Walks On Woodburn. The next walk, Aug. 17, will feature music as well as a glass-blowing demonstration from Walnut Hills’ Nusole Glass.

For those who have come and gone and for those who envision a bright future for Woodburn, it’s all about home.?

“I don’t think that people realize how much this city has to offer and how much it’s grown,” says Agurs of Oomph Boutique. “It’s like a child. It’s only when you’ve been away that you realize how much the child has grown. Cincinnati and Walnut Hills, I think, are like that. They’ve grown; people just don’t appreciate that.”

Photos by Michael Kearns
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