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Look Here to reveal layers of Over-the-Rhine's past



Historic preservationist Anne Delano Steinert wants people to discover the layers of Over-the-Rhine’s past. Her place-based public history project, Look Here, will mount historic photographs around the neighborhood as close as possible to the vantage point from which they were originally taken, comparing historic views to the view of that location today.
 
“There are layers of the past around us in the built environment all the time,” Steinert says, “and it’s really important to me to give people the skills to read the clues to those layers. This is my way of giving the people in Over-the-Rhine a way to connect to the past.”
Anne Delano Steinert 
Steinert’s fascination with the layers of the past actually began in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. As a teenager in the 1980s, she would take the bus downtown from her home in Clifton.
 
“OTR was definitely low-income then and there was a lot of urban decay, but it was also still really rich,” Steinert explains. “There were a lot more (historic) buildings standing in 1982 than there are today. So it’s where I really got a sense of the power of the past to speak through the built environment.”
 
Now she wants to help a wide range of residents and visitors in the neighborhood hear those voices, too. Recipient of a People’s Liberty Project Grant, Steinert is using her own background and several other projects as inspiration to make Look Here into an experience that can reach viewers from all economic classes.
 
A simple design of presenting photographs on street signs with minimal explanatory text will allow people to create their own meaning from the similarities and differences between the historic present landscapes. Brightly colored borders will grab people’s attention and hopefully pull them into the images and into parts of the neighborhood they may not have explored before.
 
The signs are meant to create a “serendipitous, sudden, unexpected experience of connection to space,” Steinert says, by giving people a glimpse of the past from their exact location. She also hopes they’ll help add a dimension of history to the cultural vibrancy already existing in the neighborhood.
 
As Over-the-Rhine goes through a period of intense transition, Steinert observes, “something gets lost in the remaking, so these signs are really an attempt to remind people some of what’s being lost, that we have to be mindful of what came before.”
 
Look Here’s historic photographs will provide people a chance to meditate on what came before and decide for themselves what it means. The People’s Liberty project grant will allow Steinert to make tools providing deeper meaning and engagement.
 
Before receiving the grant, she’d identified more than 320 possible photographs (although only 40-70 will be in the final exhibit) and knew she wanted to display them on aluminum signs similar to “No Parking” signs. The People’s Liberty funding allows her to create programming around the signs — a launch event, resource packet for teachers, curator-led tour of some of the photograph sites and a website with a map of all images and more information about each one. The website will also provide viewers a way to have a dialogue with the curator.
 
“We’re encouraging people to send me their experiences,” Steinert says, “take photos of themselves looking at Look Here and share the stories of how they’re interacting with the signs.”
 
Steinert hopes the interactive elements may even inspire other neighborhoods to set up similar exhibitions. She also hopes that positive feedback on the project might make it easier for those neighborhoods to complete such undertakings.
 
“This project involves coordinating an unfathomable number of small details and particularly small logistical details,” Steinert says, “and many of those are contingent on the city’s policies.”
 
Since Steinert will be using city-owned poles to mount the photographs, she is in the process of obtaining installation permits. Once she does, Look Here will be the first exhibit to obtain permits of this kind in Cincinnati.
 
If these layers of the past prove meaningful, it may make it easier to reveal more layers all around us.
 

Read more articles by Nancy Yerian.

Nancy Yerian is an independent public historian interested in local history and the power of museums. She graduated from Smith College with a major in American History and a concentration in Museum Studies.
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