Soapdish: Courting a Vision

We plucky scribes dwelling within the bustling Soapbox Media universe tend to typically embrace some pretty cutting edge, au courant concepts whenever we can.   Talent, Innovation, Design and Environment - these are the clarion call buzzword boundaries of our weekly internet magazine.  Leave the overexposed party photos and "Top 100" doctor and plastic surgeon lists to the other, more mainstream, publications. We here are all about the new narrative, pushing Cincinnati forward to that coveted yet elusive "next level."

That said, however, there are times when a look at the past is oftentimes useful in our relentless embrace and re-envisioning of the future.  As it says above the entrance to the National Archives (to quoteth William Shakespeare),"What's Past Is Prologue."  In this respect, history continues to repeat itself and inform the present.  Armed with Shakespeare's sage advice, your humble Soapdish columnist oftentimes takes that message to the streets, looking for clues to the future within our city's fabled and colorful past. 

When urban planners salivate over their latest Legoland designs and seemingly Sim-city projects, an oft-repeated mantra over the past decade or so has been "Mixed Use/Ground Floor Retail/Office with Residential Above."  One need look no further than The Banks to see this mantra taking shape, literally as well as figuratively (look for vertical construction on the completed Banks platform to begin in the coming weeks).  Phase I of The Banks will have ground floor retail/entertainment, apartments above, and an office tower anchoring the NW corner of the site.

Seven blocks to the North, however, lies a historic, six block stretch of urban fabric which essentially replicates the mixed use mantra, albeit in an organically developed, as opposed to master-planned, sense of the phrase.

The Court Street Historic District, stretching from the Hamilton County Courthouse on the East, to Plum Street on the West, possesses the in-demand urban tapestry of restaurants, retail, residential and office tower, yet somehow remains something of an (at times) gritty, red-headed stepchild in the face of more glittery projects immediately to the North (Gateway Quarter/OTR) and the South (Fountain Square and the bustling CBD).

Court Street originally developed as a result of its close proximity to the Miami & Erie Canal just a block to the North where Central Parkway now lies.  The construction of the Court Street Market between Vine and Walnut provided a convenient venue for selling wares offloaded from the nearby canal, leading to a bustling neighborhood in the mid-1830s.  Several structures still remain from the era:  1-3 East Court and 912 Vine are Greek revival structures of the style typical in pre-Civil War Cincinnati.  The stone-faced buildings at 124-130 West Court were originally occupied by canal-related businesses including commissions merchants and wholesale grocers. 

In addition, during the 1840s, the growth of the neighborhood as a commercial district prompted some prominent businessmen and their families to build homes in the area.  A walk west reveals two attractive early structures dating from approximately 1847.  229 West Court is one of the oldest structures in the district and was built for steamboat captain William F. Mix.  As railroads eclipsed canal trade in the second half of the 19th Century, the market attracted a diverse mix of tenants, including many saloons, as well as barber shops, Chinese hand laundries and food shops, some of which persist to the present day.

With the Kroger corporate HQ tower anchoring the center of the axis, and the Courthouse and Hamilton County building to the East, the neighborhood has no shortage of cubicle worker-bees ready to patronize the many lunchtime hotspots such as Servati's, It's Just Crepes, Avril-Bleh, Skyline, Mayberry and others. 

From a retail perspective, however, it remains something of a mixed bag.  In an effort to generate momentum and "re-brand" (Cincinnati Yes!) the district, a group of merchants gathered together early last year and formed the Historic Midtown Merchant's Association.  Aside from some pamphlets and carriage rides, I am not aware of a lot of activity from the group; however it's still in the nascent stages. That said, the district's retail establishments, for the most part, continue to doggedly persevere, with some of their origins dating well back into the dusty stacks of Cincinnati history.

Avril Bleh & Sons Butcher Shop (since 1894) and adjacent urban grocery store (since 2009) have developed a loyal clientele for one of the best butcher shops in town.  A nearby dingy lottery-ticket closet recently closed after the owner was the victim of serial robberies.  Krondilou's shoe repair at Vine and Court addresses your basic cobbling needs.  City Cellars dishes out fine wine, beer and wood-fired pizzas just a block South on Race.  The dusty hardwood floors and embossed tin ceilings of Peter Minges & Sons have borne witness to a wholesale (albeit open to the public) candy store since 1925 (although the business is 105 years old, they have "only" been on Court since 1925). 

Between Vine and Race, Cappel's anchors what I dub the "Candy/Novelty/Box-Making district", along with Doscher's Candies (since 1871), the aforementioned Minges and the rough cedar-hewed exterior of the Julius Rigacci Box Company.  Next door to Minges, the Washington Platform Saloon & Restaurant, originally established in 1860 as the Johan Armleder Wine & Lager Beer Saloon, was a popular watering hole from its inception up until Prohibition squeezed it dry in 1919.  In Prohibition's wake, the location housed businesses as diverse as one of the aforementioned Chinese laundries as well as a produce store, rediscovering its past glory as a saloon in 1986.  Although the original market house was torn down in 1915, Court Street continues to host a modest produce market on the site during select weekdays.

Above the ground floor retail spaces are some artist studios and an assortment of apartment rentals, many of which generally skew toward lower income residents and are markedly less flashy than the condos and other residential developments found in the CBD and Gateway Quarter.  That said, however, the nucleus is in place.  There are even cultural institutions scattered about, with the Lloyd Library and the Cincinnati Fire Museum located on Court, and the downtown Public Library just a block away.  Moreover, the proposed streetcar line would most likely pass through the heart of Court Street, bisecting it at both Main and Walnut.  In so doing, it would not be difficult to predict the neighborhood, strategically perched as it is between the CBD and Over-the-Rhine, as the next boomtown for downtown residents.  In short, with its mix of residential, retail and office space, Court Street is poised to make the leap to the next level. 

Talent, Innovation, Design and Environment - not exactly what comes to mind when you think of box companies, butchers, costume/novelties and candy stores. Nevertheless, keeping with the What's Past is Present theme, one can't help but wonder if a neighborhood rooted in such old world traditions, many of which have continued to survive to this very day, can provide some enlightenment for some of our newer developments.  While brewpubs, bookstores and sports bars are all well and good, the basic elements such as laundries, butchers, cobblers and modestly priced eating establishments, all of which exist on Court Street, provide the glue which holds a true "neighborhood" together.
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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.