Soapdish: Neighborhood Gem in North Avondale

Cincinnati has no shortage of overlooked older neighborhoods deserving of higher praise. Count North Avondale as one of them. 

Seven years ago, when my family moved to this fair city from the sprawling and crumbling metropolis that is Metroit, one of the key attributes we looked for in a neighborhood were history and architecture (read: not vinyl siding and cul-de-sacs) and that it be near the center of the city.  Gas guzzling commutes on roads and interstates were not something we looked to replicate. 

Finding little in the way of guidance, and with no known relative or friend in the city, we rummaged about the available interwebs and came up with a few areas in which to look:  Hyde Park, Clifton, Mt. Lookout and North Avondale.  Knowing little about these neighborhoods other than what we were able to glean from a realtor and online, we came down one ice-storm plagued Valentine's Day weekend and seemingly looked at fifty or so houses.  Not unlike the baby chick in the cartoon that pokes its head out of the shell and cries "Daddy" at the first living organism it spies,  I picked the first house we looked at, in North Avondale, as the one in which we absolutely must live (at least within our price range).  We had an accepted offer within a week.

Now some might chalk it up to my own innate fatigue or laziness, but the other houses in the aforementioned neighborhoods just didn't compare.  Oh sure they are all great neighborhoods with fantastic houses - some of the best Cincinnati has to offer.  But compared to what you got for the price, North Avondale was head and shoulders above the rest.  Of course, Cincinnatians (and, indeed, the realtor) always had an eyebrow-arching skepticism when we would reply "North Avondale" as our coveted locale.  It really is one of those inner-ring old growth neighborhoods that even longtime natives often know precious little about.  I can't tell you how many alumni or work functions I've hosted when people greet me at our front door, in wide-eyed wonderment, saying "I never knew this place existed."  

Historically, North Avondale originally was platted in the late 1890's, when furniture impresario Robert Mitchell outlined a residential subdivision on what was then the outskirts of the city.  Typical of many 19th century manufacturers, Mitchell invested much of his earnings in real estate. His plans for North Avondale included winding streets as opposed to grid patterns, and laying out large lots with wide front lawns.  In addition to Mitchell, businessmen such as Andrew Erkenbrecher, department store magnate Samuel Pogue and budding grocery kingpin Barney Kroger built stately homes here in a multitude of styles, including English Medieval, Tudor Renaissance, Greek Revival, English Cottage Revival and Italian Renaissance.  Virtually all of these homes are still in existence and standing today.

Geographically, it's about as central to Cincinnati as you can get  and just due North 3.5 miles or so out of downtown.  Located conveniently between I-71 and I-75 and just South of the Norwood Lateral, the neighborhood offers easy access to freeways for those so inclined, while also putting you pretty much 10 minutes or less of Downtown, Northside, Clifton, Hyde Park or anywhere else in the core city.  If you need a signpost, towering like a brick sentinel at the entrance to the neighborhood just off Reading Road, is The Belvedere, a mammoth 1925-era jazz age apartment building (now condo) that originally featured up to six bedroom apartments, as well as separate servants' quarters. 

North Avondale's center city locale suits it perfectly, as it is neither East nor West in either the cartographic or the colloquial sense.  When people heard we were moving to Cincinnati, the first word out was "oh it's so conservative."  Well on our new block were multiple gay couples and mixed race families, among others.  A far cry from the endemic segregation we left behind in Detroit.  As Jeanne Golliher, North Avondale resident since 1997 and head honcho for the neighborhood revitalization leading Cincinnati Development Fund commented, "It was important to me to live close to downtown, and to be in a diverse and tolerant neighborhood.  North Avondale is truly integrated at the street level, with different races, religions, sexual orientation, ages, incomes, and lifestyles represented on every street.  North Avondale has charming homes priced at a broad affordability spectrum, from small cottages like mine, to huge stately mansions."   

While North Avondale is clearly smack dab in the middle of the urban core, it also provides a lush refuge where deer and other forest fauna sometimes roam amidst the gaslight streets and yards of 1920's era mansions, all while the din of the nearby city gets conveniently muted behind.  At the end of our block is a nature preserve maintained by the Cincinnati Parks, replete with manicured trails and a nature center where day camps and programs take place in the summer.  In the summer, residents converge on the Clinton Hills Swim Club, tucked back onto a private, wooded hilltop, the city's first integrated swim club, providing a laid back escape from the sweltering summer days.  With keggers every Thursday, as well as various other diverse programming throughout the summer, CHSC is clearly the most bohemian of Cincinnati's swim clubs.

But then there is always the tired old saw: "where will your kids go to school?"  The sellers of our house used that old cliché that they were selling and moving to Indian Hill "for the schools."   Well, our older son has, for the past six years, attended Walnut Hills High School, two miles from our driveway, and consistently ranked during our time here as one of the Top 30 public high schools in the country (something Indian Hill can't say).   Because of the timing of the move, we were unable to get our younger son into the program at the public (and highly coveted) CPS North Avondale Montessori program (currently in the process of rebuilding the school from the ground up - reopening this Fall).  That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, as we turned instead to The New School, a private, pre-primary-through-elementary Montessori school located in a mansion formerly owned by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, and within walking distance of our house.  Not just a school, The New School provides an amazing community of parents, teachers, neighbors and friends, all within the heart of the neighborhood, providing a home-to-school-to-neighborhood bond that many students in this day and age are simply unable to have. 

So who lives in North Avondale? Doctors and lawyers - no doubt.  Xavier profs such as notable political scientist Gene Beaupre and other academics - sure.  But also Carmon DeLeone, the music director of the Cincinnati Ballet, and Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra; while next door is Rick Steiner, noted Broadway producer and world champion poker player who maintains his childhood home as an office and second residence.  The publisher of Cincinnati Magazine also calls the neighborhood home, not to mention, artists, writers and other musicians.  Civic leaders are also in no short supply. Indeed, the neighborhood is no stranger to Mayors, and a quick glance reveals council members Leslie Ghiz and Cecil Thomas, State Senator Eric Kearney as well as local NAACP chapter head and firebrand Chris Smitherman.  Other community leaders in the neighborhood include Jan Michelle Kearney (of the Cincinnati Herald)  Jack Rouse (retired co-founder of Jack Rouse Associates and currently heading up the Music Hall revitalization), former school board member Lynn Marmer, and current members Melanie Bates and Vanessa White, Byron White (VP of the Community Building Institute and Director of the Community Building Collaborative at Xavier), Rick Williams (former school board member and CEO of the Home Ownership Center of Greater Cincinnati); Tom Harten (owner of Mecklenburg Gardens); famed local photographer J. Miles Wolf; and Heidi Jark, (VP and Foundation Manager at 5/3 Bank), among others.

All of these factors combine to form a true sense of community, and a truly undiscovered (for many at least) gem in the heart of the city.  One anecdote from Golliher ties all of these attributes together.   After hosting an AFS exchange student for a year, she held a gathering at her home for the eleven or so exchange students who stayed in North Avondale during the year.  Explains Golliher: "All of these kids went to either SCPA, Walnut Hills or Clark Montessori - all wonderful Cincinnati public schools.  Without exception, these kids were amazed and impressed by how well people of different ethnicities and religions got along.  This was not the America they thought they knew from films and international news stories.  They were expecting racial tension, religious discrimination, and homophobia, which we all know exists in America and in Cincinnati, but it surely is not welcome in the neighborhood where they lived or the schools they attended!  I remember thinking what positive stories they would take back to their home countries, and thinking how different their experiences might have been had they lived elsewhere and gone to different school.  But that conversation among those kids really made me realize what I loved most about my neighborhood."

As a fellow AFS host and North Avondale resident, I couldn't have said it better myself.

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Photography by Scott Beseler
Th New School
Inside The Belvedere
Exterior The Belvedere
Children playing in their forts outside at the New School
CPS North Avondale Montessori
Former home of the "Cantaloupe King" who invented refrigerated trucks to transport fruit in the early 1900's

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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.