Walnut Hills / E. Walnut Hills

On The Ground: Walnut Hills serves as pilot backdrop in local efforts to bolster middle class

On The Ground will kick off with an in-depth look at Walnut Hills, one of Cincinnati’s oldest and most culturally diverse communities. Over the next 12 weeks, our team will offer insight into the people, places and projects that have long defined the neighborhood, as well as its plans for moving toward a bright future.
The book of Cincinnati has 52 chapters, each representing a neighborhood as distinctive and vibrant as the next. Historically, we have too often been identified by the racial and socioeconomic disparities we continually struggle with, but our neighborhoods tell a much more nuanced story than even Cincinnati’s complicated history would suggest.
The story of Walnut Hills is just getting started.
One of Cincinnati’s oldest neighborhoods, Walnut Hills is located just two miles northeast of downtown. It was settled in 1804 and is home to some of the city’s most historically significant architecture and cultural institutions.
Since its settlement, Walnut Hills has cultivated a reputation as a center of African American life and culture in Cincinnati.
An ethnically diverse community in the 19th century, and predominantly African American since the mid-1900s, the neighborhood was positioned at the forefront of both the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements. Its heritage of freedom includes such historic icons as Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose family home still stands in the neighborhood, and the since-razed Lane Seminary and Walnut Hills Presbyterian Church whose only remnants are a set of concrete steps and a preserved bell tower, respectively.
As Walnut Hills approached the 21st century, it experienced a decline in economic viability and a rise in vacancy, blight and crime. More recently, amid the rising tide of economic development that has transformed other parts of Cincinnati such as neighboring Over-the-Rhine, Walnut Hills has seen an economic turnaround.
“Over the past 10 years the city and community joined forces to acquire properties, stabilize strategic properties and demolish buildings when necessary,” said Thea Munchel, Director of Development at the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. “This commitment set the stage for the work that we are doing today. Not only because of the city-owned property that we are working to redevelop, but because the community came together to take action and to ensure that Walnut Hills saw the improvements and investments necessary to make the area shine brightly once again.”
Today, Walnut Hills is moving toward a thriving, vibrant future. The community is experiencing rapid economic and residential development, thanks to investment both from within and outside the community. Growing interest in the historic infrastructure of communities such as Walnut Hills and the urban lifestyle they afford is attracting many new residents and businesses.
About On The Ground
Soapbox Cincinnati is one of 21 regional publications of Detroit-based Issue Media Group (IMG). This will be the sixth On The Ground (OTG) series published by an IMG affiliate. Series have launched in Memphis, Tampa, Philadelphia, Detroit and Grand Rapids.
Cincinnati’s first OTG series will feature stories of life in Walnut Hills, offering an insider view of where the neighborhood has been and where it’s headed. The series’ subjects will be curated with guidance from an editorial advisory council made up of residents and neighborhood stakeholders. Organizations of feature will include Walnut Hills Area Council, Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, Harriet Beecher Stowe House, Walnut Hills Historical Society, MORTAR, Elevate Walnut Hills and other key institutions.
On The Ground will attempt to pull back the curtain in a neighborhood that is often misunderstood or underrepresented and to spotlight it rightful place in the broader story of Cincinnati. In the tradition of embedded journalism, this series will feature both journalistic pieces and first-person accounts from the people in the neighborhood to illuminate their place in the community.
The OTG team will publish stories that celebrate the history and significance of the neighborhood and its traditions and culture. It will also take an honest appraisal of the challenges Walnut Hills faces as it works to bolster development and build and sustain the urban middle class, while prioritizing the economic and ethnic diversity that has long anchored the community. A few public events will be planned, as well, to highlight these stories from the inside out for neighbors and readers alike.
Cincy Stories creates visual celebration of Walnut Hills

An important partner for OTG — and an uncommon one, within the scope of most cities’ creative resources — will be Cincy Stories, a nonprofit creative org whose mission is to “build community through story” and whose creators, Chris Ashwell and Shawn Braley, both live and work in Walnut Hills. Cincy Stories will give Soapbox access to its growing catalog of video and audio recordings documenting the people, places and initiatives moving Walnut Hills forward.

Ashwell shares the group's creative vision and thoughts on Walnut Hills as OTG's first neighborhood of focus.

Why was it important for Cincy Stories' gallery to be located in Walnut Hills?

Walnut Hills represents a transitional phase that the entire city is beginning to feel in one way or another. Its story is unique, but the themes are familiar around the country, as urban living becomes more attractive. Unfortunately, there’s still a lack of communication between longtime residents and more recent transplants. Through our mission, we saw an opportunity to facilitate that conversation. We believe stories break down walls. While telling a story, for example, about getting your first bike may not seem to progress the conversation on the important issues that face developing neighborhoods, what it does is soften a relationship so the hard conversations can be had with empathy and understanding.
What is the biggest misconception about the neighborhood?

This is a hard one. My first inclination is to say that the biggest misconception is that it's a dangerous neighborhood. This hit home for me when I had my suburban relatives over for Christmas who had not heard of Walnut Hills beyond a negative story about violent crime in the news. At one point, I heard someone ask another relative to escort them to their car for a present they had forgotten. I teased them, not understanding why they were afraid, and it was revealed that one had a conceal-and-carry license and a gun. They were so scared of urban Cincinnati that they couldn't walk to the car without protection. It's not that they thought Walnut Hills was particularly dangerous, just that urban places are dangerous. While I don't think Walnut Hills is alone in the characterization, after meeting many members of the community, it makes me incredibly sad to think of my neighbors being instantly suspect.
How has Cincy Stories been received within the community?

The reception we've received has been incredibly touching. The local businesses, especially local restaurants, showed up for us in a big way. It was important to us to give people a big initial interaction with the space. Just standing outside saying, ‘Hey, want to hear some stories?’ might not have attracted a lot of the community, so we asked local restaurants if they would be willing to donate food for community dinners and basically every one that we asked agreed.
As for the community, there was some natural skepticism. Someone actually told us recently that at first a lot of people thought we were cops. We laughed, thinking they were joking, but they weren't. They actually thought Cincy Stories was an elaborate plan to get people to confess to crimes or get information about what's happening on the street. There are barriers in the community that we couldn't have even imagined. Amazingly, what broke those walls down was inviting people to share stories and letting them know that what has happened to them is as important as what's happened to the business owner or the politician. It has been an amazing breakthrough. We always believed personal story was key to relationships and community. This proved it.
What are some of the challenges you're still working to overcome?

Our biggest challenge right now is figuring out how to keep this up. We see amazing inroads into our mission, but it’s a challenge to commit the time needed on a daily basis. It's our goal to have a presence and collect stories in each of the 52 neighborhoods, plus Northern Kentucky, so our biggest unseen right now is how to scale while continuing to offer this space that was so desperately needed in the community. The Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation has been fantastic about helping with our long-term plan.
What do you think should be the goals of On the Ground?

I think if OTG focuses on the people, you can't go wrong. A neighborhood is the people and Walnut Hills is made up of remarkable people. Most misconceptions about the neighborhood aren't based on statistics; they are based on anecdotes and falsehoods. Even positive statistics and charts likely won’t change that belief. However, the people of Walnut Hills tell the truth in a way that's hard to ignore. They are by and large hardworking, family-oriented people. The neighborhood has the chance to be a truly inclusive and diverse place to live. Can redevelopment happen and bring the entire community with it? Walnut Hills thinks so, and it's worth investigating how they are trying to get there.

On The Ground in Walnut Hills is underwritten by Place Matters partners LISC and United Way and the neighborhood nonprofit Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation who are collectively working together for community transformation. Additional support for data and analysis is provided by the Economics Center. The On The Ground project series of stories, videos and events will take a deeper dive into Walnut Hills and East Walnut Hills beginning this week.


Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.
Signup for Email Alerts