On The Ground takes 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.
With millions in private and public investment pouring into the community over the past 10 years, Walnut Hills has been heralded as the “next big thing” in Cincinnati. Newly renovated apartments, rising property value and new restaurants and nightlife provide evidence that the title may ring true.
But to the casual observer, many parts of Walnut Hills still appear to be a wasteland.
The perception of Walnut Hills as a struggling community is not unwarranted; many commercial and residential buildings remain boarded up and in disrepair. As 2013 city data
reflects, median income was $26,665 — far below Cincinnati’s average of $34,605 — with 53 percent living below the poverty line. (The city average is 34 percent.) Walnut Hills’ unemployment rate
is one of the highest in the city and is even higher for young people, ages 16 to 24.
This was not always the case. In its heyday, Walnut Hills thrived as a diverse, mixed-income community. So the idea that Walnut Hills is coming “back to life” is complicated for long-term residents who never viewed their community as dead in the first place.
A community of our own
In the first half of the 20th century, Walnut Hills became one of Cincinnati’s few enclaves for African American residents, interspersed with pockets of other ethnicities and races.
Walnut Hills residents once had easy access to dry cleaners, florists, pharmacies, a medical center, bars, restaurants, banks, theaters, grocers and butchers. Many of these businesses between historic Peebles’ Corner at East McMillan and Gilbert avenues, and the African American business district at Gilbert and Lincoln avenues were family/locally owned and operated. The Cincinnati Herald
(an African American newspaper) was even published in the neighborhood.
Kathryne Gardette is a local resident and business owner. As a frequent community council rep and former area council president, Gardette is also a household name in the community. She moved to Walnut Hills from neighboring Evanston in the 1980s, but her family has been in the neighborhood for much longer.
Gardette remembers when the local economy was thriving, when she and her neighbors could find everything they needed within a few blocks’ walk. Then, in the latter half of the 20th century, neighborhood businesses started to close, leaving boarded-up space. Residents moved and left homes vacant. Between 2000 and 2012, the population of Walnut Hills shrunk by almost 2,000. In a community of just 6,495
residents, 2,000 people left a noticeable void.
What led to the disinvestment in Walnut Hills?
Some say it was a slow decline after the Great Depression; others say it happened when I-71 barreled through the neighborhood in the 1970s. Some blame white flight in the latter half of the century or the “aging out” of an older generation of small business owners.
Gardette struggles to pinpoint exactly when or why it happened in Walnut Hills.
“When you live in a community and things start to close around you, you don’t see it the same way as someone from the outside of the neighborhood,” she explained.
She compared Walnut Hills’ economic conundrum to the old adage of slowly boiling a frog: the frog will leap away if dropped into a boiling pot, but by slowly boiling the water while it swims, the frog will cook to death. To an outsider, the neighborhood looks stark and empty, but a resident may not notice the immensity of the problem until it’s too late and everything is already gone.
“[Longtime residents] don’t see the expanse of vacancy,” Gardette said.
On a neighborhood level, it happens slowly — beloved business by beloved business.
Signs of life, new problems in Walnut Hills
In the past 20 years, public and private entities in Walnut Hills have worked toward revitalization, reinvesting in and reclaiming empty buildings and public spaces in the neighborhood. Their work is apparently paying off; the neighborhood has caught the eye of entrepreneurs and prospective residents alike.
Though still scattered, the new businesses with their neat and tidy storefronts and open doors bring back a little of that energy long-term residents remember. And though housing costs are currently rising, beautiful, historic rentals and single-family homes are snatched up almost as quickly as they’re renovated. With even more development happening along nearby Woodburn Avenue in East Walnut Hills, it appears the forecasts are correct: Walnut Hills is on the rise.
In the past few years, the neighborhood has welcomed a variety of new businesses.
In 2007, Parkside Cafe
opened, serving breakfast and lunch in a former Frisch’s restaurant. Around the same time, pottery studio Core Clay
opened as a relatively under-the-radar co-op, and opened its storefront for retail a few years later. In 2012, The Brew House
, a pub-style restaurant, came under new ownership. Two years ago, Fireside Pizza
expanded its food-wagon concept, opening a restaurant in a former firehouse. More recently, nonprofit MORTAR
opened a popup shop and mixed-use storefront and the neighborhood gained both a laundry mat and a weekly Findlay Market Farmstand
. The newest heavy hitter in the neighborhood is barbecue restaurant called Just Q'in
These businesses now co-exist alongside older neighborhood establishments like The Greenwich
jazz club, Beck Paint & Hardware
, Dan Druffel Landscaping
, Thompson-McConnell Cadillac
and several more purveyors of goods and services.
Many businesses in Walnut Hills — both new and old — are owned and operated by local residents. Their customer base, as well, has a strong local representation, even those with a strong lunch crowd of outsiders. Daily visitors at places like Fireside Pizza, The Greenwich and Parkside Cafe are the quintessential “who’s who” of the neighborhood, with a diverse group of residents — new and old, black and white — dining and drinking side by side.
Is this the sort of economic development that ensures local residents rise with the tide? It’s possible, though some residents certainly have doubts. After all, not all Walnut Hills residents can afford a nightly pint of beer (plus tip) or a $15 barbecue dinner.
Coalition plays key role in maintaining diversity, ensuring equity
In 1999, the African American Chamber of Commerce opened its Gilbert Avenue offices
in efforts to be more strategically present in the neighborhood. Local groups like Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation
, Walnut Hills Area Council
and Elevate Walnut Hills
have more recently formed a united front with the goal of raising the economic profile and quality of life of the neighborhood while honoring its history and diversity. These partners are working to increase the number of black-owned businesses and also cater to the needs of a community largely living below the poverty line.
Entrepreneurship hub MORTAR has fast become another major player in shaping the future of Walnut Hills. Their business incubation and training program proved successful in neighboring Over-the-Rhine, and co-founder Allen Woods expressed excitement for the group’s ground-level involvement in Walnut Hills.
Woods explains a need to empower the neighborhood’s under-served entrepreneurs and businesses:
“Equitable redevelopment matters because all across the nation, people are displaced daily from the places that they've called home for decades. Developers have been so driven by making money that they'd rather create spaces for wealthier, and often lighter, people to migrate from the suburbs to city living — at the expense of low wealth, usually darker, populations who are then forced to move elsewhere because they can no longer afford to live in these areas.”
With the right players at the table, he said, “Walnut Hills can become a national model for neighborhoods that grow and thrive while keeping a heart for diversity and inclusion.”
For now, Walnut Hills seems to be on the right track with the WHRF and its multiple partners working together to build a diverse, equitable, thriving community.
Trevarren Flats: a Walnut Hills StoryThe proof is in the (barbecue) sauce
A significant indicator of what’s in store for the neighborhood was when the WHRF welcomed barbecue restaurant Just Q’in into the newly renovated Trevarren Flats this year. Though unaffordable for many long-time, low-income Walnut Hills’ residents, Just Q’in is one of the neighborhoods first alt-format restaurants with a higher price point. Some think the existence of this and other forthcoming restaurants could help promote the neighborhood’s economic viability and draw the deeper pockets of visitors and prospective residents alike.
Woods considers Just Q’in owner Matt Cuff one of the neighborhood’s most notable new entrepreneurs.
“He is new to Walnut Hills,” he explained, “but I'm amazed at how quickly he's become a staple in the community. He runs a high-quality restaurant and hires folks that live in the neighborhood — that's how you make a difference.”
What makes Just Q’in so significant? It’s simple. It is a black-owned business that hires from within the neighborhood. To residents of Walnut Hills, that sends an important message: This is still your neighborhood; you still belong here.
But here’s the catch: Cuff does not live in Walnut Hills.
It’s all proof that building a truly equitable and inclusive community is more complicated than finding the right man for the job or the right business for the building. Regardless, insofar as those developing the neighborhood stand behind their goals of diversity and inclusion, the residents of Walnut Hills have much to look forward to.
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.