Soapdish: Pioneer Days

"Come my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!"

Pioneers, as Walt Whitman romanticized in 1865, were apparently some well-bronzed and well-armed youngsters heading to the unknown reaches of the wild, wild west.  Along the way, it's a safe bet that a good number of these tanned trailblazers passed through Cincinnati, the proverbial "Queen City of the West." Now, 145 or so years later, the Queen City is bearing witness to a different brand of pioneer - the "urban pioneers" -  those that choose to live in and around the urban core not because they have to, but rather because they want to.  This is the subject of tomorrow's Soapbox Speaker Series at UC's Niehoff Center - these urban pioneers who took a gamble in order to revitalize a house, a block, a community.

Cincinnati has, historically, borne witness to a fairly consistent migration out of the inner basin following its nascent boom years.  In early times, this was desirable simply in order to escape the soot, filth and disease of 18th and 19th Century urban life.  Simply crossing Liberty Street or the Mill Valley, or climbing the hillside to Mt. Auburn, was a trek worthy of a pioneer.  And those that did so rewarded themselves by building a home in what would be considered some of Cincinnati's first suburbs (see, e.g. Prospect Hill). 

In the latter half of the 20th Century, federally-funded freeways paved the way for many in the urban core to quickly and easily flee the city, as the siren call of suburban cul de sacs and manicured lawns provided the idyllic setting for the Leave it to Beaver set (RIP Barbara Billingsley).  These migrations were less about pioneering and more about lemming-like urban flight.  Far from the perceived grime, crime and decay of the city, an era of manifest suburban destiny was ushered in, while the urban core was oftentimes left to those unable or unwilling to make the move. 

But Pleasantville can't last forever, and attitudes regarding the appeal of suburban versus urban living have evolved to the point that one can no longer assume in which direction the manifest destiny arrow is pointed.  There are many reasons for this.  The predominantly car-oriented culture of the prior century has eroded considerably over past decades, as people choose to rid themselves or at least minimize the expense and hassle of auto ownership.  Car sharing, bicycling and scooters loom increasingly large in these scenarios, as does the heightened demand for better public transit options (read:  streetcars).   Just as importantly, living in the urban core, within close distance to work, as opposed to life-sucking and endless commutes, can also lessen the need for a car.  

Cincinnati, with its rich stock of historic buildings and high density, is the perfect playground for urban pioneers.  Plentiful and, more importantly, affordable building stock provides the key catalyst for urban pioneers to work their magic.

Old hands such as Arne Bortz in Mt. Adams were the vanguard in the Cincinnati wing of urban pioneers. Other luminaries, such as Don Beck in Prospect Hill and Bill Baum in OTR staked their claims around the urban core in the basin.  Recent years have seen ever more heightened activity in the urban pioneer movement, and on a much more massive scale.  While 3CDC has invested over $100 million and counting in Over-the-Rhine, there remains plenty of room for the micro-level urban pioneers.  Sure 3CDC owns a large reserve of structures in OTR, but there's still plenty of opportunity for pioneers ready to invest some sweat equity in a building. 

Just ask J.T. Barse, who, while currently living in the Emery Building, hopes to move into the building he's rehabbing near Findlay Market within the next year.  While chatting with Barse  (whose employer, the Northpointe Group, is developing the rehabbed Parvis Lofts on Vine) at Neon's one recent evening, he marveled at how tranquil it is for he and his girlfriend to sit on the roof and take in the urban landscape while in the same breath acknowledging that such tranquility can sometimes be broken up by the pop of urban "fireworks."  Architect and Brewery District historian Steve Hampton is staking his claim on "Brewer's Row," i.e. McMicken Avenue, and in the process cultivating the growing appetite in the region for brewery tours and educating the general populace on the city's rich brewing history.

Or ask Hampton's fellow architect, Mike Stehlin and his wife Catherine Comello-Stehlin who, with their two children, live on Washington Park and document the joys (and, sometimes, challenges) of raising a family in the urban core via their website.  Real estate entrepreneur Chris Reckman not only rehabs buildings in OTR, but also lives there, having retrofitted a building on 14th into the coolest (and only) "ranch-style home in OTR."  He can be spotted, in true pioneer fashion, splitting logs out on the sidewalk for his antique pot-bellied stove.

Moving out further, historic Dayton Street in the West End has seen an influx of activity into what was originally the city's "Millionaire Row."  Dayton was the last major residential development in the basin before inclines, cable cars and trolleys facilitated an exodus to the hilltops.  Several renovation projects, as well as the Cincinnati Preservation Association's stewardship of the historic Hauck House, continue to provide positive momentum in a sometimes overlooked urban enclave stocked with magnificent mansions. 

Heading West across the Mill Valley, antique dealer and preservation consultant Paul Wilham continues to lead his somewhat quixotic crusade to have a small corner of North Fairmount branded as "Knox Hill."  The neighborhood has a number of "cottages" from the 1860's and 1870's, built by wealthy families in order to provide an escape from the congestion and heat of summer in the basin.  Wilham has been lovingly restoring a Second Empire Cottage of 1871 vintage, in the process documenting every detail on his website.   

Moreover, urban pioneering is not exclusive to just residents. Businesses can also get in on the act.  Christian Moerlein CEO Greg Hardman has received much acclaim for moving his company's brewing operations to the old Kauffman Brewery in the heart of Over-the-Rhine.   Same goes for Chris Rose setting up the reborn Rookwood Pottery just up the block from Findlay Market.  Also near Findlay, father-son duo Jack and Bryon Martin, are looking to renovate the old Christian Moerlein home and brewery office building on Elm, along with several adjacent parcels, into a brewpub to be dubbed the Cincinnati Beer Company.

In the typical scenario, artists and bohemian types are the prototypical urban pioneers, moving in for the cheap rents and cool spaces.  In the case of Cincinnati's urban core, while that may be true, the bohos are also supplemented by young, gainfully employed individuals looking to own a stake in the city - to invest the time, money and sweat equity necessary to fix up their own little slice of urbanity.  While they may not be the "tan-faced children" of Walt Whitman's era, it is not out of the question that they would have a pistol and/or a sharp-edged ax - for log splitting of course.  

Sign up for the Soapbox Speaker Series here to hear more from some of Cincinnati's past, present and future urban pioneers.

Photography by Scott Beseler.
Pioneers forging to Ohio
Urban arteries
OTR and Mt. Auburn
McMicken Avenue brewery
Mansion on Dayton street

Historic photos provided by The Cincinnati Room, Hamilton County Public Library

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.