In a neighborhood in transition, community leaders reimagine Mt. Airy

When it became part of the city of Cincinnati in 1911, Mt. Airy was considered to be on the outskirts of the city, practically rural. In the mid-20th century, with an influx of people and housing, it was a suburban bedroom community. Today, with its business district situated at the crossroads of Colerain Avenue and North Bend Road, its character is much more urban.  Throughout its evolution, the community has benefitted from leaders, organizations, and everyday citizens invested in their neighborhood and collaborating to address community concerns. This Soapbox series takes a look at the economic, social, and cultural issues in this Cincinnati neighborhood, and the solutions that community leaders are pursuing to create a promising future.

Located in the northwest sector of Cincinnati’s city limits, Mt. Airy has 9,210 residents, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. It’s bordered to the east by College Hill, to the west by Monfort Heights and White Oak, and to the north by Groesbeck. Mt. Airy Forest provides a natural southern boundary that separates it from Westwood and South Cumminsville.

Mt. Airy never had a large retail or corporate anchor, but enjoyed an array of small shops and restaurants that helped form a cohesive neighborhood and common experiences that engendered civic pride, formed bonds that tethered residents to each other and created a common sense of purpose. Legendary entrepreneur, Cincinnati Reds owner, and philanthropist Powel Crosley lived in the neighborhood in Pinecroft, and former Cincinnati Reds slugger Ken Griffey Sr. lived there during his playing career. Brewing magnate Joseph Schoenling also called Mt. Airy home, as did TV icon Ruth Lyons.

A half-century ago, the community’s character began changing as businesses shuttered and the population declined. Construction of single-family housing dropped, and high-density housing such as the Hawaiian Terrace and Bahama Terrace apartment complexes, cropped up.

According to a 2013 report published by the University of Cincinnati’s Community Research Collaborative, the neighborhood’s socioeconomic status (SES) index declined approximately 60% from 1970 to 2009, more than any other Cincinnati neighborhood. The report weighed such factors as median household income, the number of residents living below the poverty line, levels of educational achievement, employment, home ownership, and other metrics.

The report revealed a gradual decline: 26.7% from 1970-1990, 17.7% from 1990-2000, and 15.7% from 2000-2009. It didn’t have the largest decline among the city’s neighborhoods within any particular decade, but the sustained, four-decade decline was pronounced. (As a result of the report’s findings, concerned residents, business owners, and community stakeholders founded Mt. Airy CURE, a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to reversing the neighborhood’s decline. Their efforts will be featured in a subsequent article.)

Over the years, Mt. Airy residents saw shops, restaurants and other institutions go away, including Mercy Hospital Mt. Airy, which was demolished in 2013; Little Flower School, which closed in 2008; Besse Pharmacy; Finn's Variety Store; Stolle’s Grocery and Deli; Engler’s Bakery; and Mt. Airy Pool.

The Wurzelbacher home, built in the 1820's, is one of Cincinnati's oldest houses. While it isn't the house Tom grew up in, it's been in his family for 130 years.

Tom Wurzelbacher grew up on Kipling Avenue across the street from Pinecroft in a house that had been built for Crosley’s son. He is the sixth generation of his family to grow up in Mt. Airy. His great-great-great grandparents, Conrad and Kunigunda Brigel, immigrated from Germany in the 1840s, built a house near Colerain Avenue and established a shoemaking shop in Clifton. The Brigel’s descendants built various businesses in Mt. Airy, including a notions shop and a goldfish hatchery.  (Evidently, goldfish were something of a Mt. Airy cottage industry, with two sizable ponds providing fertile grounds for raising pet fish.)

“It was a very conservative, German, parochial neighborhood,” Wurzelbacher says.

He attended school outside Mt. Airy at Summit Country Day and St. Xavier High School, but fondly remembers many shops that provided a solid sense of place. He enjoyed buying toys and games at Finn’s Variety Store (the demise of the five-and-dime store could rate its own story), and remembers Kessing’s Hardware, and the Water Tower restaurant as family destinations.

Tom moved back to the neighborhood in the late ‘80s, and has watched as some of the apartments have transitioned to low-income housing. However, he believes news reports about crime, most often occurring in its high-density housing, unfairly taint the entire community. He also noted that the impact of illegal activities on the community has lessened over the last decade.

“We’ve started meeting the challenges, but it’s still a work in progress,” Wurzelbacher says. “The business district has to be the hub of Mt. Airy’s renaissance. More parking, a public commons area that’s more pedestrian-friendly, and a community garden would help put a more optimistic stamp on Mt. Airy’s transformation, rally residents and attract interest.”  

Bob Focke grew up across the street from the Wurzelbachers, the fifth of six kids. His father was a Cincinnati fireman. They moved into the community during the 1950s, back when the Cincinnati Fire Department mandated that crew members live within the city limits. He became well acquainted with the neighborhood when he took on a paper route at the age of 10.

“All the kids in the neighborhood hung out together, playing outside until the streetlights came on,” Focke recalls. “Windows were kept open, we didn’t have air conditioning until I was a teenager, and doors weren’t locked. I loved to go to Shepherd Creek and fish.”

His education took place in the Mt. Airy neighborhood: kindergarten and first grade at Mt. Airy Elementary, the rest of grade school at St. Therese of Little Flower parish (which has since consolidated with St. Margaret Mary in North College Hill and St. Ann in Groesbeck), before moving on to LaSalle High School. He was married at Little Flower in 1987, and has fond memories of the parish’s erstwhile summer festival, which was terminated in the late ‘90s because a police presence had become necessary.

Focke moved to neighboring Colerain Township, but still walks in Mt. Airy Forest regularly. He sees improvements in the neighborhood, and believes local leaders should advertise its affordable housing stock. According to data provided by Mt. Airy CURE, the 2020 median home value in the community was $118,467, compared to an average Cincinnati figure of $148,700.

Mt. Airy has challenges, but its engaged residents say it’s time for a new narrative. Subsequent articles will focus on the people and organizations leading the community’s rebuild and finding the soul of its community. Soapbox looks forward to sharing these stories this fall.

The Resilient Neighborhoods series featuring Mt. Airy has been made possible with support from the City of Cincinnati and Homebase, the leading resource for community development, focused on sharing resources, funding, and expertise that helps transform neighborhoods and improve the quality of life for the residents of Greater Cincinnati.
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Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.