Lincoln Heights: Moving beyond the past to a hopeful future

Driving around the streets of Lincoln Heights, Ruby Kinsey-Mumphrey recalls the landmarks of her childhood growing up there a few decades ago.

“When I was a little girl, this building here was a skating rink; there was a gas station here.” There was a pharmacy where a kid could buy ice cream.  “There used to be a grocery market in this building right here.”

Many of the sites are now abandoned, deteriorated, or the lots sit empty. But there’s a new aura of hope that decades of disinvestment can be turned around in this historic Black community.
The history of Lincoln Heights is well-documented. It is an unfortunate but classic example of institutional racism and redlining.

Incorporated in 1946, Lincoln Heights is said to be the first mainly Black, self-governing city north of the Mason-Dixon line. As Blacks migrated from the South for work and a better life, the race-based, discriminatory practices of banks, realtors, and governments often made it very difficult to buy homes in Cincinnati and many other cities.  So when a developer started selling lots to Blacks in this district about 15 miles north of Cincinnati, it was an opportunity to put a stake in the ground, own property, and work toward the American Dream.

Houses were built, but there were no city services, few paved streets, water lines were scarce and police and fire protection was nonexistent. The residents decided to take matters into their own hands, incorporate as a city, and provide for those services themselves.

But official Cincinnati wasn’t eager to see that happen.

It took seven years for Lincoln Heights to become a legal municipality. In the meantime, the neighboring White communities of Woodlawn and Lockland annexed land that was planned for Lincoln Heights, and the new White suburb of Evendale captured the big prize: the Wright Aeronautical Plant, the predecessor to the massive GE Aircraft Engines complex.  

With a much smaller population than originally planned, and no industrial tax base, generating enough revenue to sustain city services in Lincoln Heights became very difficult.

Today, Lincoln Heights is nearly 90% Black, the median household income is around $25,000, and about half the residents live in poverty. Some years ago, Lincoln Heights lost its status as a “city,” as the population fell below 5,000, and it is today classified as a “village,” with a little more than 3,000 residents.

But Mayor Kinsey-Mumphrey is among those who see a window of opportunity for the community.   

She was born and raised in the village, and elected to council in 2016; then elected as mayor in 2018. She’s lived in other Greater Cincinnati communities, but returned home to where she grew up, and she got involved.

“I noticed that a lot of my friends moved away and I saw that they needed the next generation to do their part,” she says. She was busy raising a family and working, so “you're not focused on how things are what needs to happen. But as your kids get older and you look around, and it’s like, wow, my community is going down. I have to do my part. So I'm taking getting that torch and moving it ahead for the next one.”

The signs of hope are evident from a tour around the neighborhood.

New houses are being built. Last year, The Port completed four single-family homes on vacant lots on Jackson Street. They have three bedrooms, 2-1/2 baths, attached garages, open floor plans, and are designed to be affordable. Eight more are planned. The Port has received nearly $1 million in grants to develop the 12 houses. 

One of four houses developed by The Port in Lincoln Heights. Residents have started moving back into Marianna Terrace, the townhomes owned by Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority that are nearing the end of a comprehensive rehab. “That will make it possible for us to get more families living here,” Kinsey-Mumphey says.

The Lincoln Heights Health Center, a 56-year-old community health center, is an anchor of the community where residents from surrounding communities as well as Lincoln Heights receive care. “It’s like a mini-hospital,” Kinsey-Mumphrey says.

The Lincoln Heights Health CenterThe Cincinnati Reds Community Fund funded and organized a “community makeover” that included improvements to Memorial Field, the community football field and the grounds around it; renovations to Lincoln Heights Elementary School; renovations and additions to Serenity Park; and a makeover of the teen room and outdoor space at St. Monica’s Center, a “ministry for God’s children” owned and operated by the Sisters of the Transfiguration.

Hamilton County awarded a grant of nearly $1 million to repair streets, help demolish the old high school, and make other improvements. “We are fixing the decades of disinvestment and abandonment," County Commissioner Alicia Reece said at the time.

A little more than year ago, a junkyard where hundreds, maybe thousands, of decrepit cars were stored was removed.

And the neighboring Cincinnati Police outdoor gun range, where thousands of police from Cincinnati and elsewhere take target practice, is scheduled to be closed after decades of complaints from residents.  Plans are to move it to a more rural location in Colerain Township. “We’re getting closer to that becoming a reality,” Kinsey-Mumphrey says.

The removal of the salvage yard and the gun range will open up acres of land for potential commercial and residential expansion. So too will the demolition of the old high school, as it’s been empty and a target for vandalism for years. “That will open up a lot more land to make it possible for us to decide what we would like to have there,” she says. “We're looking to do something to generate revenue for the community.”

Land is something the community has needed since the beginning, as the land grabs from its neighboring communities left it with less than one square mile of ground when it was incorporated in the ‘40s.

“We’re basically landlocked,” the mayor says.

But space for development and investment is available, and Kinsey-Mumphrey would like to see new businesses join the longstanding Wendy's location that would not only bring jobs to the community, but amenities and services that attract and connect residents to their hometowns: maybe a UDF store, a Dollar General, another chain restaurant.  

There’s land available for industry too. Although it lost out on GE, Lincoln Heights is home to industry, such as AGSE Tooling, a California-based supplier to GE Aerospace; Corken Steel, which maintains a roofing supply facility there; and Die Craft, an engineering and machining operation.

There’s land too for public gatherings and community celebrations. The renovation of historic Memorial Field opens up possibilities.  “Growing up, I remember a festival up here,” Kinsey-Mumphrey says. “That's what we're wanting to do make this field more of a multi-use area for the families, not just football. Because this is our biggest green space.”

Whatever plans unfold in the coming months and years, Kinsey-Mumphrey says they need to be sustainable on a tax base that isn’t growing, and a village budget of only $2.5 million. But with the momentum and investments of the last couple of years, hopeful leadership, and a plan, the community will move forward, she says.
“Some of the things that we had went away, but you never know what the future holds,” she says.

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including Mercy Healtha Catholic health care ministry serving Ohio and Kentuckythe Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; LISC Greater Cincinnati LISC Greater Cincinnati supports resident-led, community-based development organizations transform communities and neighborhoods; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.
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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.