West End / Brighton

There's a stadium going up in the West End, but an old theater could be just as vital

Cincinnat's West End has many strengths, including a committed resident base, but lacks a thriving commercial district.  Many residents and neighborhood advocates are on a mission to rebuild the West End, a neighborhood with 85 percent of its residents being African American, and nearly three out of four residents of the neighborhood making $25,000 or less annually.

Efforts to redevelop West End go back decades and there have been many initiatives in recent years. In the 1990’s, an effort to redevelop West End began with the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA} securing funding to swap out the outdated Laurel Homes and Lincoln Court communities with the completely renovated City West project. The old buildings were torn down and were replaced with a new development, a mixed-income community with both rental units and privately owned condos.

The Port, a community and economic development agency promoting development throughout Hamilton County, took interest in West End’s redevelopment efforts in 2013. The Port focused on property acquisition and stabilization and has accelerated stabilization of vacant, blighted properties in partnership with the City of Cincinnati.

In April 2018, The Port entered into a community benefits agreement with FC Cincinnati, related to its soccer stadium investment in the West End. The agreement shored up commitments to West End residents and stakeholders that supported anti-displacement of legacy residents and bolstered economic development; which promised West End residents stadium construction jobs and facilitated community input on other redevelopment projects in the historic urban neighborhood.

Another key is the move to improve education in the neighborhood. Cincinnati public schools and Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses, a community development corporation housed in the West End, saw the writing on the wall years ago, and ensured that the neighborhood’s school, Hays-Porter Elementary, was equipped with one of the school district’s High Technology Programs – opening doors to high-demand careers for students, giving them access to advanced technology and creative programs.

The growing consensus among urban developers and planners seems to be that concentrated, block-by-block redevelopment is the surest way to bring in the people and businesses needed to strengthen city’s overlooked African American communities. But those efforts will be complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected the African American community. In Cincinnati alone, more than twice as many African American residents as whites have tested positive for COVID-19.

The challenge is to make the West End as attractive as other parts of the city, a complement to the city's Over-the-Rhine, without compromising its historic nature.

It can be done.

And a critical step to establishing a lively business district begins with the Regal Theater, one of many theaters that breathed life into the neighborhoods over the years in the city. Other theaters included the Hippodrome, State Cinema, the Woodward, the Guild, the Uptown and the Imperial. But it is the Regal that sparks interest in the West End. Options for the theater range from boarding it up to turning it into a creative film studio house and depository.

Originally opening as the Casino Theater in 1914, the establishment was renamed the Regal in 1941. With a capacity of 1,500 seats, vaudevillian and other live acts were its major draw until the 1940’s, when the theater showed cartoons and feature films, making way for more jazz acts and other musicians in the evening.

Over the last few years there has been a concerted effort to revitalize the Regal. In an agreement forged in October 2018 between The Port and Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses, the groups agreed to pursue redevelopment of the Regal, planning to at least invest upward of $300,000 to conduct a 13-point stabilization on the property allowing the funds to go toward much-needed improvements like asbestos removal, ceiling work and other maintenance items needed in the building.

Closing in 1996, the Regal has not been in operation for more than 20 years due to its condition, at one point being labeled one of the top blighted properties in Cincinnati. The property was acquired by The Port in 2013.

The Regal wasn't only known for its movies, but also for its live entertainment. Being located in the most populated African American neighborhood during the segregated 1950’s and 1960’s, the Regal quickly became a safe haven for African-American acts breezing through Cincinnati.

During this time, African American Cincinnatians had to deal with the city’s racial segregation and the customs that existed that unofficially reinforced the wishes of white property owners who sought to prevent African Africans from entering where they lived, worked, and played.

Former West End resident Lisa Waller recalls how her family members regaled her about how they enjoyed nights watching performances from national acts at the Regal during the 1960's.

“I just remember my grandmother telling me about how she saw different performances there at the Regal," says Waller. “I recall her telling me about going there to see Lionel Hampton, James Brown, and a few others. But by the time I was old enough to see those types of shows, it was strictly a movie theater.”

West End redevelopment is a long work in progress, but as it evolves and as the Cincinnati economy deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, officials caution that the key to success will be continuing to show empathy with much-needed redevelopment efforts while taking necessary precautions to protect the long list of the most vulnerable, including people of color.

The On The Ground: West End feature series is made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. / U. S. Bank Foundation.
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Read more articles by Kareem A. Simpson.

Raised in the inner city of Covington, Kentucky, Kareem Simpson is an author, innovator, community enthusiast, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, foodie and lover of all things creative.