I have been interviewing people on the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s Cultural Resource Directory and highlighting their work in blog articles. In place of interviewing myself, I thought I could offer some idea of my own work. My profile on the Cultural Resource Directory states that “my own research is focused on the issues that attend the cultural landscape of the city.” I would like to talk about some of that research in light of what is happening in our own downtown. While those who champion the changes in Over-the-Rhine tout the idea of a “renaissance” of a once blighted and dangerous neighborhood, critics are quick to point out that these transformations have come at the cost of low-income people who are forced out by the forces of economic gentrification.
I recently published an article in a magazine called Schlag. In this essay, I talked about how an urban development in Cincinnati provides a fabulous space for consumer culture and for economically empowered people to live. But this space also nullifies the lived realities of the people who live in the city, and it replaces the culture of the city with an artificial culture that has more in common with a theme park than a living city. This has everything to do with urban Appalachians since the neighborhoods that are being parceled up into upscale living and retail spaces are the neighborhoods that have been historically populated by urban Appalachians.
Specifically, this article discusses the cultural background that is concealed by developments like 1010 on the Rhine. I talk about the ways 1010 on the Rhine edges out communities and replaces them with the semblance of a community that has none of the features of community. These kinds of developments offer a pre-fab life and lifestyle, one that is centered entirely on consumption and has no substance by which people come together and share a life in common. In fact, 1010 on the Rhine renders the very possibility of a “common” impossible since it is entirely oriented to a specific economic class who have no cultural ties to the geographical space they now occupy. My research grows out of the work of people like Henri Lefebvre who offered a prodigious work called The Critique of Everyday Life. I focus on this because the features of everyday life are exactly what we are losing in the course of single-minded development plans that displace people and history while purporting to offer places for a people and to preserve history. These projects bury history and erect a Disneyland version of history. And they shift the terms of community from being to having. These projects continue to unfold.
UACC recently shared an article from the BBC that details Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood as an example of how the battle between economic development and the preservation of a neighborhood are playing out. The new Liberty and Elm project, which is by all accounts a full go by the city and developers, is the central feature of the BBC article. This development would bring yet another massive structure in the historic neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine for more upscale housing units. The city maintains that they have made provisions for lower-income housing, but that lower income is $45,000 a year. That is a pure fantasy of how much money low-income people really make.
Much of the history of Appalachia is characterized by huge corporate machines in partnership with civic authorities who took over the land and the resources of the Appalachian regions, exploited the land and resources to exhaustion, and left the people impoverished and their lives devastated. Elizabeth Catte details this in her book What You are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, and she uses the model of colonialism to make her point (122). Colonialism worked through the cooperation of nation-states and huge economic interests to take over and exploit foreign lands. The result was the ruin of indigenous cultures and much of the global violence we still live with today. We can apply the same model to the present approach to the urban core.
After more than half a century of suburban sprawl, the business of consumer culture has taken nearly all available land and developed it to its extreme. All that is left is farmland and the urban core. What we are witnessing are the machines of consumer culture as they colonize and cannibalize the city by giving way to economic development designed to pull the middle-class from the suburbs back into the urban core. They achieve this by giving them the features of the suburbs in a glossy urban form. While Cincinnati City Council makes its case that the Liberty and Elm development is in the best interest of the city and everyone in it, this argument disguises the larger economic movements that destroy the urban core in favor of a shopping mall version of it.
My research centers on what we lose in these bargains. We lose housing for people who are already here. That much is obvious. The families who have called Over-the-Rhine home for generations, African American families and urban Appalachian families are being pushed to the margins of the city. This is not just a loss of homes. These kinds of displacements push people further away from job opportunities and create employment barriers for people who already struggle. These developments do not address, much less solve, the problems of poverty in neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine. They simply move the problems elsewhere, so the new settlers do not have to see it. With these bargains, we also lose the cultural history of Over-the-Rhine. A cultural history that includes the migration of Appalachians to Cincinnati. A slick new high rise named after a feature of Over-the-Rhine that no longer exists is analogous to the suburban neighborhoods built on land that was covered with Sycamore trees then naming the development something like “Sycamore Estates.” Drive through the burbs, you’ll see it everywhere.
If we consider that the early years of urban Appalachian advocacy grew out of the work of Ernie Mynatt and his efforts in Over-the-Rhine, it seems like more than a simple tragedy to let the human history of this neighborhood, so central to the larger history or Cincinnati, to be overwhelmed by the consumer culture that has pillaged the suburban regions. A key aspect of Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s Calling is “respect for community as both place and the people who live there.” It makes sense to use our imaginations when it comes to strategies for saving these neighborhoods and keep ourselves focused on people more than things.
To read my article in Schlag click here: www.schlagmagazine.com/mike-templeton-/experience.
For the article from the BBC click here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/world-us-canada-56048812.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.