A key component of the work of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition involves being closely connected to our Appalachian neighborhoods. The neighborhoods that have historically been made up of Appalachians have changed drastically over the years, but the continuity of the cultural life of these neighborhoods remains even as the economics, culture, and demographics of these neighborhoods has changed.
Appalachian migrants have come to define greater Cincinnati on a fairly large scale. According to The Social Areas of Cincinnati, “People of Appalachian heritage, at various stages of assimilation or non-assimilation, now live in every section of Cincinnati and its environs and are estimated to comprise as much as 40% of the total regional population.” Given this, it seems impossible to consider the cultural life of greater Cincinnati without paying attention to the influence of Appalachians on the city and the communities Appalachians have historically called home.
We frequently refer to a “great migration” of Appalachians to greater Cincinnati and other urban areas. This demographic shift began roughly at the end of the 19th Century, it intensified during the 1920s and became a defining feature of urban life during World War II. The need for labor during the wars, and a ready-made workforce in places like Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia made for ideal conditions for people to leave their Appalachian homes for work in the cities. This demographic change came to completely redefine the cultural life of greater Cincinnati and other cities.
Core Member Mike Maloney explained that settlement patterns in Cincinnati “formed something like an upside-down T. The top of the T would form the river communities and the straight line upward stretched along the Mill Creek which was the industrial center of the city.” The neighborhoods along the Mill Creek and the industries that lined the Mill Creek were once defined in large part by the presence of urban Appalachians. South Fairmont, Camp Washington, Northside, and up through Elmwood Place were once urban Appalachian. The demographic characteristics and the changes over the decades are documented in The Social Areas of Cincinnati (located in UACC’s Frank Foster Library), and we can see how the changes in the industrial and economic make-up of the city have impacted these places over the decades. We can also see how the presence of Appalachians have defined the neighborhoods.
Since the 1960s, the historically Appalachian neighborhoods have undergone drastic changes. Over-the Rhine, for example, was transformed from largely urban Appalachian to mostly African-American and is now undergoing further changes. Lower Price Hill has seen an increase in people from Hispanic countries, among other changes. Mike Maloney pays particular attention to the neighborhoods and how they are changing and, with Shannon Gillie, recently completed a report that focused on the village of Elmwood Place (Link below).
Most of those who came to settle in Elmwood Place came from Casey County, Kentucky. Drawn by plentiful jobs in industries like Tool, Steel, Gear and Pinion, now XTech, Elmwood Place “was the only self-sustaining community along the Vine Street corridor,” having its own doctors, beauty salons, dry goods stores, hardware stores, and more, as “The Elmwood Place Study” states. A mix of those descended from German immigrants and the Appalachian migrants, Elmwood Place stood on its own as an enclave both politically and socially. However, like the rest of Greater Cincinnati, the vibrant life that people remember about Elmwood Place took a downturn since the 1980s.
The loss of industry and jobs caused massive changes in Elmwood Place, and the community has suffered over the years. The loss of jobs means a decrease in the population as people move on to find employment. Small businesses that relied on the economic web that large employers provided have also left and empty storefronts are visible along Vine Street through Elmwood Place. The lack of economic opportunity has, of course, brought predictable problems for the neighborhood.
But you get a sense of how the people in the community remain steadfast about their home. While the population that defined Elmwood Place has dropped significantly, the demographics of Elmwood Place have begun to change. Since the 2000 census, there has been an increase in the Hispanic population, for example. And the framework of civic life remains solid. With an all-volunteer council, the village is committed to working through and with the challenges they currently face. Even as the tax-base falls, there is enormous potential for growth in Elmwood Place. Parks and community spaces are still present even if they have gone into disrepair over the past several years. “The Elmwood Place Study” came to the conclusion that “(t)he will to preserve its identity as community is strong and its leadership is motivated.”
The report also concludes that the vast industrial space left behind provides potential for growth and opportunity since these offer options for bringing in new businesses. Community spirit remains strong, and this may well be one of the most important assets in a community like Elmwood Place. The report states that “people are aware of their own history as immigrants from Germany and migrants from rural Kentucky,” and this awareness of cultural history can provide a basis to continue working toward a future for Elmwood Place.
The continuity of community in Elmwood Place exists in no small measure because of the strength of community ties that were forged by urban Appalachians. That people in communities like Elmwood Place continue to re-make their village for the 21st Century is a testament to these community ties. The work of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition has always been grounded in place. Paying attention to how these specific places are changing is one crucial part of how all our communities remain knitted together.
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.