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From Riots to Riches: Making Cincinnati the “Queen City” again

Updated: May 6, 2020

Saturday, April 7, 2001- 2:10 AM

Officer Steve Roach

The police radio cackles, spitting out notice of a fleeing suspect with 14 warrants just outside “The Warehouse,” a popular nightclub on Vine. Officers are already in pursuit, the radio says, but the fugitive is getting away. Realizing his proximity to the suspect, Patrolman Roach bursts into action, gun drawn at the ready. He turns the corner to an alley- suddenly, he’s face-to-face with the suspect.

Thump thump… thump thump…

His heart races, hands slick with nervous excitement. A second passes. The fugitive appears to reach towards his waistband.

Thump thump…


Believing the suspect to be drawing a gun, Officer Roach shot 19-year-old Timothy Thomas once in the chest. No gun was found at the scene of the incident. 12 of the warrants were minor traffic citations, and Mr. Thomas was the father of an infant son. He was rushed to the hospital, but pronounced dead at 3:02 AM.

Three days later, Over-the-Rhine would be burning. Racial tensions and civil unrest had reached a boiling point after years of public tension amidst urban decay. From April 9 to 13, 2001, the infamous Cincinnati riots caused $3.6 million in damage to businesses and another $1.5 to $2 million to the city. The subsequent community boycott of downtown businesses had an estimated adverse impact of $10 million on the area.

Population of Over-The-Rhine, Thousands, 1900-2010

Population of Over-The-Rhine, thousands, 1900-2010
*2007 data from Cincinnati Drill-Down study

It might be easy to assume the inner city would continue to deteriorate further from there, given so many years of steady decline and violent crime. Instead, the community rallied together and responded stronger than ever. In the years following the Riots, Cincinnati would go on to rebuild the Central Business District and Over-The-Rhine, creating the hub of commerce and culture we know today. One of the largest, most intact urban historic districts in the United States; Over-the-Rhine covers roughly 362.5 acres and contains over 1,100 historically significant buildings, mostly built by German immigrants from 1865 to 1890. Diverse groupings of Greek Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne architectural styles line the streets, elegant reminders of nineteenth century prosperity in the Ohio valley.

Queen of the West

There exists a time in history when Cincinnati was proudly seen as the primary symbol of America’s westward movement, expansion, and “civilization.” In the May 4, 1819 issue of the Inquisitor and Cincinnati Advertiser, journalist Ed B. Cooke wrote “The City is, indeed, justly styled the fair Queen of the West: for order, enterprise, public spirit, and liberality, she stands the wonder of an admiring world.” Much of the intellectual and cultural development of Ohio during the first half of the nineteenth century can be credited to the explosive growth and diversity in Cincinnati. Beginning in the 1830s, German and Irish immigrants mixed with Americans from both North and South to create a very diverse and worldly population. In 1853, the city of Cincinnati started the first full-time professional fire department in the United States, and in 1869 the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first all-professional baseball team with 10 salaried players.

Late 1800’s, 4th & Vine St- Photo courtesy
Late 1800’s, 4th & Vine St- Photo courtesy

By the late 1880’s, Cincinnati had become an important industrial, political, literary, and educational center in both Ohio and the United States. Boasting almost 300,000 people and an average of 37,143 people per square mile (the densest population of any city in the United States,) Cincinnati was one of the seven most populous US cities, and had a rate of growth and economic importance that was similar to that of New York City and Chicago. More than fifteen railroads connected Cincinnati to other parts of the United States. Iron production was the dominant industry, followed closely by meatpacking, cloth production, and woodworking. The city contained 5 hospitals, an art museum and art academy, an opera house, and the Music Hall and Exposition Building. The University of Cincinnati provided residents with access to a college education.

Music Hall, 1878- Photo courtesy
Music Hall, 1878- Photo courtesy

In 1888, Cincinnati began adopting electric streetcars, which quickly became the main form of public transportation. Routes reached as far west as Westwood, as far east as Mount Washington, and as far north as College Hill, and were integrated with canals and interurban trains that connected to other cities across the region. By 1910, route efficiency suffered from high demand and over-congested streets. The slow streetcars shared the crowded streets with horse-drawn carriages and people, and collided with the first automobiles on an almost daily basis. It was not unusual for trips between downtown and the surrounding suburbs to take 45 minutes to an hour. Despite having built over 222 miles of streetcar tracks, the city found itself in a growing traffic nightmare.

First electric streetcar, 1888- Photo courtesy
First electric streetcar, 1888- Photo courtesy

With the Ohio River to the south and hills to the north, east, and west, Cincinnati had less flood-free land to offer compared to fledgling cities Chicago and St. Louis, and industrialists began looking further west to invest their fortunes. Culture was flourishing, but population growth began to stall due to the lack of developable land in the valley. Effective transportation was needed for growth, and rapid transit was seen as the solution. A subway, civic leaders promised, could help Cincinnati grow its borders and regain what it lost.

1910, 4th & Main St- Photo courtesy
1910, 4th & Main St- Photo courtesy

Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, April 1916

"We believe that the city we love, our home, is at the turning point, and that with the coming of Rapid Transit we will have the beginning of a Greater, More Prosperous, Healthier and Happier Cincinnati. We believe that a Vote for the Loop is a Vote for the best interests of all of us, and it is with pride that we state that every newspaper in the city is for the Loop, and practically all of the Business organizations.. as well as the Trades Unions."

The people of Cincinnati enthusiastically passed the bill to start construction. In 1916 City Council authorized a bond issue of $6 million with an interest rate of 4.25 percent. The bond was supposed to fund a 16 mile subway system stretching across Cincinnati, which would, in turn, slow or even stop the decline of Cincinnati's population at the time. The original plan started downtown, looped around St. Bernard and Norwood to the eastern suburbs of Oakley and Hyde Park, and then returned downtown.

Rapid Transit Railway scheme IV, modification H
Rapid Transit Railway scheme IV, modification H

Unfortunately, due to the United States entering World War I just 11 days earlier, construction was delayed- no capital issues of bonds were permitted during the war. Despite starting tunnels at the earliest opportunity, unexpected post-war inflation and steel shortages doubled the cost of construction, and the project could not be finished at the original estimated price. Shortly thereafter, the stock market crashed, and funding for the project evaporated entirely. Highways were built instead due to the rising popularity of the automobile, as citizens were able to own more land and still be able to conveniently drive into the city to enjoy its benefits. Decentralization occurred at a rapid pace, and industrial jobs moved further from the city center. With Cincinnati’s middle and upper class running for the suburbs, finishing the subway was billed as an unnecessary expense. By World War II, all attempts to finish construction had halted.

Abandoned Camp Washington Station- Photo courtesy
Abandoned Camp Washington Station- Photo courtesy

In 1950, Cincinnati reached its peak population of over 503,000 residents. With automobiles dropping in price and roadways improving in quality following the war, streetcar ridership declined in the 20th century, and the system closed in 1951. Buses and trolleys, city leadership claimed, would provide adequate public transit. Since opening in 1888, Cincinnati's streetcar system had consistently carried over 100 million passengers a year. Comparatively, in 2000, only 25 million people rode Cincinnati's Metro bus system.

70 years later, long-term implications of neglecting the inner city have become evident. Historic business and residential districts in the city center became dangerous and dilapidated. In 2006, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the status of Over-the-Rhine as "Endangered." Since 1950, the city has been losing population in every census count despite expanding laterally, and rests close to 300,000 today. Chicago now stands proud as the crown jewel of the Midwest. New York City remains a primary worldwide destination for the elite and accomplished. Cincinnati, once a shining beacon of civilization, is now fondly referred to as behind the times. It is claimed that Mark Twain, who had several of his books printed in Cincinnati, once said of our city: “If the world would end, I would come to Cincinnati, for everything happens here ten years later,” although the quote was attributed to him in 1978- nearly 70 years after his death.

Population of Cincinnati, Thousands, 1800-2010

Population of Greater Cincinnati, thousands, 1800-2010

A New Era of Prosperity

Fortunately, the narrative has begun to change. The 2001 Riots marked an all-time low point in history for the embattled Over-The-Rhine district, but also the beginning of a new era of innovation and renewal in the Queen City. Since then, local corporations have teamed up with city administration to restore the historic area back to its former glory. In July 2003, Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) was formed as a non-profit by former mayor of Cincinnati Charlie Luken and other corporate community members as a result of a recommendation by a City of Cincinnati Economic Development Task Force. Most funds are gathered through corporate contributions, allowing relative freedom from ordinary political constraints. Focused on its task of restoring greatness to central Cincinnati, 3CDC has invested or leveraged more than half a billion dollars into Over-the-Rhine, rescuing 131 historic buildings, rehabilitating parks, and developing vacant lots.

September 2016- Opening ceremonies for the Cincinnati Bell Connector at Washington Park and Music Hall. Photo courtesy City of Cincinnati.
September 2016- Opening ceremonies for the Cincinnati Bell Connector at Washington Park and Music Hall. Photo courtesy City of Cincinnati.

Walk down any street in Over-The-Rhine today, and you’ll surely find scaffoldings dotting the landscape and dozens of construction workers tuck-pointing masonry, repairing cornices, and painting trim. Findlay market bustles with activity, one of many stops on the active Cincinnati Bell Commuter line. Newly renovated Washington Park hosts various entertainment events and festivals throughout the year and hosts weekly live music at the restored bandstand gazebo. Local chefs and artisan brewers have moved into what were abandoned spaces, and in 2018 Food & Wine Magazine called it "one of the country's most promising food scenes." Once one of the most economically challenged areas of Cincinnati, Over-the-Rhine now shines as one of its most vibrant neighborhoods. While still facing many of the same challenges endured by historic urban communities across the country, OTR serves as a model of neighborhood revitalization.

Over-The-Rhine from rooftop

Though the city has improved greatly over the last 20 years, there’s still lots of work to be done to truly make Cincinnati the “Queen City'' again. Fortunately, with strong planning, continued public-private partnerships, and support of the community, there’s every reason for progress to continue well into the future. While much of the work has been done by 3CDC, the Over-The-Rhine Foundation, and other non-profits with city support, some individuals have made major contributions as well. One such citizen was Don Prout, creator of, who recently passed away in May of 2019. Don was an avid deltiologist and member of the Cincinnati Postcard Club, and had one of the most complete postcard collections in the area. His website embodies a lifelong passion for Cincinnati-area picture postcards and local history, and contains over 15,000 historical images- several of which were featured in this article. With Don’s passing, hosting for is set to expire, and the website will disappear from the web forever.

Cincinnati postcard. Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy

Uptrade Media wants to change that. We plan to bring into the modern era with a complete redesign at All of the original content will be stripped from the existing site, catalogued, and then displayed in a more user-friendly format. Rebuilding the website entirely will be extremely time-consuming, but absolutely necessary in the interest of preserving this digital archive of Cincinnati history. Our goal is to recreate Don’s work as a high-quality resource for the future, and as a visual reminder of the past. Please donate, share with friends, and help us preserve this piece of Cincinnati history before it expires. We appreciate your assistance!

Uptrade Media is partnered with Grant Park OTR to help revitalize northern Over-The-Rhine.

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