- Historic Sites
Out of the Shadow of Ruin
Pride lies at the heart of efforts to renovate a historic district in Cincinnati.
April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
Writing in 1962, Lewis Mumford noted that “The forces that have formed our cities in the past are now almost automatically, by their insensate dynamism, wrecking them.… The prevailing economic and technological forces in the big city have broken away from the ecological pattern, as well as from the moral inhibitions and the social codes and the religious ideals that once, however imperfectly, kept them under some sort of control, and reduced their destructive potentialities.”
The cities, according to this theory, have been killing themselves with growth. They are overwhelmed by monoliths of glass and concrete, riven by freeways; the middle classes flee to the suburbs, and the cities’ inner cores are left to the dependent and the desperate; neighborhoods disintegrate and with them the venerable buildings whose charm engaged the imagination and whose scale satisfied human dimensions. The cities become not places in which to live, but inhuman complexes where merchandise comes and goes and paper gets shuffled about behind the faceless glass of office towers.
The solution to this grim slide into blight and anonymity, says Mumford, lies at the very heart of the urban system: “One cannot control destructive automatisms at the top unless one begins with the smallest units and restores life and initiative to them—to the person as a responsible human being, to the neighborhood as the primary organ not merely of social life but of moral behavior, and finally to the city, as an organic embodiment of the common life.…”
Enter Carl B. Westmoreland, of Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a black man who lives in the Mt. Auburn district of his city; he also is president of the Mt. Auburn Good Housing Foundation, and there are those who maintain that he is moving in his own way to satisfy Mumford’s dictum, for he is living and working in what was once known as one of the most thoroughly depressed urban areas in the country.
Mt. Auburn was not always that way. It was born as the child of Cincinnati’s nineteenth-century prosperity. Founded in 1788 and situated on the banks of a curving bend of the Ohio River, the city blossomed in the years before the Civil War as the commercial heart of the Old Northwest, shipping corn, wheat, hogs, produce, and whisky to the cotton states of the South and the metropolitan centers of the East. After the interruption of war, the town’s booming river trade was augmented by railroads lacing their way throughout the country’s midsection; and in the 1920’s, the channelization of the Ohio River gave a further boost to the economy.
As Cincinnati prospered, so did Mt. Auburn. Located on one of the city’s several hills, with a view of the river and the bustling heart of downtown, Mt. Auburn swiftly became one of the most fashionable areas of the city, a place of stately homes and preserved gentility—the birthplace of William Howard Taft. Yet, in a parallel with most such urban districts after World War II—one thinks immediately of the Western Addition of San Francisco or the West Side of midtown Manhattan—Mt. Auburn inexorably declined as the city expanded geometrically and the suburbs sucked away the middle classes. It became an inner-city ghetto, a place of poverty, crime, and violence acted out against a backdrop of decaying homes and apartment buildings—a dark, urban cliché.
This was the world that Carl B. Westmoreland inherited; this was the world that he determined might be saved. In 1967, with the aid of seven thousand dollars donated by a former resident, the Mt. Auburn Good Housing Foundation was organized. Westmoreland became its president, and working with federal, state, and city loans and funding, the foundation began buying up homes and buildings—many of them more than a century old—rehabilitating them and converting them into decent, low-cost housing. Buildings that could not be saved were torn down for open space. New street lighting was installed, and utilities placed underground. Businesses driven out by crime, vandalism, and outlandish insurance rates were lured back as the area improved. Today the foundation controls almost nine million dollars in property, and Mt. Auburn is well on its way to becoming what it used to be: a neighborhood in which people are not forced but choose to live.
Pride lies at the heart of the matter—pride among those responsible human beings of whom Lewis Mumford spoke. In an interview which appeared in a recent issue of Preservation News , the monthly organ of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States, Carl Westmoreland addressed himself to that point: “I see beauty where I live, and I’m responsible for the filth in the streets. My neighbors are responsible for it. We cannot depend upon the benevolence of people who live outside our community. We have our own methods of doing things when we want to. An indifferent government makes it harder. An indifferent banker makes it harder. But it is not impossible. My not being wealthy does not mean that I just have to lie down and give up.”
Westmoreland obviously has not given up—nor have those neighbors who have joined him in the rebirth of Mt. Auburn. And in doing so, they have learned something too easily and too often forgotten: that “new” is not necessarily better than “old.” “Let me give you an example,” Westmoreland told his interviewer. “The building you’re in has nine rooms. It is 135 years old.… The congregation that owns the building was going to tear it down four years ago because they had no further use for it and it was, quote, old. They gave us the house and we have put $12,000 into it.… We have space that we could not duplicate for $100,000.
“But nobody knew this building was pretty; it was old. Nobody paid any attention to the brass doorknobs even though suburbanites steal them. Nobody paid any attention to the chandeliers and the milk glass even though, again, antique dealers pay people to steal them. We have hardwood floors in the boardroom that most people cannot afford to install anymore. These things are in our neighborhoods all over the country.”
Will the resuscitation of Mt. Auburn save Cincinnati from the shadow of ruin that appears to lie over many great American cities? Not by itself-but this restoration of life and initiative to one urban neighborhood provides a measure of hope, at least.