One phenomena of place and placemaking that I have trouble coming to terms with is the aspect of corporate marketing. In cities and neighborhoods across the nation and even internationally communities are turning to the skills and techniques employed by corporations to brand and package identities.
Over-the-Rhine is a very interesting case here because of the significance that it holds for the region. Numerous studies speak to its role in the city. Often the historical resources are cited, but that is actually rather incidental to its significance for the city and region. The fact that it is between the two largest economic centers in the tri-state region is what is at the heart of the issue for most of the forces behind the re-branding. The historical nature of the neighborhood happens to be a convenient point to draw on.
I think that place is not created in a boardroom or a design studio, but on the street, through everyday activities and interventions. OTR has the identity of as being an unsafe “warzone” for a lot of reasons and most people will testify that it is mostly perception. Even when crime is talked about in plans it is usually stated that they intend to address real and perceived issue of safety.
In my opinion, and this will be difficult to argue given the contested nature of the neighborhood, OTR is a representation of the what is true about cities and society and attempts at re-branding it are actually not directly addressing the issue. Maybe it is because of political will is easier to garner when the politicians are seen as saviors of a historic resource rather than social benefactors.
OTR represents the issues of class and cultural polarization, social neglect and urban reality that is difficult to stomach. In a recent conversation it was brought to my attention the number of people who have had incidents of being threatened in the neighborhood. Someone mentioned having there car pelted with tennis balls. Another having a pay phone thrown within inches of their head before being retracted by the cord that it was attached to. These stories signified that people were not so concerned with hurting people as much as scaring them. What this tells me is that people feel threatened and powerless to respond other than to threaten back with the resources available to them.
I don’t mean to cheapen the severity of the issues in OTR or to eliminate or place blame. There are serious problems. Drugs, and violence are symptoms of larger social problems that raising property values won’t eliminate. I see little attempt at community development as opposed to property development. To create an area within another in order to psychologically marginalize the established perception is a very dangerous endeavor. The Gateway Quarter is a manufactured place. It doesn’t change what the place is for those that know this place. Only for the outsiders who need some sign of change before they will reconsider this place.
To them I would say nothing has been changed by creating a Gateway Quarter. If anything it makes things worse. Maybe not here immediately, but instead of addressing the issues that are behind the symptoms of violence and crime, they are antagonistic. Giving those with little power who are actually part of what this place has been allowed to become more reason to feel threatened and act out in ways that are perceived as aggressive.