Place Branding

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.

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35 Comments

Filed under Cincinnati, Imaging, OTR

35 responses to “Place Branding

  1. Not to split semantic hairs, but the name Over-the-Rhine not only conjures up historical truths about this place [good and bad, real or perceived, but all somehow true], but it is also an apt place name. That is, it referes to a canal that German immigrants crossed on their way home from work. It is the place on the other side of this canal [or, now Central Parkway, which is still a significant divide].

    The name Gateway Quarter lacks historical resonance but is also not really a PLACE name. A gateway implies passage from one place to another, a waystation rather than a terminus. But, one’s home is a crucial terminus.

    In this case, is it a gateway between dowtown and Clifton? Between the fun of one’s YP years and settling down in the ‘burbs with a spouse and kids? The name is ahistorical and illogical, even aside from what I perceive to be its lack of respect and acknowledgement of local history [or, you can call it strategic disregard]. It is very clearly the sort of name that is devised in a board room by well-meaning developers.

    I much prefer the name Over-the-Rhine, which serves as a constant pointer toward the origins and rich history of this neighborhood, and of the region. It’s the conversational equivalent to those markers placed on significant sites [‘on this parking lot once stood…’]. And, I would even say that its pointing to the more recent, stigmatized but very real, history is healthy as well. It puts any development here in context and within the trajectory of the city’s development, in terms of its physical attributes, values, problems, and solutions.

    I do find it surprising to hear the term Gateway Quarter from so many people who seem genuinely invested in the well-being of the neighborhood. Do they think they’re doing the place a service by using this name? Is it so easy to latch onto what others are saying? Does seeing it in print make it true?

    Maya

  2. Sean F.

    True, huge stratification in OTR still exists, but the economic theory behind this type of urban development is to raise all boats. IMO, one of the only things a capitalist society can do to help the disadvantaged is to try to level the playing field early – i.e. public schools.

    However, school funding is (though ruled illegal by the state) in Ohio done by municipality. So, if the city can leverage its best resources (the historic nature of OTR, interest in urban living) to bring income into the city center, theoretically schools improve, access to jobs improves, the social connectivity needed to obtain jobs improves, etc. etc.

    Now, whether this theory works or not will not be seen for another 30 years. However, aside from obtaining the political will to more equally distribute school funding, it is hard to see another way of lessening disadvantages that start at the core of some communities.

  3. 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.

    One wonders whether this effect — getting people to reconsider a place — is worthwhile itself.

    I imagine that perhaps hearing the name might pique one’s interest enough to at least re-evaluate the neighborhood and form one’s own opinion on it. It serves as a conceptual ‘gateway’ to OTR as a whole. Just as much as a name doesn’t really change a place, people don’t form their opinions of neighborhoods based on the name alone (at least I would hope not).

    The name, instead of referring to a real place, perhaps also partially refers to an idea — the idea of entering OTR — which, to me, is a positive idea to emphasize.

  4. justforview

    I agree with the theory of a “trickle down effect” and also needing to give people a catalyst for reconsidering things. To clarify my initial point about names not changing a place I should say that if names didn’t matter at all people wouldn’t use them in cases like this.

  5. Michael Redmond

    To say that Gateway is simply marketed by sitting around a boardroom table shows a lack of understanding of this project. The people who are both on the development side to the sales people are OTR neighborhood people themeselves. Holly Redmond and Jim Moll who market and sell the Gateway project and Kathleen Norris who sells and markets the commercial spaces, are all residents and have been fixtures in OTR for years.

    Gateway has changed 12th and Vine, Republic, 13th and Vine, 12th and Race–the crime numbers alone tell that story but the true story of change comes when you walk down these streets and you see progress forward, not a regression backwards. We should be proud of what our neighborhood is becoming and be proud of all of the people who are making it possible.

  6. Michael Redmond

    “instead of addressing the issues that are behind the symptoms of violence and crime, they are antagonistic”

    Any statistical information to support this, because I have crime data that says just the opposite.

  7. Nothing has changed?
    Hmm, have you been in the Q on a Saturday afternoon?
    I wouldn’t have been there a year ago but now walk up there at least once a week.

    One more thing, a little less reliance on the spell checker. It will bite you in the hinny every time.

  8. justforview

    Thanks Micheal, I appreciate your comments. They help clarify some things. You are right I don’t have a full understanding of this project. But who does? And is this a problem that could be addressed? I think that your noting of who is involved and what their role points to a lack of transparency and inclusiveness as much as the not.

    It is only recently that developers have become so prominent in the community planning process. This isn’t an indictment of developers they are certainly a positive force in redevelopment. But I want to question their mode of operation because I don’t think it happens often enough.

    In terms of statistical evidence I think that even statistics show that relying on them alone only gets us into trouble. Investors and lenders might rely on statistics alone, but even you see that the true story is told when you, or I, walk down the street. But what looks like progress to you looks like something else to me.

    I do not pretend to address what the symptoms of the violence and crime in OTR are, but I suspect that it is deep rooted social issues that branding does not address.

    I happen to walk through along Vine, 12th, Race, 13th or Race at one point or another during almost everyday. It is my neighborhood and very complex and interesting one.

    I enjoy this debate. I hope that people can see that I am not here to attack anyone in particular, just to provide my view, which I’ll be the first to admit is as skued as the next persons. But I feel like OTR is place where I can be free to express that view, I am not so sure that I can do that in the new gateway quarter. I think it makes people hostile.

    I like to misspell things it makes you edgy.

  9. Michael Redmond

    “But what looks like progress to you looks like something else to me.”

    Perhaps I am not understanding your point then. I remember what those buildings looked like a year ago. I remember what walking in that area was like a year ago. I remember what listening to the press reporting on OTR was like a year ago.

    I have a hard time looking at what is going on here in our community, even beyond Gateway, and seeing anything but progress–development or otherwise. You can not tell me that you have a different feeling standing on the corner of 12th and Vine today than in any other time in recent history.

    Our neighborhood and its issues are simple however, it is only the people involved who are complex. Not everyone wants to see OTR turn around, not everyone feels that OTR even deserves a chance at being a true jewel of the city. The issues are what they are, but the people want to try and make it more.

    Bottom line. I want historic buildings to be restored. I want crime to be as close to 0 as possible. I want to be proud of my community and I want people from the outside to understand why. Gateway is a big step towards the realization of all of those. I hope everyone will begin to see this.

  10. Michael Redmond

    “But I feel like OTR is place where I can be free to express that view, I am not so sure that I can do that in the new gateway quarter. I think it makes people hostile”

    I feel like OTR is a place that you and I both can express our views but to also clear up any misconceptions of the other person. I want to hear your views as long as there is a solid understanding of the process behind what you are commenting on, and this is why I am here. I would hope that when you see what is going on here our two views will be more closely aligned, because I have to assume we are both reasonable people and want what is best for both of our community.

  11. Michael Redmond

    One last thing…
    “And is this a problem that could be addressed? I think that your noting of who is involved and what their role points to a lack of transparency and inclusiveness as much as the not.”

    If you search other blogs out there you will see the level of transparency and involvement that is being sought. What other development in Cincinnati has done what Gateway did this past weekend, reach out to bloggers to answer any questions they specifically had and giving them a behind the scenes look at the project even before the mainstream media? Do a search, and I think you will have a new level of appreciation for how things are being done differently, openly, and inclusively.

  12. justforview

    Wow, thanks again Michael. I agree with you again and again. I want to make sure that I am not taken for someone that doesn’t want change in OTR, change is good. My point is not that there isn’t a different feeling standing on Vine from a year ago, but what that feeling is to me versus to you. You and I both should feel safe. But a branded environment doesn’t do it for me.

    If people only commented on the things that they know about I fear that we wouldn’t be making any progress at all. If everyone sees it how I do then it would be a pretty dull place. I am glad that multiple people with sometimes conflicting viewpoints can be heard, seen and understood in terms of what they think is best for anyplace.

    Even more I appreciate it when public opinions are made public. Blogs are a great opportunity to do that, but they fall short of engaging everyone and behind the scenes looks are inherently exclusive.

    I should reiterate that this is meant to be about the branding of a space and what has been well documented as the privatization of public space, planning, and place. A comment on the visual environment demands a comment on the actors who shape it. This shouldn’t imply a lack of sincerity on anyones part. Many people are doing good and productive things in OTR and should keep it up.

    I am a fan of a number of the new retail developments happening on Vine. Big ups to them. I have heard that many of the units are affordable and the developers deserve props for that. I just wonder if branding is required to achieve redevelopment. Like Dave commented, maybe it is. But if economic development is to be translated to community development I think it is important to be as inclusive as possible.

    By questioning the branding of place and the fragmentation that it potentially creates in social relations I hope a meaningful discussion can generate some possible alternatives.

  13. I happen to dislike this new micro-neighborhood name but, more than that, I am wary of the rationale behind it, and how, why, and by whom this decision to rebrand an area was made. I think the issues raised in this post, and in some of the responses, have to do with these questions, and with a genuine interest in the process of redevelopment in this neighborhood. No one denies the progress that is evident around 12th and Vine, and I think anyone compelled to respond here wants good things for OTR. What those good things are, how they are achieved, and by whom, are legitimate questions. I, for one, am learning a lot by reading these viewpoints.

    Schwartz, reading your blog, I notice that even ‘elite Cincinnati bloggers’ are prone to spelling and grammatical errors. It’s all good; we’re all just writing from the heart, because we’re passionate about this topic.

  14. justforview,

    I would suggest that you meet with the people at the Gateway Quarter, including Michael Redmond. They have an information center at 12th and Vine, of which you’re surely aware since you pass it on a daily basis.

    While it may not change your mind, it might give you some food for thought.

  15. Michael Redmond

    “happen to dislike this new micro-neighborhood name but, more than that, I am wary of the rationale behind it, and how, why, and by whom this decision to rebrand an area was made”

    Let me try and explain it this way. I live in a rehab on Mulberry in Over the Rhine. In Over the Rhine we have projects like Gateway which is a single development project although it includes multiple buildings. We also have Bracket Village, Dandridge, City West which is in the west end and so on and so on. Each name describes a project within the community, not the community itself. It may seem that Gateway is the whole community because of its size but I, living on Mulberry am not part of Gateway.

    Gateway Quarter is the umbrella for Duveneck, Breman, Gateway 1, Centennial Row, Tridecka, Trinity Flats and many many more buildings to come. Gateway Quarter is in OTR and benefits from this more than it is hurt by it. OTR, aside from the relatively recent issues of crime and poverty, describes history and if you look closely at Gateway, that is what they are trying to bring back to Cincinnati is its rich architectural history. The crime will go away, this project is making sure we do not loose the irreplaceable historical collection of buildings as well.

  16. Michael Redmond

    “I am wary of the rationale behind it”
    I believe you are under the assumption that Gateway is a way to convince people that this is not OTR. It is just the opposite. The rational behind the project was to make OTR a better place-rehabbed buildings, lower crime, jewel of all of Cincinnati. The rationale behind the name itself is irrelevant. It happened to be the name of the first building that was brought online.

    We have actual places, which differs, but describe distinct areas within our community already. Pendleton, Prospect Hill, Brewery Dist, Main Street District, Findlay Market (which can describe more than just the market) These are helpful ways for people to think of the larger community into definable areas. Gateway differs that it spreads into different areas above but part of the same development project.

    There is nothing sinister here and no one is running away from anything because the people involved are proud of Over the Rhine much the same way I am sure that places like the Vintage Club are proud they live in Montgomery. Sometimes a name is just a name.

  17. justforview

    Thanks for clarifying things. I am glad that this can be out there for people to get a better understanding of these things. I don’t think that it is intuitive.

    My original post was not about the development project, but about the creation of a name that attempts to embody and identify an area in distinction of what it has been, which happens to be loaded with negative meaning.

    If I live on 13th between Race and Vine do I live in the Gateway Quarter, or OTR, maybe both? Do I have to live in the development project itself or just in the district? Are these question that should matter?

    Regardless, I feel the issues of crime, historic preservation and homelessness are not aided in the branding of a historic neighborhood as if it were a development project.

    That is the marketing issue that I am still short of understanding. Marketing may seem inevitable to some, necessary to others. But in a community with historic character what is preserved and what is not, is meaningful. It is creative destruction of perceptions if nothing else.

    I wish that it wasn’t necessary, but maybe it is. It doesn’t imply anything sinister, just unfortunate in the context of an already fragmented community where the already difficult task of building common ground is present.

  18. Michael, it’s immensely helpful to read your definition of what the Gateway Quarter encompasses. However, when I hear the term used casually in conversations among non-developer types, it does start to sound like a new neighborhood name. This may be unintentional, and I’m not implying any sinister motives. But, having lived in different cities over the years, I have witnessed neighborhood boundaries and names change, and I have to wonder if I’m witnessing that here. Cities evolve, as do neighborhoods. So, when such a change is perceived, I think it’s legitimate to wonder about its authorship, intentions, and implications.

  19. Michael Redmond

    “I think it’s legitimate to wonder about its authorship, intentions, and implications.”

    And that is why I have been responding to try and fill in the gaps.

    “If I live on 13th between Race and Vine do I live in the Gateway Quarter, or OTR, maybe both”
    You live in OTR, the same as I, and not part of the Gateway project that is development specific. One who lives in OTR does not necessarily live in Gateway, but if you live at Gateway you do live in OTR.

    “I feel the issues of crime, historic preservation and homelessness are not aided in the branding of a historic neighborhood as if it were a development project.”

    I have a couple of thoughts on this. Historic preservation is aided by the development, the development is aided by the branding as more people move in and increasing demand for these historic homes meaning they do get rehabed.

    On the other hand, a developments is what it is. It does not solve every problem for every person. Does it stop crime? No not directly but indirectly it does have that affect. Does it help the homeless? No, but it does provide affordable housing to help people stay in the area.

    Gateway is not the rebranding of OTR directly either, but it does make people think differently of the community as a whole when someone reads the Borgman cartoon that says “Grayden and I lived in Indian Hill for years but we decided to move up to OTR” Or reads the countless articles that shows one buidling after another being rehabbed and stories of sales outpacing the suburbs.

    People are saying “I hear good things about OTR” and they say this in part because of the efforts of Gateway.

  20. Sean F.

    “However, when I hear the term used casually in conversations among non-developer types, it does start to sound like a new neighborhood name.”

    I am certainly one of those VL is talking about here (and VL has said as much to me in person), but it is easier in casual conversation to note the feeling and character of this area as different than that of Main St or Findlay Market. It is a bit easier to say “Gateway Quarter” and have people know the specific retail and residential district you are talking about than saying “That part of Over-the-Rhine that encompasses Vine St from Central to 13th, 12th St from Walnut to Race and some of Republic Street.”

    As far as definitions of space, nebulous geographies will always exist and Gateway will most likely continue to be one. Everyone’s definition will likely be different, and that isn’t necessarily bad.

  21. Michael Redmond

    “As far as definitions of space, nebulous geographies will always exist and Gateway will most likely continue to be one. Everyone’s definition will likely be different, and that isn’t necessarily bad.”

    I have a theory about this. I believe that the name Gateway will disappear more and more as additional buildings come on line. I think that people will actually begin to define themselves by the building they live in more so as Gateway will become less and less specific.

    But that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that people are talking about OTR in a positive way. Call it OTR, call it Gateway, call it Vine, call it the Duvenec, call it condo 3A, but realize more and more people are calling it home everyday because of the efforts of many dedicated people.

  22. I would suggest Washington Park as a more logical name, but then people might be tempted to call it WaPa… Anyway, I think the original post had more to do with issues of ownership and agenda, and I can see Michael’s point that, as ownership is transferred from the developers to new residents [literally, yes, but also figuratively], these distinctions may shift or disappear, or a new name may arise. Maybe NoDo, for North of Downtown?

  23. justforview

    I am in favor of people moving to the neighborhood. OTR needs residents, but the kind who want to live in cities and appreciate all the spontaneity and perspective they afford.

    We (collectively) choose to move away from central cities because outlying areas offered a sense of escape from the social ills that plagued cities. Now that the suburbs are beginning to lose financial and cultural credibility we are not blindly selling urban neighborhoods as safe, clean and hip urban places with catchy names. We are selling the same sense of cultural/ financial safety and security and materialism that we have come to enjoy in the suburbs.

    We have largerly been deurbanized in how we relate to places. We don’t all know what urban life is like. Many are working hard to reurbanize people because cities need residents and cities offer many opportunities for individuals and society.

    How much can we market the city as a new, safe, clean, hip, and historic brand before we are just simulating the mentality that ignored the social ills in the first place?

    I know that everyone has a right to live wherever they want. But if people want to be drawn to OTR I want them to do it based on their own expereince rather than a brand of place that is crafted to attract them.

  24. Michael Redmond

    “But if people want to be drawn to OTR I want them to do it based on their own expereince rather than a brand of place that is crafted to attract them.”

    There is a big difference in what attracts them here vs what makes them want to live here. The name has nothing to do with what happens in the suburbs. I, if you want to be historically correct, live in Poverty Hill in the Northern Liberties. Sound appealing?

  25. Michael Redmond

    ^ I didn’t mean to cut myself off there.

    This is not a suburb thing. Let me approach it this way, if you were 3CDC, how would you do this project. Just call it OTR? Because it is not. Call it only 12th and Vine? Because it is not. Call it Vine? Because it is not.

    How would you do it?

  26. Michael Redmond

    “I would suggest Washington Park as a more logical name”

    There are buildings primarily on Vine, and there are buildings under const now on Main. How does Wash Park go over with those buildings?

  27. justforview

    If I were 3CDC I wouldn’t do anything that much different. I would want a way to communicate what this place represents to me as a Corporate Citizen and why people should want to live here and how there is mutual gains to doing so.

    I would want people to think for themselves about what this place should be called and base it on what it has been, is and what they want it to become. I wouldn’t make the decision for people, but maybe that is what they need.

    From the name issue that has been the topic here, to the building facades to the condos, as a designer, I think they are all over designed. They don’t allow for the creative class to be creative.

  28. Michael Redmond

    “the building facades to the condos, as a designer, I think they are all over designed. They don’t allow for the creative class to be creative.”

    How is that? The facades are not changed, they couldn’t be under historic guidlines. The interiors differ depending on the developer but many are just very open loft spaces.

  29. Michael Redmond

    How many people do you think were upset when the Gemans named the area Over the Rhine? How many people do you think were upset when German names appeared on Cincinnati streets in WWII? How many people do you think were upset when OTR borders began to encroach into Mt. Auburn?

    My point is that OTR has changed throughout its history and those changes are part of its history. The only change though that this project brings is ensuring that a hundred buildings or so will be able to be enjoyed by people in the future in something other than a history book picture.

  30. justforview

    I shouldn’t have spoken about the interiors, they are the developers target client’s taste. I am glad to hear some are open loft spaces. The photos I have seen floating around are very intentionally decorated probably for tours.

    I am not clear on the historic guidelines thing? The historic district guidelines should allow for rehabilitation and not to some pure historical accuracy, but to some determined standards.

    But they are standards not design decisions. They facades are clearly painted in fresh bright new colors, that seem to conveniently complement the gateway colors.

    I have spent some time wondering about the design of these various projects happening in and around OTR. I don’t know anything about how these decisions have been made, but there are a lot of resemblance between a lot of projects and their manifestations. This has the feeling, overtly or covertly, of a conscious decision. This is the branding that I think is to some extent over-designed.

  31. justforview

    I hope that the only change is not to save some buildings.

  32. Michael Redmond

    “They are clearly painted in fresh bright new colors, that seem to conveniently complement the gateway colors.”

    Or was it the other way around?

    “there are a lot of resemblance between a lot of projects.”

    Should we criticize the original designers for doing one Italianate building after another, street after street? All in brick, all 25 ft wide, all with similar cornices? It all seems to have the “feeling, overtly or covertly, of a conscious decision”. “This is the branding that I think is to some extent over-designed”. But this was the Over the Rhine branding, isn’t it just as true?

  33. justforview

    I am referring to the new painted facades at 12th and Vine, primarily, but the same is true of many buildings in OTR and elsewhere. This has been done as a result of development efforts.

    I am also not referring to the architecture, but the logos, facade colors and general graphic and environmental design.

    The original design, the ornament, proportions, and material, is what we, self included, have a fetish for. But not simply as artifacts, but also as living infrastructure.

  34. Michael Redmond

    “the logos, facade colors and general graphic and environmental design.”

    If this is what we are left in disagreement on then I can certainly accept that. We will never agree with everyone on everything.

  35. justforview

    Fair enough. I think this post has achieved what I intended it to. I understand all the positions that people have put forth here. While I do not think that they are inherent to this place they represent the approach to imaging the contemporary city.

    Still, I am not satisfied. I want to promote the ideas of fairness and justice and I think that it is lacking in much of how we represent this place and where we focus our energy.

    I plan to continue looking at this issue and specifically to come up with some alternatives to the boilerplate conventional approaches we are seeing all over OTR, Cincinnati and the globe.

    Look for more soon.

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