Dr. Don Heinrich Tolzmann, long associated with the University of Cincinnati and German-American studies, is someone who I am aware of but have never met. When I saw his book, Over-the-Rhine tour guide : Cincinnati’s historic German district, Over-the-Rhine, and environs, I had to buy it. I am more than aware of Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. My paternal grandparents lived there for over 50 years. I lived there for a year in addition to all the time I spent at my grandparents. When I was completing my BA in history I wrote my capstone paper on the history of the neighborhoods economy. I have always been big fan of the neighborhood and would argue with anyone, everyone that has referred to it as “blighted”. It was just having some hard times.
That is not the case today. The city is investing in a new streetcar line, the neighborhood is gentrifying, business are opening, and homes are being remodeled and, thanks to the entire neighborhood being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, 943 buildings in all, it is like stepping into an old European town. It is again becoming what Jane Jacobs called a “livable city” and it is filled with history. Not all the history is good but it is all worth remembering. That is why I had high hopes for this guide.
Over the Rhine is defined by the route of the old Miami-Erie Canal, now Central Parkway, so I was a little concerned when he started the guide outside the neighborhood. Dayton Street, old mansions that belonged to the families that owned the breweries and old brewery buildings along Central Avenue (originality in naming streets is not a quality Cincinnati is known for) seemed to be a reasonable inclusion but i grew concerned when the tour entered the neighborhood on Elm Street and failed to even note the YMCA building on the north west corner of Elm and Central Parkway. It is an impressive example of early 20th century architecture and as the early home of both the Salmon P. Chase Law School and a program to train auto mechanics it has history that should be mentioned.
I did learn a lot from the book. Tolzmann was very good at giving the history of the impressive 19th century churches that I admired since my childhood but, until now, knew very little about. He describes several important residences in the neighborhood, stories I had never heard, from serial killers to Civil War generals and politicians.
Unfortunately the tour spends more time outside the neighborhood, I think the surrounding areas were given as much attention as the neighborhood itself was. Some of the points of interest were relevant to OTR, Mecklenburg Gardens, the resort at the top of the Elm Street Incline for one, but most were less interesting than overlooked locations inside the neighborhood. Some connections were overlooked, the Main Street incline was built to take people from OTR to the Zoo, why not mention it with the zoo or use it to introduce the zoo? The Freie Presse building, a German language newspaper that served the overwhelmingly German population of OTR and Cincinnati in general from 1874 until 1964 still stands just south of OTR at 905 Vine Street. Several other locations in the vicinity are covered that have less relevance to OTR. Why not the Freie Press?
The most disappointing feature of the book was the route of the tour itself. Often the path Tolzmann follows doubles back on itself making for needless confusion. The neighborhood vast majority of the buildings are on the seven north south running streets or the three major east west connectors, How difficult would it have been to simply work in a grid, up one street and down the next?
I have to confess that part of my disappointment with the book could be that it scooped me. Researching my capstone paper the thought of an online tour kept popping into my mind but, I studied history not programing. For the few people that will be interested in the topic this book is a good resource. I just wish it was a better one.