New Kids on the Block

cincyopolis works from the assumption that development should benefit everyone, making better all lives in the community. Two questions logically follow. First: what does “better” mean? And second: how do we make this happen?

We look forward to hearing answers from a broad collection of voices that reflects the rich diversity of our community. To get us started with the first question, we’ve done exactly what you would do.  We turned to our friends.


Gretchen Mahan lives with her husband Dan and their two children on Elm Street in Over-the-Rhine. Today, professional citizen Kathy Holwadel sits down with Gretchen who tells readers about her experience moving into the neighborhood and what life has been like for her family.

  1. With a 14 month-old and a 5 year old, a lot of young couples would have moved to a more traditional neighborhood with well-manicured lawns and neighbors who all looked the same.  Why did you decide to rehab a house in Over-the-Rhine?

Gretchen: Why not a traditional suburban neighborhood? The short answer is because I’ve been there, done that. And truth be told, I didn’t really like it that much. I’ve lived in a small rural town, a suburb, a college town and a big city (in that order). Choosing downtown—and now, OTR—allowed us to combine some of the best elements of all of those locales: walkability, community, a sense of history and direct access to the most exciting things happening in the area.

  1. What did you learn from the process of buying a 150-year-old house, every single inch of which had to be redone, rethought, re-arranged?

When I really think about it, this process taught me faith. Buying this house was a leap of faith unlike any other I’ve ever taken. We put the money down on this house without ever having stepped foot inside…or even seeing pictures of the inside (which, I can assure you, looked even worse than the outside did). We signed the contract and handed over a 10% down payment based on the plans our architect drew up.unnamed

The process required faith in three things. Faith in our team—our architect, developer and contractors—to bring it to completion as close to the drawings and as on-time as possible. Faith in the neighborhood—that OTR would continue improving to become a safe place where we’d want to raise our family. And finally, we had to have faith in ourselves—we knew a lot of people would consider us out of our minds to do this.

To write this makes it sound like it was a breeze. Let me be clear: it wasn’t. For me to learn and experience this kind of faith involved struggle. None of this happened without some pretty epic anxiety on my part.

  1. What’s been the most positive surprise about your adventure in urbanism?

When I lived in the suburbs, I perceived city living as a very isolated existence—single people in apartments, bolting their doors, drawing the blinds—the streets empty at 5:30 p.m. It’s not like that at all. As long as I’ve lived downtown, I’ve felt part of an incredibly vibrant community.

When Dan and I first met and started dating, we lived in apartments downtown and would spend our weekends walking around and exploring. That’s what we did for fun. Learning more about our city and watching things change never failed to surprise. We got married downtown, had our children while living downtown. Now, we’re 10 years married with two kids and we’re still exploring our city.

  1. What’s been the hardest thing to get used to?

People using the alley adjacent to our house as a toilet.

  1. You both grew up in very different environments (Mason and along the Ohio River).  How will your sons view the world differently because of where you live?

I’m excited to open up opportunities for them to explore. Every day and every weekend, we can see and do things that can only be found here: Reds games, Lumenocity, Paddlefest, the Flying Pig Marathon, the Main Public Library, Museum Center, the Cincinnati Zoo, Findlay Market, amazing parks like Washington Park, Smale Park, Sawyer Point, restaurants and shops… I could go on and on.
unnamed-1When I think of living in the suburbs as a kid and teenager, I was interested in art and wanted to go to the Cincinnati Art Museum or the Taft on weekends. Even though it was only a 30-minute drive away, it felt so far removed. My “kid” modes of transportation—walking or riding my bike—wouldn’t work to get me there. I felt unable to fully explore the things that really interested me. I’m excited to think that our boys will have opportunities and access to explore everything that they’re interested in.

Beyond that, I’m hopeful that they will have an awareness and appreciation for the diversity, history and beauty that’s around them every day. As they watch the city change, I hope that they will be accepting of change, even agents of change. I hope they’ll be accepting of and compassionate towards others who aren’t exactly like them. I hope they’ll be street smart.

  1. We talked about how the neighborhood will get ‘better’ as more people move back to the urban core and then none of us could figure out exactly what ‘better’ means. Could you try to put words to that idea.

This question has stumped me more than any of the other questions you’ve asked. Instinctively, I want to say “safer” and maybe even “friendlier” than before.

At the start of the summer, there was an event that inspired me with a vision of “better.” There was a dedication of the “Field of Greens” on Pleasant Street, just about a block away from our house. It consists of a wiffle ball field and some milk-crate planters of kale, tomatoes, etc. It was designed and built on an empty lot by DAAP students.

unnamed-3My family walked over and found a diverse group at the opening of this field: UC students, neighborhood kids, families, passers-by. A game of wiffle ball started up between two teams that included UC students and neighborhood kids. My 5-year-old asked to bat, and the teams gladly let him jump in during their game. It was a positive environment, creating a useful community space that would have otherwise been vacant or decaying. In this space, people in the community could safely gather and have fun. To me, this was “better.”

The sidebar to this story is that, at the same time, just a few blocks away, there was a march for peace going on. Unfortunately, this peaceful march was interrupted by a homicide on Race and Elder and gunfire a few blocks east of there. When I saw the news about this the next morning, it crushed me a bit with the realization that we haven’t yet achieved “better.” There’s still more work to be done.

  1. How often do you use a car?

I use a car daily during the work week. On the weekends, we do a lot of walking.


  1. Is it hard to meet other families?  Do the boys have friends nearby?

It’s amazing how many other downtown or OTR families have “emerged”—I feel like, in the past year, we’ve connected with so many other families who have kids our boys’ ages, and we just never knew they were so close by. Our network of parents keeps growing organically via birthday parties, trips to the park and now, school. has also helped foster connections with other parents.

  1. And the most popular question for all of us who live in the city center:  Where do you buy your groceries?

I go to Newport Kroger at least once a week. There’s usually a weekly Findlay Market trip and we rely on other downtown retailers (Vine St. Kroger, Walgreens, CVS, 1215 Wine Bar) for other fill-in-the-gap or need-it-now items.unnamed-4.jpg

4 thoughts on “New Kids on the Block

  1. Bill Collins

    I love this column because it directly engages the key question of our local urban renaissance during the last 6-7 years, a time period that started during the Mallory Administration and the wrap-up period of CPS’s $1.2 Facilities Master Plan to rebuild all the schools in the City and District: As I see it, that key question is:
    * Is this uptick sustainable, and will families with children embrace the urban core again as they did from the founding of Cincinnati in 1789 up until about 1950?

    As I see it, to deal with that question, key part of Gretchen’s narrative is where this young parent writes about how much easier it has been to find other families with kids who want to play with their kids: Gretchen writes
    ” It’s amazing how many other downtown or OTR families have ’emerged’—I feel like, in the past year, we’ve connected with so many other families who have kids our boys’ ages, and we just never knew they were so close by. Our network of parents keeps growing organically via birthday parties, trips to the park and now, school. has also helped foster connections with other parents.”

    The Nextdoor social-media site is playing a key role in pulling communities and families together. We really see that here in Madisonville, too. This points to how the changes in transportation and communication which drove people out of the cities starting around 1950 and now pulling people back into the cities.

  2. Mary

    Strong schools are another important part of a healthy community. Do the Mahans feel comfortable answering where they will/are sending their children to school? There are many parents throughout a variety of city neighborhoods that don’t send their children to the neighborhood school so no judgement here. Just wondering their thoughts on the school question.

  3. Gretchen Mahan

    Thanks for the replies! I’m excited to enter in the dialogue so here goes…

    ejmcewan-thank you! we are happy to be here!

    Bill – I agree with you that NextDoor has been incredibly helpful! I also hear your question about sustaining the neighborhood long-term. That was actually on my mind today as I walked past the site where one of the former City Gospel buildings is being demolished. There’s also a series of new homes going up a stone’s throw from our place on 15th. I drove past that site today and saw the chain-link fence and the sign with a rendering of the homes that will stand there. I thought about what this street will look and feel like once the construction vehicles are gone and the new buildings are finished, with residents in them. Are these spaces going to be purchased by families, empty-nesters, individuals? Will they be bought and rented? What will it sound like when there’s no construction going on? What will the streetscape look like with a bunch of new buildings? I should probably snap photos of the street now so we can compare in a few years.

    Mary – We currently send our oldest to Fairview Clifton German Language School. We toured SCPA and Fairview in 2012 when we were exploring options. At that time, we lived on Pike Street downtown. In 2014, just before we moved to OTR, we did the campout for a kindergarten spot at Fairview and got in. In fact, that experience opened us up to some other downtown parents who were doing the same thing, which has been a great opportunity to connect. As I’m typing this, I’m missing a meeting at school about the future of the former Vine Street Elementary eventually becoming a CPS preschool to serve downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. I wish that option had been around when we were sending our oldest to preschool.

    Thanks for the interest! Happy to keep the conversation rolling!


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