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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- What’s been the hardest thing to get used to?
People using the alley adjacent to our house as a toilet.
- 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.
When 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.
- 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.
My 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.
- 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.
- 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. NextDoor.com has also helped foster connections with other parents.
- 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.