An important but sad episode in the history of the Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement, a history spanning more than thirty years and based in social services, community arts and education, and welfare grants, was the effort to save the Milner Hotel. Since 1944, the Milner Hotel housed low-income occupants, providing both long-term and temporary emergency shelter for individuals and families. The hotel was privately owned and unsubsidized, often used as quick access emergency housing by the Mental Health Board, Salvation Army, Red Cross, and area homeless shelters.
On May 20th, 1994, the city of Cincinnati, while campaigning for an “economic mix” of citizens in its neighborhoods, demolished the hotel after it had spent nearly two million dollars to acquire it. In its stead was built Greenwich on the Park, a middle- to upper-income housing development by Towne Properties, whose owner is a former mayor of the city. More than one hundred low-income residents were displaced and few received relocation assistance. A 1993 City Council resolution to provide long-term housing for the residents was never enacted thoroughly.
On May 20th, 2000, the sixth anniversary of the loss of the Milner Hotel was commemorated at Piatt Park within a setting designed by the students. Former residents of the Milner, housing activists, community leaders, and residents gathered in front of the former site of the hotel to hear speeches, sing songs, and re-commit themselves to ongoing and future struggles. Conceived as an artistic installation, the design project honored the history of community activist efforts to save the hotel. The installation had three components; first was a bright red banner that wrapped around trees and light posts within the park above head level. The brilliant red, in contrast with the green of the trees, caught the eye and marked the location of an event. Its intention was to draw attention and pull people in for a closer look.
Second were five life-sized silhouettes, taking their form as absences cut out of wood panels. These absences represented a critique of the dominant culture’s gaze upon the homeless. The effect of this gaze is erasure; it operates to ignore the homeless, to place them out of sight and look through them as if they are invisible. Suspended within the absence of each silhouette was a presence where one could read texts by people who lived in the Milner Hotel and poetry by the homeless. One silhouette represented the late Reverend Maurice McCracken, who was 87 years old at the time and a key activist in the struggle. He nearly died in a two week fast to persuade the city to save the hotel.
The third component of the installation were plaques placed on the ground throughout the park. These told the story of the Milner in parallel with that of the Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears. Many Over-the-Rhine leaders and citizens draw inspiration from Native American struggles to retain their lands and ways of life. Even the term reservation is commonly used in public discourse about the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Hegemonic power often invokes the negative image of the neighborhood as a reservation, a place of pathology, while those of the People’s Movement see Over-the-Rhine as a special reserve in need of development but not at the expense of the residents. The juxtaposed stories of the Milner and the Trail of Tears challenged readers to look for parallels, distinctions, and differences and provided a historical context for thinking about the city’s effort to socially cleanse the Central Business District.