Monday, April 12, 2010

A Word about the "West End" of Cincinnati at the End of the 19th Century

In my opinion, there is nothing more boring than reading a bunch of Family Group Sheets that list meaningless names and dates of the birthdays and deaths of those who came before us.  I want to know about the people behind the listing. What did they think of their circumstances? How did they stack up on the social ladder of their time? How were the lives of our ancestors different from our own?

When our Ryans came to Cincinnati, it seemed as if they were one step ahead of the landlord.  They moved to 10 different locations in a 20 year period.  It's hard for me to think that each move represented progress on the social ladder.  I'm guessing that some moves were moves "up" and others were not.  It made me wonder what the West End of Cincinnati was like in the 1880s.

Today I visited the Cincinnati Historical Society to see what kind of pictures they may have in their files from that era.  I knew that "film" was invented by George Eastman in the late 1880s.  Until then, all pictures were taken with glass plates.  It was an expensive proposition and not a technology that would have been readily applied to the poorer neighborhoods of the time.

Most of the pictures of the area were ones taken in the late 1920s, about 30 years after the time I was hoping to understand.  They did have one article on the "Laurel Homes" Public Housing Project that was one of the first attempts by the federal government to try to clean up the slums, provide better housing and sanitation, and improve the lives of the citizens.  Most of the addresses of our Ryans were in locations that were torn down in the 1930s to make way for this housing project.  The community was once very vibrant, but over time it deteriorated greatly.

You can see from the bottom picture that the housing was very dense and that the streets were filled with children and adults.  What is telling, however, is the description of the area.
It was an area with one of the highest rates of disease and crime in the entire city.  Old tenement structures, crowded together on the land allowed little or no back yard space fit for play and poor light and less sunshine in the rooms.  Five percent of the dwellings had no sanitary conveniences -- not even a sink; 75% had yard or hall toilets; 80% had no baths; few had satisfactory heating equipment; 60% were in poor structural condition and 13% were unfit for habitation.
As time when on, the family moved several blocks north settling in areas near Liberty Street.  Although this picture was taken in the 1920s, you can get a feel for how the neighborhood may once have looked.

This picture was taken at the corner of Liberty and Bremen in the 1920s. The next generation of Ryans would follow much of the population up and out from the city basin.

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