John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
The real scent of the Ohio city is far more complex.
I don't know which is fouler: That Tidy Cats kitty litter has an ad campaign that encourages people to “share what stinks in your life,” or that the brand erected a billboard in Cincinnati naming the city's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood as one of those poopy things.
The billboard read, "You're so over Over-the-Rhine. Life stinks." For some reason, the Purina-owned Tidy Cats thought this was a marketing masterstroke. It's since grabbed lots of attention from Cincinnatians, just not the kind that would make kitty litter fly off the shelf. Check out the comments on the brand's "Tell Us What Stinks" forum, where users bemoan such things as wet tennis shoes, diaper bombs, secondhand smoke, chaw spit and, in the abstract sense, cheating husbands, getting fat and "being alone forever." What stinks, Tidy Cats?
Your marketing decisions for this campaign. It's deplorable that you insult our inner city neighborhoods. Especially Over the Rhine.
As a resident of Over the Rhine your advertisement is cruel and undeserved. sincerely hope that you will remove the advertisement immediately
This one's good, too:
OTR has had a troubled past but the neighborhood is on the rise. Incredibly offended that You would make such an ad against the community
Blasted in the face by an Uzi of angry tweets, Purina issued an apology today and promised to take "fast action to correct our mistake." That probably means the company will be taking down its billboard. But it should also explain the reasoning behind putting up the billboard in the first place because, really, what the heck is Tidy Cats talking about?
Is it referring to Over-the-Rhine's history as a crime-ridden ghetto? That wouldn't make sense, because the area seems much better now, and in fact has been picked by readers of the Cincinnati CityBeat as "best neighborhood" for two years running.
Maybe Purina is trying to say that Over-the-Rhine is played out as a neighborhood – no longer a hip, edgy place to move to, sort of like Williamsburg today? That would be quite a sophisticated statement for a company that traffics in products for cat poop removal. It's possible, sure, but it wouldn't be that smart. Such a world-weary appraisal of Over-the-Rhine could easily irk those residents who are not "so over" the neighborhood's racial troubles. After all, it was just a decade ago when a white police officer shot to death an unarmed black man in Over-the-Rhine, triggering the worst American riot since Rodney King.
That leaves the possibility that the billboard is targeting the inner-city hood's actual, physical odor. That would be weird, because the area doesn't show up on this list, compiled by the city manager, of neighborhoods that historically require "vigorous" air-quality enforcement. (Carthage, Pleasant Ridge, Northside and Lower Price Hill, the last of which is kind of close to OTR.) But assuming Tidy Cats is onto something in its odor detection: What, exactly, is the smell of Over-the-Rhine, or even Cincinnati in general?
Not knowing the number and location of the city's garbage dumps, rendering factories, fetid pools of polluted water and uncollected roadkill, I put the aroma question to a friend-of-a-friend who happens to live in Cincinnati, Katie Gavit Simon. She sent back this response:
OTR is no better or worse than any other urban neighborhood. Sometimes you can smell the P&G factory if you are on I-75 going through St Bernard or close areas. Overall, no more smelly than your typical American city (and actually, it smells pretty good right now with all the spring flowers).
I also queried Cincinnati-based Cities contributor Julie Irwin Zimmerman, who had these well-crafted thoughts:
You know, I hadn't heard about this issue but it does strike me as both offensive and kind of lame. Over the Rhine is an old German neighborhood and Cincinnati was once full of slaughterhouses that brought it the nickname Porkopolis and it must have smelled bad. Frances Trollope was hard on the city in her book Domestic Manners of the Americans and I believe cited the smell of the city as one of the many things she hated about it. But I doubt the Tidy Cats people had Frances Trollope in mind.
As wealthier people moved out of the downtown basin, where Over the Rhine is located, the neighborhood became predominantly Appalachian first, and then almost entirely African-American, with most of the black newcomers pushed out of other neighborhoods due to the construction of interstate freeways. The neighborhood grew very poor and basically almost emptied out; it lost most of its population in recent decades, and the beautiful old buildings there fell into disrepair. If you've seen the movie Traffic, OTR is where the daughter went to buy drugs. That's the offensive part, I think, assuming that a poor, black neighborhood smells bad.
You should also know that in the past decade or so there's been a huge gentrification and revitalization push and many of the buildings are being restored. (OTR at one point was on the National Preservation Trust's list of most endangered places because it has the largest collection of Italianate architecture in the country and many were close to passing the point of repair.) Many buildings have converted to condos with young professionals and empty nesters moving there, and restaurants and shops have followed and are packed. The lame part to me is calling it "the Over-the-Rhine." It's like saying "the Georgetown" or "the Lakeview." It's just Over-the-Rhine. So to answer your question, no polluted water or garbage dump, perhaps the slightest strain of historical reference, but mostly it just sounds like a sort of fearful suburban view of a mixed-income urban neighborhood.
So there are three accounts here, one that seems to imply that Over-the-Rhine reeks like a summertime trashcan of rat corpses (is that why rappers call it the Nasty Nati?), another saying it smells like flowers and a third saying its smell (if it has one) does not stand out. Who is right? To help answer that question, I did some digging around online and unearthed the following odiferous items that are stinking up Cincinnati. If we distilled them all down into a single perfume, the city might smell like....
• A parking garage that homeless people use as a bathroom.
• A foul stench emanating from a vacant house, perhaps a dead animal.
• Feces, urine and throw-up on an old carpet.
• Eggs, and people also dress like it's 2001.
• A man who really needs to use a bar of soap.
If you have other thoughts on Cincinnati's smellscape, please enter them in the comments section.