Monday, September 9, 1996
CiTiRAMA melds best of suburbs, city

The Cincinnati Enquirer

From the new house on old Mound Street you can see the past, present and - if we're lucky - the future of downtown Cincinnati.

The house at 1048 Mound has carpenters measuring, sawing and hammering at every window. This three-story work in progress is one of 13 homes in CiTiRAMA, a toned-down urban version of Homearama, the annual suburban exercise in conspicuous consumption via cathedral ceilings and self-defrosting sidewalks.

These new downtown homes are not riverfront condos for the super rich. Nor are they Spartan subsidized housing for the poor.

These are middle-class houses with detached garages and yards. Middle-class homes downtown. They're so close to Cincinnati's great halls, City Hall and Music Hall, they practically rest in the shade of their towers.

The homes stand across Mound Street from Hays Elementary School in the historic Betts-Longworth district. This is a scary area for many Cincinnatians. While the area is rich in turn-of-the-century townhouses ripe for restoring, it also suffers from the rot of drugs.

''Want to know how we got rid of the drug dealers in the schoolyard?'' asks drywaller Tim Willis. Shouting over the scream of a circular saw, he answers: ''Built these new houses.''

Walking from one drywall job to the next - ''gotta check on my crew, we're hustling to make the Oct. 5 opening'' - he talks about life on a job site in an urban jungle.

''This place used to be crawling with drug dealers. They'd hang out in the schoolyard and sell their dope. After we started working, the dealers left. I swear, the new houses scared them away.''

The sight of honest labor may have helped. Hard work usually sends rats scurrying.

Scraping some dried drywall compound from a Sprite bottle, Tim Willis takes a swig and gestures up and down Mound Street. ''These are nice houses,'' he says. ''They blend into the neighborhood.''

He nods to a red-brick house. The new bricks have been aged and the concrete foundation covered with stone. And that's how a house built in 1996 can look as if it were designed in 1896.

''Nice people are going to move here,'' the drywall man says as he walks into his next house. ''Downtown Cincinnati needs this to improve its image. Nice middle-class people in nice houses.''

The price is nice, too. CiTiRAMA's homes range from $120,000 to $165,000.

Homearama's mansions approach the $1 million mark. And, they never seem to be too far from a golf course. The closest thing to a putting green at CiTiRAMA is an AstroTurf doormat one laborer uses to wipe his feet before walking across a new hardwood floor.

The mention of Homearama sends Tim Willis in search of another drywall man, Jerry Minges. ''Jerry worked at Homearama,'' Tim says. He finds Jerry walking on stilts in a second-floor hallway. He's smoothing wet drywall compound where the wall meets the ceiling.

Wiping the blade of his drywall knife, Jerry compares and contrasts Homearama to CiTiRAMA.

''Homearama houses have all those high cathedral ceilings and electric everything. That's just money thrown out the window. CiTiRAMA has basic homes where normal people can live.''

At 1048 Mound, the 13 carpenters pore over a set of blueprints. They are students at Scarlet Oaks in Sharonville and they are building this house.

Their teacher and foreman is Ron Gregory. He puts his hand on a curved brick archway and looks out a third-floor window. Two blocks away squats a 100-year-old townhouse with the same curved brick arches over its top-floor windows.

''This neighborhood reminds me of the old section of Alexandria, Virginia,'' the foreman says. ''It would be so easy to turn this into a classy area. Just bring in some nice shops and restaurants.''

This could happen. The houses are being built. Some have been sold already. After CiTiRAMA closes, the new homeowners will move in. They'll need places to eat and shop. This is a neighborhood just waiting for the right mix of people and stores to come back to life.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.

If you go

CiTiRAMA runs Oct. 5-13, in the 1000 block of Mound Street near City Hall. Hours: 4-9 p.m. weekdays; noon-9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission: $4 adults; children under 12, free with adult. Call: 851-6300.