Findlay Market of Cincinnati: A History
I recently wrote a book on the history of Findlay Market, Ohio’s oldest continually operating market. When I was writing it, I learned how much a single historic market can help us track the trajectory of our older cities in this country—through urbanization, later white flight, and now, when many are undergoing revitalizations. Findlay Market also taught me the ongoing importance of preserving our old public markets—not just as places of local business, but also as community centers, as they served historically.
The city of Cincinnati established Findlay Market in 1855 in Over-the-Rhine, one of three neighborhoods in the city’s downtown basin. When it was built, Findlay joined several other city-owned public retail and wholesale markets in the basin. By the start of the Civil War, there were already nine, including Findlay, to serve a growing population. Through the turn of the 20th century, city officials continually invested in the city’s urban markets, improving sanitation by enclosing open-air markets, installing refrigeration in market houses to keep meat safer, and creating new city positions to monitor the quality and safety of market goods. Such public investment in markets through the early 1900s reflected the pressures of urbanization when Cincinnati and other municipal governments built and managed public spaces for citizens to sell and buy essential goods, especially fresh food.
But public markets weren’t just places of commerce. They were also vital public spaces for networking, organizing, and socializing.
Researching the families who spent time at Findlay Market over the past 170 years, I learned how merchants, shoppers, and neighborhood residents used Findlay’s market house, the open-air market square, and the storefronts in the buildings rimming the market house to create community. Men and women established cultural societies, set up voter polling centers, created anti-poverty organizations, maintained their own banks, organized labor unions and protest movements, hosted parades and parties, held funerals, discussed and influenced city politics, welcomed groups of immigrants, and ate and drank together. Findlay Market, like other old urban markets, was a neighborhood hub.
In the 1800s, when Over-the-Rhine received many European immigrants, especially German-speaking ones, it was these immigrants who created this community activity at Findlay Market. In the 1930s-1950s, as Appalachian migrants moved into the neighborhood and the market, they helped to sustain the next wave of community development there.
As African American families came to Over-the-Rhine in the 1960s and 1970s, they were denied business opportunities in the market. Through the 21st century, market space and nearby buildings were overwhelmingly white-owned. Despite this, Black community members still created a community there. In the 1970s, they worked with city officials to create the Over-the-Rhine Community Center next to the market. It offered employment services, housing resources, family counseling, nutrition aid, aid for neighborhood seniors, a health clinic, and a GED program.
Despite the clear commercial and community importance of public markets, city officials divested from urban core neighborhoods, including their old markets, beginning in the 1920s, when more and more white families left cities and neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine grew impoverished. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the city of Cincinnati demolished its downtown markets for highway viaducts and surface parking. They left Findlay Market alone only because it was out of the way of a highway path. Merchants there held on through tough years of growing depopulation and poverty in the city center, and African Americans—the majority of Over-the-Rhine’s population by 1970—sustained the market by shopping there.
Thankfully, beginning in the 1960s, a new generation of city officials and employees came into office in many U.S. cities. They were younger, included women and people of color, and were influenced by civil rights, environmentalism, and historic preservation which encouraged reinvestment in cities' inequitable, thoughtful ways. Wanting to bring people and businesses back to the urban core, city leaders embraced historic preservation as a tool for economic development, and Cincinnati in the 1970s chose the area around Findlay Market as a cornerstone for public and private investment. In the 1970s and again around 2000, the city renovated the market house and many of the vacant market square buildings to encourage business at the market and private development in the nearby blocks. By 2000, the city had invested more money per square foot at the market than anywhere else in the city.
Aside from economic development at the market, city leaders have also cared about community development, remembering that urban markets served as neighborhood hubs in the past. Since the 1970s, many have expressed a desire that Over-the-Rhine could be a mixed-income neighborhood, home to existing low-income Black residents and new residents of higher incomes, and that Findlay Market could serve as a community center for that mix of people.
Today, economic and community development around Findlay is ongoing—not finished or perfect, but a work in progress.
Findlay welcomes more than 1 million people per year. Local residents and visitors events the market puts on, like Flavor of Findlay or the Opening Day Reds Baseball parade. The Corporation for Findlay Market, the market’s nonprofit manager since 2004, offers history and food walking tours and is investing in other inclusive storytelling efforts, especially for its upcoming 170th anniversary.
There’s a new Biergarten outside the market house and music there in warmer months.
Several new community organizations have been established right by the market, like the Over-the-Rhine Museum and the Brewing Heritage Trail. The nearby Community Center continues to be a neighborhood hub, host to community council meetings, and a rec center.
Just to the west of the market, Findlay Kitchen offers shared kitchen space and affordable access to commercial-grade equipment for food entrepreneurs. In nearby storefronts, Kitchen graduates can test their concept for short nine-month tenures at subsidized rents. As of 2020, 80% of Kitchen members were immigrants, women, and/or persons of color.
We have demolished most of our old public markets. Preserving the few we have left is important—to support local businesses, keep public space in cities, and encourage community development.
Alyssa McClanahan is an independent historian who splits time between Cincinnati and NYC. She received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Cincinnati in 2016. Her first book, Findlay Market of Cincinnati: A History (History Press, 2021), explores the history of Ohio's oldest continually operating public market and uses the market as a lens to explore major developments in U.S. urban history (available at Arcadia, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble). Alyssa also manages state and federal historic tax credits for Kunst, a real estate development company she co-founded that renovates historic buildings in downtown Cincinnati.