Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The West Chester Collection

Photographs and stories from living north of Cincinnati, Ohio in the suburban town of West Chester for the past year. 

We moved to West Chester because Laura was working in Dayton at the time, myself in Cincinnati.  It was a decent geographic location, right between both of our workplaces and still relatively close enough to all the things we like to do in Cincinnati. It wasn't my first time there though, I grew up nearby in Fairfield. I remember how amazed everyone was as our West Chester neighbors developed “Union Centre” with its wide boulevards, chain restaurants, and nicer-than-most movie theatre in the late 90's/early 2000's. I eventually left Fairfield and the northern suburbs for Fort Thomas, Kentucky when I was in school at NKU. On the border with Newport and right across the river from Cincinnati, downtown was just a quick bike, bus, or car ride away. It wasn't exactly city living, but I didn't have to touch a highway to get to the things or places I enjoyed.

When we needed to find an apartment that worked well for both of our commutes, West Chester was the ideal physical location. We had a great, cozy apartment there, but West Chester was an extreme adjustment for me personally. When it came down to it, this heavily suburban area wasn't one we were interested in staying in. It also helped that we took new, better careers directly in the Cincinnati area. Once we had the opportunity to escape the traffic and monotony of the northern suburbs, we took it.

I'm not here to make an argument of suburban vs. urban (although if you've read this website for some time you no doubt know which I prefer). I'm also not intending this to be some sort of scathing attack on West Chester. 

It’s a fine place to live for some people and I get that. 

Our neighbors had always been good, the people mostly friendly (unless they’re driving in the Kroger parking lot), and there's even some good food out this way.  On a Friday night though when you're finally home from work after some nasty traffic and wondering what to do - your options are limited. You can hop in a car and make the 35 minute (assuming good traffic) trip to the city or go enjoy one of the many sports bars and casual "T.G.I.-O’-Chili-Bee’s" type restaurants. From the developments to the abundance of "neighborhood bar and grills," West Chester is constantly trying to paint itself as some small town with local fare, but it's just as repetitive as every highway exit. The commute to downtown during the workweek is a nightmare. “Green” meaning go is only a suggestion, and for some reason, every mid 90’s Civic out here has its muffler removed by kids channeling their inner Paul Walker.  Nothing is walkable. The Skyline Chili closest to my apartment would be a ten minute jaunt if there were sidewalks or if you didn’t have to walk the edge of a four lane, 45mph road. Every strip mall has this incomplete feeling, featuring a few empty spaces for where things were supposed to go. Yet, just as West Chester stole the suburban spotlight in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, it lost it to Mason and then Liberty Township and the cycle continues. Ultimately, the built environment feels unsustainable and instead of making it work, newer things just get built instead among the same poor planning and with cheap materials. 

The Union Centre development itself is probably the best example of the area's unfulfilled vision. It’s this weird street grid with planned buildings existing only on one side and an empty field on the other. As documented here recently, several of the nearby restaurants designed for a specific occupant sit abandoned.

- Shuttered West Chester restaurants as seen in the Suburbia Lost Project

IKEA is out there and other unique to the region tourist attractions such as Top Golf and Main Event exist just a highway exit down from the house that features a “lock her up” banner emblazoned across its entire facade. None of that piques my interest though, unless I’m looking for a cheap coffee table. There’s the occasional local bar, but damned if you can find a place where the tens of tv’s aren’t blaring and hordes of children aren't running wild while parents mingle over buckets of Bud Lite. There’s plenty of time to take it all in though, because you’ll never quite move quickly through poorly timed traffic lights as you take it all in. While there were some nice walking trails encircling the suburban neighborhoods around us that made training for a 5k pleasant, riding your bike out there is a gamble. People love to remind you that they feel you should be on the sidewalk even if you’re trying to be courteous and using the asphalt edges as a makeshift bike lane.

For a lot of people, West Chester is a great place to live and I can understand that. I definitely see some positives and the appeal of a large house with plenty of room. For our situation at the time, it worked great, but it was never a long term or viable solution. Even after living there for 14 months, nothing about West Chester (aside from geographic convenience) made us say: “Wow, this is where we want to be.” After several 50+ minute commutes in the best of traffic just to arrive in an area that shuts down at 9 pm on the weekends… West Chester just wasn’t for us. With new careers and better opportunities closer to the city, we moved to Cincinnati proper. I’ll always love the apartment we had out there, but not how isolated and “cookie cutter” West Chester felt. You could spin someone around with a blindfold and drop them in Mason, Liberty Township, Fairfield, on Colerain Avenue etc. and they probably couldn’t tell the difference. I like being able to walk to my grocery store, being able to catch frequent public transit, being able to bike to a local coffee shop, being close to culture, and so forth. I prefer the city. While West Chester felt at home in some ways, it never quite clicked. 

So here’s photographs I made in the year and two months we lived out there accompanied by a few stories that I feel sum up my personal and visual experience.

- Holiday Inn under construction.

West Chester is a mixed bag of development. While several shopping centers never reached their full potential, the township's position directly on major thoroughfare Interstate 75 keeps it an ideal place for chain restaurants and hotels. A lot of those developments feature fake water features. While under construction in the above photograph, the Holiday Inn is far from the only structure to feature a man-made body of water.

- Rainbow over apartment complex.

The view from our apartment also featured several water features. Billed as "lake fronts," the man-made ponds aren't anywhere near the size of actual lakes nor are lakes commonly found to have shores of rock. Nevertheless, while they're not fooling anyone, at least they're not parking lots.

- Commuting on Cincinnati Metro's 42X commuter bus from West Chester to downtown.

When I began working in downtown Cincinnati towards the end of our time in West Chester, I often switched between driving and taking the bus. The commute is pretty terrible. While I'm sure it pales in comparison to those who languish on LA's 405 or New York's Long Island Expressway, Interstate 75 is currently in the midst of a major reconstruction project. Taking the bus was a nice alternative, but if I had anywhere else I needed to go after work or any other plans, driving was my only option. The last 42X commuter bus leaves downtown for West Chester at 6:15 PM and is the only route headed that way, with no service on the weekends. 

- UC Health hospital campus.

Tylersville Rd. is one of the township's main thoroughfares. Lined with every chain and fast food restaurant imaginable, it also features a UC Health hospital campus. Everything though, hospital campus included, features huge parking lots. There's no density and the young, sparsely planted trees do little to break up the wind flowing over the copious amount of available parking spots. 

- Sun setting over the hospital campus' parking lot. 
- Cajun Burger at Troy's Cafe

While West Chester's (and all of suburban Cincinnati for that matter) culinary lineup is filled primarily with fast food and highway exit restaurants, there are the occasional local places that we found there. Troy's Cafe has one of the best burgers I've ever tasted, CAVU Coffee is a fantastic alternative to the dozens of Starbucks, and El Rancho Nuevo is your standard "Mexican" restaurant, but has great service. House of Bangkok in nearby Fairfield also has some of the best Thai food in the greater-Cincinnati area.

- End of suburban development with room for further expansion. 

There's a lot of housing in West Chester, most of which could probably be described as "McMansions." Take a drive down the "Butler County Veterans Highway" and they all start to look the same. Several of the developments have room for expansion, with roads dead ending into fields. 

Whenever any planning was done in West Chester, pedestrians were definitely low on the priority list. Everything is designed to be car-centric. Sure, it's designed to meet the transportation demands of the local populace, but hardly anything is walkable with little room for any alternative to driving. This is perfectly illustrated at the intersections of Tylersville Rd. and OH-747: a concrete slap complete with walk/don't walk signs sits by itself not connected to any sidewalk in any direction. Even if you do cross the six lanes of stopped traffic, where would you go? The speed limit through this intersection is 45 mph running on OH-747. With no clear path, you'd get to take your chances walking along the gutter of the road amongst drivers who aren't typically used to seeing pedestrians. 

- OH-129 running over undeveloped land. 
- Artificial creek and beachball in apartment complex.
- The back side of "The Streets of West Chester" and "Main Event."

Another interesting development is "The Streets of West Chester." Featuring a P.F. Changs, movie theatre, and entertainment attractions - the development is an island surrounded by parking lots. In the center, smaller roads feature on-street parking, sidewalks, and shops that give the illusion of a city or romanticized American "Main Street." The development is like a precursor to today's "lifestyle centers." Rather than stick with and expand the concept, the surrounding area features large plots of lands dedicated to the entertainment attractions "Main Event" (where you can "Eat. Bowl. Play) and "Top Golf." Each area has outdoor speakers blaring a mix of adult contemporary and classic rock.

- "Top Golf" under construction.

For the past several years, a sign had been advertising to the highway that a brand new Bass Pro Shop would open in this development. That hasn't happened yet though, and the local Bass Pro currently languishes in the somewhat forgotten Forest Fair/Cincinnati Mall down the highway.

Just an exit further on I-75 and you'll run into the brand new "Liberty Town Centre" lifestyle center. That development is like the Streets of West Chester on steroids and seems to have sucked most of any new potential retail life away from its predecessor.

- Memorial near a park.

- Fireworks at an apartment complex on the Fourth of July.

- Sunset over man-made pond and restaurant developments. 

While the above photograph itself isn't from West Chester proper, it's indicative of the commute one faces on Interstate 75. A highway that feels like it's always under construction, it's the main artery to reach West Chester. What could be a relatively reasonable commute often becomes a stop and go session for miles where you often sit so long that you can compose photographs out your window. 

- The Cone.

One of West Chester's culinary staples; The Cone is an iconic soft serve stand in the Cincinnati area. There's always crowds and there's always lines. Often, vehicles are backed up to the roadway as they wind around the giant ice cream shaped building in order to get drive-through ice cream. The soft-serve is probably no different than anything else you've ever had, but the ice cream cone shaped building has become a cultural icon in the area. It's one of the few places that give West Chester some semblance of unique character. Like many towns, once you venture off the highway and past the big box stores, you'll find something special. 

- Strip mall.

- Office building near Union Centre.

- McDonald's restaurant.

While outside of The Cone there's not much of architectural significance in West Chester, the area does have one beautiful attribute: it's flat. Far from the hilly urban basin and built on farm land, the topography lends to wide open clear skies that make for dynamic sunrises and sunsets on your morning commute. There's no skyscrapers and hardly anything above two stories to block your view with the exception of parking lot lamps and McDonald's signs. 

- Meijer store parking lot at sunrise.

- Housing development along man made lake.

- Overgrown pedestrian path linking one housing development to another.

- Hot air balloon operating at a nearby high school.

All in all, West Chester was a good temporary home for us and I'll always appreciate the memories we have there even if it wasn't a place I'd stay long term. I think as the future rolls on though, there's certain developmental challenges that suburbs like West Chester will face. As the ongoing Suburbia Lost project has shown since its inception, it's often cheaper to just build new, rather than improve on what you have. The built environment of places like West Chester leaves a lot to be desired. This article takes a look at the much older suburban enclave of Colerain, Ohio. While aggressive in tone at times, it lays out an example of what can happen when sprawl goes unchecked via poor planning.

While it may be an ideal living space for some (and I respect that), I would argue that emerging trends are moving away from the types of building practices that never brought developments like Union Centre to its full potential, or put The Streets of West Chester at full occupancy. I didn't entirely hate West Chester, rather, I like living in a place where you can walk out your door and say hello to people on the streets without having to rely on a car to go just one mile. 


  1. Great article Ronny! It brought back a lot of memories. I lived in West Chester for about six years before moving to Raleigh this past February. I don't miss the construction or the traffic at all. I always tried to take back roads on my commute to Jungle Jim's for work. If i wanted peace and quiet i would go over to the Wetlands park or the Maud Hughes incline

    1. Thanks Chad! There are some decent parks out that way.

  2. Having worked at the movie theater at Streets of West Chester on and off for the past 12 years, I can tell you that it feels like that shopping center is pretty much on its own little island. It's cut off from everything by the freeway and all around it is undeveloped land and a road that dead ends suddenly once you get past Barnes and Noble. It's always felt like an unfinished project to me, sort of like the developers either gave up or ran out of money once the little village area was built. I will say, though, it's nice to see some new life finally coming in over there in the form of TopGolf and Main Event. More "stuff" is supposed to be coming as well but I'll believe it when I see it.

    1. I'm genuinely curious if that Bass Pro Shop is ever going to really happen.

  3. Ronny, I've been reading your blog for a number of years now and you've really struck a chord here with the last couple of post.. this one and the one about the abandoned tennis court. I partially grew up in West Chester in the 70's... went to school at Lakota HS; the only buildings were what is now considered the freshman school. I lived down the road from Pisgah off of West Chester road in West Chester Woods. On the bus to school, all of that land from my house to school was farm land. This was even before Beckett Ridge was built. When I return there to see family, I will sometimes drive through that area to see the changes.. it's breathtaking in it's scope. Those time will be forever in my memory as some of the best of my life. But I can understand your feelings about it now.
    As a former photojournalist, I've come to appreciate your blog and it really makes me long for what I consider home, Cincinnati.
    Yes, that abandoned hilltop blacktop was a tennis court at the Lakota MS. I may have even played there once or twice back in the day.
    I know it's difficult, but keep up the good work. If you are ever in Maryland, let me know and I can show you around some areas of Baltimore that may be of interest.
    PS. Since you grew up in Fairfield, if you went to Fairfield HS, you may know of my uncle who was an art teacher there for many years, Chandler Hammond.

    1. Dear Chandler,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read through and write. I'd love to check out some stuff if I ever find myself in Maryland and will keep you in mind. I have one more article coming out of West Chester soon about an abandoned house among the new developments built on 747.

      Unfortunately I didn't go to Fairfield.

  4. The sparsely trafficked road leading to IKEA is hilariously wide.