I recently had the privilege of spending a couple of days in Cincinnati. As always, I was completely blown away by all the great things this city has. There is simply not a city in the Midwest apart from Chicago that has anything near the great assets of Cincy. It is an embarrassment of riches.
Yet, I’m always befuddled as well as I puzzle a great conundrum: if Cincinnati is so great, how come it isn’t the San Francisco of the Midwest instead of a typical, modestly stagnated Midwestern city? I don’t profess to have the answers, but it just goes to show that having one of the country’s greatest collection of urban assets does nothing for you by itself.
What is so great about Cincinnati? Let’s list some of the things:
- The fabulous geography. Cincinnati sits along the picturesque Ohio River (an asset in its own right), and is built in a very hilly area. This leads to a great urban geography, and stunning views. For example, here’s a shot of the Ohio River as seen from Mt. Adams.
- Spectacular, dense urban neighborhoods with wonderful architecture. Cincinnati was the Queen City of the Midwest when Chicago was little more than a trading post. It ruled the riverboat era just as Chicago ruled the railroad one. Because Cincinnati was a large city even in the 1830’s, it was built in a very dense style, with a lot of very unique 19th century architecture that is of a style very different from the a typical Midwest city. Pretty much all over the city you’ll find extremely urban corridors that in some respects are denser than Chicago. Parts of Cincy actually remind me of Brooklyn. I don’t have a lot of examples to show, but here are a couple. First, Cincinnati’s City Hall:
- Innovative new architecture. Cincinnati is famously conservative, but has embraced modern architecture with a vengeance. The University of Cincinnati is loading its campus up with buildings by the world’s top architects, including people like Michael Graves. Covington, Kentucky just erected a tower by Daniel Libeskind. And the Contemporary Art Center was designed by Zaha Hadid. Here is that structure:
- The patchwork quilt of towns. Unlike the model of Columbus, which had a central city annex far out into the suburban reaches, Cincinnati remained a fairly small city geographically, surrounded by a patchwork quilt of small suburbs. Now some cite the downsides of this and in fact lay some of Cincy’s problems at the feet of this municipal fragmentation. But it definitely has the positive of having created a ton of quaint little towns, each with their own unique character and identity. Here, for example, is Montgomery.
- Top notch cultural institutions. Because Cincinnati was a big city early, its moneyed classes were able to endow great regional institutions such as the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. I can’t think of a similar sized city in America with this collection of top rank institutions.
- Many major corporate headquarters. I don’t know how many Fortune 500 HQ’s are in Cincinnati, but it is a lot and more than any comparable city I know. And these aren’t legacy headquarters of shrinking industrial companies from a bygone era. These are companies that have largely figured out how to compete in the modern world. We’re talking Procter and Gamble, by far the largest consumer goods company in the world, and the most successful. This company is too big and so strong it seems inconceivable it could ever go out of business or be acquired, unlike corporate champions in most places. Kroger came away standing from a bruising battle with Wal-Mart to emerge as America’s largest grocery chain. Toyota’s North American headquarters is in the area. There are many other major companies around as well.
- A genuine regional culture. Much like a European town, Cincy has managed to hold onto various aspects of its local culture and not end up totally homogenized into Generica like most of the rest of the Midwest. Most famously there is Cincinnati style chili. But there are other interesting things, like Cincinnati Bell telephone, an independent regional Bell affiliate that somehow never got swept up into ownership by AT&T, and a local independent third political party called the Charter Party.
- Major regional assets. Because of its status as the largest regional city and its top location between major regional population centers, Cincy has many regional assets other cities can only dream of, including a Delta airline hub with non-stop flights to places like Paris, the Kings Island amusement park, and an IKEA store.
But with all of this, something is clearly missing. Cincinnati did not escape the problems of other Rust Belt cities. What’s more, it has continued to be a growth laggard, far trailing the nation and the Midwestern growth leaders like Minneapolis and Columbus. Where Cincinnati was once markedly larger than places like Indianapolis and Columbus, the gap has narrowed significantly. Cincinnati continues to show below US average population growth, net outmigration, very low levels of international migration and percentages of foreign born population. The city of Cincinnati has lost significant population, and Hamilton County’s population as a whole has been in steep decline.
Drive around Cincinnati and you’ll notice that much of the great architecture is in a shocking state of disrepair. While the buildings weren’t wholesale cleared as part of the botched urban renewal movement, the city still has a sort of bombed out feel in many places. In almost any direction from downtown you quickly transition to very poor, crime ridden, almost 100% black neighborhoods. I don’t have stats on segregation, but Cincy to me has the feel of an almost totally segregated city. I looked closely for a single white person in large tracts of the city and didn’t see one. Notably, Cincinnati has been famous for poor race relations, and there was a high profile race riot back in 2001.
As I often do, I was listening to local radio as I drove around, in this case 700 WLW, “the nation’s station”. (This is another incredible Cincinnati story – read the history on WLW sometime). One of their talk show hosts was a typical right wing firebrand named Bill Cunningham. What I found most notable about him was how he spent about a one hour segment bashing the black community and the ethics and morals of black Cincinnati. There was apparently one of those all too common urban tragedies that occurred when a young mother of four was shot and killed in front of her children and dozens of witnesses at someplace called the Fay Apartments (which sounds like a locally notorious housing project). No one came forward to identify the shooter. Now that’s certainly bad behavior to say the least, and in no way justifiable. But this guy’s race baiting was just over the top and caller after caller dialed in to say how the dysfunctional the black community was. It is clear that there are still major, major race relations problems in Cincinnati.
Cunningham also boasted of how he had “moved to Kenwood” so he rarely had to set foot in the city, something he was quite thankful for. I’ve seen this same sentiment voiced multiple times in articles and comments in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Cincy also appears to have a serious city-suburb divide.
Cunningham also had a guest that talked about how to protect your children from pornography, which reminded me that Cincy was the place that famously tried to shut out an art exhibit by Robert Mapplethorpe. And where until quite recently one could not even purchase a Playboy magazine. Influential citizens such as billionaire Carl Linder are very active in various decency campaigns.
I can’t say what role these things have played in stagnating Cincinnati. And in a sense, relative decline has been ongoing since the end of the river era and the beginning of the railroad one. Because of geography, Cincinnati, unlike St. Louis, never had a chance to become America’s rail hub. So it certainly can’t be blamed for that. Still, it is interesting me that such an incredible place hasn’t experienced one of America’s great urban renaissances. I believe the potential is still there, albeit latent at the moment.
It just goes to show that what I said in my pecha kucha presentation was true: cities are about people, not just buildings. All the great geography, architecture, etc. in the world isn’t a sufficient condition to create a thriving, dynamic city.
Here are a few more pictures of Mt. Adams. Be sure to spend some time walking around here if you visit Cincinnati. Many of the other great urban neighborhoods are best seen by car.
The city as seen from Mt. Adams.
I also spent some time checking out the northern suburbs. Like most cities, Cincinnati has seen a major suburban boom. With much of Hamilton County “full”, development has moved to the collar counties for much the same reason as other places: cheap land, lower taxes, lower crime, better schools. Many of these counties are now getting pretty large in their own right, with Butler County at 358,000, Warren County at 203,390, and Clermont County at 193,000. Northern Kentucky is also a major growth area, and is home to a large number of riverfront attractions, urban neighborhoods, significant modern office space, and the Cincinnati airport. This is the most thriving part of the state of Kentucky.
Cincinnati follows a traditional US urban development pattern, with the north more affluent than the south. It’s east-west development follows the river currents rather than the prevailing winds, however, with the east more prosperous than the west. While the suburban areas have been thriving, the areas I visited in Butler and Warren County were not particularly impressive. Butler County was an established industrial county in its own right, and so has its own share of older urban/suburban decay problems. But what I particularly noticed was a lack of most of the hallmarks of neo-suburban American development. I’m sure I probably missed some examples, but I did not see one New Urbanist development, not one lifestyle center, and only one roundabout. While there were some quaint towns with charming historic districts, the newer development seemed much more in line with the early 90’s than the mid-00’s. The most advanced town in terms of neo-suburban development was Mason in Warren County, the home of King’s Island.
Here are a few pictures. First, downtown Hamilton, the Butler County seat.
A historic streetscape in Lebanon, in Warren County.
Lastly, a lovely landscaped parkway in Mason. I think this is Mason-Montgomery Road, a main arterial in the area.
For those who do not live there, I would strongly encourage a visit to Cincinnati. It has plenty to see for a long weekend, whether you are a hip, urban couple or a family with kids. For anyone who is trying to understand the challenge of the Midwestern American city, this is a very important example to consider. Cincinnati is an outlier in many respects. In fact, Richard Longworth doesn’t even count it as Midwestern in his recent book. But often it is the outlier cases that best help us see things from new perspectives.