Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Cincinnati’s Culture of Self-Sabotage

Perhaps the most interesting urbanist election Tuesday was in Cincinnati, where the main issue in the campaign seems to have been the under-construction streetcar project. John Cranley, a Democrat who vowed to halt construction, as well as to cancel a pending parking privatization contract, was elected by a significant margin over Roxanne Qualls. Given that an anti-streetcar city council was elected as well, it seems likely Cincinnati will halt the project.

Let me stipulate that I was never really that big a fan of the streetcar. Not evil, but certainly not at the top of what I’d see as the priority list for Cincinnati. And I’m a resolute opponent of parking meter privatizations as most of you know. Yet I can’t help but see this as a perfect example of why Cincinnati, a city that has more assets than any comparable sized place in America, has long been a national laggard.

The New Republican Strategy: Cancelling In-Flight Projects

But before that, I’d like to highlight this as part of a national trend. As with Chris Christie and the ARC tunnel project in New York, Cranley (a Democrat backed by the Tea Party) has vowed to stop the streetcar project, even though $22 million has already been spent on it and another $71.4 million has already been obligated through contracts and is underway. (To put it in perspective, this is $95 million out of the total $133 million cost, a total that while, not cheap, certainly is nowhere near say stadium or major highway projects). Streetcar supporters say that it will cost more to stop the project than finish it. The project manager disputes that but admits the cancellation cost is unknown. I suspect the cancellation costs will be pretty steep, and local government will take a bath on it since there are a huge amount of federal grants on the project that can’t be used and would even have to be paid back. This will no doubt also tarnish Cincinnati’s reputation with the US DOT, and I wouldn’t expect any discretionary grants to be becoming their way anytime soon.

Christie and Cranley aren’t the only ones. Several Republican governors also turned back grants and cancelled projects approved by their predecessors. It’s worth mentioning that none of these guys ever turns back a highway grant, no matter how big the boondoggle. This belies the notion that Republican these politicians are actually fiscal conservatives.

This seems to be the new normal, and it’s going to increasingly make doing anything difficult. A city or state can spend untold years on a project and actually spend a boatload of money, only to have one election result in everything being thrown into the trash, even if construction is half over. (In fairness, the Democrats have uncorked what I believe to be an even more toxic dynamic, namely refusing to enforce laws their politicians don’t like. I already see state level Republicans nibbling at this in response, and I think it is going to get very, very ugly).

Why Cincinnati Has Struggled

This also illustrates perfectly why Cincinnati has struggled for so long. It’s a city with deep and toxic public divides, maybe the worst I’ve ever seen in America. Until this is overcome, which seems unlikely, don’t expect Cincinnati to be reaching its potential anytime soon.

As for Cranley, he says “we want to move the city forward.” However, his entire campaign was premised on stopping the city from moving forward in a direction he didn’t like. He may have said some things I’ve missed, but in the coverage I’ve seen of this, he hasn’t put forth any alternative vision, merely typical election-cycle bromides about balancing budgets and more cops and firefighters. It’s difficult for me to believe that a guy who ran for office to stop stuff will suddenly morph into a someone with a positive agenda, but we shall see.

In that Enquirer article, a commenter named Mark Miller (which a commenter suggests may be a pseudonymous account named after a local Tea Party leader) said, “Today is a very sad day for Cincinnati. Not only are we going back four years, we are setting this city back 50 years or more. One only has to look at the Cincinnati subway to see what small thinking brings to this city. Once we were Chicago. Post subway we could only hope to be Indy or Toledo.” That’s revealing of the extraordinary regard in which it holds itself. It’s also not strictly true. But it does get at something, namely that Cincinnati has squandered advantages most places would kill to have while other cities that started without much have actually gone on to build things.

It just goes to show that the real measure of a city isn’t in the stuff it has, but in the culture of its people. I know many incredible people in Cincinnati, but the cold reality is that the culture of the city is one of smug self-regard and self-sabotage. Until that changes, don’t expect Cincinnati to achieve the greatness of which it is manifestly so capable.

Topics: Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Cincinnati

102 Responses to “Cincinnati’s Culture of Self-Sabotage”

  1. Brian Finstad says:

    I know a lot of folks are riled up about the street car issue specifically and that’s why a lot of the comments have followed in that direction, but getting back to the title of this post “Cincinnati’s Culture of Self Sabatage,” I am more curious to hear locals speak to that issue. I’ve never visited a place I thought was so amazing to me as an outsider, only to find there was nearly disdain for it in the immediate region. I have some guesses about it, but I’d love to hear what the local perspective is on it.

  2. Matthew hall says:

    Brian, it’s an almost tribal sense of identity. I’ve heard professional class Cincinnatians explain to me why there are no american cities with streetcars. they truly don’t know what other places are like. I’ve met cincinnatians who are in no way patriotic, who would make enormous personal sacrifices for “their community.” cincinnati isn’t unloved, it’s loved to death. cincinnati is the smothering possessive mother who won’t let her kids build their own lives.

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