Sunday, April 13th, 2014

On the Riverfront

Thursday I took a look at my “Cincinnati conundrum,” namely how it’s possible for a city that has the greatest collection of civic assets of any city its size in America to underperform demographically and economically. In that piece I called out the sprawl angle. But today I want to take a different look at it by panning back the lens to see Cincinnati as simply one example of the river city.

There are four major cities laid out on an east-west corridor along the Ohio River: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis (which is not on the Ohio River, but close enough. I’ll leave Memphis and New Orleans out of it for now). All of these are richly endowed with civic assets like Cincinnati is, having far more than their fair share of great things, yet they’ve all been stagnant to slow growing for decades.

This suggests a broader challenge: if urbanity and quality of life are so determinant of economic success, why aren’t these places juggernauts? It’s not that they are failures by any means, but they are long term under-performers.

Over the Rhine, Cincinnati – one example of the spectacular urban assets of these cities

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but since these cities share many characteristics, I wanted to show what they have in common. Doubtless some of these common threads play a role.

These cities came of age earlier than railroad based cities like Chicago. These are some of the earliest major cities in the region, and they owe their prominence to the era when the river was the major form of transport. They’ve all had a heavy German Catholic influence, hence the legacy of breweries and the importance of private Catholic high schools in these areas even today. They have bridge-oriented transportation traffic patterns and bottlenecks. They’ve got interesting geography with hills and trees and some similar climate patterns.

I find it particularly interesting that they have similar political geographies, despite being in four different states. Three of them are multi-state metros, obviously, because the rivers are state borders. But beyond that they all have hyper-fragmented systems of lots of tiny cities and villages that are fiercely independent. Here’s a map of all the municipalities in St. Louis County, for example:

Image via ArchCityHomes

All of these cities ceased annexing early and got hemmed in. St. Louis famously detached itself from the county completely to become an independent city. Only Louisville with its recently city-county merger grew out of this. But Louisville’s Jefferson County still features numerous sixth class cities and such that were excluded from merger, some of which are only a couple blocks in size. Hamilton County, Ohio and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania are similar.

Inside the cities themselves, there are also many well defined, distinct neighborhoods. These are usually small in size compared to what are called neighborhoods in cities like Chicago. Also, there can be deep divisions between the different sides of town. These are very divided cities. Cincinnati has the East Side-West Side divide. Louisville has the East End, the South End, and the West End. And which one you are from is a huge cultural marker. The North and South Sides of Indianapolis are very different and have some sniping back and forth, yet I don’t see the same visceral suspicion across the sides of town compared to say how Louisville’s South End (mostly working class white) sees the East End (the favored quarter). That helps explain why it took Louisville 40 years to build new Ohio River bridges, and why Cincinnati had to overcome unbelievable obstacles to build a streetcar.

These cities are also provincial and insular in their character. As a transplant to Louisville put it, “Louisville is parochial in all the best and worst ways.” These are cities with rich, unique architectural traditions, and with tremendously distinct local cultures compared to other cities in their region such as Indianapolis or Columbus, which have been largely Genericaized. So Cincinnati has its chili. St. Louis has its pizza. Pittsburgh even has its own yinzer dialect. In at least three of the four of these cities – I don’t know about Pittsburgh – the first question you get asked is “Where did you go to high school?” which tells you almost everything you need to know about them.

While provincialism is almost inherently negative as a term, this has big upsides for these cities too. They have an incredible sense of place and uniqueness. The brick houses of St. Louis are unlike anything else, for example. Again, the feel of these places is very notable in contrast to neighbors like Columbus and Indy, which give off a Sprawlville, USA vibe.

Trailer for film Brick: By Chance and Fortune. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. Please ignore the unfortunate preview image.

This provincialism comes with two associated character traits. One is a degree of solipsism. Solipsism is the philosophical proposition that nothing can be known to exist outside the self. It’s different from egotism. Egotism says you’re better than everybody. Solipsism says there isn’t anybody else. Obviously we’re talking degrees here, not absolutes. But this is key I think to the retention of those local traditions and local character.

I’ll give an example that illustrate this. Cincinnati arts consultant Margy Waller made a comment to me a few years ago that really stuck with me. She said that when people leave Cincinnati and come back, the stuff they did and learned while they were away might as well not have happened. She left and worked for several years in Washington, including in the Clinton White House. I’m not sure exactly what she did there, but if you’re working in the White House, by definition you’re operating at a bigtime level. But that’s barely mentioned in Cincinnati. Few people ever ask how her DC network or experience can inform or support the city.

Similarly Randy Simes is an instructive case. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati planning school, he got a job with a tier one engineering firm in Atlanta. But he also started and ran the blog Urban Cincy, which is a relentlessly positive advocate for the city and maybe its most effective marketing voice to the global urbanist world (the Guardian listed it as among the best urban web sites on the planet). Eager to come back to Cincinnati, he looked for a job there. But he couldn’t find one. Here’s a guy with 1) legitimate professional credentials 2) a top tier firm pedigree 3) the city’s most effective urban advocate 4) non-controversial, positive, and aligned with the political structure of the city and 5) he’s 24-25 years old and so it’s easy to hire him – you don’t need an executive director position or something. Yet no interest. Shortly thereafter he was head hunted by America’s biggest engineering firm to move to Chicago and then was sent on an expat assignment to Korea where he’ll be working on, among other things, one of the world’s most prominent urban developments (one that Cincinnati actually flew people in from Korea to present to them about). Jim Russell had a very similar experience with Pittsburgh.

The relationship of prophets and home towns has been known for some time, so I don’t want to pretend this is a totally unique case. But I can’t help but compare Randy’s case to blogger/advocate Richey Piiparinen in Cleveland, for whom an entire research center was created at Cleveland State (admittedly, he was already local at the time). I just don’t think Randy’s accomplishments outside Cincinnati resonated.

And secondly, these places do sometimes cross over into a sort of hauteur. I think because these were all very large, important cities in their earlier days and because they had so much amazing stuff, it bred a sort of aristocratic mindset perhaps. Having lived in both Louisville and Indianapolis, I clearly see the difference. In Indianapolis cool people will happily tell you how awesome they think St. Louis, Cincinnati or Louisville are. They’ll make visits to say the 21C Hotel or Forecastle Festival in Louisville and write and say great things about it and even how they wish Indy had some of those things.

But people from Louisville would rather bite their tongues out than say nice things about Indianapolis. If forced to, they will, but they do it in the most grudging way. I’ll never forget a travel guide for Louisville called the “Insiders Guide to Louisville” (I believe different than the one currently being sold under that name). In the intro they were bragging about Louisville’s totally legitimate food scene, but they had to throw in a gratuitous insult by saying something along the lines of, “Every city has good restaurants these days – even Indianapolis, we hear – but Louisville’s restaurants are truly special.” When Indianapolis Monthly did its “Chain City, USA” cover on Indy’s restaurants, I had to send it to my friends in Louisville since I knew they’d eat it up gleefully. (If you watched the St. Louis brick film trailer, you’ll also notice someone in it throwing a similar gratuitous dart at the Illinois brick used in Chicago).

Hot off the presses is this travel piece on Indianapolis written by someone in Louisville. As a travel piece, by is going to be positive by the very nature of the genre, but note the way the writer frames up the trip:

I bristle whenever I hear about flyover country – my home of Louisville is smack in the heart of what east and west coasters think is just the space they have to cross to get from one good part of the country to another – so I should be a little more open minded. But maybe because of my fondness for my hometown, it turns out I’ve been harboring a bit of the same snobbery that those fliers do – toward a northern neighbor.

My friend Kristian was bragging to me about Indy’s tech scene one day. I’d just gotten back from Cincinnati where I’d gotten to see their tech scene showcased, tour the Brandery accelerator, etc. So I said, “What about Cincinnati? Looks like they are rocking and rolling.” Kristian was like, “Oh yeah, they’re awesome. I was just down there and they totally get it, there’s some great stuff going on.” Then he made a comment that I think summed it up: “You know what though? They’re in love with their own story.”

That sums it up. These cities are in love with their own stories. That perhaps also explains a bit of it. With so many amazing assets it’s easy to be complacent. It reminds me of the famous quote from the triumphant (and boosterish) Chicago Democrat as Chicago started to pull away from St. Louis as the commercial capital of the Midwest: “St. Louis businessmen wore their pantaloons out sitting and waiting for trade to come to them while Chicago’s wore their shoes out running after it.”

If you’re too in love with your own story, you’re not going to work as hard as you should to take that story to the next level. After all, the story of these cities isn’t finished yet. But there’s a new generation in these places that aren’t wedded to the old ways. They love the story, but have some chapters of their own they want to write. As urban assets they have come back into fashion in the market, it will be interesting to see how they evolve. As the press for Pittsburgh shows, for example, there’s already plenty of signs of an inflection point. And in a region where places tend to flagellate themselves, having some cities with a bit of honest to goodness civic hauteur can actually be a refreshing change.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Urban Culture
Cities: Cincinnati, Louisville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis

90 Responses to “On the Riverfront”

  1. pete-rock says:

    @ John Morris:

    I feel like we’re saying the same thing. Maybe you’re recognizing a distinction that I’m not — the Scots-Irish of KY and WV versus the German/”Pennsylvania Dutch” influence that came from PA. To me, they both came down the river to settle the river cities and established different cultural characters there than the New Englanders further north.

  2. John Morris says:

    Thanks. I guessed the Appalachian migrants mostly came later chasing industrial jobs.

    “Cincinnati’s economy was always manufacturing based and that has been moving out of the city to nearby counties.”

    This is the other thing I guessed. If Cincy is partly a city of hills & valleys, it probably lacks the space in town for large footprint modern manufacturing plants.

    Like many cities it has failed to transform former industrial areas like Camp Washington to a mix of other uses- like offices, retail residential & light manufacturing.

    Where are the main regional manufacturing districts today?

    Could the city eventually evolve towards a San Francisco model where reverse commuting is common?

  3. Paul Wilham says:

    @john, Most of the manufacturing is North and East of the city along I 75 towards Dayton.

    The San Francisco analogy is perfect . Cincinnati could support a reverse commute. Many buildings downtown that once were offices are now condos. There are neighborhoods like mine, Price Hill, Fairmount etc. that overlook the downtown core that have the potential to be very high end housing.

    The problem was the city pushed low income out there when OTR was emptied out post riots. City leaders do not understand that everyone will not want to live in a 270K 900 sq ft condo and single fam homes will be highly desired.

    Architecturally Cincinnati has the finest collection of Victorian Architecture in the Midwest. Cincinnati is a bit of an urban planners nightmare too, for example I have 600 sq ft shotguns on my block and 4000 sq ft Second Empire A story house. But that diversity allows for greater pricing diversity that should eliminate the total gentrification in SF that is pricing out the middle class.

    The city solution once they throw low income in a neighborhood has been to bulldoze it when they leave. “Blight abatement” keeps city inspectors busy, the demo contractors happy and destroys the property tax base. The city will demo over 250 properties in 2014 at a cost of millions of dollars yet only allocated , 200K on stabilization city wide being spent on two small projects. Yes they are shooting themselves in the foot and that gets back to lack of leadership ( and well trained individuals) in city government. You have people with high school diplomas running departments.

    The city still follows the 1960 urban renewal model. Which is one reason it lags behind other cities.

    It could be so much more.

  4. John Morris says:

    That is what I thought- probably, the land north starts getting flat.

    I love the housing diversity. Pittsburgh has a lot of areas like Shadyside with all kinds of property types.

  5. John Morris says:

    Pittsburgh is starting to have that relationship with northern suburbs like Wexford, Cranberry & Warrendale

    If you want/ need a big footprint property for manufacturing or research-you are likely to end up there. The housing stock, however, is vastly inferior to what Pittsburgh offers.

    Reverse commuting is a likely trend here. My girlfriend does it.

    In an ideal world, the city and northern suburbs would be connected/ oriented around a light rail system.

  6. Joe says:

    This is quite a fascinating topic. This discussion obviously points to the fact that there are numerous things at play here. I think the proximity of these cities to one another is another factor to consider. Aside from the East Coast, I-95, I can think of few other areas in the country that have so many, what I would call major cities competing for talent, resources, and jobs as the I-71/I-70/I-65 Bermuda Triangle (Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, and Louisville with Lexington as a satellite). Perhaps Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro.

    Can the market sustain so many cities in such a small area given industrial decline and the rise of the sunbelt? Especially when the balance of competition is tilted due to the fact that two of these cities are state capitals and one of those capitals is also home to one of the largest universities (and immigration magnets) in the country?

    While cities have, no doubt, made some poor choices, the change of the geo-political landscape and immigration patterns cannot be ignored.

  7. Paul Wilham says:

    Well almost everyone I know in Indy (and I lived there for many years)works in the professional business sector. Indianapolis actually has very little major manufacturing left. They saw the writing on the wall 30 years ago and worked on getting corporate headquarters and service based businesses. Its big on tech and pharma and corporate centers and it has one of the largest convention businesses in the country and vibrant tourism base plus all the sports venues.

    I don’t think Louisville is exactly manufacturing dependent either. Any city that hangs its hat on big manufacturing is doomed, its all about creating a diverse business/tech center with higher paying jobs that are key to success.

    I think each city offers a slightly different niche and mix.

  8. John Morris says:


    In spite of their problems, the general stats show most of these cities, Louisville, Indianapolis, Columbus, Cincinnati are growing.

    A) They are feeding on a general rural to urban migration.

    B)They have shifted towards tech & services to a large degree.

    C) The region borders on the growing mid South and benefits from that access.

    D) They benefit from proximity & scale and may start to operate as one mega region.

    My guess is the growth axis of the Ohio great lakes region is shifting towards the South and away from Toledo/ Cleveland.

  9. Joe says:

    Cincinnati’s founding is an interesting one as, from the outset, it was competing with neighboring settlements for supermacy. Originally settled under the name Losantiville (a poor attempt to fuse French, Latin, and English to refer to the village across from the Licking River), what is now Cincinnati competed with a settlement to the west on the Ohio known as North Bend, and a settlement to the east on the Ohio River at the mouth of the Little Miami River, known as Columbia. Though Columbia flourished first due to its fertile soil, its low lands were very prone to flooding and it was abandoned. North Bend failed to grow due the fact it lacked enough relatively flat, build-able land to allow for expansion. Losantiville sat across from a river that fed into Kentucky which was more developed at the time. It’s topography was also friendlier. The basin was large and a significant amount of it was on a plateau allowing for easy expansion into areas that were not susceptible to regular flooding. The locating of Fort Washington at the settlement pretty much sealed the deal.

  10. John Morris says:

    “I can think of few other areas in the country that have so many, what I would call major cities competing for talent, resources, and jobs as the I-71/I-70/I-65 Bermuda Triangle (Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, and Louisville with Lexington as a satellite). Perhaps Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro.”

    Check out Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas/Forth Worth, Oklahoma City.

    Notice how the growth rate of one seems to boost the entire region. All of these cities are growth magnets.

    Raleigh/ Durham is now feeding off Charlotte.

  11. Joe says:

    @ John

    Austin, San Antonio, Dallas/Fort Worth are relatively close to one another but not nearly as close as the Cincy/Indy/Louisville/Columbus triangle. I believe the cultural differences between those Texas cities are greater than what you would find separating someone from SW Ohio, Central Indiana, or Northern Kentucky. That aside, I think your point of each of those cities feeding off the growth of one another is valid and evident. It’s definitely a positive aspect that probably is not as well embraced as it should be, partially again due to the geographic restraints which don’t exist in the Texas triangle or North Carolina triangle but I’m pretty sure Aaron has posted pieces before speaking to the need for a better, more regional economic approach in the Midwest, even if it means ignoring state borders.

  12. John Morris says:

    I’m not a huge Richard Florida fan but his point about mega regions seems very valid.

    Proximity = opportunity, if you grasp it. Jersey City grabbed onto New York & Newark didn’t.

    Honestly, I think the zero sum game concept is popular with city’s (like Providence, Baltimore & Hartford) looking for excuses.

  13. DBR96A says:

    The Tennessee River Valley and the lower Ohio River Valley (downriver from about Cincinnati) have what I call “Pennsylginia” culture, with settlers from Pennsylvania and Virginia moving their ways down the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, and becoming the two main cultural influences. West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee weren’t as heavy on slavery as other Southern states, so that aristocratic brand of Southern culture never had the same level of influence.

    Even the Shenandoah Valley has a bit of that “Pennsylginia” vibe due to the Philadelphia Wagon Road. That’s the one part of Virginia that doesn’t have either a hard-core Appalachian vibe or an aristocratic Tidewater vibe. If anything, it just feels like a southward extension of south-central Pennsylvania, down to about Harrisonburg or so.

  14. Chris Barnett says:

    Don’t forget Dayton is right in that box too, John, and both Ohio and Indiana have a bunch of smaller satellite cities an hour or less out from all the cities we’ve mentioned, including Newark, Springfield, Marysville and Middletown, Ohio; Muncie, Kokomo, Richmond, Anderson, Columbus, Bloomington, and Lafayette/West Lafayette, Indiana.

    This is a pretty big urban region in less than a quarter of Ohio, about a third of Indiana, and a slice of Kentucky. The five big combined statistical areas together have a population of almost 9.5 million and that doesn’t count some of the Indiana satellite cities or Lexington. (I’d want to take time to do the math on land area before offering more characterization.)

    In today’s world, I would wager that it is successful as a region because of logistics. UPS Louisville and FedEx Indianapolis are both giant airfreight hubs. One corner or another of the region boasts of being within 500 miles of some huge percentage of the US or North American population via highway and you can see miles of big warehouses near the interstates in all of the metros.

    But Indy and Columbus seem to be capturing more of it. More GDP, more jobs, more population growth.

  15. John Morris says:

    Exactly, there is a natural logistical advantage to this region over the area closer to the lakes. This grows as the Mid South region grows.

  16. pete-rock says:

    @Chris Barnett:

    The Ohio and Indiana satellite cities you mentioned are, IMO, endangered species. You may have seen Aaron mention here that it’s looking more likely that a metro area has to have a minimum of 1M-1.5M residents to be at a viable economic scale, unless it has outsized assets or amenities (a state capital, a major university). I do think their best hope lies in connecting themselves with Indy, Columbus and Cincinnati, but they often view themselves as competitors to the big cities, not complements. That’s not a good place to be.

  17. John Morris says:

    As to where these people are coming from. Rural to urban movement is number one, but I imagine northern Indiana, & northwest Ohio are the big relative losers in this game. Also, probably southern & central Illinois & southern Michigan.

    If Cincinnati is tarnished as too socially conservative, these places are seen as hard core rust belt with massive brownfield issues, militant unionism and corruption.

  18. Dan Wolf says:


  19. Dan Wolf says:

    I think the slow growth rate for Cincy, Pittsburgh and St Louis may be explained in part by the fact that all three have many fortune 500 HQs, which by nature of mature industries are themselves slow growers in terms of employment; esp in the last 30 years of corporate down-sizing and off-shoring mfg facilities. We all seem to agree that innovation is the general answer to this. These larger Midwest cities are doing that, but as said above (David Holmes) it takes a long time to re-build. Remember “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. So our much loved Midwest majors will probably need 40 years to rebuild; as has also been stated above, with Boston supplied as an example.
    The self concept these cities have; alternating love with defensiveness is understandable; esp with the Sunbelt getting all the glory and positive press. I believe we are at a tipping point right now. Advanced Mfg, advanced healthcare, logistics, professional services and much more are increasing the foundation beneath the Midwest larger cities in a way that will prove itself to be powerfully effective in reinvigorating the Midwest.
    Regarding two issues which I see having the same solution: Major Metro competition and the darkening future for smaller metros less than 1 million population. If the Leaders of the Midwest, by the thousands, could see the strengths of super regional collaboration; along established specialized areas in all the complex economic relationships, the Midwest could be a powerhouse again in many fields. Such as healthcare, higher education, advanced mfg, logistics, busn services, energy extraction and more. Also, a more charitable attitude among ourselves will really assist the Midwest. “Midwest” is a world brand that simply needs new product development like any great company that became complacent.

  20. Dan Wolf says:

    One more thought: Let’s talk about Chicago’s slow growth rate. What are the causes of that? Is it an “insular, complacent, extreme conservative” social dynamic? I doubt it very much. Chicago has all the assets we talk much about in positive terms; culturally and economically. so why the very slow growth rate. Maybe each city/region has unique features that are hard to identify. Maybe it too has many mature fortune 500 HQs that are slow growers.
    Maybe it is because the other Midwest metros are doing more for themselves business wise in terms of professional services of all types!
    I would think an analysis of Chicago would be instructive to us all. I haven’t read Aarons many commentaries yet. Any quick summaries anyone can offer? Thanks.

  21. Ziggy says:

    When I was in high school and college in the 1970s, no one talked about the rust belt. My parents, conservative small town Republicans, complained daily about union strikes, how they were taking the country to hell in a hand basket, blah, blah, blah.

    And then came the infamous Powell Memo and the controlled demolition of big labor, middle class wages and the big Midwest manufacturing cities’ quality of life.

    In the subsequent 40 years, the wealthy retreated to their urban enclaves as any smart third world oligarchs would do.

    My apologies – I know this is only tangental to the discussions of Midwestern cities like Cincinnati (and it’s been a great thread).

    But I also think those who grew up in the Midwest, and have witnessed first hand the systematic destruction or decline of its great cities like Cincy are only now becoming aware that outside forces had a tremendous hand in orchestrating this demise.

    Globalism wasn’t the idea of GM, U.S. Steel or the big Midwestern banks – at least I don’t think it was. But globalism completely hosed – and continues to completely hose – not only the Midwest but also every other major city in the country.

    One could say that Midwest manufacturing led the post WW II race to the top for middle class. And, thanks to the long and poorly understood affects of globalism, they have also led our country’s race to the bottom.

    I can’t entirely blame our Midwest leaders and the main street middle class folks like my parents for having the rug pulled out from under them. They were inclined to believe our national leadership that their interests were being served. But great lies (like NAFTA) undergird the decline of our great Midwest cities. A great majority of folks bit on the lies and continue to do so. We’re only now beginning to understand the reality that got us here. And it’s all very, very disturbing.

  22. @Dan Wolf – “One more thought: Let’s talk about Chicago’s slow growth rate. What are the causes of that? Is it an “insular, complacent, extreme conservative” social dynamic? I doubt it very much. Chicago has all the assets we talk much about in positive terms; culturally and economically. so why the very slow growth rate. Maybe each city/region has unique features that are hard to identify. Maybe it too has many mature fortune 500 HQs that are slow growers.
    Maybe it is because the other Midwest metros are doing more for themselves business wise in terms of professional services of all types!
    I would think an analysis of Chicago would be instructive to us all. I haven’t read Aarons many commentaries yet. Any quick summaries anyone can offer? Thanks.”

    From my observation (others might have the hard data to back this up), Chicago has a very high churn in population. That is, it has a very high domestic outflow rate, while it has a good-to-high domestic and international migration inflow rate. That latter inflow rate plus births is slightly higher than the outflow rate. So, the growth rate is slow on paper, but there’s both the perception and reality of dynamism because there are constantly lots of people moving both in and out. The number of people in the Chicago area might not be increasing that fast (albeit it’s still so large that a slow growth rate will add a substantial number of people in sheer numbers), but *who* those people are keeps changing rapidly. In contrast, other Rust Belt metros with slow growth rates seem to have both low outflow and low inflow rates. As a result, that low churn can make a metro seem more stagnant and insular compared to a high churn metro with a similar overall growth rate.

  23. @Dan Wolf – “I think the slow growth rate for Cincy, Pittsburgh and St Louis may be explained in part by the fact that all three have many fortune 500 HQs, which by nature of mature industries are themselves slow growers in terms of employment; esp in the last 30 years of corporate down-sizing and off-shoring mfg facilities.”

    I think it’s a bit mixed here and depends upon what the Fortune 500 companies are actually doing. The high growth areas of Houston, Dallas and Atlanta are now only behind NYC as the home to the largest number of Fortune 500 companies (even more than Chicago). So, Fortune 500 companies in and of themselves aren’t drags on growth. Indeed, if you have Fortune 500 companies in a hot industry, that can fuel extraordinary growth. The main issue is that many Midwestern Fortune 500 companies are in, as you’ve said, mature industries or manufacturing-heavy sectors where there has been little domestic employment growth.

  24. Chris Barnett says:

    Indeed, if you have Fortune 500 companies in a hot industry, that can fuel extraordinary growth

    I am not sure if your pun was intentional, but this explains a lot about Houston and OKC, and to a lesser extent Dallas. The oilfield is a boom-and-bust sector though.

    Brookings runs the “Metro Monitor” (which includes all the ones we discuss here). Buried in their webpage is a chart of each metro’s Location Quotient for employment in various large SIC group.

    What is striking about Cincinnati and Columbus vs. Indianapolis is that the two Ohio cities are overweighted in certain fields, including finance and professional services in both and manufacturing in Cincinnati, while Indy “looks like America” without a single industry-cluster LQ over 1.15. Link here:

    The groupings are not really fine enough to sort out specializations like “life sciences” or “advanced manufacturing”, since companies like Rolls Royce (jet engines), Dow Agro and Eli Lilly would be classified in “manufacturing”. But it is an interesting snapshot.

  25. Chris Barnett says:

    Re population growth: I can’t imagine Tier 1 metros (such as Chicago and NYC) growing at the same rate as a fast-growing Tier 2 (such as the sunbelt metros 1980-2010). The old life-cycle growth curve probably applies to metro areas: they reach a “mature” phase where growth levels out.

    I agree with Frank: for such cities, it’s about the churn and the fact that an absolutely large number of people still “stick” in the large metros even though it is a lower percentage than some nominally fast-growing place. Adding a quarter-million people is adding a quarter-million people regardless of the starting base.

  26. Eric Fazzini says:

    I think what Renn is ultimately trying to say is why isn’t Cincinnati more European?

    The hills and the rhine were what initially attracted immigrants from Bavaria and is what makes Cincy beautiful today with the addition of the architecture.

    But reading Witold Rybczynski’s “City Life”, you’re reminded that some of the great European cities are actually quite small. This is why I think locals are bothered by comparisons to automobile city and state capitols Indy and Columbus, or industrial South Side Chicago or Detroit.

  27. George Mattei says:

    Two comments. First, I have seen many cities called “river & hill cities” in this blog discussion. Cincinnati is different. Pittsburgh is as hilly. I hear San Francisco is as hilly. Other than that, I have never been to a major city that has more hills than Cincinnati. It’s not just hilly-its extremely hilly. Louisville for example isn’t even close in terms of hilly-ness. Never been to St. Louis or Minneapolis, but I can’t imagine they are anywhere near as hilly. Heck, all the northeast is hilly, but not like Cincinnati or Pittsburgh.

  28. George, in Louisville the hills are on the Indiana side of the river, much of which is either floodplain or unbuildable until you’re pretty far inland (Harrison County where I grew up, for example).

  29. George Mattei says:

    Second, and perhaps more importantly, just because Cincinnati has many urban assets doesn’t mean it will automatically translate into economic success. It’s a beautiful city with a unique built environment, and that’s worth something. But it in and of itself will not transform Cincinnati into the next Austin.

    In fact, you could say that Austin is the Anti-Cincinnati, a city which (I am guessing-not having been there) has a far inferior built environment. It’s a much younger city, and doesn’t have near the history. But it’s a boomtown. It’s a place where lots of outsiders come and settle.

    As I said before, I briefly considered moving to Cincinnati, but decided not to when I realized that I would always be an outsider in the culture there. I couldn’t answer the “high school” question correctly. That’s the literal truth. I think it keeps some folks away.

    Beyond that, Cincinnati needs something to leverage. The scenic beauty may leverage some modest influx of population and some tourism if handled correctly, but it will need a kick-starter to really boost it.

    The problem here is that I’m not sure what Cincinnati’s kick-starter is. It has a lot of cultural assets, but what institutional assets does it have to leverage? Unlike Pittsburgh, it doesn’t have a major university presence. Yes UC is a big school, and it’s not to be ignored, but I don’t know if it and Xavier are in themselves big enough to leverage a whole regional economy. The Children’s Hospital is top notch, but IMO Cleveland and Pittsburgh have far stronger assets with institutions like Case Western, Cleveland Clinic, Pitt and Carnegie-Mellon.

    You have some large Fortune 500’s, but as mentioned above, I don’t know that these are the kind of institutions that will jumpstart growth. P&G does lots of product research, but much like Battelle in Columbus, they aren’t the kind of institution that will foster new tech start-ups by the dozens. Krogers is a great Blue-chipper, but it is what it is. Same with Fifth Third Bank.

    Finally, Cincinnati is suffering the same fate as most mid-sized metros with the severe downsizing of the airport. I think this is an under-appreciated negative for all cities in the Midwest not named Chicago or Detroit. Chiquita left town and that was cited as a big reason.

    So in addition to more openness to transplants, I thin Cincinnati needs an economic spark to bring some new life to it. I don’t know what that is, but if it could find it, the city could potentially fulfill its vast potential.

    On the plus side, GE just announced that they are opening their new global operations center in Cincinnati. While this is more of a high-end back-office operation, perhaps (if it becomes more open to outsiders) Cincinnati can position itself as a better alternative to the number of other cities that are attracting similar operations. Why go to Columbus, Indy or KC when you can get similar costs and a much more beautiful and interesting cultural and built environment in Cincinnati?

  30. George Mattei says:

    Aaron, I believe that. Many places have hills NEAR the city. My hometown of New Haven has two 900+ foot sheer cliffs the northeast and northwest. that overlook the city to But Cincinnati is one of the few cities built directly ON those hills and it has a definite impact on how you experience it. My guess is that

  31. Eric Fazzini says:

    @ George Downtown, OTR, West End, Camp Washington, Northside, Covington, Newport are all in the basin. The “bowl” of Cincinnati was what was first settled and people moved up the hillsides (Clifton, Walnut Hills, Mt. Adams, Price Hill) when the inclines were built. The seven hills are complete or partially defined city neighborhoods.

  32. George Mattei says:


    Yes I am familiar with that. Many cities I have seen have avoided or built around their hills. As I mentioned, Pittsburgh and San Fran are notable exceptions.

    I think it’s a fairly unique trait to have hills developed as neighborhoods. IN my before-mentioned New Haven example, these two hills are parks. They are beautiful in their own way, and great assets, but having hills developed and integrated as neighborhoods into the city is one of Cincinnati’s aspects that I think is truly unique.

  33. George Mattei says:

    The other thing about Cinci is they are larger hills. Perhaps only Pittsburgh has bigger hills that have been developed. It’s not just rolling land. Lost of places have some rolling areas that are developed. Only a few have steep hills that provide breathtaking views like Cincinnati.

  34. bemclau says:

    In all my years living and working here (since 1988)…I have never been asked where I went to high school. Not saying it does not happen, but it seems overblown. Yet, here I will defend it a bit.
    Schools here are unique, a very high percentage of students attend private schools; Catholic, Protestant, & secular. Even some of the magnet public schools feel like private schools. There is even a sports league, GCL…Greater Catholic League that spans here and Dayton. Very few people attend K-12 with same people. Many go to elementary at a private school or public montessori, then flip to public for HS. My friend’s son went to St X, but could have gone to Elder HS or Roger Bacon HS or Walnut Hills (or any Cincy Public ‘magnet’), Western Hills, Clark Montessori or Cin Christian Hills…or Seven Hills or Cin Country Day. Perhaps literally 14 choices (or more).
    So there is much meta-data in the HS answer:
    Walnut Hills HS – not geographic save for the city of Cincinnati, 98% chance you went on to college, public, very college prep, there are even NKY kids paying tuition to attend
    St Xavier – private catholic, most likely north-west, but being Jesuit makes it less geographical, all male
    Moeller – private Catholic, East side, all male
    Elder – private Catholic, West side, all male
    Roger Bacon – private Catholic CoEd
    Seton – private Catholic, West side, all girls
    St Ursula – private Catholic, East side, all girls
    Seven Hills & Cincinnati Country Day – expensive, small ,private, secular, parents probably in .1%
    Taft, Withrow – local urban neighborhood schools, they struggle in testing/funding etc
    School for Creative & Performing Arts – public magnet, self-explanitory.
    Indian Hill HS – public, chances are your parents are the %1, geographical
    Wyoming HS – public, chance are your are parents are the %3

    The same pattern is in NKY. So I think the HS question gets an unfair rap if you are not familiar with the local dynamics.

  35. urbanleftbehind says:

    I heard at one time 50% of the Cincinnati PD went to Elder. Is this conjecture or true. What happened to Purcell-Marian?

  36. Chris Barnett says:

    bemclau, you’ve kind of made the point. The “local dynamics” of HS just don’t matter to a potential resident except to the extent that their kids get a decent education. I agree with Aaron and others that it’s just a coded way of sorting out whether you belong to one of the local tribes.

    Face it, every major metro discussed here has a top 5% high school somewhere in its area. One’s college and/or graduate school have a far larger impact on one’s first professional job and career prospects.

  37. Paul Willham says:

    @eric, You forgot to mention the ‘lost neighborhood’ of downtown Cincinnati. Kenyan Barr which had a even greater urban density that OTR and was bulldozed in the 1960’s to build the failed Queensgate industrial park. Kenyan Barr, had it not been bulldozed, would have been the Bed-sty of Cincinnati now. As things turned out it sparked the white flight from many neighborhoods as KB’s mostly black population was evicted literally overnight to Avondale and other points and set in motion a chain of events that dramatically effected the urban near downtown neighborhoods of Cincinnati in a bad way.

    Interesting read about Kenyan Barr in the book “Common ground”

  38. bemclau says:

    @urbanleftbehind – Most likely conjecture, maybe that was had a ring of truth in the 1950s. P-M is still around, one of the small Eastside Catholic schools.

    @Chris Barnett – There is less of the tribal bit than you might think.
    From the friends of my kids for example, it is an info gathering thing, not a sorting or outcasting thing:
    “You went to _____? Do you know _____?”
    “No, but is ____ his sister at ______?”
    It is never once been “Eww, you went to _____.” It is more of Kevin Bacon game.
    That said, lack of in migration does makes thing insular. On the other hand, the local corporate component comes into play at my daughter’s school with GE, P&G etc they have a kind of diversity that is global…Elder, not so much. So one person’s tight knit community is another’s insular tribe. I think we are on a better path, these things take time.

  39. John Morris says:

    “You went to _____? Do you know _____?”
    “No, but is ____ his sister at ______?”

    It seems like a friendly question in Pittsburgh but it does tell you most people are from the region.

  40. Kathryn Furrow says:

    I currently live in Louisville and this article is spot-on. I was born and raised here, then spent many successful years in New York before returning to take care of my family. This quote stuck with me: “the stuff they did and learned while they were away might as well not have happened.”

    I returned to Louisville with a spark that hasn’t died persay, but it certainly takes a lot to fuel my fire and keep my passion burning for the work I do here. I even closed my own company shortly after I moved back because of the overarching unwelcome I received once I returned, and the drama it created in the community to have someone with outside experience try to make a difference. There is such a “this is the way we do things” mentality, coupled with a, “keep your experience and resume local or don’t bother” that reminding myself constantly of my achievements and education is a daily event.

    When I told a local blogger who asked me for an interview on a film I’m producing that I was from the Southend, she was so impressed I’d “made it out alive” that she hugged me and cried. I lived in a beautiful home and in a great neighborhood, so my reply to her was that I didn’t make it out I moved on with my life. It’s not just Southend, Eastend, Westend badges – those are class distinctions.

    There can be so much good here, and in similar towns. I wish they’d embrace knowledge and new experiences instead of trying to hide them behind tradition.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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