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Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Cincinnati Is Cool by Mike Doyle

[ In 2008 Chicago Carless blogger Mike Doyle took a trip to Cincinnati and was blown away – Aaron. ]


(Photo: “I am Cincinnati; no flashbulbs, please.”–Leah Spurrier, co-founder of the Queen City’s fabulous High Street.)

I had been jonesing for a break from blogging before the end of summer, so when Cincinnati Jamie asked if I wanted to ride shotgun on a weekend trip back home to check on his Queen City condo, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t expect more than a few quiet days in a quaint backwater, a plate of chili, and some gratuitous references (on my part) to WKRP.

I admit it. Cincinnati blew me away. (See trip photos in my Picasa web album.)

That came especially as a shock considering the trip it took to get there. I had only ridden Indiana highways once before, on the way into Chicago five years previous with my refugee New York possessions. I remember two things from that drive: boredom from passing through 150 miles of the middle of nowhere; and thinking that the radio announcers were pulling my leg every time they mentioned “Michiana”.

I longed for that kind of action on last month’s 300-mile lengthwise schlep through the Hoosier state, highlighted only by a construction detour through the environmental degradation of Gary and ironic graffiti on a men’s room wall in Crown Point that read, “NASCAR: The other white race”. We intended to stop in downtown Indianapolis for me to take a look at the place. However, once I got a look at the skyline from the I-465 ring road, even after the three-hour drive from Chicago, I felt humming the theme to One Day at a Time and simply passing through sufficed.

It would be another hour to get out of flatland followed by a meandering drive past the Ohio border through hills and ravines on snaky I-75 before the next cityscape of any significance. Descending through Cincinnati’s West Side, following the course of the massive railyards in the valley below, the skyline took me by surprise. I half-expected yet another bombed-out rust belt burb whose downtown had been whacked with the ugly stick of Post-Modernism.

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(Photo: Cincinnati at dusk, from Covington, Kentucky.)

Yet, as we neared the Ohio River flats that house downtown, the pre-war Carew Tower and PNC Bank building took my breath away. Not just for their elegant, pre-war terra cotta beauty. But also because their still-prominent placement in the center of the skyline, neither upstaged nor blocked by taller, newer buildings, suggested in an instant a city respectful of the aesthetics of its built form.

From its history, that could follow or come as a complete surprise. Queen City of the West, Cincinnati was the first major inland American metropolis. Its early nineteenth-century commerce paved the way for the commercial giants of the latter 1800s, cities like Chicago and St. Louis. In the 1860s, the city gave freedom to thousands of slaves as a northern terminus of the Underground Railroad and, at the turn of the last century, cleanliness to millions of Americans as the birthplace of Ivory Soap.

Then again, Cincinnati’s brightest economic times happened in another millennium, and it also happens to be the only city in the nation to build an entire subway transit system, in the 1920s, only to brick it over for the next 80 years due to insufficient funds. So there’s a lot of unrealized potential and missed opportunity tied up in the civic psyche, too. Given all that, I was just happy the two towers were still standing.

We were heading for out first stop: Park & Vine, the hugely successful organic general store run by Chicagoland Bicycle Federation-escapee Dan-doesn’t-drive-either Korman. But first, Jamie gave me the nickel tour.

We exited I-75 at the riverfront and drove along the pedestrian-friendly deck hiding the now-sunken highway, past Paul Brown Stadium, the Great American Ball Park, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Roebling Bridge (little brother to my hometown bridge in Brooklyn). For a city of barely 330,000, I was pleasantly surprised at the effort made to liven the river’s edge here and link it back in to the rest of downtown.

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(Photo: Looking north across Over-the-Rhine from condo deck of the American Building on Central Parkway.)

Dan’s store sits in Over-the-Rhine, the gentrifying–but not too much–neighborhood on the north end of downtown, nestled beneath the imposing hills that make up much of the rest of the city. Now civic leaders want to build a modern, Portland-style streetcar between downtown and the still-downtrodden neighborhood to try and jumpstart investment there. A lot of people think the streetcar plan will just go the way of the subway–i.e. to nowhere.

Jamie could see the trained-urban planner in me already salivating at the ped-friendly streets, so we meandered through downtown on our way to Over-the-Rhine, with him as tour guide.

“That’s the Aronoff Center for the Arts, but look on the other side, too, the new building is the Contemporary Arts Center. It’s a Zaha Hadid building.”

Readers are getting the benefit of the URLs I wished had access to while Jamie commented on.

“Don’t look know–and don’t sing, either. That’s Fountain Square and Tyler Davidson Fountain from WKRP in Cincinnati fame. They show movies there during the summer. Carew Tower is catty-corner, and the modernist building is Fifth Third Bank Headquarters.”

I marveled at the number of pedestrians. “Is downtown always this peopled so late in the day?” I asked.

“I think there’s a football game later, but for the past few years it’s been like Chicago,” said Jamie. “More and more people come down here to play after work. Maybe we’ll come back later for the movie on Fountain Square. Now get out, we’re there.”

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(Photo: Over-the-Rhine’s Park & Vine general store.)

We hadn’t told Dan we were coming. Even after the bear hug that passed between him and Jamie, I could see him still beaming. The stress of the Bike Federation long gone, in the two years since his return to the Queen City, Dan Korman had finally become a happy man.

“Did you see the wallets made out of recycled bicycle tires?” He pulled one off a display shelf. “Look! Some of them still have the writing from the tire on them. That’s so cool!”

When he told me in 2006 he was ditching his Windy City communications career to open what I figured would be a glorified hemp shop in a marginal nabe of a secondary rust-belt town, I thought he had already begun smoking his product. As I purchased my recycled bicycle-tire wallet with the writing still on it from the happiest man on Vine Street, I knew Dan had made the right decision.

“Are you staying at the condo?” Dan asked Jamie.

“No, I have a renter in there. We’re staying in East Walnut Hills, in a rental condo that one of my client’s owns at the Edgecliff.”

“Did you guys go see Matt and Leah at High Street yet?”

“Not yet,” Jamie said. “But Michael will love it when we do. He seems to already be in love with Cincinnati.”

“Really!” said Dan. “Huh. It’s cool. Who knew, right?”

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(Photo: Jamie with happy Dan Korman, owner of Park & Vine.)

Next stop: a strong black woman. A 20-year Cincinnati resident, Jamie needed to check on the condo he left behind when he moved to Chicago three months ago. He left it behind in the American Building, another handsome, pre-war former office tower built on the border between downtown and Over-the-Rhine to wait for the subway down Central Parkway that never came. That’s ok, Jamie’s ex-next-door neighbor and former flight attendant, the very tony Toni, seemed to get around well enough without one.

“Oh my, it is so good to see you, Jamie! Let me tell you, you are lucky to have caught me and I’ll tell you why. I shall probably be leaving in a few days to bring some shoes to be fixed in Seoul–that’s South Korea. I had previously asked my friend to take them on ahead but she said no and now it falls to me to carry them all that way and you know, don’t you, that Miss Toni is a bit put out because of it. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be monopolizing the conversation. What do you think of my new artwork?”

As Toni paused to inhale–as I would come to learn, a rare occasion worthy of remark–I started to see the attractive side of Jamie’s 350-mile move away from her side of the common wall.

“I really had to come back to fix a problem with my car title so I can get Illinois plates,” said Jamie.

“Problem? What problem? Tell Toni about your problems, honey!”

“Well, the bank forgot to tell the DMV that I paid off my car note years ago, so there’s still a lien on my title,” said Jamie. “Wells Fargo told me I had to come here in person to clear it up.”

“Are you kidding me?!”

Then again, it’s always nice to have a strong black woman in your corner.

“You know what I’d do?” said Toni. “I’d piss on ‘em. No! I’d get a kid, a seven-year-old kid. Wouldn’t that be good? A kid of my own and I’d take him down to the bank with me and just when they stopped doing their job to give me grief I’d give the signal and my boy would whip it out. Just whip it out and piss all over them! Yes!”

From the look of the people I’d seen on the streets on the way through town, Toni was definitely not a stereotypical Cincinnatian. I had noted the uniformity of uniforms: flower-print blouses and black polyester trousers for women; dark, three-piece suits or slacks and tweed sport coats for men. (I figured the latter were county courthouse lawyers.)

I chalked up the Softer Side of Sears-ness of it all as the stylistic impact of the city’s main employers: the national headquarters or back offices of conservative banks (Fifth/Third Bank, U.S. Bank); conservative grocers (Kroeger); and conservative conglomerates (Macy’s, Proctor & Gamble). I couldn’t imagine any of these uniformed office drones ever whipping it out to give some unsuspecting clerk a bath.

Not for an instant would I put that past Toni.

“I’d even like to piss on some of the heifers that live further up in the neighborhood. Always with a hand out. Get a job, stop having babies, grow up! I had a career. I saw the world. I lived on Michigan Avenue. I hope that streetcar plan happens. We didn’t get a subway, but that streetcar will push ‘em all like rats away from a flood. Then you’ll see how good this neighborhood will become.”

The haves lashing into the have-nots in the Black community is not a practice confined to southwestern Ohio. But my introduction to the social dichotomies of Cincinnati was just beginning.

Finally sneaking away from Toni during one particularly deep pause to inhale and sip a sparkling tonic, Jamie and I headed for the hills. For the next couple of hours until dusk, he drove us to every scenic outlook above downtown, then across the Roebling Bridge into Kentucky, to peer back at the city from the Covington shore.

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(Photo: Daniel Carter Beard Bridge to Newport, Kentucky. Can you guess why locals call it Big Mac?)

The scenery felt familiar, like coming home, in a way. At each stop, as I
gazed at the city, I remembered the half-hour I spent sitting atop steep Parque Eduardo VII and peering down across Lisbon, between the Bairro Alto and Alfama hills, towards the old downtown Baixa. The visible terrain and ineffable energy touched me then, and try as my Portuguese friend, José, might, I would not be moved away from the view.

I felt the same tug inside every time I looked back across Cincinnati. As if, although I wasn’t of the place, in some way, some part of me was consonant with it. I knew I was falling for the city.

That love would deepen in short order. At sundown, we headed for Ludlow Avenue, ground zero of the student-laden Clifton neighborhood, to sample an entirely different skyline. There’s no need to mince words here. In one meal, I became an official Skyline Chili crack whore. Give me the mild chocolate-cinnamon laced chili in a five-way (ladled over spaghetti with beans, onions, and cheddar cheese) or on a coney (a Cinncinati hot dog with mustard, chili, and onions), I don’t care. I wanted–and still want–more. Now please. Sooner if possible.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to like the chili any more than I thought I’d be taken by the city. But as the evening wore on, I started to rethink my raging bias against small Midwestern urbs. The black raspberry chip 1870 Tower sundae I inhaled down the street at Graeter’s French-churned ice cream helped a little bit, too. (And considering how much chili I had already eaten, I was in no way surprised by Jamie’s look of abject shock when I ordered it).

We would have headed back to the Edgecliff then, but Jamie remembered my earlier question about evening liveliness downtown. He let me answer my own question as we sat on Fountain Square with several hundred Cincinnatians and their children watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory projected onto the roof of Macy’s across Walnut Street until long past even our bedtimes.

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(Photo: Love at first bite–Skyline Chili cheese coneys and a five-way.)

The next two days were a similar whirlwind of food, friends, and from-left-field observations about Cincinnati life. In the morning, we shared the best dim sum I’ve ever had in or out of Chicago at Clifton’s King Wok, with Jamie’s designer friend, Huong, and her young daughter, Hannah. While Huong explained the dating difficulties faced by a Vietnamese single-mom in southwestern Ohio, I was busy teaching her frantically energetic daughter how to walk like a giraffe-a-gator (“Stand on your tiptoes with your arm raised above your head, sneak up behind them, then CHOMPA-CHOMPA-CHOMPA!”).

Huong’s news was far less whimsical. “He was Anglo. We’d been talking online for awhile and he seemed like a nice guy. I think he’s about to ask me out, then he says ‘I have rice fever really bad tonight.’ What the fuck is that? Like he has no idea how insulting that is. Like he lives in a totally different world than I do.”

That’s exactly how I felt as Huong segued into a discourse about the Vietnamese practice of giving children dirty nicknames to ward off evil spirits. She whispered, “Hannah’s is ‘dirty black cock’. You guys should have one.”

I considered Jamie for a moment, then asked Huong, “How do you say ‘toothpaste poop’ in Vietnamese?”

Worlds would continue to miss colliding later that afternoon while Jamie and I visited the Museum Center inside the renovated historic Union Terminal. We lucked into a free tour of the building with a tour group comprised mostly of locals. I spent the whole time confused by an oddly handsome Kentucky bubba who apparently had no idea his bad-ass booted self was wearing women’s jeans. Yet when he opened his mouth to ask a question, the thick, south-shore drawl delivered a thoughtfully phrased query on the aesthetic merit of a restored mural.

“It’s always like that with the bubbas,” said Jamie. “Some cute construction worker with a day to kill, maybe an architecture hobbyist. But there’s always that touch of idiot savant about them that ends them up in the wrong department at Wal-Mart.”

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(Photo: Fountains outside the Museum Center at Union Terminal.)

I thought that was a bit harsh. Then again, my New York friend, Tony “You’d have to kill me to make me go back there” Skaggs, never had a kind word to say about growing up in Cincinnati’s Kentucky suburbs, either. By now I was wondering whether some unknown organism in the city’s infamously toxic water had the side-effect of turning fellow citizens bitchy towards each other.

I continued to wonder that evening, while supping with a couple of Jamie’s local friends on mind-blowing steak tartare and calf’s liver and onions in downtown Cincinnati’s sublime Bistro JeanRo, as one of them began to opine on the streetcar plan so near and dear to tony Toni’s heart.

“It’ll never get built. Mark my words. Who is it going to serve? The ‘element’. Who’s going to ride it? The ‘element’. Do you want to ride next to the ‘element’? I don’t. Is it gonna go anywhere I want to go? No. Who’s supposed to pay for it? The rest of us. Is that fair?”

Embarrassed, I looked around the restaurant to see if anyone within earshot had managed to hear the openly racist comments that had just emerged from our table. How balkanizing the properties of a civic social contract must be to allow locals to feel free enough to share shitty thoughts like that in the company of strangers (like me). More upsetting, by evening’s end, I was pretty sure Jamie’s friend had no clue at all about the implications of the things he had said.

How to parse a city of aesthetic beauty, civic pride, high cultural amenities, and, at the most unexpected times, low social graces? I found myself pulling for the place, despite the intellectual box I was coming to see some locals gratuitously living in. I wanted to stay an extra day to figure the place out a little better.

That was fine with Jamie, who still hadn’t been able to work things out with Wells Fargo (I half expected him to fill Toni up on tonic water and drag her and her bladder down to their nearest office). We wouldn’t be remaining at the Edgecliff. Unbeknownst to us, the unit we were staying in had been sold, and our desired third night coincided exactly with closing day.

Not that we were attached to the Edgecliff. Although we didn’t want to have to scramble to look for new digs, we were pretty certain wherever we ended up would be more permissive. Jamie had no doubt when we left, I’d be taking the property’s asinine folder of dos and dont’s with me. The best missive was almost Marina City worthy:

PLUMBING INFORMATION

Acceptable:
Any toilet tissue except the quilted brands.

Not Acceptable in Commodes or Sinks:
Quilted toilet tissue.
Kleenex.
Dental floss.
Depends.
Sanitary napkins.
Any type of wipe.
Paints.
Drywall mud.
Potting soil.
Kitty litter.
Grease.
Construction debris of any type.

Drumroll please…

Or any other unsuitable liquid down the pipes.

It was thusly in good humor that we headed to High Street, according to Cincinnati magazine–and me once I got there–one of the coolest home design and lifestyle stores anywhere, to beg fabulous co-owner Matt Knotts for a place to crash for the night. The answer was yes, but Matt was in the middle of a meeting with partner Leah. So we waved our thanks through their office window and set out for another round of Queen City adventure.

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(Photo: Best home design store in Cincinnati, High Street. Do I get that blue chair, now?)

What to do on a bonus afternoon in Cincinnati with a veritably still-chili-virgin in the car? Swing by Over-the-Rhine to pick up tony Toni and head out for more coneys. But tony Toni eats no coneys bought at Skyline.

“Honeys, don’t you know, now there is this Gold Star Chili I’ve seen underneath the I-75 Bridge in Covington, and now I think we’ve got to go, yes!”

And as everyone knows, there’s just no arguing with a strong black woman (not unless you want to end up with a wet pants leg), so half an hour later and there we were in Kentucky, munching down five-ways and coneys at the Gold Star where Covington bubbas go to pass around the communal tooth.

And a good thing they did, because I’d never have understood the wait staff if they hadn’t. Nonexistent teeth aside, this Gold Star did teach me two things: one, I’m definitely a Skyline man; and two, it’s probably time for me to stop avoiding the dentist.

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(Photo: Strong black women Jamie and Toni.)

Later, with Toni no longer in tow, we headed back to the fabulosity of High Street, only to find that Matt had already split for the afternoon. However his partner, the unsinkable Leah Spurrier, had not.

“You guys want to hear about my book? One of them anyway, I have a lot of ideas rolling around, but this is the one I just took three weeks off to begin writing. It’s about my life as a northern Californian Jew raised in Tennessee by a genuine Haight-Ashbury mother. When I was little, I used to ask my grandma why mom always looked the way she did. And grandma would answer back, ‘Because she’s always stoned, dear.’”

Leah seemed a far cry from the collection of Cincinnati social misfits I had spent the previous three days variously being warned about or meeting. I asked her what people thought of her store in such a conservative city.

“You know, Cincinnati is cooler than you might think. Downtown has a lot going on, a lot of new businesses and residents in Over-the-Rhine. We’re actually starting a blog on High Street’s website to try and help the buzz along. It’s not Chicago, I love that city. But people know there’s potential here, if they’d just loosen up and listen. I think a lot of them are just waiting to be told how good we’ve got it here.”

It’s rare for the cool people to be pulling for the squares, even rarer for the squares to be hoping to come along for the ride. I wondered if maybe, just maybe, Matt and Leah might be on to something.

That night, Jamie and I luxuriated in Matt’s style-forward Liberty Hill townhouse. The papier-maché caricatures under glass on the coffee table entranced me for an hour as Jamie tried to teach Matt how to Twitter.

Over dinner, we were all entranced by the twittering of a female patron at Ludlow Avenue’s Ambar Indian, a real contender for the title of worst South Asian food in Ohio. If it hadn’t been for her outlandishly loud yammerings to an embarrassed boyfriend who asked at one point for her to write down her side of the conversation on a napkin, we might have been more miffed when, in mid-meal, the wait staff at this palace of putrid pulled out a glue gun and started performing repair work on a nearby wall.

We washed those troubles away with another trip to Graeter’s (I won’t bother telling you how many pounds the scale said I gained after I got back to Chicago–feel free to insert your own weight here: ___) and retired back to the manse of Matt-fabulous. There, he told us more about his plans for local Internet domination.

“We want to use the High Street blog as a jumping off point, to create community. But we’re also creating a separate blog for the city. We want it to have downtown news, happenings, events, design, food, to really hook people together. We’re calling it, ‘Cincinnati Is Cool’. The name’s not as wooden as it sounds. All these boring corporate types always say the city is cool, but they never follow it up with action. We want the name to be a blunt reminder that this city has a lot to offer.”

I looked Matt dead in the eye. “Have you ever heard of Gapers Block? There’s this guy, Andrew Huff, I definitely think you should know…”

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(Photo: Angelic Matt and Jamie at Ludlow Avenue Graeter’s.)

The next morning, after making one last run towards the end-zone of teaching Matt to use Twitter, we rolled up the remains of our trip and packed them in the car to head home. We hugged Matt, headed to Park & Vine to say our good-byes to Dan, made one final (and finally successful) trip to the DMV for Jamie, and then it was time to roll out of town.

But not before one last stop (or so we thought) at a fabled Cincy eatery. As my plate of undercooked biscuits and gravy and over-singed fried eggs attested, Tucker’s, in deepest Over-the-Rhine, is not known for its food. But the family-run ramshackle joint, a seedy combination of half-hinged doors, swaying tables, and questionable sanitary practices, has been feeding all comers for 60 years. The morning of our visit, that included downtown office workers, local yuppies, and most interestingly, a steady stream of poor black kids and young men from the surrounding neighborhood.

The hustle the last group of diners put the white wait staff through, trying to enter without shirts and bargain down bills, didn’t go down with the same indignant fervor on both sides I would have expected from Chicago. These were downtrodden locals in a barely hanging-on corner eatery. The beleaguered nods and smiles that passed among all parties was perhaps my best clue into the soul of Cincinnati.

There was no artifice here. Nothing was prettified. Just basic communication passing among familiar faces. Unexpected, a bit shocking in its primal quality. But not out of place. It did make me wonder whether inside the average Queen Citizen beat the heart of a conformer. We may be down, but we’re down together, and as long as we lie low, things can’t get much worse, so let’s just leave well enough alone.

Was that the unrealized potential Matt and Leah were aiming to mobilize?

Getting lost in the West Side hills on the way out of town was a great excuse to stop thinking and driving in circles and make our real final food stop: Putz’s Creamy Whip. More old-school Cincinnati: roadside shack; cash-only; fabled Coneys; double-thick malteds. The menu didn’t exaggerate, I nursed my concrete-consistency malted until well into Indiana.

We finally did make that stop in Indy, too. Downtown there was certainly monumental, but small given the size of the surrounding city. I couldn’t help thinking of Milwaukee, another Midwestern burg with a downtown curiously unimpressive for a place of its size. (After several hundred more miles of boring Hoosier farmland, I also couldn’t help thinking God put Indiana on the map to make people appreciate Illinois and Ohio better).

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(Photo: Tyler Davidson Fountain at night.)

Arriving home in the Windy City, the Loop felt positively enormous after three days in Cincinnati. Yet the Queen City still loomed large in my mind. It still does. Two weeks of wondering, and I think I’ve hit on why. Despite the unrealized potential of the place–including the potential for locals to realize how good they really have it (and in this, Chicago and Cincinnati share a similarly misplaced civic modesty)–unlike other, far more time- and budget-ravaged rust belt cities, in Cincinnati the potential is pungent and palpable, not limping on life support.

In the end, I think those upstart Internet impresarios Matt and Leah have a point. Change happens thanks to thoughtful souls brave enough to believe in the fortune cookie of potential. When these two finally smash it open, I have no doubt in their case the slip of paper within will read in big, block letters, “CINCINNATI IS COOL!”

And in small print on the flipside, “Who knew?”

This post originally appeared in Chicago Carless on September 9, 2008.

33 Comments
Topics: Architecture and Design, Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Historic Preservation, Urban Culture

33 Responses to “Cincinnati Is Cool by Mike Doyle”

  1. George Mattei says:

    Interesting post. I think he got a lot of the Cinci experience in a short time. The city is definitely beautiful-reminds me of an inland Boston. Definitely a lot of potential there in a way most cities will never have. Indianapolis and Columbus have their positives, but it’s not this kind of beauty-few places are as graced with it as Cincinnati.

    Economically Cincinnati is not a winner, but not a loser either-it’s pretty stable. In the Midwest, that kind of makes you a winner. Still, Cincinnati hasn’t been an economic powerhouse since the riverboats got replaced by trains.

    It’s clear that culturally is where Cinci has struggled. But I do see some signs that this is changing.

  2. TJIndy says:

    Cincy is definitely a great city. If the author gushed so much about it back in ’08, I’d really like to see what types of adjectives he could come up with now to describe how its doing in 2014. Unfortunately, as an Indy resident — I was turned off quickly by the Chicagoan who wrote this. He continues to fit the bill of the arrogant, obnoxious Chicagoan that I have so often, and unfortunately met in terms of his rudeness and need to never miss an opportunity to insult Indiana and Indianapolis. I guess his mom never told him to just not say anything if he can’t say anything nice. Too bad. Chicago is a fun place to visit, but my annoyance at rude Chicagoans has kept me from visiting as frequently as I used to. Anyway — cheers to Cincy. Looking forward to visiting again soon.

  3. Susan says:

    I find it very interesting how many Hoosiers are in denial about the reality of their state. Notice the post featuring the The Sound Map of Indianapolis garnered only two comments. Why? I would argue because it doesn’t mesh with the constant, never-ending civic boosterism.

  4. John Morris says:

    There is a difference between having amazing buildings and automatically being “cool”.

    What really matters is how a community works. Can districts provide local jobs? Can people get to work easily. Is there basic street safety and trust? Can a city support diverse local business districts? Can the tax base support infrastructure costs?

    Pound for pound I think Cincy may prove to be more classically beautiful than Pittsburgh, but it seems to have a big problem in terms of function.

    A lot of these things have to do with logistics. A big flat city might work well with 3-6 story buildings, while a hilly city might need to concentrate a lot more to produce the same effect.

    The buildings get compared to Brooklyn- which is mostly flat and doesn’t face the same constraints. My off hand guess is that Cincy needs to really concentrate development more- use much less space for parking.

    I also needs to rethink its former industrial districts to become major parts of the city’s housing and office stock.

  5. John Morris says:

    Urban Cincy has a post that does some of the math.

    http://www.urbancincy.com/2012/07/whats-the-full-story-behind-cincinnatis-50-year-population-decline/

    “An academic assessment of how the plummeting birthrate affected Cincinnati’s population could consume weeks of research. But the drop in family size, along with the proliferation of separations and divorces, means nearly all Cincinnati homes and apartment units that were occupied by large families in the 1950s are today occupied by fewer people.

    So for Cincinnati to regain its lost 205,000 residents, the number of people residing in existing homes and apartment units must increase dramatically, and new construction must be populated at something higher than today’s prevailing density. With no reason to expect that Cincinnati’s birthrate will suddenly increase to that of impoverished countries, all population growth must come from the city’s suburbs or from outside the region. The wealthier the newcomer, the more living space they can afford. So paradoxically, the successful pursuit of top talent frustrates the task of fitting 205,000 new residents within Cincinnati’s existing city limits.”

    ….

    “Certainly, Cincinnati would benefit from new residents, especially in its under-populated neighborhoods where many historic structures are at risk of demolition. The arrival of 205,000 residents within the city limits would resolve many of the city’s current problems but would force higher apartment rents, increase noise and traffic congestion, and would motivate the demolition of historic structures for new multistory apartments and commercial buildings.”

    Many old NY districts like The Lower East Side have a similar math problem. Overcrowding to anything close to the old levels is not realistic. Only limited new construction and reuse can create a density level close to the critical mass needed for a walkable, transit oriented neighborhood.

  6. wkg in bham says:

    @john: i suspect the drop in population is due to working and middle class families baling of the city due to bad schools. This is one aspect of your statement “What really matters is how a community works.” It is vital that a city provide the basics such as schools, public safety, public works (infrastructure maintenance).
    Comments by Paul in “river city” post were very uncomplentary about the functioning of City govt.

  7. John Morris says:

    Yes, but The Urban Indy post confirms what I suspected. Urban renewal tore down many districts.

    http://www.urbancincy.com/2012/07/whats-the-full-story-behind-cincinnatis-50-year-population-decline/

    “Cincinnati’s loss of residents and residential land was not limited to expressway construction and urban renewal projects. In the neighborhoods collectively known as Uptown, physical growth of universities, hospitals and other institutions has resulted in the demolition of over 1,000 homes and apartments since 1950.”

    One thing that seems to have happened is the city chased manufacturers attracted to larger spaces out of town by bulldozing areas to form large lot industrial parks. (See the picture of Cincinnati’s West End in 1959)

    In the end these parks attracted few jobs & now the city was left with boring underused areas that sap energy from the downtown. (The Detroit pattern)

    This is similar to the way Cleveland gutted the warehouse district- an area that would have been ripe for renewal.

    BTW, dense cities are much more able to support school choice than most suburbs.

  8. John Morris says:

    The huge downside of industrial hill cities is smog collects in the valleys.

    http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://www.southwestohioair.org/uploads/Department%2520History.pdf

    “As early as the 1880s, smoke from manufacturing and transportation sources was an irritant to community residents. The bituminous coal burned in most factories, locomotive boilers, and household furnaces created a thick, black, oily smoke that deposited sulfur, nitrogen, and carbon compounds on everything it touched. Like other Ohio and Mississippi River towns, Cincinnati was built in a valley surrounded by hills. As a result, coal smoke tended to lie in the basins and valleys and sometimes took days to dissipate.

    Smoke prevention in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was often a collaborative effort among representatives of a progressive political community, women’s and civic clubs, and professional engineers. These groups united in lobbying municipal governments to pass tough smoke-control ordinances — mostly to combat the effects of burning coal for use in homes, industry and transportation. Cincinnati was no exception.”

    Combine this with the flood risk in the flats & one probably had a big tendency for people to live up on hills. OTR, seems to have become poor as people with better options moved to higher ground.

    Almost all of Pittsburgh’s older high end housing is on high ground.

    Critical for the city to rethink these areas and open them up to high density, mixed use development.

  9. thejerkstore says:

    Jeez Susan pray tell what is this reality of the state of Indiana? Civic boosterism? What does that even mean? Speak no ill of our city?

    I’m 44, born and raised in Chicago, moved to Indy in 82 left in 88, from 88-02 I lived in San Fran, St Louis, Chicago, Buenos Aires, Bogota and back to Indy in 02. To say or imply that Indy is some god forsaken backward hole is to validate TJ’s assessment.

    Problems? Sure. Crime? Yes. Obesity? Top 5. School systems? Suck but trying to get better.

    Downtown is growing, the culture trail is expanding, the North side has exploded (not good) and is unfortunately urban sprawl gone amuck. The restaurant/nightlife/cultural scene is leaps and bounds better. Taxes and red tape are fairly minimal. Cost of living is cheap. These are called growing pains.

    I’m a fair guy and don’t have any problem with criticism, but ambiguous swipes about “reality” when I have boots on the ground is another thing.

  10. TJIndy says:

    Agreed (to the comment above), and to Susan (comment #3): If you’ll re-read my comment, there was no “denial” about anything pertaining to Indiana / Indianapolis. My comment was simply about the rudeness and inappropriateness of the person from Chicago who felt a need to insult Indiana / Indianapolis in his story on Cincinnati. I didn’t say that anything he said was false, I just said it was unnecessary — although not unexpected due to my knowledge of where he was from. (No more comments on this topic from me. Sorry to take the focus off of Cincinnati.)

  11. John Morris says:

    Starting to put together thoughts about Cincinnati.

    A huge wild card is the downtown area really spans two states. What is Covington’s downtown like in terms of urbanism? Is there a trend towards apartments & town homes at the core? I see a bunch of affordable hotels.

  12. John Morris says:

    What I can see it isn’t so great. The old town, Mainstrasse looks amazing, but recent construction looks generic, cheap & generally anti urban.

    I guess, I am wondering about the trend. Is anyone thinking about newer, denser construction like tall apartment buildings overlooking the river or transit connections?

    IMHO, too many people are only looking at the potential of the “pretty” old buildings of downtown & OTR. This is unlikely to create enough density- and contributes to the zero sum game gentrification model in which new residents displace old.

    It also leaves the downtown isolated by underused non residential districts like the old West End & too dependent on visitors. A full revival has to improve all the areas within close to the downtown and mix up uses a lot more.

  13. John Morris says:

    Seems like smart marketing folks come up with similar pitches for cities like this.

    Pittsburgh had “Imagine what you can do here”

    Cleveland made a video highlighting dyi & youth culture (Only to water it down, less than a week later)

    Nothing wrong with the concept. But the product has to match the pitch. Is Cincinnati eager & open to people trying new things? Showing old corporate logos & reminding us of stuff done 150 years ago doesn’t help.

  14. I can’t wrap my head around the jab at Ambar. The decor is certainly worth criticizing (something that seems inherent to all Indian restaurants around here), but I always put their food at the top of the scale. A minor quibble I know, but it struck me as jarring.

  15. Maybe a bad day or something. Chicago itself isn’t exactly known for having a surfeit of great Indian joints.

  16. “Chicago itself isn’t exactly known for having a surfeit of great Indian joints.”

    Not even around Devon Avenue?

  17. There are restaurants, but none of them have blown me away. Not up to west coast standards. I generally went with Gareeb Navaz for takeout if you’re looking for a place.

  18. John Morris says:

    Is this 2008 post still pretty relevant? Cleveland has changed pretty radically in that time.

  19. Susan says:

    It is not rude when others point out for a lot of people including residents view the state including downtown Indy as a bland nondescript, mostly forgettable place. Furthermore, the author merely pointed out her reason for not stopping to take in the “delights” of downtown. Rather than see the statement as an insult, would it not be more productive to take it as food for thought?

  20. Chris Barnett says:

    Unfortunately the author is writing from ignorance and you are celebrating it. Ignorance can be fixed, but only by the ignorant person opening his/her mind to a different point of view. I am most definitely neither ignorant about my city’s weak (and strong) points nor about how snotty people from Chicago run it down.

    Aaron has written extensively on Indianapolis, and the threads have been lively and well-commented upon by people who actually, you know, KNOW the city. Aaron also participates actively on the Skyscraper City thread for Indy where we have some parallel discussions.

    The post on “The Sound Map” is outside the usual focus of Aaron’s blog. He isn’t an arts/music critic, and his readers aren’t necessarily either. His post on opera didn’t really breed huge commentary either.

  21. John Morris says:

    Sadly, Cincinnati itself doesn’t seem to be driving a whole lot of conversation on here.

    A few great comments from obvious residents and then things have gone sort of dead.

  22. John Morris says:

    I have an open question for Randy Simes (founder of Urban Cincy) or Jake Mecklenborg (Author of this post)

    http://www.urbancincy.com/2012/07/whats-the-full-story-behind-cincinnatis-50-year-population-decline/

    If the removal of housing stock near the downtown, in districts like the old West End has proven to be a mistake.
    Why isn’t adding back the housing on the table as part of the cure?

    Is anyone thinking about this?

  23. It’s not so easy when the neighborhood has been torn apart by wide highways, spaghetti interchange ramps, had the fine-grained street grid turned into a bunch of superblocks, and the whole place converted into a low-density industrial park.

  24. John Morris says:

    I agree- It’s a mess and will be impossible to recreate what once existed.

    That said, at least there appear to be blocks and some street grid as well as awesome proximity to the downtown. The area also, does not exactly seem to be booming as an industrial district. Rezone immediately to at least allow change.

    A lot of the superblocks are so underbuilt- one could bring back the old street grid.

    This is similar to Pittsburgh’s failed Allegheny Center disaster and the destruction of the Lower Hill district.

  25. John Morris says:

    Zone for anything from Office to residential & light industrial. See what pops up.

    Dumping in a cheap shuttle service to downtown & allowing services like Uber & Lyft would help.

  26. Nicole says:

    Since this was written in 2008 I think downtown, Over the Rhine, Clifton Heights and Corryville have seen a significant increase in activity and are more vibrant. These areas are adding residents at a pretty good clip, although it could definitely be better.

    Other neighborhoods such as Mt Adams, Clifton Gaslight, Hyde Park, Mt Lookout, East Walnut Hills, Northside and Oakley are becoming more expensive and desirable but are not really adding new residents. Northside and Oakley both have several developments moving forward but that is about it outside of the downtown/uptown area. It is definitely good for the city that these neighborhoods are seeing increasing home ownership and wealth but local developers are not taking advantage of the current desirability of walkable areas with good business districts by increasing density. Local developers haven’t bought into investing in the city yet and there is some handwringing over this. The developers behind the new apartments in Oakley and Northside are mostly from Indianapolis.

    My brother recently bought a house in Oakley for around what my parent’s house is worth in Fairfield, a middle class suburb. My parent’s house is about double the square footage of my brother’s. Prices have shot up there dramatically in the last 5-10 years but there has been little effort to increase housing there. Instead, the thought seems to be that once people are priced out of Oakley people will start renovating homes in adjacent Madisonville, effectively pricing out the lower income residents who live there. Again, the city is gaining wealthy residents but not adding to its population. I think the thought on the old West End is similar. It will not see significant redevelopment efforts until the middle class are priced out of Over the Rhine.

  27. John Morris says:

    Ugh, the street grid does seem pretty messed up.

    This is the particular area, I am talking about, once called Queensgate.

    https://www.google.com/maps/search/queensgate+cincinnati/@39.104029,-84.536445,15z/data=!4m5!2m4!3m3!1squeensgate!2sCincinnati,+OH!3s0x884051b1de3821f9:0x69fb7e8be4c09317

    At least some of the major streets connect to the downtown & one is even near the old Cincinnati Terminal building.

  28. Nicole, the reason these neighborhoods aren’t densifying is because the zoning was set up to only allow what’s already there. In many cases the 2-family and 4-plex apartment buildings are grandfathered in but not allowed to be built new. This hasn’t been much of a problem so far since there’s so many neighborhoods in the city that are cheap enough, and usually enough apartments were built in before the zoning regulations were tightened up in the 1970s and 80s, but going forward there’s nowhere for the neighborhoods to go except to become more expensive.

  29. John Morris says:

    I don’t actually know about the exact laws, but Pittsburgh neighborhoods like Shadyside still build quite a lot of new apartment buildings. This low key, gradual development has really helped keep the shopping areas awesome and housing relatively affordable.

  30. John Morris says:

    This restricted zoning model is bound to increase racial and class division and help drive young people out of town.

    It also may create a black market in illegal rentals.

  31. John Morris says:

    Nothing is perfect for everyone.

    I’m sure many mourn the loss of a perfectly preserved historic housing stock. But, neighborhoods like Shadyside, Squirrel Hill & the South Side preserve community and economic viability. IMHO, that makes it more than worth it.

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