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Friday, May 30th, 2014

Priced Out of Downtown Detroit

A recent article called “I’ve Been Priced Out of Downtown Detroit” shows us an interesting microcosm of the urban housing problem. Per the piece:

Five-year resident Andrew Kopietz moved out of his one-bedroom in the downtown Lafayette Park neighborhood late last year after his rent was hiked to $1,100 from $840 a month.

“I work downtown and have never loved living somewhere as much as I do here,” said Kopietz, a design director for D:Hive, which provides information about living in Detroit. But, “it seemed unfair to be forced to pay more.”

For those who haven’t been following it, there’s been a bit of a debate between Jim Russell and Daniel Hertz about the cause of rising urban housing prices the resulting unaffordability.

Hertz, like Matt Yglesias, Ryan Avent, and most other urbanists these days, puts the blame squarely on inelastic supply. Demand has gone up, but building restrictions make it difficult if not impossible to build more units, ergo housing prices go up.

Russell doesn’t discount that supply constraints affect price, but he zeros in on demand. He notes that many places have restricted supply but only some of them feature skyrocketing prices because demand is uneven and heavily concentrated in places with a large global workforce. He believes more attention should be paid to the demand side of the equation in explaining housing prices.

Detroit is an interesting lab to show this at work. This is a city that simultaneously has a tight housing market with rising prices in Downtown at Midtown at the same time the city is proposing to spend almost $2 billion dollars to demolish about a quarter of its housing stock. There would appear to be ample housing and land available for almost free in Detroit, even in urban Detroit, but the differences in the markets are stark. Why is this?

In 2009 I wrote a piece called “Migration: Geographies in Conflict” in which I explore this issue. In the age of globalization there are really two types of labor markets, global and local. People who work in global labor markets can command significant wage premiums over those in local ones. The modern globalized economy is been very good to those with top level global skills, while more traditionally local markets have been exposed to new, low-wage from offshore and crushed.

The problem is that those two economic and labor market geographies can exist in the same physical geography. In those cases, the global market workers are able to outbid local market workers for housing and other goods and services, leading to rising prices and displacement. Read the whole piece as I talk about this in much more depth, especially with regards to California.

Now Detroit doesn’t really have a large workforce in global labor markets. But what we see is several thousand people who work for Dan Gilbert’s business empire and other downtown businesses who are being handed a $20,000 check if they move downtown. This, along with their general status as corporate white collar employees, simulates a global worker wage premium. Per the article:

One program, called Live Downtown, has attracted as many as 15,000 new residents to the downtown area, according to the mayor’s office.

Under the program, local companies, including Quicken Loans and Blue Cross Blue Shield, give employees $20,000 loans that will be completely forgiven if they buy and stay in a home downtown for five years. Renters there receive $2,500 their first year and $1,000 the second.

I strongly doubt there are 15,000 new residents in downtown Detroit. Nevertheless, this shows that putting two separate groups with a structural wage differential in a small physical geography can result in rising prices and displacement.

Now, what about supply? Is the city of Detroit telling people they can’t build downtown? Is there a governmentally imposed supply constraint in any meaningful sense? Not that I’m aware of. I’m sure Detroit has planning and zoning laws and that they are baroque, but that’s true everywhere, including places that are building a lot of new supply.

What we would appear to have here instead is a lag issue. Real estate development isn’t like ramping production up or down in a factory. It takes time to do. This creates inevitable lags, and given the history of various overbuilding scenarios, developers will clearly want to make sure downtown Detroit demand is sustainable before committing capital to a project.

Additionally, with higher income demand in the market, new units are going to be built to serve that market, not lower income people. If you own land and have a market that gives you the choice of either building a higher profit building or a lower profit building, which one will you choose? It’s obvious what developers are choosing in Detroit:

In February, a couple dozen artists were evicted from their loft spaces in a building on Griswold Street after it had been bought by Bedrock Real Estate Services. The original plan was to keep the tenants in the building, according to Aaron Emerson, a spokesman for Quicken Loans, Bedrock’s parent company. But, he said, the building was deemed unsafe by the fire inspector and needed major renovations, necessitating the evictions.

A couple of months ago, another building on Griswold was emptied of its mostly low-income senior residents. The residents had received notices a year earlier notifying them that their Section 8 subsidized housing vouchers were going to expire and the building was going to be renovated. Donna Fontana, a spokeswoman for developer Broder & Sachse, said residents were found new places to live, with their relocation costs covered.

Keep in mind that if the existing tenants are retained, either the investments to upgrade the units won’t get made, or those tenants will receive a windfall benefit of higher end units they are paying below market prices for. They will have won the lottery, in effect.

But what’s more, even if every existing resident got a new, upgraded unit with no rent increase and zero displacement, improvements to downtown Detroit resulting from the newer, higher income residents (for example, nicer retail) will create intrinsic attractiveness that will make it desirable to people who don’t currently live there today but who can’t afford the rents for new development. Perhaps a recent Millennial college grad who is underemployed and burdened with student loan debt, let’s say.

Which brings us back to the juxtaposition of high demand in Downtown/Midtown Detroit vs. the low or no demand in most of the rest of the city. Why wouldn’t the people who can’t afford downtown rents just move into one of those areas?

The answer is obvious: they want to live downtown specifically. They may in fact choose another location, but they will grouse about it.

Pete Saunders nailed the mentality in his post “The Millennial Housing Shortage Fallacy“:

Blogger Daniel Kay Hertz sheds some light on the thought process behind the growing meme: “Why are there no apartment buildings in your standard affluent single-family-home neighborhood, common in metro areas from Chicago to Kansas City to New York to Memphis? Not because people don’t want to live in them. Not because you couldn’t make money by building them. They don’t exist because they’re illegal.”

The emphasis is added because it highlights the salient point, which can be reduced to this: “why isn’t there more housing where I want it?” Because there are plenty of apartment buildings with plenty of vacancies in other parts of the city. Let’s fill those up, and then talk.

If young urbanists are serious about moving back to the city, maybe they ought to consider more of the city to live in. For every highly desirable attractive urban neighborhood, even in the most in-demand metro areas, there are just as many languishing neighborhoods that aren’t even part of the conversation. For every Lincoln Park or Lakeview in Chicago that lacks affordable housing, there is a Garfield Park or Woodlawn with tons of it.

In other words, the real complaint is that the market isn’t producing the type of housing I want, in the place I want it, at the price I can afford to pay. It’s special pleading.

I’m all in favor of Daniel Hertz’s plan to make it easier to build. Supply restrictions are a serious problem in cities like San Francisco and New York. But this isn’t the whole story. My takeaway points:

1. The two tier labor market needs to be examined as a piece of the puzzle. This is not straightahead inequality as generally talked about. The word inequality suggests unfairness because people within the same labor market get vastly different outcomes. Or it makes us think of the uber-rich. But in effect what we have is two separate labor markets. There’s a structural problem here that’s separate from the insane money accumulated by the 0.01% that is usually the focus.

2. Political and regulatory supply constraints do affect the market and need to be addressed, but there are other supply factors affecting affordability.

3. People are not entitled to a cheap apartment in the exact neighborhood they want with the exact amenities they want.

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman

I was in Columbus last week, and while I was there I was able to sit down for an hour long conversation with Mayor Michael Coleman. We talked about Columbus’ economic out-performance relative to the rest of Ohio, its secret sauce as a city, how it can gain better brand recognition in the market, Rust Belt self-disparagement, the city’s bicentennial, the role of Ohio State, and whether the city needs to develop a signature claim to fame – plus more as well.

If the audio player below doesn’t display, click here for the MP3 file. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

Mayor Michael Coleman. Image via City of Columbus.

Here are some edited highlights of our discussion. You can also read the complete transcript.

When I asked him what made Columbus different from other places in the state, Mayor Coleman didn’t hesitate to tout his city:

I have nothing negative to say about any of the cities in Ohio. But the truth is that they’re part of the Rust Belt. And Columbus really isn’t. Columbus is an anomaly in the state of Ohio. While all of the other major cities in Ohio are decreasing in size and population, increased poverty, all those things that are representative of a Rust Belt city, Columbus is just the opposite. We have a tremendous amount of young people that have moved into our community. Our average age I think is somewhere around 33 or 34 years old. We have gone from a brain drain city to a brain magnet city. And economic growth has been incredible. We’ve had 40,000 new jobs in the past three years. And it’s a city that really is different from the rest of the state. And I think if you look at the state economy, there’s one major pillar in the state economy – and it’s the city of Columbus.

I asked Mayor Coleman what Ohio should be doing to bring the rest of the state up to Columbus’ level of performance. His take:

Be progressive, a lot more progressive than what it is. The state legislature is a pretty conservative body. To some extent, they’re pro-business, but when you’re not pro anything else it frankly impacts the business development in a state. We’re very pro a lot of things in this city. We’re pro-business. I’m a pro-business Democrat. I believe in the creation of jobs and the quality of jobs. It’s part of what I do every day. I view myself as the top economic development officer for the city of Columbus. So we’re very pro-business, pro-development. But we’re also pro other things. I’m pro-gay rights. I’m pro-reasonable, rational gun control. I’m pro-human rights and human dignity. You add that mix together, of good jobs with a good life, it really makes for a vibrant economy.

One of the things that was a difference for the city of Columbus a while back was our income tax increase back in 2009. Now some people might criticize me for encouraging taxes — some have failed and some have passed in the past — but that one tax was the one that made the difference for our community in many ways. The philosophy at that time, back when the country was in the longest and deepest recession it had experienced since the Depression — including the State of Ohio, including the City of Columbus – was, “Are you crazy for wanting to increase income taxes in the city of Columbus?” In fact, I heard some people say, “You’re going to drive off business in the city.” And we heard from statewide folks, “If the state did that, businesses would leave the state of Ohio – like that [snapping fingers].”

So after some major cuts of $100 million, changing things we’d done, huge budget cuts in the City of Columbus – and the public felt those cuts; they saw it in the streets; they saw it in their homes; they saw it in the community – there was a realization in Columbus that, you know what, no one likes taxes, but we really like our quality of life. And so what happened was, the business community rather than leave the community, helped support and fund the campaign for a voted income tax. Now mind you, at that time, we were in a very deep recession – high unemployment, high level of misery in the state and locally – and for people to vote for an income tax increase at the highest time of distress in the community, was a feat unlike I’ve ever seen in this community, in any community. And the business community supported it.

We have a very smart population in Columbus, very bright, they’re very discerning. And they’ve not supported some tax increases. So our folks, they were able to discern as to what’s right for them and what’s wrong for them at that time. We recently lost a couple of tax increases. I’ll look back on it and say, “Hey, it makes sense. I get that. I understand why those lost.” This is the one that passed, and this is the one that made all the difference.

We were at a point where we were going to have to lay off 500 police and firefighters. At that time we cut all kinds of things, like trash, leaf pickup, we closed recreation centers, we had significant layoffs, we had furloughs – we cut dramatically all over and everywhere. And the community said we want a quality of life. Those things are important to us. And once you cut safety, and crime becomes rampant in a community, you cannot come back for a long time. When the community isn’t safe, you can’t create jobs, you can’t have parks, you can’t have bike paths. None of those things can happen if the quality of life in the community is declined dramatically. So the community made a choice at that time to preserve the quality of life. And this made a difference. If we had had those cuts, if that income tax did not pass, you wouldn’t be sitting here today talking about the vibrancy of our city. You’d be talking about, what are you going to do about bringing the city back from the depression it’s in, the distress it’s in? And it would be like a lot of Midwestern cities that frankly are struggling, that are struggling beyond all measure.

You can’t be pro-business and not be pro anything else. I’m pro-business – unabashedly. Good jobs, business expansion, it means all the difference in the community where income tax is the driver of services and your budget and the vibrancy of the community. But you have to think two sides of that coin. One side is development of jobs, the other side is development of place – quality. What are the amenities? What are the things that people want to have in their state or their community that enhance its viability and its vibrancy?

While when it comes to population and jobs, Columbus has been growing much faster than the rest of Ohio, in terms of recognition in the marketplace it still lags Cincinnati and Cleveland. I asked the mayor what he thought Columbus should do to change that:

You don’t need a slogan. You need experience. You want to relay an experience. And the hard thing about Columbus is there’s multiple, solid experiences in our city that are valid and meaningful to the 21st century. Again, fashion, who would have thought? Now a brain magnet city, who would have thought? The largest city in the state of Ohio – by far. The next largest city is less than half our size, Cleveland. Who would have thought? That’s why we work really hard on a multiple strategy approach. One of them is really going to hit, and you’ve got to just keep going.

People are asking, “Why am I working hard to get Democratic or Republican convention in the City of Columbus? That’s just nothing but a hassle.” The reason is there’s this glass ceiling out there, and we’ve got to break through. We may or may not get a Democratic convention or a Republican convention, but to be considered, and to be viewed differently in the process, is important.

I’ll be posting further thoughts on the Columbus brand over the weekend.

I asked the mayor why people in Columbus persist in having a chip on their shoulder about being a “cow town” even though I’ve never heard anyone from outside Ohio use the term.

Because the truth is, there are some folks in this community that at one point viewed ourselves as a cow town. And for me, that’s a dirty word. So I had a strategy that we executed, and it worked great. It was our bicentennial, 2012. In 2007 I pulled the community together. We had the largest town hall meeting in the history of the universe at the convention center. We had a couple thousand people. We brought a couple thousand of our residents into the convention hall and we spent time on what we want to do. I had a mission; my mission was to help change the mentality of how we view ourselves. Because you can’t market yourself until you view yourselves a certain way. So what I started talking about then and I still talk about today is, this city needs to continue with a sense of modesty, but not modesty to a fault. Because frankly, we should have a sense of what I call swagger. And I’ve written articles on it. I’ve written op-eds on it. We’ve done all kinds of stuff, speeches all over the city – is that this city needs to have a sense of swagger. Because we have so much to offer, so much we’ve accomplished, and we need to feel that when we go on that football field we can win. And we got to walk, we got to talk, we got to feel as if we have swagger. And I pushed it hard. And frankly, I think that effort has changed how we view ourselves.

Mayor Coleman was the first black mayor of Columbus and is now the longest serving mayor of any race in the city’s history. I asked him about the way black political leadership in American cities has evolved since the days of the civil rights movement:

I think the early mayors’ focus was civil rights. The issues have changed over time. While civil rights continues to be important, people have an expectation that mayors deliver, mayors change the city for the better in every aspect of a community, from jobs, to housing, to streets, to police, to safety, human services, across the – water quality, sewers, potholes. Our role has changed from the singular focus of civil rights, which is important, to be an expanded role that includes civil rights but everything else that we have to change.

Mayors, especially African American mayors, need to be change agents – change agents for their city. I think all the mayors you mentioned are change agents for their cities – in every aspect of city life, not just in one or two. Every aspect. My favorite saying in this city, among my staff, is: the city that stays the same falls behind.

Listen to the whole thing above or read the complete transcript for more.

Monday, May 26th, 2014

Checking In On Columbus


Fountain in a park, Victorian Village, Columbus, Ohio.

I was in Columbus, Ohio for a couple days last week. I hadn’t been there since my late 2010 Columbus Metropolitan Club presentation, and so it was good to get to check in and see how they were doing.

I once called Columbus “the new Midwestern star,” noting that they were one of those Midwest cities that’s doing far better than the region’s reputation would suggest. It’s been growing at a reasonably rapid clip in both population and jobs, beating the US average significantly, though not measuring up to the Sunbelt boomtowns. Home to Ohio State, it’s educated to significantly above the national average, has a diverse white collar employment base, and is also an emerging logistics center among other good things.

One of their biggest sources of frustration is that they aren’t better known in the marketplace. If I were to sum it up, they’re sick of people always putting the “, Ohio” after their name. (As I’ve written extensively about Columbus, Indiana in my own home state, hopefully they’ll forgive me if I do so in order to reduce ambiguity). Part of the reason is that while they check all the boxes, they haven’t really gone beyond the checklist to create things that would be truly compelling in the external marketplace. Columbus is basically what I mean by the “best practices” city – they are implementing all the best practices in the marketplace, but haven’t yet developed a compelling, unique brand positioning. I wrote about this in a post called “Rebranding Columbus” and focused on it at length in that presentation above. I’ll soon be back with another round of thoughts.

Short North

But today I just wanted to share some photos of various things going on about town. Like a lot of places, Columbus has seen a sizable amount of housing construction of apartments in its urban core in recent years. According to Walker Evans of Columbus Underground, there are about 5,000 units recently completed, under construction, or soon to break ground. That’s not going to reverse suburbanization, but shows that the urban center is showing significant signs of a more healthy market.


New construction on High St. in the Short North, Columbus.

The majority of the construction appears to be happening on the near north side. The first neighborhood north of downtown is called the Short North and is a very nice retail district that sits between downtown and the Ohio State campus. The picture above shows the High St. spine of the Short North with its signature arches.

You’ll see buildings under construction on both sides of the street, both showing increased verticality versus the existing building stock. This illustrates the densifying trend in arguably the city’s most desirable district, which has been provisionally welcomed though not without controversy. The building on the right is a Le Meridien hotel. The building on the left is for offices. It will also house a two-story Anthropologie store, which is very controversial for this neighborhood that has successfully fended off most major chains, including Starbucks.

Victorian Village and Italian Village

Short North is not exactly a neighborhood per se, but rather a commercial spine that joins (or splits depending on your point of view), residential neighborhoods on either side, Italian Village to the east and Victorian Village to the west.


Street in Victorian Village

As the name might suggest, Italian Village was originally the more working class of the two. For a part of its length its only a few blocks wide because it’s pinned in by railroad tracks.

Walker Evans graciously gave me a tour of new development and I took a lot of snaps, but didn’t make notes so I’m going from memory as to where these are. Apologies in advance if I make a mistake as to location in these photos. Here’s new development in Italian Village:

This neighborhood also has a pretty large industrial brownfield site that a developer tried and failed to tackle some years back, which is now moving forward again with what will be quite a number of units:

Development in Victorian Village:

More:

Grandview Heights Area

Columbus is famous for having annexed a large amount of territory. One result is that there area handful of independent municipalities that ended up entirely surrounded by the city, including Bexley and Grandview Heights. Because these have their own independent school districts, they’ve retained a lot of housing value and have a pretty high quality residential stock. The closure of some industrial plants led Grandview to try to replace the lost tax base by redeveloping them as mixed use residential/office/retail. Here’s a picture under development:

On the Columbus side of the border there’s also related development, though out of mercy to the city I won’t show it, as it includes a gigantic strip mall. I believe this area is all being developed by Nationwide Realty. Nationwide Insurance is HQ’d in Columbus and employs over 10,000 there. One thing insurance companies do is invest premiums collected in order to earn a return, and real estate is a popular choice. Nationwide just happens to be willing to bet a significant amount on its hometown. That’s a huge benefit to Columbus. They previously led the efforts to develop the successful Arena District downtown, and this is their latest foray. As with the Arena District, it appears to be solid, though not in any way distinctive, perhaps in keeping with an insurance company’s conservative mindset. This is part of the Columbus “reasonably best practices but not innovative or externally compelling” approach. It all has a vaguely “Sim City” feel, something that is by no means unique to Columbus. This development is far from complete:

Easton Town Center

I’ll make a brief diversion to a suburban type location (albeit within Columbus’ sprawling city limits). This is the lifestyle center Easton Town Center on the Northeast Side. It’s Columbus’ most upscale mall and also some to some associated apartments and a bit under three million square feet of office space. This gives the appearance of having been a completely master planned development. While it’s nice, it’s also sterile – “Stepford” as my one friend might call it – and also exudes the “Sim City” effect.


An interior street of the Easton Mall.


Parking lots only steps from the interior street above.


The extensively landscaped main access road at Easton, with new urbanist style apartments in the background.

Downtown

Columbus has a number of great and thriving urban core neighborhoods like Short North and German Village. Its downtown, by contrast, has been on the dull side, a stereotypical government and finance center. I didn’t see that a huge amount had changed since my last visit. Indeed, most of the development in the core seems to be outside downtown.

One exception is the site of the now-demolished City Center Mall. When the city scrapped it, I was not a fan of the idea of replacing it with a park, saying:

There seems to be a reverence for green space in cities bordering on the religious. But green space is only useful to the extent that it functions well in the urban fabric. If you take two blocks and grass them over like this, what you are really doing is just institutionalizing a vacant lot. Now a plaza or square of the European style is quite nice, but it is quite nice because those places are able to draw people. If 1.3 million sq. ft. of shops wouldn’t draw people, why will this park? That’s the great unanswered question. Plazas work in Europe because of the density of offices, retail, residential, and tourists. The activity on the plazas draws more people to be part of it, which forms a virtuous circle, but unless there is critical mass of activity to begin with, the spark will never strike. The intensity of development here is just not going to make it. In effect, this is another build it and they will come plan. What’s more, the city is permanently taking the land off the tax rolls and since, unlike a mall, it’s a non-revenue producing asset, there is a significant operating tail to fund as well.

City officials are correct that cities have to get their public spaces right. But the key part of a public space is the public. If you don’t have people, you haven’t built a true public space. I suspect that they will be forced to program events there near continuously to fill up this space.

My prediction appears to have been entirely vindicated. Here’s the park they built:

Looking the opposite direction:

This was an overcast but not especially gloomy weekday afternoon. I expect this to be close to the normal state of the park when programming is not in progress.

On the other hand, this is one area that has seen development. Only part of the site was reserved as a park. Various other sections were penciled in for development, which has been occurring. Here are some apartments that have attracted quite a bit of urban design criticism locally, but I find notable as being erected by an out of town developer, showing the increasing attractiveness of the local market for national investors:

The adjacent intersection of High and Rich also has significant development going in on all corners. All told, there will be about 1,000 units just in the area of this intersection. Fill up every intersection with that kind of density, and perhaps the park will be more regularly used sans programming.

Sadly, some of this involves demolishing historic buildings. I believe the site above was demolished and the buildings below will be as well. This is disappointing, but I do think there are value conflicts that can’t always been resolved neatly. Destroy and replace has been part of what it means to be a city forever. The judgement of history is whether the balance of preservation and redevelopment is right.

I was told the building at the corner has serious problems that this photo doesn’t do justice to.

Riverbank Restoration

One other interesting thing going on downtown involves changes to the Scioto River. Previously the city had redone the existing banks of the river with parkland and trails called the Scioto Mile that is quite nice. We had drinks at a tavern that overlooked the river in a way that was both urban and scenic.

However, sometime in the past the river had been dammed. Nobody is quite sure way, but the best guess is that it was to widen the smallish, non-navigable Scioto to make it more impressive. The result is that the river ran through a channel within retaining wall through downtown. Trails and such were built along the top of that wall.

The city recently blew up the dam in order to restore a more natural riverbank and greenery to the Scioto. Although in this case “natural” clearly involves a lot of restoration work to help.

You can easily see the retaining wall in that pic and the resulting expansion of green space that is going to result from this.

Franklinton

Visiting Columbus you might be tempted to ask, “Where’s the urban blighted part?” Candidly, I’ve seen remarkably little of it compared to many cities I’ve visited, and I tend to go looking for it.

One exception is a neighborhood just west of the Scioto River called Franklinton that is the thing that has almost everybody I talked to most excited.

Franklinton has a classic Midwest post-industrial wasteland look, but this includes plenty of high quality older buildings. One of them has already been converted into something like 100 artist studios – all full as artists are getting priced out of their traditional home in the Short North. Another has been turned into a large “maker space.” I saw a brewery under construction. Apparently the majority of the land in the area is under “friendly” control, and The Powers That Be have christened this the next It Place. Results already appears to be happening, and the historic building fabric that exists suggests this will be different in style than the Sim City developments I highlighted earlier.

Bike and Care Share

Columbus now has a downtown bike share up and running, though I didn’t actually see anyone using it. It appears to be industry standard type stuff. They also have a car share system, this one from an outfit called “car2go” that I wasn’t familiar with. It’s apparently owned by Daimler Benz, so naturally features Smart Cars:

This has some neat features. Cars don’t have to be picked up and dropped off at fixed points. You find one with your smart phone based on GPS, and drop it off anywhere in the service area you can find a spot – even at a meter. These cars aren’t required to feed the meter so you get free on street parking while using them. I was told this system was put in place on a market basis without subsidies – and that the vendor actually pays the city for the use of the meters.

Bicentennial Brand

One new thing since my last visit was a new city logo:

I’ve got to confess this threw me for a loop when I saw it. The different color of the “US” was clearly intended to convey something. My first thought was it meant United States. My mind went directly to the “Cincinnati, USA” brand and I thought maybe this was the city’s way of trying to get that “, Ohio” monkey off their back. The star over the U made me smile, thinking of the umlaut over the N in Spinal Tap, but obviously as a state capital, it made sense, and the forward positioning doubly highlights the “US” as well as suggesting forward progress.

Or so I was congratulating myself for having figured out. Apparently this logo was created for the city’s bicentennial, which had a theme of self-celebration called “The Story of Us.” There was even a book with that name issued (along with a commemorative coin, CD, and other celebratory things). The highlighted “US” is actually the pronoun “us.”

While I think this works great as a bicentennial theme (and also explains the red white and blue, even though those aren’t the city flag colors), it renders the logo unparseable to anyone on not on the inside, i.e., everyone not from Columbus. Especially foreigners are unlikely to make the connection. Unfortunately, basically every major civic group has adopted variations of this for their own materials. The graphic uniformity is admirable, but it’s a confusing graphic.

Conclusion

I hope this gives a bit of a feel for what’s going on in Columbus, though it’s by no means complete. The city continues to grow at fairly robust levels. Construction in the urban core looks healthy. But there hasn’t been any upward inflection point in the trajectory that I see. Nor have they cracked the code on brand, marketplace recognition, and transcending the best practices city model. I’ll share some thoughts in coming posts that will hopefully help with the latter items.

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

When Sprawl Hits the Wall

I’ve long argued that the real reason sprawl, or suburban development as we’ve been practicing it, is a problem isn’t because it’s ugly, environmentally damaging, racist, or some other form of evil. The more fundamental problem is that it’s a long term financial loser. The numbers just don’t add up over the long term when you take a lifecycle view of it.

As I outlined in “The Power of Greenfield Economics” and elsewhere, new suburbs look attractive for a number of transitory reasons: everything is new, state of the art, and exactly in line with current market tastes; no legacy costs; no legacy institutions, deals, political dynasties, etc; few low income residents and thus low social service costs; deferred infrastructure development; the efficiency of large lot development; and scale economics in public service provision in a growth environment.

Eventually though, your shiny new suburb fills up and so growth comes to a halt, then often about the same time it gets old. This send all of those positive factors into reverse, triggering a cycle of decline that will ultimately cause major problems in vast tracts of suburban America that aren’t either a) wealthy communities or b) in markets that have tight restrictions on new building (which preserves these communities at the expense of rendering them unaffordable).

The perfect display of this is happening before our eyes in Indianapolis as the Indianapolis Business Journal reported this week in a major story called, “Aging suburbs face long road back” which sadly is likely behind a paywall at this point.

Like many places, the old city of Indianapolis found itself losing population to suburban areas further out in Marion County due to a variety of factors. Their solution to this problem was city-county merger, a system called Unigov. In a sense, it was regional government in which the city annexed its suburbs.

Problem solved, right?

No so fast. The problem is that growth at a rate of 200,000+ people per decade plus further expansion of the urban footprint sent growth out past the boundaries of the merged city and into the surrounding counties. As this happened, the old suburbs of Marion County themselves got old and fell out of favor, and are increasingly zones of suburban blight. The city is now close to being right back where it started. Unigov bought Indianapolis 40 years, but other than using that captured suburban tax base to build up downtown – a legitimately important and impressive accomplishment – it otherwise continued with business as usual. The result is that vast tracts of the city are now behind the 8-ball, with no plan or prospect for near term change. Per the IBJ:

Poverty is encroaching on the outer townships of Marion County, adding to their handicap in the competition with doughnut counties, where houses are newer, and sidewalks, sewer connections and bike paths come standard. Now, Marion County’s suburban neighborhoods also face the flight of national retailers and poverty-driven challenges for their school districts. Spreading poverty makes it even more difficult to market a four-bedroom, two-bath house on a suburban lot in, say, Warren Township on the east side against a similar product over the county line. “That’s a tough nut to crack,” said John Marron, an analyst at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute. “To me, it’s easier to sell the authentic urban experience.”….. For decades after Unigov merged city and county government in 1970, Marion County’s suburban townships propped up the city’s tax base. Now they could become a drag.
….
Wayne Township has the largest low-income area outside of Center Township, with 20 square miles and 62,327 residents. Many of those neighborhoods are inside the I-465 belt. One encompasses a cluster of apartment complexes just south of Ben Davis High School. Marron thinks the changes in Wayne Township stem from its concentration of homes built in the 1970s or earlier—a less desirable housing stock than is available farther west in fast-growing Hendricks County….The median Wayne Township sales price in 2013 was $66,505…“We have not seen any significant economic development here on the west side for some time” [says Wayne Township schools Superintendent Jeffrey Butts].

This was entirely predictable. Given that Wayne Township’s officials, no matter what they might say in this article, are dead set against change (such as merging their independent fire department with IFD), don’t expect much change in the results.

One thing the IBJ didn’t highlight but represents a big overhang in these aging suburbs is the aging in place population. A lot of these places skew older as there are baby boomers and up who bought and have simply stayed put. On the one hand, this is great. On the other, that long term population masks the fact that there’s no next generation moving in, so as the older generations start to die, the situation is going to continue to degrade. We already saw this happen in a lot of the inner city.

But the most telling quote in the entire article was from West Side Chamber of Commerce President Rick Proctor when he said, “There’s probably never going to be enough money to retrofit all of Indianapolis with the amenities all of us would like in our neighborhoods.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!

The bottom line is that the type of development that’s been ongoing in Indy and most American communities can’t ever generate enough tax revenue to pay to provide the infrastructure, amenities, and services necessary to support it. To show you what I mean, I’ll show you a picture from the old city, the supposed “urban core”. This is my block:

As you can see, the infrastructure here is minimal. Not even curbs much less sidewalks. Spend any time in Indy as you’ll immediately get it that this place has always been cheap. Even the old city was never built right to begin with.

What would it cost to retrofit this street with real infrastructure? What would it cost to perform routine maintenance and basic services like street lighting (currently provided at minimalistic levels), street sweeping (not performed) or snow plowing/salting (not performed either, unless there’s over six inches of snow)? Let’s just say it would be a huge amount of money. Now ask yourself how much in property and income taxes these mostly 2-3 bedroom, one bath worker cottages are likely to produce in taxes. It’s clear the math will never work. And this is in a neighborhood that still has a lot of pull to younger families thanks to its proximity to the urban commercial districts in the area.

I wrote an entire series on building suburbs that last, but one thing is clear. You have to at least build the infrastructure up front if you wait to have any hope. Because if you want to provide basic streets and arterials, etc. until later, then you’re not going to be able to afford it. If your development can’t support the cost of full infrastructure, that’s a powerful market signal that it’s not viable. This is a government concern because it’s the government that’s forced to come in after the collapse and pick up the pieces – or try to anyway. Of course, that would be the same government that got us into this mess in the first place.

The most tragic thing about all this? Despite the ample evidence of the catastrophe that awaits, Indianapolis is still doing more of the same. Right now in Franklin Township, one of the few places inside the city limits that is still a greenfield from a development perspective, the city is approving and permitting out vast tracts of low-grade sprawl there. We are building tomorrow’s addition to our pile of problems right now. And nowhere in any city initiative that’s currently ongoing is there any hint of changing that. The same is true all over America. I might suggest the old adage applies: if you’re in a hole, first stop digging.

Friday, May 16th, 2014

Business Dynamism and Poverty

A couple of interesting reports came out recently that I haven’t been able to fully write up, but I at least want to highlight them for you.

The first is an eight-page report by the Brookings Institution called “Declining Business Dynamism in the United States.” They looked at firm entry and exit rates over time, and the trend shows a clear fall in firm entry, and thus entrepreneurship:

They also looked at this by metro area, and found that basically every single metro and state is less dynamic (above and to the left of the line in the chart below) than it used to be.

And they showed metros and states trending almost identically, showing that there’s still a tighter linkage of metro areas to the overall economy as a whole than a metro-centric view might suggest.

It’s pretty depressing stuff. Blogger “Noahopinion” suggests there’s nothing to see here, saying:

One big thing that has happened in America over the last 35 years is the coming of large chain stores and restaurants. Mom-and-pop businesses have vanished as big-box retail, and later Amazon and other e-commerce sites, have taken over. That would tend to increase firm exit and decrease firm entry. Ryan Decker confirms that employment at large firms has been increasing since the early 80s.

Should we be worried about that? Many people over the years have bemoaned the death of the mom-and-pop store or the local restaurant, but I’m not sure we should be too concerned. Go visit a poor country, and you’ll see that every other family has a food stand or little clothing stall, etc. That kind of “entrepreneurship” takes guts and ingenuity, but it’s born out of hardship, not opportunity. The birth and death of small family businesses is one kind of “economic dynamism”, but not really the kind that leads to increasing living standards or technological progress. In the U.S., it’s not clear from Brookings’ data how much high-growth entrepreneurship has changed.

That may be the case. But it’s easy to see the trend of large, dominant corporations, much like the trusts of old, having a negative effects from an aggregate economic standpoint. We’ve seen a huge increase in business regulation since the 1970s, etc. Businesses ostensible oppose this, but large businesses actually like regulation. They are able to use “regulatory capture” to take over the regulatory apparatus through the revolving door, lobbying, and campaign contributions to secure regulations that are favorable to them and hostile to new entrants. Look at the difference in how big Wall Streets banks were treated during the crash versus Main Street businesses and homeowners. Major corporate CEOs get to meet with President Obama to bend his year. New and small businesses don’t. Despite our complex tax code, major corporations often pay little to no tax because of the flotilla of lawyers and accountants they employ. The local plumbing contractor has no such luck. So even if there’s some grounds in efficiency to favor bigger enterprises – a point I’m not necessarily conceding – there may be off-setting externalaties that more than. We’ve become radically pro-big business in America at the expense of being pro-market.

The major national rollups that reduced many industries to two major towers (e.g., Home Depot and Lowes, Walgreens and CVS, AT&T and Verizon, Wal-Mart and Target), major financial consolidation, and the winner takes all nature of many internet businesses is something that really needs to be studied as to any long term negative effects on the economy and consumer, and what we can do to create a level playing field for upstarts.

The second study is on urban poverty by economist Joe Cortright and Portland State’s Dillon Mahmoudi. It’s called “Neighborhood Change, 1970 to 2010: Transition and Growth in Urban High Poverty Neighborhoods.” As the title implies, it looks at the dynamics of urban poverty in census tracts within 10 miles of the CBD in metro areas of more than one million people. The findings aren’t pretty, as these excerpts suggest:

The data presented here suggest an “up or out” dynamic for high poverty areas. A few places have gentrified, experienced a reduction in poverty, and generated net population growth. But those areas that don’t rebound don’t remain stable: they deteriorate, losing population, and overwhelmingly remaining high poverty.

The number of high poverty neighborhoods within 10 miles of the central business district increased from about 1,100 in 1970, to more than 3,100 in 2010. The population in these neighborhoods more than doubled, from 5 million to 10.7 million, and the poverty population also doubled, from about 2 million to slightly more than 4 million.

Much attention gets directed to instances of dramatic neighborhood changes in the form of gentrification: once high poverty neighborhoods experience a large reduction in poverty rates. But the reverse is also true: some urban neighborhoods that once had low levels of poverty have experienced a large increase in poverty.
….
The incidence of neighborhood rebounding—here defined as a previously high poverty neighborhood that sees its poverty rate decline to less than 15 percent in 2010—is surprisingly small. Only about 100 census tracts saw this kind of change over a forty-year period in these 51 large metropolitan areas….the number of high poverty neighborhoods in the core of metropolitan areas has tripled and their population has doubled in the past four decades….It is rare for an urban, high poverty neighborhood to experience a major decline in poverty.

This study is short and non-technical, so is definitely worth a read.

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Milwaukee’s Incredible Political Polarization

Whet Moser at Chicago Magazine pointed me a special report in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on that city’s incredible political polarization. The Census Bureau has already declared Milwaukee the most racially segregated metro in the country – yes, even more than Detroit or Chicago – and the JS suggests it’s in the running for most politically segregated as well. Check out this election map from 2012:


2012 presidential election results – image via Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

As their article puts it:

In the acrid and escalating clash between red and blue America, there is no battleground quite like metropolitan Milwaukee.

Spectacularly divided, remarkably mobilized, frequently fought over, its politically lopsided communities have been veering apart for more than 40 years.

Democrats and Republicans aren’t just strangers to each other in their politics — they increasingly live in separate worlds. In its ultrapartisan geography, this is arguably the most polarized place in swing-state America.

“You have people speaking different languages and they come from different planets and they have no common agenda,” says Myron Orfield, an expert on metropolitan trends.

Regardless of your own political persuasion, keep in mind that it takes two to tango. Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Taking Columbus to the Next Level

It’s always a bit risky to look at a video of something you did 3-4 years ago, both from a content and style perspective. But since I’m off to Buckeye land next week for another visit to Columbus, I dug up and uploaded this talk I gave at the Columbus Metropolitan Club in December 2010. The topic was branding Columbus and ideas for taking the city to the next level. I hope you enjoy. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

May the (Insidious) Force Be With You by Pete Saunders


Google Earth pic of the boundary between Detroit and suburban Grosse Pointe Park, MI. Alter Road (cutting from upper left to lower right) is the boundary between the two. Take note of the differences in vacant land between Detroit (on the left) and Grosse Pointe Park (on the right).

Too many people think today’s “de facto” segregation in metro areas is the result of personal preferences expressed by individuals, when the fact is that public policy has created the conditions we live with today.  In fact, I see the demise of Jim Crow through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act corresponding with the immediate rise of an insidious, “non-racist” racism that shapes our metros today.  Our metro areas have never dealt with this.

In the aftermath of the Donald Sterling controversy (which, if you aren’t aware of, you truly are under a rock), the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates posted an on-spot critique of how racism is viewed and how racism is really working in today’s society.  It is a truly beautiful piece on the perception of racism versus its realities — the perception being that racism is the purview of dunces like Sterling (and Cliven Bundy before him) who get caught making inelegant statements that shed light on their true feelings, and a reality that is far more insidious and receives far less attention.  Coates describes how “elegant racism”, that insidious force, shapes where we live, what jobs are available to us, how we’re educated, and who is incarcerated and who isn’t:

“Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.”

And to better describe how “elegant racism” works, he cites Chicago as its key implementer:

“Throughout the 20th century—and perhaps even in the 21st—there was no more practiced advocate of housing segregation than the city of Chicago. Its mayors and aldermen razed neighborhoods and segregated public housing. Its businessmen lobbied for racial zoning. Its realtors block-busted whole neighborhoods, flipping them from black to white and then pocketing the profit. Its white citizens embraced racial covenants—in the ’50s, no city had more covenants in place than Chicago.

If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination. Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services. Housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked. And housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly. It can be pursued through violence and terrorism, but it doesn’t need it. Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute. Even today most people believe that Chicago is the work of organic sorting, as opposed segregationist social engineering. Housing segregation is the weapon that mortally injures, but does not bruise.”

(Let’s parenthetically stop here for a second; the symbolism in that last sentence is incredible.  The implication is that victims of elegant racism “die” from internal injuries, which are often believed to be sustained from a lifetime of poor personal choices.  But elegant racism made those choices for them.  Absolutely incredible).

I don’t know if Chicago was the innovator of this type of racism, but I do believe it was something created in Northern industrial cities — i.e., the Rust Belt.  I suspect it has its seeds in the antebellum North, whose cities had small African-American populations prior to the Civil War and immediately afterwards.  I imagine at that time, when blacks comprised maybe less than five percent of, say, Buffalo’s population, it was relatively easy to isolate blacks without necessarily singling them out, as in the Jim Crow South.

But the Great Migration changed everything.  The need for industrial labor in the North, and rapidly declining conditions in the Jim Crow South, pushed African-Americans into Northern cities.  Once there they encountered competition for jobs and housing from both longtime “nativists” and more recent European immigrants.  The ten years from 1910-1920 were fraught with racial conflicts in Northern cities, culminating with the Red Summer of 1919.

But Northern cities did something that Southern ones did not.  They sought to limit and stigmatize the places where blacks lived, instead of limiting or stigmatizing the people themselves.  Out of this a whole set of policies emerged.  Racial covenants.  Redlining emerges during the New Deal.  Blockbusting came about as a tool to clear room for a growing black population, accelerate suburban expansion, and enrich real estate speculators.  Public housing was concentrated where blacks lived, and infrastructure investments ground to a halt.  Investments in education fell behind that of suburban schools, or couldn’t keep up with growing social challenges.  “Tough-on-crime” measures like mandatory sentencing and the “War on Drugs” were effective in removing potential workers from the workforce, reducing competition.  Taken together, these “non-racist” racist policies, often grounded in sound, rational economic thinking, created deeply ingrained patterns within metros that shape them today.

This position is further buffeted by research done by Nancy DiTomaso, a business professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.  In her book, The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism, she says this:

“Because whites disproportionately hold jobs with more authority, higher pay, more opportunities for skill development and training, and more links to other jobs, they can benefit from racial inequality without being racists and without discriminating against blacks and other nonwhites. In fact, I argue that the ultimate white privilege is the privilege not to be racist and still benefit from racial inequality.”

There are other strong claims made by DiTomaso in that interview; it (and the book, which I loved) is worth your attention.

In my opinion the practice was perfected in the Rust Belt but has spread everywhere.  Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is doing a series on political segregation in southeastern Wisconsin, and found that its roots are in the state’s residential segregation legacy.  Lee Atwater’s famous quote about the abstraction of racial policies, uttered in 1981, possibly signaled to Southern metros that there was a way to accomplish the separation that Jim Crow had earlier provided.  I see a correlation between the number of blacks within a metro area, and the impact of insidious policies on residential and job patterns.  In some metros, the impact, while there, is not as strong (New York, Boston), because of lower relative numbers of blacks.  In some Sun Belt metros, Jim Crow likely enforced similar patterns but subsequent post-War growth and the new policies altered things a little (Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville).  In other Sun Belt metros with more recent growth the numbers of blacks has hardly been enough for full-on “elegant racism” implementation (Phoenix, Las Vegas).  But insidious racism is a critical feature of today’s Rust Belt cities.

This is in part why I’m skeptical of new calls from urbanists to increase affordable housing in cities, when I see vast neighborhoods that have suffered from policies that simply removed them from the consciousness of the majority of the housing market.  I’d prefer to address yesterday’s mistakes before creating new ones.

Plus, I keep thinking about that saying that the only thing necessary for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing…

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on May 9, 2014.

Monday, April 21st, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley

I was able to sit down this month with new Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley to spend an hour on such topics as Cincinnati’s incredible historic assets, its history of social conservatism, streetcars and bike lanes, the repopulation of the urban core, and more.

If the audio player below doesn’t display, click here for the MP3 file.

Mayor John Cranely. Image via City of Cincinnati.

Here are some edited highlights of our discussion. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

By far the most provocative thing the mayor talked about to me was his direct challenge to the idea of metropolitan government. Cincinnati hasn’t annexed territory since 1925, leaving it as a smallish, hemmed in city that is only 14% of a very fragmented region. Meanwhile cities like Indianapolis and Nashville had city-county consolidation, Columbus annexed, etc. He thinks that in a new urban era, this model of government is running out of gas and the pendulum is going to swing back the other way:

There’s a real cultural shift and renewed pride in Cincinnati. More specifically though, there are some unique advantages that we have. Think of it this way: if you took our Downtown and Uptown and the corporate base, let’s say it’s 70% of all of our major jobs and income taxpayers. If you take the same exact area and map it in Columbus, they’re going to have 70% of their companies Nationwide, et cetera, all within the same geographic area. The difference is that they have to spread that money among all of Franklin County. We have to provide for 300,000 people. And very quality 19th century historic neighborhoods that already have a sense of place and culture. And we get the benefit of, on a per capita basis, being able to invest way more in these urban neighborhoods than any of our peers because we didn’t annex.

Now, historically, the attitude of urbanists had been, like myself, the we’ve got to have metro government. In essence, the attitude has been, “We poor city.” We need you guys have to play Robin Hood for us. I think the shift is already underway. Now, we have more work to do but the shift is already underway that we’re going to be a better choice for the dollar value because of our historic infrastructure, our density, our diverse economies of scale. The home owner to apartment mix which looks bad at a distance but, candidly, makes it more dense in which it makes labor pools a lot easier to transport inside the city.

What we haven’t done, in my opinion, is be insistent enough on value for the dollar, because we’re spreading our dollar over a much smaller population than cities of size. So why isn’t the quality of customer service of all services of city government superior? You still get complaints today of people who say, “I live in a nice suburb and my snow is picked up immediately and it’s cleaner and my roads paved faster and less litter. Coming to a city, I can immediately tell it’s a city.” There’s no excuse for that. And I believe that we can provide a better customer service because we have more money over less people than our competitors do. Which if you think about the fact that we lost population to cities this way, people kept moving one suburb out — and I think most of us agree we’re going to repopulate from the inside out — we have more resources to invest in economic growth policies than our competitors do, and we intend to use that advantage to become the most exciting urban city in the country.

We’ll have to see how this plays out, but I think there’s something to this. When places like Indy, Columbus, and Nashville annexed all those suburban areas, they were able to capture that tax base to support the central city. Now though they are saddled supporting miles and miles of aging and decaying suburban type development that may ultimately represent a drain on the resurgent urban core tax base. To the extent that the urban core does come back, places like Cincinnati, from a municipal point of view, will get a bigger lift from it because it gets spread over a smaller area. It’s easier to turn around a small ship than a big one.

We also talked about the geography and architecture of neighborhoods like Mt. Adams, which is like a Midwestern San Francisco. Mayor Cranley likes that analogy:

As I always say, if Chicago is the New York of the Midwest, we’re the San Francisco — in fact, that’s exactly my mind is to say Chicago is the New York of the Midwest. We’re the San Francisco. Because we have the hills, the architecture, the arts, the culture, the big league teams, all the advantages of a major city with the livability of a small town. And everyone has an opportunity to be a big fish if you got that kind of ambition. And it really is. Again, we’ve proven that’s true because we’ve been able to maintain such a concentration of Fortune 500 companies which then, of course, leads to all kinds of spin-off businesses and a huge privately held company, group of businesses, that have really been family traditions that have lasted a hundred years and have really continued to come. As I like to point out, what city our size has an entire company dedicated to Shakespeare? We have a theater that does all Shakespeare. And it has full on season.

I pointed out one important difference vs. San Francisco: Cincinnati’s history of extreme social conservatism. A number of wealthy conservatives like billionaire Carl Lindner and Charles Keating (yes, the Keating Five Charles Keating) poured tons of money into anti-pornography campaigns. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt was convicted as recently as the late 90s of obscenity charges. In 1990 locals tried to ban an exhibition of explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and even put the museum director on trial for obscenity (he was acquitted). An anti-gay rights amendment was added to the city charter by citizen initiative in the early 90s. There was a race riot in Over the Rhine in 2001.

This is clearly a sore point for the mayor, as he answered at length. He acknowledges the history of these things, but says things have changed radically and wants to be able to get the word out on the new attitude in the city:

I think that’s changed. You take one rather prominent issue with gay rights. In 1993 an anti-gay law was passed in the city charter which was awful, and would stain our reputation for ten years. When I was on council we had a transvestite who was murdered, and even the very conservative chief of police said that this was a hate crime. And I led the effort to add sexual orientation to our hate crime law. And that was sort of — this was 2002, I believe, 2002 or ’03, it might have been 2003. And this had only been ten years since the charter thing had been passed. Remember, the charter thing was passed in the aftermath of Bill Clinton being elected and gays in the military, that first debate. And several cities, including Denver, Colorado, passed virtually identical [language] ran by a right wing group around the country.

Here, we went on a major effort and we progressively, in 2004, in the midst of Bush getting reelected in Hamilton County 54 to 46, got the thing repealed by a substantial margin, which showed a real shift in our culture and our attitudes. And then we immediately passed — reinstated — the human rights ordinance. We immediately reinstated the non-discrimination. We passed benefits for domestic partners and many, many other things. So candidly, and this is why I think it’s so important that you’re here, we need to get the message out. I believe that we have moved many, many miles since then.

In addition, we have been incredibly progressive as it comes to civil rights and to police-community relations. We had, in 2001, a very difficult time with police and the community, the black community in particular. And we voted to invite the Justice Department in the Cincinnati to mediate rather than litigate allegations of police misconduct. And we led to the 2002 collaborative agreement — which I’m proud to say I helped negotiate — which is now held up as a role model for how to improve police community relations around the country. In fact, the judge in New York who struck down the “stop and frisk” law in New York City specifically cited Cincinnati’s collaborative agreement as the right way for the police and the community to work together.

And so I respectfully say that I understand that we have some baggage in terms of what happened in 1993 on gay rights, and we’ve had on the 80’s and 70’s…Larry Flynt… So I’m not denying that there isn’t some reason for that reputation, but it’s no longer fair.

In addition to a Harvard Law degree, Mayor Cranley also has a Masters of Theology from Harvard Divinity School as describes himself as a man of deep faith. I asked him how that informs him in his role as mayor:

I think that all of this has to be done in the context of the common good and building a society that expands opportunity. And I think at the end of our lives we’re fundamentally going to be asked did we make the world a better place for those who didn’t have as many advantages as we had and did we leave it better than we found it. A sense of stewardship. And all that comes, I think, deeply from my faith, schooling and family, values, traditions, et cetera.

And so we spend an enormous amount of time thinking about how are we going to reduce the poverty rate. One of my major planks in my campaign was reducing the poverty by at least 5% over the next four years. We are engaged at every level, re-examining the dollars that are — federal dollars that come in to the city budget that are earmarks for low income individuals and must be spent to the benefit of low income individuals — are we really getting the most bang for the buck out of these dollars?

Right now we have a cohort coming out of the Great Recession of folks who have never had high school or college degree, with kids, who have got very bleak prospects, and that is not surprisingly where those folks live tend to be some of our toughest neighborhoods. If we can, I think, rise to the moral challenge of figuring out how to not write off this entire generation but invest in job training and skill set to get them at least ready to work at low skill, low paying jobs and bring the dignity back of having a breadwinner in the family, the social dividends of that are enormous in terms of turning those neighborhoods around, those families around, the city around.

But in addition, if we can do it on a systematic basis, we can then market Cincinnati as a place for companies who want to locate with a large, ready to work population. Now, obviously, 20-30 years from now I’d love for us to have a higher education rate. I’m not saying it’s good and we just want to leave the education rates where they are, but given what we have today, how do we turn all that into an advantage and, at the same time, tackle the moral issues of poverty?

And while it’s not the same thing — a very sensitive issue, this is not the same thing — but building a more inclusive and welcoming society for immigrants and for African-American, Hispanics is also, I think, part of my faith tradition of — it does come from a history of prejudice that Cincinnati has been part of. And so we do have a moral obligation to tackle those issues but I do think from a political standpoint, it’s better — and true, not just better political argument, which it is, but it’s also true — that it’s better for all of us to have a more inclusive and welcoming city.

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.

cincyatdusk.JPG
(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.

bigmac.jpg
(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.

firstskyline.jpg
(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.

highstreet.jpg
(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.

toniandjamie.jpg
(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.

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