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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 Wikipedia.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you kidding me?!”

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

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

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

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

Not for an instant would I put that past Toni.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLUMBING INFORMATION

Acceptable:
Any toilet tissue except the quilted brands.

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

Drumroll please…

Or any other unsuitable liquid down the pipes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Photo: Strong black women Jamie and Toni.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mattgraeters.jpg
(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.

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

On the Riverfront

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Image via ArchCityHomes

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Indianapolis: The Sound Map Video

I post a lot of city videos. I also write a lot about authenticity in cities and marketing. Last week Indianapolis artist Stuart Hyatt sent me this one that I think manages to be very cool as a video but also provides a very authentic look at the actual experience of Indianapolis.

Stuart is working on a project called the Indy Sound Map designed to create, well, a sonic map of the city. He did this for Washington St. end to end across the city. Rather than stop at that, Jonathan Frey filmed his journey and Forrest Lewinger used the recording to create a soundtrack for the film that’s part of a forthcoming album. You can read more in this Nuvo article about the project.

First the video, then more commentary. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

What I like is that this shows Indianapolis as it really is, not as a fantasy world city of nothing but shiny downtown hipster joints. I also really like that there’s a big focus on actual people. That’s not to say this is a completely 100% portrayal of everything. The bus is overly stressed whereas the auto dominated nature of the city doesn’t come through. But on the whole the feel I think is right.

Obviously this was an art project not a marketing film. But I think it’s easy to see how you could take the basic concept of this and adapt it to marketing. Will that happen? Nope. All civic marketing is inherently ultra-conservative, and as someone rightly pointed out about a recent Cleveland video, the funders who underwrite such ventures expect that the end product will heavily feature them and be consistent with their brand values. But this I think shows that there are ways to show cities other than ultra-slick time lapses that can work.

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Beware of the Aristocrats: Architects and the Elite by a Texas Architect

[ I found this old blog post written by someone who posts under a pseudonym but who is an architect in Texas. Note that is was written as the Great Recession was in full slam. It's not likely to be a popular point of view here, but this goes along with my "failure to communicate" theme that examines why so many urbanist policies have not been widely embraced - Aaron.]

Whether it’s because humans have evolved in response to the challenges foisted on them by nature or because God wanted to ensure that universal agreement and understanding is impossible, people will always take sides. Humans belong to tribes, social classes, nations that compete against each other to obtain limited resources. Politics is by definition the study of this aspect of human behavior, as it tries to explain who gets what and why. There is much that can be understood about a political issue by taking looking at who represents either side. Knowing what cultural norms, values, and world views govern a tribe/class/nation/interest group will reveal lots about their motives and expectations facing an issue. Since there are as many groupings of values and philosophies as there are people and a finite amount of resources (natural and human) and time, political conflict will forever continue to remain with us. Compromises merely suppress long-running conflicts temporarily, or create new unforeseen conflicts (unintended consequences).

I keep the above concept in mind when looking at every issue, but in particular when it comes to environmental policy. As an architect these days it is well near impossible to avoid engaging in this issue. From my observation, architects, in desiring a status as independent craftsmen/artists, are relatively naive about the political dimensions of environmentalism and instead prefer to reflect on its attendant virtues of sustainability and harmony between man and nature. In the real world, we architects’ inability to solidly grasp the theory of economic value and the mechanics of wielding political influence makes us incapable of making lots of money or effecting real change. As we strive to improve the look and feel of our communities, we are often blissfully unaware of people’s economic interests and the major political factions and powerbrokers that make things happen in the real world (…until it slaps us in the face in the form of architectural review committees, value engineering or canceled projects).

For instance, nothing makes us architects happier than to realize a structure that responds poetically to the landscape or achieves efficient ways of harnessing energy. Anything that can result in smaller mechanical rooms or reduced ceiling plenums is welcome by us designers. Smaller A/C units, more compact ductwork, eliminating waterheater closets and elevator machine rooms not only allow us more freedom, they are also usually greener. For urban planners, density in the form of compact infrastructure and utilities is preferred over suburban-style decentralization, and it also delivers greener benefits as well. In isolation such thinking becomes orthodox, and makes design professionals antagonistic to opposing points of view. Outside this architect/planner bubble, such orthodox assumptions look increasingly idealistic. It ignores the valid economic interests of a majority of people, and it is too myopic to consider unintended consequences of translating their ideals into public policy. Issues of cost, personal freedom, and social winners and losers are often not understood fully by us architects.

This myopia among architectural professionals also makes us unaware of where we stand in the existing political landscape. As a result we are repeatedly manipulated by outside factions and movements, with questionable benefits to our profession. Our willingness to side with whatever faction to bring about our own aesthetic and enviromental ideals contributes to the paradoxical way architects are portrayed in society: in spite our fairly middle-class incomes, architects are perceived as elitists. The values that drive our work and our thinking often mirror the values of the economic and political elite. That’s not surprising when we realize that our profession almost exclusively depends on these elites for our paycheck. After all, it is extremely difficult to derive an income from middle-class clients alone. Whether we recognize it or not, our political objectives as a profession rarely diverge from those pushed by entities at the very top of society. Architects throughout history have always been, to put it crudely, mercenaries of the powerful- from carrying out the will of kings, popes and aristocrats to putting into concrete the social control on behalf of a modern technocratic state (e.g. Le Corbusier, Albert Speer, et al.)

The political agenda of the socio-economic elite and architects who depend on them continues to converge on the contemporary issue of environmentalism. As a philosophy, environmentalism offers a system of values and morals, an appealing sense of unity with the world for all people of secular persuasion. As a set of policies, however, environmentalism leads to inequitable outcomes that favor governments and their bureaucracies and encourage corporatist big businesses to use regulation hinder competition. Other winners are wealthy people who lament the upward mobility of the social classes beneath them. It is no coincidence that environmentalism emerged to the forefront of social consciousness as soon as a certain level of social wealth had been attained. This is firmly linked to people’s natural concerns about quality once the material abundance brought about by prosperity reveals the shallowness of seeking satisfaction from sheer quantity.

To value the quality of things, to consider important yet immaterial matters, these are luxuries. Before industrialization dramatically raised individual productivity and resulting in a broader distribution of wealth, land and political kinship were practically the only way to enjoy the luxury of contemplating about beauty, philosophy, science and mathematics. This traditional elite, the artistocrats or plutocrats, have been the lifeblood of cultural and intellectual development for most of human history. Although not necessarily the greatest minds themselves, they were benevolent patrons of the most influential artists, musicians, poets and philosophers. One thinks of King Philip of Macedonia and Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci at Amboise Castle, or of the lively salons taking place at a nobleman’s (or noblewoman’s) house. What are universities or non-profit organizations other than institutionalized salons where people can write, research, or create art and music on the dime of someone else’s private trust (a modern legal form of aristocratic patronage) or taxpayer funds? These sorts of modern ‘salons’ are privileged settings where people can focus on qualitative matters that are given relatively short shrift in the world outside governed by economic rules, even if they rarely produce works of quality.

So it was with reading a post by Brendan O’Neill, a British journalist, about Prince Charles’ latest hypocritical crusade, that I was reminded of a scene filled with finely clothed men in long white wigs sitting on plush chaises longues listening to the latest epic from their favorite young poet. The future King of England, inheritor of a tremendous family fortune and one of the biggest beneficiaries of taxpayers’ largesse, has dabbled in a number of public issues throughout his non-productive career. One of his main pursuits included architecture, in which he founded a school to promote the revival of traditional design. In recent years he has moved on to champion environmental causes and the virtues of growing organic food all while burning mind-blowing amounts of fuel on his private jet. As O’Neill reminds us, far from demonstrating the courage of conviction, Prince Charles is merely keeping up with his fellow English aristocrats who have played a larger than assumed role in raising environmental awareness. Reading the passage below undermines the idea that the environmental movement is a purely grassroots effort:

…Many of the major players in British environmentalism are posh, rich, and hectoring. One of Charles’s top advisers is Jonathon Porritt, a former director of Friends of the Earth and a patron of the creepy Malthusian outfit, the Optimum Population Trust (OPT). Porritt is a graduate of Eton, Britain’s school of choice for the rich and well-connected, and is the son of Lord Porritt, the 11th Governor General of New Zealand. The increasingly influential OPT also counts Sir Crispin Tickell (who is as posh as his name suggests) and Lady Kulukundis, the wife of a Greek shipping magnate, among its patrons.The head of the organic-promoting Soil Association, Peter Melchett, is also known as the Fourth Baron Melchett: that’s because he is the Eton-educated son of the Baron and Sir, Julian Mond — former chairman of the British Steel Corporation — and is heir to Sir Alfred Mond’s extraordinary ICI fortune…

…Zac Goldsmith, editor of the greens’ monthly bible The Ecologist, is the son of a billionaire (Sir James Goldsmith) and an aristocrat (Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the daughter of the eighth Marquess of Londonderry.) And if you thought it was grating to be lectured to by the mansion-owning, electricity-zapping Al Gore during his Live Earth bonanza two years ago, then spare a thought for us Brits: during Live Earth, we were given the Gore-approved “Global Warming Survival Handbook,” written by one David de Rothschild. Yes, David is a member of the mind-blowingly wealthy Rothschild banking family and is an heir to its enormous fortune.

Couple the above British “who’s who” with their American counterparts, namely the Hollywood elite (like Al Gore’s friends Laurie David and Leonardo Dicaprio) and it becomes clear that such consistent support from people at the top should make those of us from below a bit suspicious. If one’s convictions are influenced by one’s social status, then it make sense to look into why this aristocratic class is so involved in environmental causes. An overriding sense of guilt due to their great fortune is an obvious explanation, similar to my fellow architects’ feeling of culpability in destroying natural resources and adding to the energy burden with every building they design. Tied to this is a belief that possesssing a public profile demands protraying oneself as a model citizen. Just as we had chivalry for medieval knights, and social expectations for aristocrats to exemplify virtues of loyalty, respect and a reverence for tradition and intellectualism, today’s elites project an embrace of virtues that are judged preferable for public consumption. Being green is good, and no celebrity or European aristocrat could maintain a good reputation by openly shunning it.

Take away environmentalism’s emotional and social dimensions, and we are left with its political and economic dimensions. Suddenly the moral standing of the aristocratic eco-warriors crumbles. To begin with, if politics is the study of who gets what, how and why, then it becomes apparent that the aristocrats have the least to lose from environmental policy. Isolated by their wealth from having to struggle daily to make a living, they don’t tend to be aware of the vastly different priorities of people below them. Depending on what social status one belongs, priorities will range from the mostly material and monetary for those at the bottom, to ones that cherish qualitative, spiritual and intellectual at the top. Power enables one’s priorities to be enacted over another. In an aristocratic arrangement, a small landed elite has power over everyone else and thus enforce their priorities at everyone elses expense. If something is favored by an aristocrat, it is prudent to question the political motives of these self-appointed leaders.

If economics is the study of how goods and services are produced, distributed and consumed, then who would be the least familiar with all this than these very people who don’t produce anything but consume a lot? Environmental policies presents serious ramifications to economies worldwide, whether through regulations that that limit production or through subsidies that distort market signals and tax policy. While aiming to clean the environment and reduce carbon emissions, these policies tend to have the unintended (or intended) effect causing economic hardship to many and dragging down national economies through the wasteful use of capital and low productivity. From many contemporary architects’ perspective, policies that would force urban density, mass transit and less automobile use would result in a better built environment. The aristocrat would tend to agree, but for a potentially different reason: these policies would limit the personal and economic freedoms of the middle classes beneath them and would lower their standard of living relative to their own. It would keep the masses in crammed into cities, which tends to discourage property and home ownership, thus returning more power and influence to an oligarchy led by the governing elite and well-connected families.

Are these the kind of political bedfellows architects want? As a long-time admirer of the many fruits of traditional aristocratic culture, I understand the importance of the finer things that enrich life at an extremely deep level. It drives the passion of many designers and artists, and fulfills us more than the naked  pursuit of profit. Greek and Roman patricians along with most European aristocrats had a high disdain for merchants, traders and self-made men for precisely this reason. But in this age of republican democracy, shouldn’t architects respond to the ordinary needs of everyday people? Thus far many of us have been guilty of declaring that we are designing for the people, while in reality it was done from an elitist point of view. We claim to build and plan for the masses, only refer to them so abstractly that we come up with solutions that encumber personal freedom and economic mobility.

By embracing elitist points of view and political causes, architects are logically perceived as part of the world of elite, not of the common man. Our services are considered by most people as a luxury, even if architecture has a useful role in enriching the simplest and cheapest of construction. It’s ironic that although the building of shelter or the shaping of functional space are among the most primordial needs of man, the professional most dedicated to such endeavors, the architect, is considered largely unnecessary. If this is to change, it may require a revolution in the way we practice, but it has the promise of enabling architects to become independent advocates of design in the community rather than remote agents of the rich and powerful.

This post originally appeared in Architecture + Morality on June 12, 2009.

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

Replay: Shock and Awe

This post originally ran on November 1, 2012


Felix Baumgartner’s record setting jump from 120,000 feet. If the video doesn’t display, click here.

Last month I attended a supper club event in Indianapolis were the topic was urban design in the city. We started the conversation by having people give their personal pick for best and worst urban design. My choice for worst design decision was changing the zoning to allow skyscrapers. I believe that for many years Indy restricted building heights such that nothing could be taller than the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, similar to other restrictions in DC, Paris, or Philadelphia.

My argument was that skyscrapers function very poorly in smaller, auto oriented cities. This is because skyscrapers require huge parking pedestals or attached garages to put all the cars. Each skyscraper thus ends up taking up pretty much an entire city block, which produces horrible urbanism and isn’t even very dense. The perfect example in Indy here is the American United Life Building. It consumes an entire city block, the building is set back from the street on all four sides and sits dead center on the block, and it is surrounded by many surface parking lots. The planned Block 400 project I heavily criticized is converting one of these blocks – into a big parking garage with nothing at street level. These buildings basically create huge dead zones, especially after 5pm when the buildings empty.

This past weekend I was with my friend Kristian, who organizes the supper club events, and he asked me why I’d said that. I explained my rationale. He countered by asking whether there wasn’t value in the overwhelming power of an urban skyline to announce a city.

This reminded me of a post I previously ran called “Saint Jane” by Will Wiles. He makes a similar argument saying:

The Nurbanist vision of carving up the city in this way is as diagrammatic and retrograde as Moses’ planning – and, similarly, it’s an assault on the complexity of the city, the city’s ability to generate its own fabulously complicated internal patterns that defy cursory inspection. The emphasis on little neighbourhoods, the stoop, local shops and walking distances, the “human scale” only tells part of the story of the city – after all, these things can be found in villages and small towns. All cities need sublimity, a touch of holy terror, a defiance of human scale that asserts connection to the greater urban whole. Elevated highways, crowds, tall buildings, interconnection and confusion – these things can be to some people dismaying and unpleasant, but the awe they strike is the overture of accepting the condition of living in a city. The Tube roundel is vaguely holy to Londoners – intensely reassuring – because it is a sign of connection with a system of vast complexity and importance.

Kristian and Will haven’t convinced me that skyscrapers in auto oriented cities are a good thing. European cities like Paris and Barcelona have proven that you can build real cities and great density without them.

But there is something to this idea that cities need to contain structures, systems, and symbols of overwhelming dominance and power, shock and awe. It’s notable that from earliest days, cities were set around immense temples and palaces that served this very functions. Skyscrapers can do this well, but so can stadiums, massive airport complexes, rail yards or ports, vast flyover interchange complexes, or huge industrial parks or buildings.

In our quest to humanize every element of the city, we have in a sense dehumanized it, by robbing it of the primal human longing for the transcendent, to be part of something larger than or outside ourselves, to find the limits of existence and go beyond them. Our obsession with Mars landings or Felix Baumgartner’s jump shows this uniquely human quest in action.

Creating a link to the transcendent is one of the most important things cities do, and perhaps more than anything else what separates them from a town. I believe this is at some level the fuel that powers so much else that happens there, why they are the locus of innovation, etc.

Part of this is by creating structures and systems that not only overwhelm, but at some level cannot be understood or grasped. It is one of the under-recognized virtues of megacities like New York, Sao Paulo, and Mumbai that it is impossible for any single human being to comprehend them.

In a secular age, the idea of the transcendent has little currency. Most people lack even the awareness to engage with the concept. Yet engage we must. To sever a city or society of its link to the transcendent by “humanizing” it or applying overly rigorous cost/benefit analysis to everything is perhaps to drain it of its lifeblood. The extravagant, incredible, overwhelming, and almost seemly pointless and impractical gesture may in fact be the most practical of all.

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer

I recently sat down to talk for about half an hour with Louisville, Kentucky Mayor Greg Fischer. We had a wide ranging discussion that ventured from branding to globalization, regionalism, talent attraction, legacy, and more. If the audio player below doesn’t display, click here for the MP3 file.

Mayor Greg Fischer. Image via Wikipedia.

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

On an economic development partnership between Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky’s second largest city:

[Globaization] is central to who we are as a city. We have a very high export ratio here. We out export, we punch above our weight if you will, as a city. My background is one as an international business guy and we’ve spent a lot of time growing a broader regional economy. The city of Lexington and Louisville have a joint economic development plan that we did with the Brookings Institution called BEAM, Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement. And a central thrust of that is growing exports throughout the region. We have people that go out and help businesses understand that’s the way of the future.

As a business guy, I’ve been more of a small, medium sized business person, 500 employees and below, so frequently I would compete with large, multinational corporations. When you start your career, you’re like, “My gosh, how can I compete against this firm that’s got manufacturing plants or offices all over the world and 10,000 employees?” What you find is as a small company, you have a lot of advantages that the big company doesn’t have. You’re closer to the customer. You’re nimbler. You can speak for the company.

So when you take a look at the challenges of a state like Kentucky, we’re not one of the biggest states. We’re certainly not one of the smallest, either. So what we’ve got to do is be excellent at partnering with each other internal to the state so that we can use that as a competitive advantage when we compete with other countries or other states for economic development. Louisville and Lexington combined metro region, including Southern Indiana, is about two and a half million people or so, more scale than just us at 1.3 million and certainly, more scale than just Lexington.

On regional cooperation with Southern Indiana:

When people move to Southern Indiana, they identify as moving to the Louisville area, typically. Our restaurants over here, our housing options over here are complementary to what’s in Southern Indiana so if a company is going to say, “Okay. I’m going to be in Southern Indiana or I’m going be in Missouri,” I want them in Southern Indiana.

Southern Indiana’s got some advantages that we don’t have. We don’t have that much open land left in Jefferson County. River Ridge, which is just opening across the river, is going to be helped by these bridges going in right now, these megaprojects, the Ohio River Bridges Project. It will be where a lot of these businesses are going to locate. I’d rather they locate there again than in some other state. So we win as a region because people live regionally. We’re happy to cooperate and brainstorm with Southern Indiana.

On how Louisville’s relationship with the state of Kentucky is evolving:

Evolving is the right term. Louisville produces about $2.4 billion a year of taxes and we get back $1.2 billion. Kentucky has been cited as the fourth most centrally controlled economy in the country in terms of states. In other words, sending taxes to our capital and redistributing them throughout the state. So it’s a challenge for us. I’m working right now to get the state constitution changed so that all cities and counties have the right to levy a local option sales tax where their citizens have the right to vote on specific capital projects, paid for in a specific way with that temporary sales tax sunsetting. Part of that is so local cities, whether it’s Louisville or Pikeville or anywhere in the state, could have more specific control over their built environment. So, that’s one way to address it.

Long term, we need some type of overall state tax reform. But in any state, you’re going to have an economic engine like we are here in Kentucky that contributes more to the balance of the state than what it is they generate. Our rural legislators are very good at teamwork, if you will, and our metropolitan legislators are not so good at teamwork. So they can be our own worst enemy in terms of directing more funds back to where they were originally generated – in this case, Louisville.

On the local food scene:

It’s been an interesting way to see how the rural parts of the state and the metropolitan areas really appreciate the partnership that we have with our local food movement. Like many places around the country but particularly here, when you go into restaurants, you’ll see the origin of the food in terms of the farmers that they came from. We were the first city in the world that we know of to do a demand analysis for local food, how much local food do people want to consume here. We did that deliberately to help our partners in the rural areas of the state, the farmers, so that they can understand that they’ve got a big, growing market in the biggest city in Kentucky.

When we did this survey, no matter what somebody’s socio-economic background was, everybody supported local food. They said, a), it’s healthier and b), we want to help local businesses. So, it kind of busted this myth that local food, farmers markets, all this was just yuppie kind of thing. Everybody appreciates good local food.

On why a 2014 college grad would choose Louisville over other cities such as Cincinnati or Nashville:

One, you want to take a look at the culture of the city. Are you going to be able to fit in? Are you going to be able to make a difference? You know, not every city is perfect for every student. So, is there a connection? Do you like our art scene? Do you like our local food scene here? What about the innovation we’re doing with the makerspace, for instance? Because I think we’re among the best in the country in that regard.

Take a look at the economic development clusters that are important to a city. In our case, are you into lifelong wellness and aging care, or food and beverage, or logistics and e-commerce, or business services, advanced manufacturing? Where is that fit for you? I can guarantee if you’re going to live here, you’re going to have a good quality of life and enjoy yourself, but are you going to be able to be employed in a meaningful way?

Any city that says they’re everything for everybody is being disingenuous. It’s just like a company. When you look at the city, find a place whose values mirror yours and whose opportunities mirror your interests at the same time. Make sure it’s got a beautiful, natural environment like we have here that’s full of nice people, and then you’ll have a good place to live – and it would be nice if it was Louisville.

There’s a lot more where this came from so listen to the whole thing or read the complete transcript.

Some may be wondering about the Ohio River Bridges Project. There were no restrictions on what topics I could ask about, and I haven’t changed my opinion on it. But I felt the discussion time would be productively spent elsewhere so did not ask about it.

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

A Cleveland Anthem

I heard a while back that Cleveland’s new marketing slogan was going to be “This Is Cleveland.” I was not exactly inspired by this (“Hello, Cleveland!”?). But Matt Wootton sent me this first video in the campaign, and I’d have to say it’s a step in the right direction.

What’s more, remember last week how I mentioned that Richey Piiparinen had been put in charge of a research group at Cleveland State to develop his talent strategy? This is another big example of official Cleveland signing on to the Rust Belt Chic program. This is in effect the branding team translating this 2012 Rust Wire post by Richey into a video. Take a look.

Update 3/31/14: Well, I guess a step forward was still a step too far. The original video has already been yanked and replaced with the one below that seems at my watch and that of commenter John Morris to be tweaked back towards the “ordinary” side of the spectrum. Still an advance, just less far than before. I guess that shows how far Cleveland has to go.

If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

It’s not perfect. There’s too many standard issue “me too” items. Not that I think they are bad or inappropriate, just a bit jarring when the video itself proclaims that “we never followed their rules” and that in Cleveland “we made our own.” I saw some rules being followed in there. But apart from the tag line dissonance, I thought the mix was actually good and this represents progress on the marketing front for Cleveland. It will be interesting to see how far Cleveland is willing to take this new direction.

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

The Persistence of Failed History: “White Infill” as the New “White Flight”? by Richey Piiparinen

[ I've featured the work of Richey Piiparinen before. Described by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as a "trouble-making demographer", a recent study he and Jim Russell put out got quite a bit of attention. And it paid off for Richey, who's just been appointed a research fellow at Cleveland State University. He's being put in charge of the new Center for Population Dynamics there. Congrats to Richey. In his honor I'm running today's piece by him, which has been sitting in my posting queue for quite a while. Enjoy - Aaron. ]


Image via Columbus Underground

“There is a secret at the core of our nation. And those who dare expose it must be condemned, must be shamed, must be driven from polite society. But the truth stalks us like bad credit.” – Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates

***

With the recent Supreme Courts strike down of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was created to protect minority representation, the headline in the Huffington Post read “Back to 1964?” While some contend the title hyperbolic, the HuffPost lead, if not the strike down itself, reflects the reality of a country still tethered to its discriminatory past.

This reality is reflected in all facets of American society, including urbanism. Specifically, is the “back-to-the-city” movement destined to become 1968 inverted; that is, instead of “white flight” there’s “white infill”? If so, the so-called “game-changing” societal movement will be a process of switching out the window dressing, with the style du jour less lace curtains, more exposed brick.

While debatable, there appears to be a back-to-the-city trend, particularly the inner-core areas of America’s largest and most powerful cities. For instance, according to a recent report by the Census Bureau, Chicago’s core exhibited a 36% boom in its population from 2000 to 2010—a gain of nearly 50,000. Rounding out the top five core-growth gainers were the cities New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. The report finds that, on average, “[T]he largest metro areas—those with 5.0 million or more population—experienced double-digit percentage growth within 2 miles of their largest city’s city hall…”

Who is moving into these “spiky” urban cores?

Whites largely. For example, much of Chicago’s core gains comes from the downtown zip code 60654, in which 11,499 (77%) of the area’s 14,868 incoming residents were white, and where the median family income is $151,000. Other zip codes in Chicago’s core share similar proportions of growth, such as 60605, with 70% of its 12,423 new residents being white. Contrast this with a 5% growth rate for blacks.

As well, according to research by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute examining the zip codes with the largest growth in the share of white population from 2000 to 2010, 15 of the top 50 were located in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington D.C. Philadelphia’s downtown zip code 19123 grew its population by nearly 40%, and its proportion of whites increased from 25% to almost 50%. In D.C., the growing core zip code of 20001 increased its white share from 6% to 33% in a mere 10 years. While in Brooklyn, the zip codes 11205 and 11206 showed similar growth dynamics, with overall gains of 15% and 18% respectively, and corresponding increases in the white share of approximately 30%. Also on the Institute’s list are zip codes in not-quite-global cities such as Chattanooga, Austin, Atlanta, St. Paul, Indianapolis, Tampa, and Portland, with the vast majority of the “whitening” areas located in, or besides, the downtown core.

Now, why does it matter if whites are leading the charge into those cores frequently championed as evidence of a new social order? After all, it is a step forward, right? Or, as urbanist Kaid Benfield recently wrote:

Inner cities are growing again. People of means, especially young people, want to be in cities today. While that carries its own set of challenges, I would submit that addressing the challenges of gentrification is a far better problem to have than coping with massive abandonment and rampant crime.

While that line of argument has merit, what’s missing is a deeper examination about those “people of means”. Specifically, a recent study out of Brandeis University showed the wealth gap between blacks and whites has nearly tripled over the past 25 years. That said, the people of means wanting to be in cities is largely the same people who always had means, and they are simply taking their means from one geography to the next; that is, from the suburban development to the urban enclave.

Gap

Of course many argue that infusing affluence into an area will create broad spillover effects. Tweeted urban planner Jeff Speck:

“A beautiful and vibrant downtown can be the rising tide that lifts all ships. #walkablecity”.

Yet there is little evidence of a “trickle down” effect within “rejuvenated” space. For instance, in his piece examining the aforementioned D.C. zip code of 20001, Dax-Devlon Ross writes:

In 2011 alone, condos accounted for 57 percent of total home sales (276), most at triple the 2000 median price. The zip code now boasts an Ann Taylor, a Brooks Brothers, an Urban Outfitters, enough bars to serve several university populations at once and a mind-boggling 10 Starbucks…

…What’s telling about the zip code’s “new build” makeover is that it did not move the poverty needle. The zip code’s poverty rate is exactly what it was in 1980, 1990 and 2000 — 28 percent — and the child poverty rate is nearly twice what it was in 1990 (45 percent).

In other words, such developmental strategy is a game of whack-a-mole in which the raison d’être for the mole won’t stop until real economic restructuring happens, or until equity truly starts entering into the lexicon of our shared language. Instead, we get the apologia of the status quo that is shifting the same affluence to the same pockets, switch out the spatial aesthetics of the parking lot for the parklet.


Trump Towers Chicago. Image via Medill New Service

That said, there is real doubt the country has the stomach for such discourse, let alone for policy that can affect the prioritization of human and community capital. From the article “Separate, Unequal, and Ignored”, the author suggests that “[r]acial segregation remains Chicago’s most fundamental problem”, and he questions why the issue remained muted during the recent mayor’s race. Answered Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey:

“[Segregation] is a very difficult and intractable problem. Politicians don’t like to face up to difficult and intractable problems, whatever their nature”.

Unfortunately for city proponents, this same inability to face the issue by leading urban thinkers is making the “new urbanism” movement look really old. Asked about the risk of racial and economic homogeneity at the hands of the “back-to-the-city” movement, Alan Ehrenhalt, author of “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City”, answered this way:

I think you’re going to have class segregation no matter what you do. It would be nice to have people of all classes living right next to each other in gentrified downtowns. That’s probably not going to happen. It is true that a gentrified area tends to become less diverse. Cities can’t solve all problems.

No, cities can’t solve all problems. But neither should cities be used to make existing problems worse. Re-urbanism, or specifically the opportunities it creates for equitable reinvestment, should be respected for what it is: a chance to move forward from a divided, destructive past.

Yet such will take collective will and reflective honesty. Or the ability to look deep in the mirror at the American face and know that behind us is a persistence of failed history.

This post originally appeared in Richey Piiparinen’s blog on Jun 25, 2013.

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

Sunday Night Dinner in Indianapolis


Sunday night dinner in Herron-Morton Place, Indianapolis. This is one of three dinner groups in that neighborhood. Photo by Amanda Reynolds (check out the mirror!)

Urban culture varies radically from city to city. Yet to a great extent the culture of the usual suspects type of places tends to get portrayed as normative. In New York, for example, with its tiny apartments, the social life is often in public, in many cases literally on the streets of the city, which pulse with energy. As the ne plus ultra of cities, the street life of New York is often seen as what every place should aspire to. There’s a body of literature which attributes all sorts of positive effects to this New York style urbanism, such as the notion of “collisions” and “serendipitous encounters”. But while New York’s street life and social scene may indeed be engaging, how often does one actually strike up a conversation with someone random on the street or in a coffee shop there that turns into something meaningful? The only collisions I’ve ever had there were literal.

New York is the most well known and championed style of interaction, though hardly the only one. Think of San Francisco and something clearly distinct will come to mind, albeit with some similarities. LA has its own mythos. The TV show Portlandia does a great job of capturing our idea of the quirky urban life of that city.

Cities that lack the cachet of an NYC, SF, or Portland can often find their own urban culture lacking in comparison. To be taken seriously, the logic goes, they must measure up to the yardstick defined by others. But while I do not subscribe to the idea of value free cultural comparisons, I do believe cities need not judge themselves as wanting just because they don’t function like New York City. Rather, they should seek to be the best they can be on their own terms. Since few cities are anything like New York, aspiring to that kind of urbanism would only be a case study in frustration anyway.

Indianapolis cultural commentator David Hoppe once said something to the effect that “the social life of Indianapolis happens in back yards.” And this is true. Unlike a New York City, Indianapolis does not wow you just by walking down the street. While I believe in trying to contextualize the facts on the ground in the most positive way possible for moving forward, that doesn’t mean reclassifying genuine defects as virtues. In the case of Indianapolis, the generally poor impression left by its built environment and lack of street life can’t be denied. There are plenty of great places to go, but you generally need someone to point you in the right direction.

But there are countervailing virtues as well, ones generally under appreciated. Unlike New York, Indy has a far more robust social life in private spaces like houses and back yards. This produces a qualitatively different type of social capital, one with its own unique set of strengths.

One example of this is the emergence of community based Sunday dinners. This was an organic movement and as a result lacks a fancy name, but in keeping with the generally low key and unpretentious character of the city, let’s just call it Sunday Night Dinner.

Sunday night dinners are a type of intentional community in which 6-8 families in a neighborhood decide to get together for dinner every Sunday night on a rotating basis. This originated in 2006 on Pleasant St. in the Fountain Square neighborhood when a group of neighbors decided to start getting together regularly for dinner. Here’s how Tonya Beeler, one of the founding members, describes it:

When most of us talk about it, we just call it Sunday Night Dinner. It’s unassuming, I know – but that’s what Sunday Dinner is to us. We’ve had it consistently for almost 8 years – having only cancelled dinner a handful of times. The majority of the families on the original list are still regular participants and we’ve added and lost a few through the years.

What is Sunday Night Dinner to us? In this stage in our lives, its sometimes difficult to physically connect to your neighbors, but we know that each Sunday we’re going to see our friends. It’s also a good time to have newcomers to the neighborhood connect with some of us old timers. We’ve also had visits from Mayor Ballard (before he was elected) and Melina Kennedy (when she was running) and I still have a fond memory of John Day sitting down to sup with us. But what is it mostly? Just a day in the week where we meet to take a breath, sit down, and eat together. It’s my favorite day of the week.

I used to be part of a quarterly dinner club in Chicago. Given the frequency, our idea was to make each dinner “special” in the sense that we went all out with super high-quality food, etc. In Indy, while good food is certainly part of the equation, the regular weekly cadence means it’s as much about friends and neighbors as it is special ambiance. It’s about regular life lived in the city. In the picture at the top it’s paper plates and plastic cups all the way – and that’s just fine. Can’t stay for some reason? No worries, bring some tupperware, grab some food, and run. In a sense, it’s the Kinfolk Magazine ethic (motto: doing things simple sure is complicated – and expensive) in genuine form, shorn of Portland pretense.


Sunday night dinner in the Beeler’s backyard in Fountain Square, Indianapolis, Easter 2012. Photo: Cindy Ragsdale

Oh, and typically with children, which actually exist in abundance in Indianapolis.

The idea spread and now there are Sunday night dinner groups all over the city. I’m told there are three in Herron-Morton Place alone, which I can’t quite wrap my head around given how small the area is.

I can’t help but notice the similarity of these dinner groups to religious small group gathering. In the last couple decades, Evangelical churches have moved away from mid-week services in favor of small group gathering during the week (sometimes called home groups or other names). The idea is to promote more actual community than is possible in a larger assembly format. These dinner groups are in effect secular small groups, ones that help provide the sense of connectedness, regularity, and rootedness that’s so often missing from our contemporary world.


Outdoor fun on Sunday night isn’t just for summer in Herron-Morton Place, Indianapolis. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.

These groups aren’t just walled garden cliques, however. The host generally invites guests to attend. So there’s a type of brokered introduction which in my experience is the real source of “serendipitous” encounters of genuine value. An arranged guest invite is one way to get people connected in their neighborhood, or even to help people who are deciding whether or not to take the plunge into city living to get a feel for what life lived in a particular neighborhood is actually like.

In fact, if you are visiting Indianapolis on a Sunday night, or live there and want to check it out, email the City Gallery at the Harrison Center For the Arts and they will set you up. The email address is citygallery@harrisoncenter.org

I don’t want to suggest that Indianapolis invented the concept of the dinner club or is the only place such events occur. For all I know, lots of places do this. (Heck, as big as it is, odds are that includes New York City). And as with all traditions, this particular instantiation will likely die off at some point (though it’s still growing eight years after starting on Pleasant St). Yet the prevalence of this type of cultural phenomenon is part of the explanation for why Indianapolis has consistently managed to punch above its weight class in so many areas. Although the type of obvious assets and strength evidenced by super-cool buildings or crowds on the street may be lacking in Indianapolis vis-a-vis some other places, the city contains deep reservoirs of cultural capital that aren’t as visible and may never be fully understood or mapped, but nevertheless are of profound importance. This is the real secret sauce of the city.

Copying this idea, locally or anywhere, is definitely welcomed. Should you be interested, here are the “Indianapolis Rules” for Sunday night dinners, courtesy of Tonya Beeler:

1. Dinner is every Sunday night, with six to eight families, each hosting on a rotating basis.

2. The host is responsible for preparing all of the food for everyone. (Work? Yes, but it also means seven weeks of not having to do anything but show up).

3. The host is responsible for inviting all guests. Do not invite guests without checking with the host first.

4. If you’re not coming, tell the host as far in advance as possible.

5. At the very beginning of the dinner, the host makes sure all the guests know of any rules for the house (no one allowed upstairs, kids can’t eat in the living room, toilet handle needs to be held down for 3 seconds, whatever).

6. If your family will not be coming for dinner, but you still want food, there’s no need to let the host know, just stop by early in the meal (so you don’t miss anything, food goes fast!!!) with some tupperware and fill it to go.


Sunday night dinner in Fountain Square, Indianapolis. Painting by Kyle Ragsdale.

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