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BRO Leaves Town: Last Stop Cincinnati

The last stop on our southern road trip was Cincinnati Ohio. Cincinnati is actually a northern Rust Belt city, but it looks across the Ohio River to Kentucky, giving it a bit of southern charm. Its influences are mainly midwestern, but it also has a touch of the Mississippi River town feeling you get in St. Louis and the Appalachian hill town sensibilities of upstream Pittsburgh. It’s relatively small city population of 297,000 people anchors a large and sprawling metro area with a population of  over 2.1 million; the nation’s 28th largest.  That means the city proper has only 14% of the region’s population (compared to Buffalo at 23%).  With a GDP of about $92 billion, Cincinnati is roughly equal to Buffalo ($46B) in per capita wealth. However, with 10 fortune 500 companies Cincinnati has a strong concentration of high-end wealth that Buffalo does not have.

 Fountain Square in Downtown Cincinnati is busy at all times throughout the week.  This weekend image shows people relaxing with a game on the Jumbo-tron across the street.

Buffalo and Cincinnati traded places several times to hold various spots in the top 20 largest metros throughout much of the early 20th century. This means that Cincinnati, like Buffalo, is packed with great architecture. I had wanted to visit Cincinnati for years after seeing pictures of the city’s Over the Rhine neighborhood.  Over the Rhine (OTR) is a section of the city directly adjacent to downtown. It gets its name from the original German residents who populated the area across the Miami and Erie Canal (the Rhine) from downtown. The Canal has long been filled in, so the transition from Downtown to OTR is virtually seamless today.  Seamless, that is, except for the poverty that covers much of OTR in contrast to Downtown’s relative prosperity.  Downtown has few dilapidated buildings and no surface parking lots. A downtown Macy’s and Tiffany’s hint a high and wealth in the city. A smattering of other retail and restaurants make the streets friendly and relatively active for the business district in a mid size American City. There were people around at all times, even on a weekend. Downtown was clean and pleasant but felt visually sterile. Over the Rhine,on the other hand, is anything but visually sterile. It’s densely built cacophony of  buildings from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries is a real American treasure.

Over the Rhine as seen from Mt Adam.

I don’t know how this gorgeous neighborhood survived the urban renewal period. Buffalo completely wiped away similar neighborhoods on three sides of its downtown.  Like so many other American cities, this core of the original old city was left with minimal to no investment for decades as the population and wealth pushed further out from the center.  In the case of Cincinnati, that meant up and over the hills that surround downtown and  OTR. The old neighborhood was left for the city’s African-American population, which correspondingly was also the city’s poorest group.  Despite substantial disinvestment, remarkably few buildings were lost.  The neighborhood remains dense, with a relatively small amount of surface parking.  Today the OTR is still overwhelmingly poor and African-American with many vacant and uninhabitable buildings. It has also long held the status of the city’s highest crime neighborhood.  Despite this, OTR is the location some of the city’s major civic institutions.  The Findley Market, in one of the poorest parts of the neighborhood furthest from Downtown, is a popular public market, housed in a  gorgeous shed style building, not unlike Buffalo’s long gone Chippewa Market.  Its web site boasts of over 800,000 shopping visits a year resulting in over $30M in sales annually from a diverse cross-section of the region.  Also located in Over the Rhine is the Cincinnati Music Hall, home of the Cincinnati Opera and the Symphony Orchestra.  The Music Hall is an incredible Victorian pile of bricks facing the gorgeous Washington Park.  The recently renovated  park is one of the most beautiful urban spaces I have ever experienced. It is a vibrant urban room full of neighborhood activity that is densely ringed with a wall of wonderful brick buildings.

Like the Findley Market, the park and the music hall also sit in the midst of extreme poverty.  But, as you might have guessed, poverty is not the future of OTR.  Although the neighborhood experienced a race riot as recently as 2001, gentrification is working its way in to the area big time.  As with many of America’s historic cities, Cincinnati’s is rediscovering the value of its older neighborhoods. New investment has spread from downtown for several blocks into OTR.  The core of this investment is on Vine Street, which is packed with restaurants, stores and people. But, the new wealth has also spread latterly from Vine in fits and starts covering dozens of  blocks in each direction.  The result is a mixture of wealth and poverty in direct proximity in a way I have never seen.  New buildings are pushed up against historic buildings that are nothing but shells.  The poor and the gentrifiers share the same sidewalks with expensive German cars sharing street parking with rusty junkers.  There is no defined line between the new investment and the ongoing disinvestment.  I wondered if the long-time residents could see the writing on the newly tuck pointed walls.

One last thing about Cincinnati that is particularly relevant to Buffalo.  Recently, I read an interview with Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley on the Urbanophile blog.  In the interview, he promotes the city’s assets of sports, architecture, beautiful hilly geography, an impressive corporate headquarters economy, and mature cultural institutions.   But, his more interestingly he asserts that Cincinnati is fortunate it never absorbed the vast areas of suburban land in the form of consolidated or metro type government as several peer cities have.  What, you say?  Metro government is not a good idea for aging Rustbelt cities?

Since I was a teen I looked at successful consolidated cities like Toronto, Indianapolis and others and concluded that metro government was a logical step for Buffalo.  I looked on in frustration as it never happened.  But recently I’ve come to the same conclusion as Mayor Cranely.  In any consolidation, the central city may get the benefit of the more wealthy suburban areas in the short run.  But in the long run the city trades away influence and control over its destiny, while taking on the very real burden of the suburban over dependence on a high quantity of infrastructure per capita.  The mayor points out that Cincinnati’s high density population and downtown core, filled with high paying companies, puts the city in an enviable position moving forward.  As the city becomes more desirable and the neighborhoods begin reinvigorating, the city will be increasingly able to provide better services to its citizens.  He says that If the city had combined with its suburbs its new wealth would have to be shared with an increasingly unsustainable suburban region, which is dependent on massively sprawling and aging infrastructure. Places like consolidated Nashville, with vast land area and thin population, may suffer a disadvantage to Cincinnati, with is smaller boundaries, and its ability to concentrate its resources in a smaller denser land area.

I think there is something to this. Buffalo has a long way to climb back from decades of disinvestment.  But, as we see bidding wars drive up the real estate prices in many parts of  Buffalo; and as we see a steady new trickle of companies move back into the city; and  as we see renovations in parts of Buffalo that was unimaginable just 6 years ago, we can start to imagine a Buffalo that is once again prosperous and stable.  What happens as, inevitably, large parts of suburban Buffalo age, becoming less desirable, and less economically sustainable?  That new wealth trickling back into the city is going to be increasingly available for improving the condition of Buffalo’s tiny 40 square mile foot print instead of being spread over hundreds of square miles of sprawl.

Anyway,  I was in Cincinnati for a very short time; not enough.  I can’t wait to get back to see more.  Besides Over the Rhine there are other great neighborhoods such as quirky Mount Adam, a densely built area with winding hill-top streets overlooking Downtown. The University of Cincinnati,which is stuffed with sports venues and a few remarkable buildings designed by starchitects is also worth a visit.  I highly recommend Cincinnati as a must see for anyone who loves cities.



Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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