Cincinnati Is the Cincinnatiest

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Indianapolis-based Urbanophile recently posted an excellent and thought-provoking entry entitled Pecha Kucha: Urban Aphorisms. It’s essentially a transcript of a presentation he’d given outlining what makes a great city. I’m borrowing three of his aphorisms to help me articulate some of my thoughts on Cincinnati.

Given a choice between a real suburb, and a city trying to act like a suburb, people will choose the real suburb every time.

I don’t want downtown to start to resemble a suburban lifestyle center. Chain restaurants and other such amenities don’t make me feel like I’m in downtown Cincinnati. I want to see street vendors, performers, bicyclists, skaters, and more over all spontaneity downtown. I want to have unscripted experiences. This kind of loose street life may be threatening to some; to me, it’s an integral aspect of urban life. Kill that, and you may as well be hanging out at Kenwood Towne Centre instead of downtown.

As much as I appreciate the renovated Fountain Square and its focus on varied programming, I want to be able to go there not for an event but because every moment there is an event. I want to have more unpredictable experiences there.

Given a choice between a real big city, and a small city trying to act like a big city, people will choose the real big city every time.

I cringe when I hear of OTR’s potential to become “the Soho of the Midwest” or the comparisons between Cincinnati and Portland, OR. Soho is Soho because it’s Soho; these comparisons do us no favors. I don’t like Cincinnati because of its few big city-type amenities, or in spite of it being as small a city as it is; I like it because it’s Cincinnati, and what I appreciate most about it is its innate Cincinnati-ness. I don’t feel validated because we have a Trader Joe’s, Urban Outfitters and Rockbottom [not to knock them, but it’s far more interesting that we have Jungle Jim’s, Smitty’s and hella chili parlors].

Cincinnati can only be a world class city by being a world class Cincinnati.

Goetta. Cicadas. Who dey. 20 cent payphones. Cincinnati chili. East Side versus West Side. “Where did you go to high school?” “Please?” “Paper or shopping?” I’ll even add Christian Moerlein’s OTR Ale to the list, although I’m not a beer drinker and think it tastes like sewage. When friends visit from out of town, my tour is almost entirely on foot and includes places like Tucker’s, Findlay Market, the Hustler store, Arnold’s, the Sign Museum, and now Grammer’s. I don’t know if that’s the best Cincinnati has to offer, but it’s certainly the Cincinnatiest, and that’s what I want to show off.

A couple of other examples… Cincinnati has a large number of public pools and, instead of seeing them as a surplus, let’s be a great city for swimmers, particularly young ones. Cincinnati also has a lot of public stairs. Instead of closing them, let’s maintain and promote them as a great way to get around, catch a unique glimpse of the city, and get some exercise. It’s frustrating to read about obesity in Ohio when I see two potential solutions that are already embedded in this city. As I’m not on the city’s payroll, I’m not worried about the financial logistics. To quote Tim Gunn, “Work it out.”

When I first moved here, friends reacted with a mixture of amazement and pity and comforted me with “Well, it’s only temporary.” Some have since visited and, while I don’t know that my plying them with goetta and sewage-tasting beer have sold them on Cincinnati, I think they’ve come to appreciate it for what it is and be happy for me and the life I’ve carved out for myself. As for me, I never expected this city to be anything other than what it is, so I’m happy with Cincinnati being the Cincinnatiest Cincinnati it can be.


20 thoughts on “Cincinnati Is the Cincinnatiest

  1. Totally agree.

    Re: the beer part of this post, it’s a shame that Cleveland now has the best in the State.

    Cincinnatiest. Great concept. Even the city name is unusual…

  2. I can understand why the comparison to SoHo or Portland might irk you, but from another perspective, I certainly don’t make that comparison to say “Cincinnati should be like this” but more to say – we have this gem of an area that is OTR, but its a gem in the rough, and it needs more than a little love. Here, look what happened in other cities with similar gems in the rough. It really isn’t to say that we should try to make a “fake” Pearl district or SoHo here, but rather to say DAMN, why they heck is this beauty allowed to rot?

    Maybe other folks don’t see the comparison that way, but I certainly don’t want to take the Cincinnati out of Cincinnati, but to take full advantage of the Cincinnati that is here (in the way that other cities have taken advantage of what they have)

  3. I love it!
    I’ve been saying this since I moved here. Don’t worry about how we can make Cincinnati just like Portland/Seatle/Chicago or whatever. Figure out what makes Cincinnati Cincinnati and make it the best Cincinnati in the world.
    Fountain Square, well, I can’t say enough about it, where else can you go to hangout, people watch, maybe have a beer or coffee and catch a game? its awesome, now how do we build on all that?

    MMMMMM OTR ALE!! Yummie, but I respect your opinion too.

  4. Schwartz, I’m not a beer person, which is why I encourage my friends to try the OTR Ale even though I don’t like it.

    Chris S, I’m all for learning lessons from other places, but it really irks me to hear the same few examples over and over again, especially the Soho/OTR one. I mean, seriously, are you [a hypothetical “you,” not you per se] waxing nostalgic for 30 years ago, when artists lived in substandard housing in an undesirable neighborhood with little residential infrastructure? Are you suggesting that OTR become a place in which you can merely window-shop? Or are you filthy rich? Is this in reference to a livable potential or a tourist destination? I just think one needs to sort of own the implications of this kind of statement.

  5. I think that Urbanophile’s presentations are excellent and even more so because of their clear applicability to many other cities as you so clearly provided. Your insights and elaborations are spot on.

    I agree that the “big city” comparison is problematic and that it often ignores the negative aspects of such instances that are commonly sited. My experience with the “so called” successful cities is that is really hard to establish a “so called” normal life. They are great to visit, but hard to live with. They might attract transient yp’s that provide that vibrant energetic street life but compromise the livability for families and other ordinary citizens.

    The first aphorism, “Given a choice between a real suburb, and a city trying to act like a suburb…” is ironic given my feelings about Indy. Having grown up in a real suburb outside of Indy and then living downtown while it became a “fake suburb” I wouldn’t consider it an aphorism because I think it has actually been pretty successful in general, not what I want, but I can’t discount the effectiveness. Still I appreciate the sentiment.

  6. I totally agree with the importance of recognizing the implications of the comparisons. Too often that comparison is made in a “sound-bite” fashion, without any thought to what is actually being said.

    My greatest wish is that Cincinnati learn the lessons from those examples and finally steps up to the plate to put those lessons into practice. The SoHo/OTR analogy is certainly the most problematic for the very reasons you stated. I guess the real problem is that these cities shouldn’t be seen as “analogies” but “case studies.” They are flawed as analogies because there is no real “comparison” between cities (there are too many differences to make any real analogy).

    Some of this “comparison” is certainly driven from the bitterness engendered by watching such a vast majority of the graduates of our best universities leaving for those greener pastures, and the notion that if we “copy those places” those graduates will stay here. The picture is so much bigger than mere mimicry. Its not a “build it and they will come” proposition, its more of an “invest wisely with an eye towards progress and current city assets” proposition. It is the latter that will result in a real rather than superficial attraction to this area. (But first and foremost, we need to actually INVEST in our assets rather than sitting on our hands)

  7. That’s a good point about the analogy versus the case study. Ultimately, I guess I believe that what makes a city unique isn’t necessarily a set of positive attributes but intrinsic ones. In the silly examples I listed above, the “high school” comment certainly sounds provincial and is probably not the way the city thinks it can appeal to YPs. But, if it’s true, it’s true, and it’s one little aspect that makes Cincinnati what it is. So what’s wrong with owning that quality?

    I want the city to become a better Cincinnati and to allow its people a bit of looseness and flexibility within that. That’s why, even though top-down programming on Fountain Square is most certainly better than nothing, I want more opportunities for bottom-up self-expression [and even chaos, like the street vendors and performers I mentioned]. I worry that, in trying to clean up the city and make it safe for suburban or out-of-town visitors, bits of personality are cleaned up as well.

  8. Here’s something I’ve been wondering… I really enjoy the “grass roots” development of those types of activities, from street performers, to food stands, and even just the general crazies (its character, damn it!) And, I wonder, if its the regulatory system that is in place that hinders the development of these types of attractions?

    For example, I have no idea what the city codes are for food carts. One of the things I just love about NYC is that when I leave an opening, or a party, or just hanging out with friends, I can almost always find a food cart, and some of them are just dynamite, and offer some great choices on the cheap. I can’t think of more than a few street food vendors here, and the bulk of them are only out on game days. Is it the regulation that keeps them away, or the lack of a perceived market? For example, a good taco cart could make a KILLING at lunch time most days on fountain square.

    An event I’d really like to see – local art shows/sales on fountain square. We certainly are not lacking for a wide array of local artists, but its mostly the “go to the galleries” type of shopping, rather than a person to person on the commons kind of shopping.

    I dunno, its been great food for thought!

  9. You can check out the regulations through the municipal code by searching for whatever. Be warned that it is really easy to get sucked into the code and many have never returned.

    I imagine the regulations specific to vending aren’t that different from most major cities, but that the licensing fees are probably more difficult to recoup because of low demand.

    Food vending, rightfully so, has a few more hoops to jump through.

    One of the regulations that I found interesting was under Sec. 839-11. Street Sales–General. No merchandise shall be displayed or sold on Fountain Square, on the overhead walkway system, or in any parking lots or garages owned or operated by the City of Cincinnati.

    I think if you look into the regulations that are on Fountain Square it is by far the most regulated space in the city.

  10. I completely agree about the food carts and really miss the roasted nuts and mystery-meat shish kebabs. We need to bring back the wienerwurst vendors! Citykin recently mentioned Andre and his horoscopes. I know that Andre gets harassed by the cops for the services he provides but, to me, he’s not a Broken Window. He may be a nuisance to some, but a harmless one. I’d rather see him on the street than have one less person out there.

    In one of his posts, the Urbanophile used the word terroir in reference to the city, and I just love the nuances of that term. It really captures the sorts of things I’m trying to focus on here.

  11. Actually, there are some other “gems” in there placing restrictions that make me wonder how anyone does any food vending at all downtown.

    Not only is there 839-11 but also 839-13 which prohibits any vending at all in the “Downtown Vending District” (seems silly to call it a vending district if you can’t “vend”). From how I read it, the Downtown Vending district covers virtually all of the downtown area, which makes me wonder how the sausage guys do it during game days.

    The sidewalk width and doorway clearance restrictions also make it darn near impossible to vend anywhere in OTR besides Washington park.

    After looking over the license fees, and board of health requirements, it seems like the main barrier to food vending in the area is not the licensing, but the restrictions on where you can sell. These regulations have largely remained untouched isnce 1982. Perhaps its time to revisit some of these.

  12. Chris S, since you mentioned an art fair on Fountain Square, the past two Augusts [maybe longer], there’s been a weekend-long outsider art fair on Court St. I don’t know if it’s organized by Visionaries & Voices, but it’s mostly been those artists, and it’s been an amazing and accessible event.

    Anyway, I think we’re essentially on the same page — more kinds of low-barrier, low-commitment stuff going on more often in more places.

  13. My understanding of 839-13 just implies that you must be licensed as a itinerant vendor as opposed to a peddler in the Downtown district.

    But you are right, Cincinnati needs to revisit a lot of the code to make it more friendly to people actually participating in making the city an fun place to be.

    A number of cities have been doing this, realizing that it is an economic development tool as much as a placemaking tool.

  14. I’ll just address the issue of the Fountain Square. What’s with the City contracting with a private firm to run it? Which has a lot to do with its regrettable “entertainment,” a commercialized racket for Wal-Martian type consumers. Ugh. Now that’s Cincinnati for you.

  15. I have no idea how that decision was made, or how common that is in for public spaces but, yes, Fountain Square has a bit of that “suburban lifestyle center” quality that I mentioned above. It’s better than nothing, but what it is really isn’t at all what I’m talking about.

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  18. Great post. Although I feel obliged to comment on the “Soho of the Midwest” comparison comment. Since I was the one who did a post on that topic and started the conversation I should clarify what was intended by the comparison.

    OTR should not, and will not become Soho. As you pointed out, Soho is Soho, because it’s Soho. My comparisons were for different reasons. OTR and Soho share similar urban fabrics, built environments, and historical stories. This is the reason for the comparison…history often repeats itself.

    What I see happening in OTR, is what happened in Soho decades ago. This is a fair comparison to make. It’s not that I am trying to convince people that OTR is Soho, or that it will one day be Soho. I’m bringing up the discussing topic of how similar the two are in their stories separated by a couple decades. Cheers.

  19. Randy, I think SoHo is as much a cautionary tale as it may serve as inspiration and, as someone who has witnessed the past 20 years or so of SoHo’s transformation, I have seriously mixed feelings about what’s happened there. SoHo’s latest incarnation is basically as an upscale lifestyle center. So, as much as I get excited about positive changes in Over-the-Rhine, I worry, too, and I always have to question the implications.

    Right now, I’m reading a book entitled Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism, which references SoHo, so it’s interesting that this post has popped back up on the radar.

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