Take it from a transplant

When I was being woo-ed to this city, there was one major advantage (that still exists to this day) on your side. Cost of living. When I visited, there was absolutely nothing redeeming. It was almost as if the hosts that brought me here, weren’t exactly trying to convince me of its possibility. Highlights of my tour included: lunches at Skyline, dinners at Montgomery Inn, and Fountain Square. So I did what I always do to learn about an area. I went on a walkabout. I just headed north, past central parkway, past liberty. I just walked. What I saw at the time, was a lot of painted plywood. Having lived in Killadelphia for more than 17 years, not much was phasing me, until this walk. It was depressing. It was quizzical. For the first time in my city life, I actually feared for my safety. It just didn’t make any sense. The history nut in me started to dig. In two days, I learned more about Cincinnati than most of the people I would be working with. But what I really “walked” away with, was a booming possibility. All too often in my life, I just missed the boat when it came to urban development. Brooklyn. Philly. It all slowly crept out of reach in the blink of an eye. But here, here is my third chance. Look at all this plywood begging to be torn down! It’s like a buffet.

So I learned about 3CDC, the master plan, Washington Park, Vine Street, and then, the streetcar. It was all too perfect. It just sat on a table with a tag that said “Drink Me.” And like the perennial sucker that I am, I did. I had $60,000 in grad school loans about to drop, a good job offer, and a chance to be involved in a community full of, well, resilient citizens is the best way i can put it. The Opportunity sign has been flashing behind my eyelids for the better part of two years, which is probably why I am so scorned right now, because I feel like I haven’t really attempted to cash in yet. But, it seems I have become a bit too much like 90% of the populace, and not enough like the 10% that remind me on occasion that it’s all for good.

I got swelled up into the politics. Hung out with the mayor. Rubbed elbows with the local business celebs. Made besties with all the local blogging socialites. You know, normal stuff. I haven’t yet started my own business or bought my own house, but I’ve gone further down that road here than anywhere else in my life. I got drunk on Cincy, both literally and figuratively. The streetcar though, oh what an interesting little debate. Hearing both sides was refreshing. You don’t get that on the The Coasts. The political favor is so loud that if you don’t agree, well, then you don’t matter. Here though. Here there is a debate, and it’s a good one.

Personally, I am in favor of the streetcar, but not for why you may think. Yes, I studied a fair amount of urban planning, enough to know the tangibles behind a good public transit system. But to be clear, the streetcar plan is not a good public transit system. It’s simply a foundation. A wonky, quirky one, which is probably why I was so attracted to it. Like everything else in this city, it was accessible. In my time here, I was literally hanging out with the mayor, the MAYOR of a major minor city. I shook hands with some of the Reds. Met decision makers at Proctor Gamble. You guys might take these things for granted, but you just do not get this kind of access in major cities. So this streetcar, it was my own little celebrity. In Philly you learn to fear SEPTA (their SORTA), with their out of control bus drivers that will just as easily run you over as it will go on strike holding an entire city hostage. In NYC there is the subway, which has become just as synonymous, and easily shapes the personality of the city that never sleeps. Now Cincy has this, streetcar. It’s so shiny, and orange. It reminded me of a Pixar character, and what’s awesome is I can be involved at every step of the process. It’s literally a big train set. I can learn so much, collect data, generate my own research. Play with the city. IT’S SO FUZZY I’M GONNA DIE!

Logistically though, it’s a terrible idea. The Loop unites two neighborhoods districts that you can easily walk. Something The Coasters are very used too. Twelve blocks here equals one NYC block, or 2 Philly ones. It’s no bigs really. Does it make hitting up Neon’s before a Reds game much more efficient? Yup. But, if you really want to get all the neighborhoods to like you, experience all you have to offer, the Loop should at least include Clifton. I have not been in on the full history of why the smaller loop got buy in and the larger loops did not, I am sure after almost 20 years of fighting for a rail line you kind of settle for whatever you can get. I am also a firm believer in the “you have to start somewhere” excuse. This line could succeed in the sheer fact that it’s supporters will will it too. The real concern I had for the line, is the argument that it would expand population (which in theory it can). The problem is though, that all the boarded up property within OTR is held up by (for the most part) 3CDC. All that property is unavailable for the public to come in and rehab. The difficult process of buying a house is even more complicated by 3CDC property ownership. So technically, the city will hold back it’s own development if it waits and tries to curate each property along and surrounding the line. But that’s another rant.

However, all of this is moot today.

In what has been an exhaustive 3 days of political theater, the new regime council, has literally managed to ignite the flame that can burn this city, in the most public decimation I’ve seen in years. You can already hear this nationwide giggle. I’m having these horrifying spinal tap flashbacks of my first day as a freshman in high school where I walk into the cafeteria and some random joke is on me (never wear teal, in shirts, shorts; separate or together). The rest of the US, strike that cause this is global now, world is laughing at you Cincinnati. The new Council uses “well, the voters have spoken, and they don’t want a streetcar” as their driving force. Jimmy Kimmel, Fallon and other late night hosts have proven time and time again just how much the American public knows about any given modern political topic. The large majority of the public are misinformed, and react to issues strictly based on emotion and persuasion. 95% is the typical number you hear. Cincy has the luxury of that number being lower, at 90% I’d say, but it is still difficult to overcome.

streetcar_numbers_v2

Choose your excuse below, but they all had very simple answers that detractors would simply ignore, and then move onto the next excuse on the list:
We can’t afford it.” Business wise, you can’t not afford it either. Cincy is almost past the point of no return in construction. You will now be spending the same to stop the project, if not more. Congrats. See graphic above.

The Line doesn’t come into my neighborhood, why should I care/pay for it.” It’s called increasing the tax base, more funds means more money for your neighborhood. Many have said that OTR residents should pay more in their own tax increase, which is a good idea. When asked, many residents said they were willing to do that. The streetcar is a privilege that can and should be partially funded by those that live near it.

It will never make money for us.” Technically, no it won’t. If you are the type that looks strictly at numbers, the streetcar will never be “in the black,” but no piece of public transportation is, not even roadways. Only in NYC and Boston do their systems pull in revenue, and that has more to do with population density that anything else. What numbers do not tell you, and to be honest you really do have to dig for these studies, is the long term ROI of the surrounding neighborhoods due to the presence of the rail lines. Typically, the rail line is like a magnet increasing population, businesses and improving health and well being. But, this council probably won’t “trust those numbers” seeing as they are in Cranley’s pocket haven’t seen it for themselves.

Just put in another bus” What I find funny about this comment, is I guarantee it came from someone that has never ridden, or had to depend on a bus. Here’s the deal. We have been a car culture for 70 years. It’s normal to depend on a car. But you don’t need one. Cars are a want not a need. Here, in Ohio, you could argue that point (I myself have almost put on as many miles on my car here in 2 years, as I had in 6 years in Philly). But cars/buses et al have a much faster degradation rate. The more use they get, the higher the maintenance costs. Not to mention that, a bus? really? You want to add another smoker to the environment? Have you lived under a rock for the past 5 years? Gas guzzlers are trending down, thanks to George W. and his electric car referendum, energy efficiency is the new Madonna. So, in this case, get off the bus already.

It’s a want not a need.” So is a car (see above), but you could say the same for food sources, which this city has, in fact. The fact that Cincy has misprioritized wants and needs for over 100 years is why you are borderline Detroit, and your population reflects as such.

Other excuses like “It’s laying off firemen and police.” “Schools are closing because of it.” “It made me stub my toe.” all reinforce the fact that the public simply does not understand city charters, how tax dollars work, and how a city maintains day to day operations. Nor should they really, that’s a politicians job, to manage that. But it should be a voters job to be informed. Perhaps a few simple questions are in order before we vote, kind of like a concussion test for football players. It’s sickening that it’s come to that, really, and actually quite ironic.

Ironic for me personally, in that, the very age where I say information overload causes irreparable damage to society, is the very thing that broke my little streetcar of desire. A lack of information by the losing campaign. A misguided amount of information by the winning campaign. What I would call a political “pick route” over the latest bits of info to confuse an already anemic public. Make no mistake, the streetcar lost the day Cranley was elected. When 58% of 27% of the total population left their homes on a rainy day to cast their ballot (someone really needs to fix that). Regardless of what happened, and what we all could have done prior to the election, what happened in those chambers is a far cry from a democracy and closer to a live reading of Parks and Rec.

Imagine if you will, just for a moment, that demeaning comments about your race, gender, intelligence, and logic are all fair game. Typical sitcom fodder from Parks & Rec correct? Only imagine it happening for real, in front of a live audience, and the outcome of said debate will affect an actual, existing city. I am all for people speaking their voice in a democracy, and agree or not, you can accept the ignorance from citizens. But on a major city council? From the Mayor? A mayor who said “any and all may speak about the streetcar” led to 3 days of citizen speeches, an incredible 100 or so pro to 5 against. People left work. Left school. Left their daily routine to flood the chambers, so that this charade could happen. He said that the council “endured” the voice of the people. I have news for you sir, it’s going to get a lot louder for a lot longer.

The facts were presented, and the Federal Government made it very black and white. If you pause, you will lose your funding. The result of this is, the streetcar project is over. Holes are left in the ground. Workers get laid off, and a manufacturing plant in Spain shuts down. I’m not fucking kidding. Allow me to offer a bit of advice when it comes to the federal government. You don’t fuck with the federal government. Case in point, millions of families along the Jersey shore are just now, or still have yet to receive federal grant money to rebuild their homes/lives. Cincinnati effectivly said, “nah, we’re good.” to $45 millions dollars. Dollars that are scarcely handed out to those in need. Want to fact check it? Sure. Feel free to call my family, who just received their federal grant money, and would be all too happy for even a small piece of what Cincy is oh-so-willing to throw away. Grants are very tense procedures, lots of i’s dotted and t’s crossed. It is not something to be taken lightly. Hell, it’s peoples jobs (they are called grant writers, maybe city hall should invest in a good one). Here’s what happens. This money cannot be used elsewhere. It was granted for use in the streetcar project, hence where the term grant comes from. If you try, a gigantic red flag goes up. Now they warn you, and go line by line through your expenditures to make sure the money is going where it is planned to go, otherwise they take it back. If that happens, well, you have affected their annual budget. This sudden surplus will now lead to them not being given as much next year. The grantees never forget, and you are now effectively blacklisted because you have caused them a headache. The Injustice Society led by Cranley, ignored a private investor willing to foot the bill for construction to continue while an audit takes place, just so that the Federal Government wouldn’t pull out. Nope. Not interested. Moyor Cranley then likened public transportation in the urban core to Blockbuster, DVD’s, laserdisc and other dying nonsense, and disregarded the outright facts. By canceling the project, the city of Cincinnati will have to pay close to, if not more than the amount of the streetcar. He admitted it himself.

The remaining Injustice Society should be ashamed of themselves for the way they acted before the vote, taking the time to not debate the topic, but instead throw the previous administration under the bus for putting us here in the first place, when 6 of the current council members were part of the previous administration. They sighted not being able to speak. I’m sorry, but to speak you need to a. show up to the council meeting, councilman, b. not be asleep in your chair and c. generally give a shit. Mr. Smithers Smitherman went so far up Mayor Burns Cranley’s ass that he left a rent check on the table before doing so. I’ve sat in and listened to many meetings in chambers ,and I swear I thought this guy was a mute until today. Glad to see he finally grew some balls, correction, found some other ones to caress that weren’t bigger than his and would keep smacking him down because he has no viable worth to add, to anything.

Cincinnati, has nothing right now to be proud of. With yet another wasted opportunity in the books, the Queen City of the West is, at best, a pauper. As someone in a position to fetch extremely creative talent from The Coasts, and having tried, multiple times, I would like to tell council this. I literally can’t pay people to come here. Look, this is simple advertising, you give people a bit of an illusion. Not an outright lie, just a stretching of the truth. This sounds cruel, but the streetcar gave this city the illusion of being something much bigger, growing, energetic. An outsider could allude to certain things, that maybe they wouldn’t need a car all the time, that they can get off work, go to the grocer and be home in minutes, or that the city is connected, or that it would be easy to get around, or that the city is moving in the right direction. See, not all outright lies, just stretches of the truth. Instead Cincy is forever set to battle the stigma that surrounds it, a city that can’t just seem to catch a break despite the good intentions of the people within it. I have talked at length, about the people here. You are all Ohio’s redeeming quality, despite that some lame study says y’all have the vernacular of a sailor. You are all untainted by the egos of The Coasts and despite constant beatdowns (Bengals, Browns, Indians, …just general Ohio-yness), you stand back up, and ask for more without ever batting an eyelash. It is your gift of resilience that should be praised, therefore it is fitting that this resilience will be your downfall. You see, that’s the chink in the armor. Austin, Portland, Atlanta and all the other cities we like to talk about have an identity (and growing populace), that is fostered and nurtured. The reason people, talented people, from these major cities get freaked out when they come here, it’s that feeling of being surrounded by Stepford wives. Something here, just isn’t right. It’s water. It’s vanilla. It has no identity. The majority (that voted) is perfectly happy just being meh, taking their punches, smiling and moving on. Well, maybe it’s time to start throwing a few punches yourself.

Before the final deathblow, the supporting council asked us to believe. Believe in what Cincy could be. Supporters have been shouting this from the rooftops for days. Thing is, you had as many as you could in those few days. We did believe, many still do. However, I watched that circus in those chambers. There is very little to believe that anything good will come from this regime, I however, would like to help. I offer Chris Seelbach, Yvette Simpson, Wendall Young and P.G Sittenfeld my services, free of charge, as a designer, strategist, marketer and overall get-it-doner. My little graphic that could proved design can start a conversation. So if you need help making a presentation, starting a recall campaign, being in a photoshoot, or if any of you want to be mayor during the next term, just let me know. And to the Beleibers, please stop using Journey as your call to arms, the irony of a 20 year old song from a since disbanded group as the voice for a hard fought project now on life support should not be lost on you. You are all smarter than that.

Stay calm and streetcar on.

7 comments on “Take it from a transplant”

  1. The comments about a bus drive me the craziest. “What you guys need is a rubber tired trolley” Oh you mean like the Southbank shuttle? Where is the development there?
    Then UC runs the Bearcat Shuttle downtown.
    Childrens Hospital runs a shuttle downtown.
    Metro, Tank both run downtown.
    The casino runs a bus around downtown.
    During special events you can have the Holly jolly Trolley.
    Moerlien runs a bus around for their big events.
    Mid point, the list goes on and on.
    Buses do nothing for development.

  2. I’d like to see a study done on riding a bus and the level of intimidation it garners. I’ve talked to a lot of folks that actually have no idea how to ride a bus, where they go, how often they come by, how much it costs. Again it depends on the city and age and their dependency of a bus. Philly has many options, rail, bus, but when they decide to go on strike the whole damn city shuts down. In researching transit throughout it development I like the idea of privatized transportation, but hot damn that must have been a mes.

  3. “the streetcar gave this city the illusion of being something much bigger, growing, energetic. ”

    Illusions will wane.
    Your article is filled with illusions of grandeur.
    It’s dead. Move on. Find something better to fight for – something that gives this city a concrete vision – an energetic growing vision for cincinnati. This streetcar never was the answer and appeared to those living outside the city limits as a futile attempt by the elitist urban renewal crowd to “improve” their lives. Give those suburbia folks a means to get downtown without cars. Give us a system like Philly. Even Dallas has a train system (with a shitty streetcar system) – Dallas – you can’t pay people to go there either. Stop bitching. Lick your wounds and give cincinnati something that willr really help us.
    JD

  4. Actually Dallas’ population has grown fairly steadily over the past few years, and with their much higher cost of living, you very much can pay people to go there, so much so that Austin has boomed because of it. And like I said, the streetcar route was not a good one, but I only just moved here. From what I have discovered there was a light rail system proposed that circled in the various Masonites that insist on taking up space at the various eateries of Vine Street. Every night…starting at 5:30.

    But systems have to grow. Even the first NYC subway was only 300 feet. Population begets transportation begets each other. They have to spread like a virus. Together, and yes they suffer together. It’s symbiotic.

  5. There’s that smugness that so often accompanies the streetcar supporters. “Masonites taking up space…” It’s that attitude that won’t win you any support from the suburbs – even when we don’t live in Mason.

    You lost me on the 200 mile connection between Austin and Dallas. Census numbers don’t bear out the steady growth in Dallas in the last ten years but do correlate with a population growth around the time that it started with a light rail system. It started with that first.

    Start with a more useful system in which the “Masonites” can share the cost and see what happens. My wife grew up in the suburbs of Philly and we long for a way to use decent public transportation to get downtown quickly and efficiently.

    JD

    1. Yes, I use the Austin to Dallas correlation similar to the Philly to NY correlation. Cost of living spurned the expansion of Philly and fixed many of the issues they faced as far back as 1995. Instead of being the “ghetto” of NYC, more businesses and artisans began to flock to Philly adding a similar diversity. As the population got more dense in the urban core, the economy stabilized. Philly for a short time was jokingly referred to as the 6th burough, but they hate that.

      And to reiterate, I agree that the loop of the streetcar is not a good one. But since I am new here, from what I understand, a lightrail system was proposed to public vote and shot down, two ro three times? Now this may have been before OTR rose in popularity. To this day I still get funny looks from people when I say I hang out in OTR on occasion, or the occasional, “wow and you didn’t get shot?”. It’s a stigma that will take time to overcome with locals, but as a transplant, and from what I hear form other transplants, we judt don’t understand that thinking. We didn’t live it.

      I understand why non downtown residents despise this thing. I do I get it. It’s hard to see the leap of it directly serving their neighborhood. That is going to be difficult to overcome, but surely form just a logic point, I find it hard to understand that moneywise the city is just at the point of no return where they are spending just as much to destroy it as it would be to finish it. In that case what is the point? If it’s the long term costs that concern you then there are programs that can offset more, not all, of the annual cost. 2 million a year isn’t that difficult to offset. Advertising, fares and increased property tax along the lines by not even 1% could do this. So there’s that.

      In the end I just want to understand the logic of killing it now, AND not having any vision to supplant it. If they were saying, let’s kill it so we can divert into a lightrail plan starting now, then fine. But there is literally no plan moving forward for regional development. Cranley did the 2 things he was campaigning for by the end of the first day, so literally he’ll be sitting back with his feet up for the next 4 years.

  6. Win support from the suburbs? Support for what? Last I checked you can’t vote in the city, go back to Mason and outlaw streetcars there.

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