Asking Questions, Causing Trouble

The first phase of Cincinnati's proposed streetcar line should be built between downtown and IKEA in West Chester. I offer that mostly in jest. But try asking a legitimate question about the str

Thinking outside the blue box

The first phase of Cincinnati's proposed streetcar line should be built between downtown and IKEA in West Chester.

I offer that mostly in jest. But try asking a legitimate question about the streetcar plan to one of its staunch supporters, and you might as well duck and cover.

I just love groupthink. It's part of why Cincinnati is Cincinnati. And why, no matter how hard we keep trying, we might be stuck the way we are, seeing minor improvements implemented by those who bravely venture outside the given parameters.

I like IKEA. Shoot me.

I went there March 17 and was reminded why, while living in Sacramento in 2001, I drove 90 miles to San Francisco to spend $3,000 to outfit my downtown apartment. IKEA is awesome. Prices are relatively inexpensive, and the items are smart, fashionable, functional and, for the most part, well built.

That does mean we city dwellers shouldn't buy furniture from MetroNation, Lucky Step or Park + Vine in Over-the-Rhine's Gateway Quarter? Heck no! But why reject a concept just because it was sparked in Sweden and not in our own backyard?

IKEA backlash comes from groupthink, I think. It's killing us.

I've been wondering about whether the TIF, or tax increment financing, that's set to fund a large chunk of the streetcar line could turn out to be a gamble that doesn't pay for itself. What if it makes more sense to build a streetcar that actually has a functional purpose say, moving folks from downtown to Clifton instead of being a people circulator?

As for IKEA, I heard so much talk about boycotting the new store that I thought they might be doing animal testing like hooking little kitties' brains up to electrical outlets in outside display cases. From what I can tell, the company actually is known for good business practices. Why not applaud that?

Instead, I get the sense that many people here would rather we buy Cincinnati products, no matter how much more they cost.

Recently a young professional who's involved in downtown causes and issues left a status update on her Facebook account for all her friends to see: "(Cincinnati City Councilman) Chris Monzel does not have a clue. (Councilwoman) Roxanne Qualls is a big disappointment to Cincinnati. We need streetcars!"

Monzel and Qualls along with Councilman John Cranley have had reservations about the streetcar proposal despite throngs of people filling Council chambers each time the issue is on the agenda. The crowd response overwhelming favors the proposed four-mile $102 million route between The Banks area downtown and Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine.

In my position as columnist for CityBeat, and before that as the political reporter at The Cincinnati Post, I've met Qualls and Monzel many times. And I think I can safely say that, regardless of which political party best represents your views, Qualls is not a disappointment to Cincinnati and Monzel does have a clue. Several, in fact.

The man's an engineer, for heaven's sake. Qualls has a master's degree from Harvard.

There are some pretty good questions about the streetcar that haven't been answered yet. That's not to say that Councilman Chris Bortz, the Charterite who first came out in support of the streetcar, or any of his other council colleagues are wrong. But why can't we ask questions in this town?

Too many issues are all buy-in or nothing. You're either with us or you must be against us.

In 1973, Mark Granovetter published "The Strength of Weak Ties," a still-relevant study demonstrating the power of acquaintances' weak ties compared to those within strong social networks with strong ties to allow change to occur. Strong ties often prevent thinking outside of group norms, the study said, because doing so would risk inclusion in that group.

People who have less strong ties have less to risk and therefore are more likely to allow new ideas to be introduced. So in order to spark change you either have to be willing to break with the group (difficult for many Cincinnatians to do) or seek it on the periphery, instead trying to convince power brokers.

Cincinnati needs change. It wants change, but it can't get it until it allows out-of-the-box thinking and embraces those who dare go there.

Let's start with that streetcar to IKEA. Or let's at least talk about it.

Contact Joe Wessels: [email protected]

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