Cover Story: Why We Left Cincinnati

And what, if anything, Cincinnati can do to keep its creative young professionals

 
Mary Daggett


DAAP graduates (L-R) Tony Tapay, Kathy Berg and Anne Thiel have fallen in love with Portland's openness, tolerance and sense of civic progress. They're unsure they would (or could) move back to Cincinnati.



Tony Tapay's comparison of Cincinnati to Portland, Ore., embodies what's both simple and complex about urban development issues.

"Cincinnati is like when you were in high school and the teachers put on a party for you but you knew it was cheesy," says Tapay, a native Cincinnatian who's lived in Portland since early 2000. "Portland is like planning the party yourself."

Sometimes it's just that simple — people starting their professional careers want to live where there are others like them, where they can be creative, do meaningful work and have fun. They're members of what urban development guru Richard Florida calls the "creative class," and they don't think twice about moving to "hot" cities like Portland.

But what happens to the hometowns they leave behind, such as Cincinnati? How do those cities turn themselves around to retain their bright young people and attract even more? Well, that's the complex part.

We all know creative young people who have left Cincinnati. In the past two years, CityBeat staffers 30 years old or under have moved to Denver, Chicago, Charlotte and the San Francisco Bay area.

A former reporter who worked at Wired magazine in San Francisco took a job in Austin, Texas, earlier this month rather than return here.

That's just our small universe. Another small universe is the nationally recognized programs at UC's College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning (DAAP) that spawn hundreds of creative young people every year.

This is the story of six DAAP graduates who found their way to Portland. Some knew each other before they got out West, and some met only while posing for these photographs.

But their reasons for choosing Portland and their stories of why they love it are remarkably similar. (See Lessons from 23 years in Portland) They also share an emotional connection to Cincinnati as well as a reluctance to return to the city as it is now.

Meet the 'creative class'
Florida has been the darling of urban planners and city leaders who find his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, an innovative approach to the age-old issues surrounding urban development. Instead of using the usual tools to attract a talented workforce — new stadiums, big-box retail, good property values, low taxes — he says cities need to understand that young people don't clamor for any of that.

"Creativity comes from human beings," Florida said at a June 13 seminar at the University of Cincinnati. "And we're mobile." (See Cool Is Money, issue of June 20-26.)

In researching trends among young professionals, Florida found that, while the average worker today stays at a job for 3.1 years, workers under 30 average only 1.1 years.

And he found that the "creative class" among young people choose places to live and work for a few key reasons. People move for access to a range of jobs, not one job. They don't care about sports stadiums. They do care about living near streets full of activity and life. They care about thriving music and arts scenes. Even heterosexual people care about how gay-tolerant a city is, because that sends a signal the place is open to new ideas and people.

The cities that provide the best mix of these amenities and ideals, Florida said at the UC seminar, are those considered "hot" by young professionals — Austin, Portland, Boston, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle and Chapel Hill, N.C. Not surprisingly, they're also cities with growing economies.

"If you can't do creativity, you can't do wealth," Florida said.

He describes the "creative class" as about 38 million people who are the movers and shakers in today's economy — software engineers, scientists, business executives and others who lead their respective professions in new directions through creative thought. Their population has almost doubled since 1980, and they're one-third of the U.S. workforce.

The heart of this new class are the "super-creative" people: architects, poets and novelists, professors, high-tech workers and researchers. Next come creative professionals who work in legal professions, health care and business management. Then there are musicians, artists and others.

Florida likely had Kathy Berg, Toby Hasselgren and Evan Eagle in mind when he was writing his book. Each graduated from DAAP's well-regarded architecture program. During school, they each did co-op programs in different cities and were open to moving almost anywhere for work. Independently of each other, they landed in Portland.

Berg joined one of Portland's leading architecture firms, Zimmer-Gunsul-Frasca (ZGF), after graduating from DAAP in 1996. She'd done a co-op stint there her senior year.

Hasselgren worked a year in Cincinnati after graduating from DAAP in 1995, waiting for his girlfriend to graduate. They then moved to Portland, where they had friends, and Hasselgren hooked on with ZGF.

Eagle and his wife, Amy, graduated from DAAP in 1996 and moved to Portland for Evan's job with another architecture firm at which he'd done a co-op. Once there, Amy, an interior design major, joined a design firm. They moved back to Cincinnati in 2000.

When comparing Cincinnati to Portland, they say the similarities pretty much end at geography.

"I've been very struck at the physical similarities," says Berg, 30, who grew up in Urbana, Ohio, before attending UC. "They're both river cities, they stradle two states, they're surrounded by hills, they're about the same size."

"But Portland is very livable," says Hasselgren, 31, who was born in Sweden and moved to Cincinnati at age 12. "People live, work, play and entertain in the urban core here in Portland. Downtown doesn't shut down at 5 p.m. or on weekends."

They like the mix they find in Portland's urban neighborhoods — a mix of income levels, races, ethnic groups, architecture — and the positive attitude toward diversity, tolerance and open-mindedness that's evident everywhere.

Hasselgren is particularly enthusiastic about the Pearl District, an old warehouse area near downtown that's now a hotbed for housing among young professionals. He says the area was "very scary" when he arrived in Portland but now has coffee shops, art galleries and loft apartments mixed in with autobody shops and other original businesses.

"It's our Over-the-Rhine," he says. "Imagine what the $500 million you spent on Paul Brown Stadium would do for Over-the-Rhine. Not chain retail stores, not stadiums, but downtown housing and businesses that integrate high-end and low-end, a mixture of all incomes."

"This whole city wasn't built for luxury box holders," Berg says. "There's a need for the $4 bleacher seat, too."

One of Portland's prime mixing bowls, everyone agrees, is its public transit system. Light rail first opened there in 1986, and several lines have been added since to connect urban neighborhoods such as the Pearl District to downtown, to universities, to sports arenas and to the airport. Supporters of Issue 7, which would bring light rail to Greater Cincinnati, point to Portland's system as the shining example of how well-planned public transit can help build a better city.

"I used to use light rail to go to work, to the bars and to Blazers games (Portland's NBA team)," says Eagle, 30. "Real estate values went up near the light rail stations when they built the latest extension, and lots of mixed-use development sprang up — residential, retail, more of a European feel. The stations reinvigorated neighborhoods, and neighborhoods would clamor for light rail."

"It's very respectable here to use public transportation," Berg says. "For a city to work like Portland, people have to say, 'That's for me.' They have to buy in to things like public transportation and not say it's for others to do."

That sort of "can do" attitude, they say, is infectious in Portland.

"I've never been in a city like here where everyone says, 'I love this city,' " Hasselgren says.

"The city is focused on problems like sprawl and the environment," Berg says. "I've been impressed by the corporate world, which sells Portland's progress on these issues as a positive thing. It's very refreshing. The approach is always, 'Let's build a better way.' "

"That, in turn, helps the economy," Hasselgren adds. "It's self-sustaining."

Giving ideas a chance in Portland
The "better way" mentality has produced what Tapay calls Portland's mission statement: "This is a city for the people, not the corporate community. Cincinnati, on the other hand, has no mission — and it shows."

Tapay gives much of the credit for Portland's people-friendliness to the "urban growth boundary" enacted there in 1980. The policy helps manage the development and infrastructure demands within a 369-square-mile area in the three counties that make up Greater Portland, helping to control suburban sprawl while also forcing reinvestment in the urban core.

The result, say Tapay and others, is a city that's compact, efficient and full of people.

"The nightlife is more active here," says Tommie Lucas, a 2001 DAAP graduate who moved to Portland earlier this year. "There are a lot of outdoor places, breezeways, sidewalk cafes. There's a great music scene, too, with tons of venues and bands."

"You can get around easily without a car," says Anne Thiel, a 1998 DAAP graduate who's been in Portland almost three years. "I walk to work, and a lot of people use the MAX (light rail system). Traffic is still bad on the highways, and public transit seems to be used more by those in the urban core than by suburbanites going to and from work."

Tapay, Thiel and Lucas form another small group of Cincinnati ex-patriates in Portland. Like the three architects, they found their way out West via different paths.

Tapay is a St. Xavier graduate who got an education degree and became a teacher before going back to school at DAAP to study industrial design. A friend of his did an internship at Nike in Portland and told Tapay, who's a big bicycle enthusiast, that Portland was extremely bike-friendly and was his kind of town.

"I'd hoped to start my design career in New York City, but it wasn't working out," says Tapay, 34. "I had a job offer in Tennessee but decided that wasn't where I wanted to be. So I packed up all my stuff in a truck and moved to Portland."

He stayed with Thiel, a friend from UC, and went to work at a bike shop. He eventually took a position with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, where he designs exhibits.

Thiel, 26, is a St. Ursula graduate born and raised on the West side. She studied fine arts at DAAP and, after graduating, worked at a variety of jobs around town. She visited a friend in Portland and immediately fell in love with the area, moving out in January 2000.

Like most fine arts majors, Thiel isn't working full-time in her field — she's the receptionist at a property management company.

Lucas, a Sycamore High School alumnus, graduated from DAAP's industrial design program with his wife, Julie. He worked as a toy designer at Bang Zoom Design in Walnut Hills while Julie looked for work, which she eventually found at Columbia Sportswear Co. in Portland.

When they visited Portland, they were intrigued by the outdoor activities, the waterfront area, the scenery, everything. Lucas decided he'd have an easier time finding a design job there than Julie was having in Cincinnati, so she moved in December 2001 and he followed a few months later.

Lucas, 28, is now a furniture designer for Anthro, while Julie, 25, designs footware for Columbia.

In talking about their time in Portland, they still sound a little amazed at how open the city is — open to new ideas, open to new people, open to diversity and open physically.

"They actually took out a highway here years ago that ran along the riverfront," Lucas says. "Now it's almost all one big park. The whole city is pedestrian-friendly. There's much less pollution here. They have well-maintained skateboard parks. They even have skate lanes on streets. Can you imagine that?"

"People here are more active in general and more interested in things outside their own world," Thiel says. "They're less apathetic. They care about their city and are trying to make it better."

Tapay says that, from what he gathers from longtime Portland residents, the city was much smaller just 15 years ago and has grown organically, fueled by a few leaders with vision. Its success has bred more success and a civic willingness to take risks.

"Cincinnati has a knee-jerk reaction to anything that's new," he says. "Portland is more liberal and willing to give ideas a chance."

When told that Hamilton County voters are trying to decide right now whether to back Issue 7's tax increase to improve public transit, Tapay grunts.

"You always hear in Cincinnati, 'No taxes, no taxes,' " he says. "Great. You have fewer taxes, but you can get yourself into a poverty of ideas, and what's left? What do you have to show for it?

"People think we're taxed to death in Portland, but there's no sales tax here at all. People here have decided over the years that some things are for the public good, like transit, and they've supported them with their votes and their money. And they've made the city better."

Coming home
Gil Kaufman has never even been to Portland, but he'd fit in well with these DAAP grads. He moved back to Cincinnati last year with his wife Stephanie, also a Cincinnati native, and infant son after a series of career moves that would have made his "creative class" peers proud.

Kaufman, 32, says he left Cincinnati as soon as he possibly could — right after graduating from Walnut Hills High School in 1988. He attended Ohio State University for a year but didn't like it and transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where he had what he calls his "social awakening."

After graduation, he hung around Madison, Wisc. for a year before heading down to Chicago, where he began a career as a music writer. He was in the right place at the right time, he says, as the Chicago music scene hit the big time in the early 1990s with Smashing Pumpkins, Veruca Salt, Urge Overkill, Liz Phair and others.

Kaufman considered several towns for his next move — Austin and Chapel Hill were early favorites — before he and Stephanie moved to Tucson, Ariz. sight unseen on the advice of a friend. A year later he was hired by the music Web site Addicted to Noise, and they were off to San Francisco. Again, he was in the right place at the right time.

"San Francisco was a dream for any young person who wanted to be in the thick of things," he says. "I got there for the Internet boom. I was at Addicted to Noise literally from the very beginning — I turned on the lights at the new office — to the bitter end — I was the last person out the door when it closed."

When he was laid off last fall, Kaufman and family moved home to Cincinnati. He didn't want to.

"I have negative feelings about Cincinnati," he says. "I was raised in an artistic home, and my mom was an artist. Now I'm a writer. I've always felt that Cincinnati wasn't a great place for creative people."

Still, the main reason to come back — to raise their son surrounded by family — has worked out pretty well. Kaufman says he lives on a safe, tree-lined street in a house he can afford, which was never going to happen in San Francisco. He says he can get to a concert by leaving the house 15 minutes before it starts, which never happened in San Francisco or Chicago. And he's been able to continue making a living as a freelance music writer working out of his home.

But while his personal life flourishes in his hometown, Kaufman says he can't help feeling that his career has stalled.

"I'm glad I was gone from Cincinnati," he says. "I can appreciate it more now. But I don't know that this is the best place for me as a creative person. I still have wunderlust. I can't become the next Curt Loder here, but I can make a living. You just have to set priorities."

Evan and Amy Eagle set their priorities, too, and moved back to Cincinnati for the same reason as the Kaufmans — to be near family as they begin their own family. Evan also has found the transition to be difficult.

"It's a whole different place here," says Eagle, who lives in Oakley. "I'm embarrassed to say I haven't used public transit once since we moved back. I don't know why. I have a parking space with my job, so there's no incentive, I guess, to ride the bus. We had one car in Portland and still have one car here, and we're definitely not in the norm."

Eagle is an architect with Glaserworks, working on the company's "Mainstreet" project on the UC campus. After seeing firsthand how Portland takes advantage of its possibilities, he's mustered some hope for Cincinnati now that he's back.

"There's great architecture here, and Over-the-Rhine has lots of possibilities," he says. "But we need to reduce the one-person/one-car mentality here. Cincinnati just has a ways to go. Portland was so pedestrian-friendly. It was enjoyable just to walk in downtown Portland. We used to go down to the river downtown and just sit. We don't do that here."

Two years after returning from Portland, Eagle can't seem to shake the feeling that he and his wife were destined for that city.

"When people would visit us in Portland, Amy and I had a very long list of what we'd show them," he says. "Believe it or not, light rail was a big attraction. Even the station shelters were cool, not some '70s-looking thing you'd probably find here. We haven't compiled much of a list here yet."

Eagle thinks he'll return to Portland some day.

"We want to go back and open the world's first B&B&B&B," he says. "Bed & Breakfast & Bar & Baitshop."

Kaufman also thinks Cincinnati won't be his long-term home.

"Cincinnati can be a home base, but I'd rather it be a satellite office," he says. "A place to come home to, not a place to live."

The problem with potential
So is this Cincinnati's destiny? Is our next marketing campaign aimed at young professionals going to feature the slogan "Cincinnati: Come Home and Have Your Babies"?

As it stands now, that approach might be as effective as any.

"I miss my family like crazy, but I can't see myself coming back any time soon," says Thiel, the artist-turned-property manager. "I guess I'd consider it if I could find my dream job there — but I'd still have to be able to travel a lot."

"There's no way I'd ever come back," says Tapay, the museum exhibit designer. "Cincinnati has a way too dysfunctional government and a way too Puritanical approach to everything."

"I wanted to stay in Portland a year and then go back, but I fell in love with this place," says Hasselgren, an architect. "I'm not closing the door, and I hope Cincinnati is in my future. I want it to be a choice. But it has to be about more than just family."

"My wife and I have talked a lot about our future, and we haven't ruled out Cincinnati," says Lucas, the furniture designer. "People in Cincinnati seem to be working on the problems there, and it has potential."

There's that double-edged word: "potential." When potential is realized — or, in the case of Portland, when progress toward potential is evident in everyday life — a community can be energized and successes begat successes. When potential isn't realized, a city like Cincinnati can wear the word around its collective neck like an albatross.

The beauty of "potential," of course, is that it implies hope. Unfinished business. A sign of life. And in this small universe of young professionals, most of the ex-patriates and returning sons hold out hope for Cincinnati.

When asked what they'd do to improve Cincinnati, these "creative class" members sound like they're reading right out of Richard Florida's urban development book.

"There's nothing about Portland that can't be duplicated in Cincinnati," Hasselgren says.

"Cincinnati must change, and I think it can," says fellow architect Berg. "People there have to become more enlightened about things like gay rights and more interested in ideas like better transportation, bike lanes, protecting the environment."

"There's a real fear of the unknown," says music writer Kaufman. "Some really innovative musicians don't play Cincinnati because they don't get good response from audiences here and so we're not on their radar. That, in turn, doesn't help open people's minds to new ideas."

"I'd like to see a better variety and quality of restaurants," says Eagle, the architect who moved back. "A better appreciation of the outdoors. More parks, especially on the river. A city you don't need a car to get around in."

"There should be real backing for bike riders," says Tapay, who bikes six miles to and from work every day. "A few years ago Cincinnati declared itself 'bike friendly,' but it's not. You can't just declare a problem not a problem and think it's all fixed. It's a joke. And that's Cincinnati in a nutshell." ©

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