Take the Blinders off: A CityBeat reporter says good-bye and offers advice

I don't believe many people pay attention to the little names printed at the top of our news stories, but for the few who do, I wanted to mention this will be my last piece for CityBeat. This week

I don't believe many people pay attention to the little names printed at the top of our news stories, but for the few who do, I wanted to mention this will be my last piece for CityBeat. This week I'm heading to Madagascar to teach English as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years.

Before I go, I feel compelled to offer a bit of advice. I grew up just outside the city limits but learned most of what I know about how the city works (and doesn't work) since I began writing for CityBeat in 1999. I've also been lucky enough to travel to Europe and South America to get a better sense of how our city stacks up.

Cincinnati has been in a slow but steady downward spiral since the late 1960s. This continued even during the boom-boom 1990s when computers practically minted money. Most folks didn't seem to realize the city was in deep trouble until most of the major department stores pulled out in the late 1980s. The riots of 2001 only iced the cake.

Cincinnati's nagging problem is its leaders have tried to make the city into a quasi-suburb instead of embracing what makes cities attractive to people who like cities.

People didn't move to Austin, Seattle, San Francisco, New York or Chicago in the 1990s for the low taxes, easy parking or family-friendly streets. They wanted music, good weather, diversity, arts, mass transit, streets full of people at all hours, a bit of an edge and the other stuff these cities provide in abundance.

They wanted a place with a pulse. Those cities held their own or grew while Cincinnati lost another 10 percent of its population in the 1990s.

In the 1960s, the peak of the car age, Cincinnati, like many others, transformed itself into a commuter office park with highway ramps and one-way streets. Get in, work, maybe have a drink, get out and turn out the lights.

For years small businesses got the high hat (see Scully's, et al.) from the city as it chased mega projects such as Fountain Square West in a misguided attempt to get those commuters to spend more time downtown. Now we're stuck with a heavily tax-subsidized downtown that, outside of special events, is pretty faceless and quiet after dark.

So what have our leaders done to turn the city around? More cops, more pointless panhandling legislation and more empty talk and token efforts toward neighborhood revitalization. And even scarier, a new tendency to go for the quick, thoughtless big box "success" over better planning and a more sustainable, architecturally unified city.

"The choice in Cincinnati is, 'We're going to buy police, we're not going to buy plans,' " said former Cincinnati Planning Director Liz Blume during a recent meeting of the Smart Growth Coalition of Greater Cincinnati.

Since the riot, the local news media have helped create a false safety crisis by incessantly reporting downtown crime out of context. Corporate crime costs all of us much more than street crime — see the 1980s savings and loan scandal — but you wouldn't know that by reading The Cincinnati Post's recent front page story about a little old lady who got mugged in Over-the-Rhine. What about the millions of simultaneous muggings committed by Enron?

The city could solve a lot of its "crime" problems by getting more butts on the street at night. How do you do that? Not by marketing to Butler County. Those people walling themselves off in West Chester aren't coming back unless downtown is completely sanitized. Screw 'em.

The city needs to boost its population density by attracting a whole new class of risk takers — people who aren't afraid of panhandlers, who love cities so much they're willing to live among drug dealers and real criminals because they know things will get better if enough people commit to making the city better.

So what do these fearless people want? A real freaking city. A place with great public spaces where lots of people want to spend time. A city where walking down the street is a fulfilling experience in itself (see Piatt Park), not just something you have to do to get from the parking garage to the restaurant. A place where entrepreneurs have space not only to take risks but to get support for their ideas.

To hook these risk-takers, we also need to get our buildings, streets, parks and mass transit working together as a team. We have to put the pedestrian first. Without pedestrians, the city will never feel safe and we'll never be able to get a higher population density by relying on cars alone to move people.

(For examples of projects that do this, check out the Congress for the New Urbanism at www.cnu.org.)

Cincinnati isn't going to get there through ad hoc projects rammed through the planning commission. It needs a vision it can agree on and stick to. A vision that takes a few campaign cycles to carry out. Blume was about to begin the city's first master plan since 1947 before her department had its head (and hands and feet) cut off and its torso merged with Community Development.

So may I ask one favor of the city's leaders while I'm gone? Listen and lead. Hang up on the CEOs for a minute and listen to the citizens who love the city. Ask them why they live where they do and help grow the assets that kept them here.

Austin banks on its music and New York on its arts. Cincinnati has a chance, with the right investments, to be unique as well. Here's a vision to talk about: Cincinnati, the Most Walkable City in the Midwest.

The concept is historic because this is what the city used to be, but it's also forward-thinking and achievable enough to get outsiders to buy into it. It's exactly the kind of motto the city needs to distinguish itself from the rest of the Midwest and provide hope for the future.

It's a vision for a city desperately in need of one. ©

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