Soapdish: Detroit & Cincinnati, an I-75 exchange program


Welcome back, loyal Soapdish readers. As a select few may recall, my most-recent column compared and contrasted Detroit and Cincinnati, two cities separated by a mere four-hour drive via I-75, but each seemingly possessed of little familiarity with the other.
 
As a former Detroiter, current Cincinnatian and proud ambassador of both cities, I felt compelled to shed light — and maybe even expose a few misconceptions along the way. Moreover, the goal is to expand knowledge of both places, while exploring best practices and forging a kind of socio-cultural exchange for the future.
 
Part of the genesis of this column stems from what I have always viewed as the lazy, myopic journalistic narrative lens through which people typically view — cliché alert — the “slow-moving Katrina”/post-modern acropolis that was pre-bankruptcy Detroit, as well as (though to a lesser degree) the notion of a conservative, insular, “same-old” Cincinnati. 
 
Whether they’re handling Detroit’s pre-2000 urban-decay “pornographers” or the misguided, hackneyed “New Brooklyn” tropes of the current day, commentators reflexively SAWZALL their prose into pegs of false insight to fit carefully crafted, predetermined round holes. It’s the same way people mention Mapplethorpe and chili anytime Cincinnati is referenced.
 
Though it remains a constant battle, thankfully, a lot of those preconceptions are rapidly becoming passé.
 
For Detroit perspective on the issue, I reached out to Francis Grunow, a self-described Detroit "urbanist” who has worked in the worlds of policy, planning and historic preservation. (Grunow also dabbles in writing and organizes an annual parade in Detroit.)
 
With regard to persistent false narratives, Grunow observed that “Detroit responds to the places that notice it. So, over the last five to 10 years, leading into and out of bankruptcy, it seemed that the national press has had a lot of focus on Detroit. This has brought a lot of New Yorkers and others to Detroit. When people cover Detroit, there is naturally some feedback to these people and where they are coming from (e.g. Detroit is the next Brooklyn).”
 
The corollary, Grunow feels, is that Detroiters don't have the time, resources or inclination to investigate the issue or travel to those other cities for the sake of comparison study.
 
In comparing the two cities, Grunow agreed that Detroiters don’t know much about Cincinnati, and that’s unfortunate he says, “Because there is a lot for Detroit to glean. I think about historic preservation, race relations, transit, walkability — just to name a few. It's not just Cincinnati that Detroiters seem to overlook. It would be interesting someday to map how people and ideas move between places.”
 
Diving deeper, let’s hone in on one of Grunow’s aforementioned points: historic preservation. When I lived in Detroit, we experienced a few, flashy victories in preservation — including the Book-Cadillac Hotel’s reemergence as the Westin Book-Cadillac Hotel — while simultaneously enduring the razing of countless structures downtown and across the city.
 
Detroit always seemed to be held in thrall by the demolition industry, perhaps a historical byproduct of the razing of burned-out structures following the riots of 1967, and the continual burning and razing of vacant buildings that continued well into this millennium. In the corridors of City Hall and the business community, there seemed to be an ingrained lack of deference to historic structures. The city was a perpetual Sally-Field-at-the-Oscars for developers; all one had to say was, “We like you. We really, really like you,” to earn free reign to plow under history and erect mediocrity in its place.

It was like suffering from economic development via desperation, with little in the way of checks and balances, a concept which Cincinnati has also experienced, and which I explored in a 2013 column.
 
To its credit, Cincinnati’s Historic Conservation Board, Planning Commission and accompanying raft of legislative regulations do attempt to act as a check on unbridled development. There is a culture of preservation in place which, while periodically under attack, has emerged at times with substantial victories — Union Terminal, Music Hall and Memorial Hall are all historic icons currently undergoing multi-million-dollar renovations and reinvestment. I myself sit on the board of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, which has achieved considerable success in the last year alone.
 
Cincinnati's string of recent victories are less flashy but demonstrate larger distinction, including recent efforts to renovate and repurpose historic 19th-century churches like The Transept, Taft’s Ale House and Old St. George, as well as a number of historic schools including Woodward High School and the original Walnut Hills High School.
 
Detroit, on the other hand, demolished its historic Cass Tech High School at a time when its downtown-adjacent neighborhood was seeing massive demand for new housing; meanwhile, historic churches disappear under a cloud of suspicious circumstances.
 
When it comes to preservation in Detroit, high-profile projects — like the 1980s-era renovation of the Fox Theater, the publicly-subsidized Tigers’ Comerica Park and the currently-under-construction Red Wings stadium — afford moguls like Mike Ilitch carte blanche for wholesale blocks of demolition.
 
Even now, Dan Gilbert’s teasing of a snazzy new downtown project grants power to demolish (save for an antiseptic façadectomy) notable downtown icons like the National Theatre, the last of its kind designed by renowned architect Albert Kahn. 
 
This is a tale all too familiar for Detroit preservationists.
 
One reason Detroit’s CBD has one of the greatest collections of early 20th-century theaters outside Broadway is because there was simply no interest in the land. Upon abandonment, these massive odes to DeMille and Mayer sat empty, rotting. For example, the hulking Hudson’s — a flagship department store and once the second largest in the country and tallest in the world — was demolished 18 years ago, and the site is only now seeing plans for development.

At one time in the 1990s, Columbia professor and sociologist/photographer Camilo Jose Vergara proposed a section of Detroit’s downtown be cordoned off and allowed to crumble as a “modern acropolis” to post-industrial age decline and urban decay.
 
Cincinnati, to its credit, has haltingly learned the value of architectural heritage — and the visitor dollars it generates. Over-the-Rhine is a success story because of its historic architecture; that’s what makes the recent, Sisyphean Board of Zoning Appeals decision on the Dennison Hotel so frustrating, and also a critical reminder that elections do matter, as these decisions are made by political appointees and all the patronage that such posts command.
 
Conversely, there are other areas where Cincinnati could take a cue from Detroit, biking infrastructure being one of them.
 
Cincinnatians are more than familiar with the brouhaha over the Central Parkway protected bike lanes (and a mayor who believes bike lanes are something that take you through the woods, as opposed to a means to get around the city). Indeed, a recent report from Bicycling.com demoted Cincinnati in its “Top 50” bicycle-friendliness rankings of 2016. The publication noted that “the city has failed its rapidly growing urban cycling populace (ranked the third fastest growing bike community in the country). Since 2014, little progress has been made on a progressive bike master plan approved in 2010.”
 
Detroit, meanwhile, eked into the #50 spot, noting a 400 percent increase in ridership from 2000 to 2014. Biking in Detroit was once an anomalous, life-in-your-own-hands undertaking. After all, this is the proverbial Motor City, where moving violations and red lights are considered optional by most car drivers. That said, the excessively wide, over-capacity arterial streets leave a lot of room to the imagination, and Detroit has seized the opportunity to roll out a massive infrastructure plan of the type Cincinnati has seemingly shelved to gather dust.
 
Swinging back again, Detroit could take a lesson from Cincinnati’s public parks. Cincinnati’s park system is a crown jewel, even despite recent trials and tribulations that include lack of management transparency. Detroit has made some progress with its Riverfront Conservancy, but it would do well to emulate the public-private partnerships that put Cincinnati Parks among the finest in the nation.
 
While I know I’ll take a lot of flak for this, I’ve always been amazed by how treeless Detroit is. Yes, I have heard about the Dutch Elm Disease scourge (news flash: that occurred in 1950), and the later Emerald Ash Borer, but it’s odd how little foliage exists amid so much vacancy and abandonment. Detroit was once a "City of Trees," and the Greening of Detroit has planted some 90,000 trees since 1989, but the city still has a long way to go toward achieving what Cincinnati has maintained and fostered. Among other tasks, Cincinnati's Department of Urban Forestry performs an inventory every six years of each neighborhood, replacing dead or missing trees, planting new ones and performing preventive maintenance.
 
Due to my long-haired loquacity, I have only touched upon a few of the topics I wanted to spotlight. Perhaps future discussions will include a comparison of Detroit’s fabulous Eastern Market with Cincinnati’s equally fabulous Findlay Market. Or maybe we’ll discuss gentrification points that include $80 cocktails in Detroit and the rising cost of Cincinnati dwellings.
 
The list goes on. But another way to extend the dialog is by making the four-hour journey via our own “I-75 Exchange Program,” further expanding the understanding between Detroiters and Cincinnatians.

In a comment to Part I of this column, reader Dylan Labrie suggested that “Both cities could host a dual-city music, food, film and creative festival, given the similarities and differences of the two cities and how they are connected along the I-75.”
 
I like this idea. Let’s put it on the 2017 to-do list. Happy Holidays.
 

Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.
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