Soapdish: Cincinnati Neighborhood Summit tries to erase boundaries, promote partnerships

Your trusty Soapdish columnist had the opportunity to attend Cincinnati’s 2015 Neighborhood Summit on Saturday, March 7. I know you’re thinking “a summit!” and immediately conjuring up images of Rejkavik, Geneva, Gorbachev, Reagan, Yeltsin, Brezhnev and the like.

Heady anticipation of strategic disarmament and all night treaty-drafting sessions bounced about in my head, too. Except this summit wasn’t in Yalta but rather at the Cintas Center on the campus of Xavier University, so incidents of taking off one’s shoe and hammering the table to make a point were few and far between.

That’s not to say there wasn’t drama and action. I encountered an engaged citizenry of over 500 neighborhood and city leaders in attendance, ready and willing to address myriad issues confronting our communities. With a theme of “Collaboration Erases Boundaries,” this year’s summit hoped to emphasize successful partnerships in and among our neighborhoods and the results that can be accomplished.

Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods make up a meandering patchwork crazy-quilt mash-up of different sizes, shapes, allegiances and demographics, all cobbled together over the years into a most decidedly diverse and sometimes non-cohesive unit. Many of these neighborhoods, at one time flourishing and independent, now make up a thriving yet somewhat more interdependent group these days.

It’s one of the city’s truly great attributes that it has so many vibrant neighborhoods, many of them replete with walkable commercial centers and picturesque squares (remnants of our thriving streetcar past) around which bars, restaurants, residents and retail coalesce. These neighborhoods are anchored by a symbiotic relationship with our core center city, and — in a mantra I’ve been fond of repeating — the surging success of downtown will continue to radiate outward to the neighborhoods like concentric ripples in a pond.

In this sense, it’s imperative to acknowledge that the ideal urban success model is not the doughnut (see the mistakes of Detroit’s past). Our neighborhoods — and the suburbs for that matter — don’t exist without downtown, and with a continually thriving center city the beneficial spinoff to neighborhoods can only increase.

While at times the presence of 52 individual puzzle pieces can lead to a pronounced Balkanization of self-interests, it is to the credit of Cincinnati that we’ve been able to preserve these vital pockets while continuing to strengthen the city core as well. Bringing together the various activists, organizations and representatives of the 52 neighborhoods under one roof for an annual summit is indeed an admirable and impressive endeavor.

It is also to the city’s credit that the administration turns out a fully engaged staff from multiple departments to man the various information tables at this summit, eager to visit and chit chat about topics ranging from city planning to historic preservation to water and sewer to policing and the like. Moreover, if you hang out by the coffee station long enough, you might find yourself engaged in conversations, as I was, with Councilmembers Kevin Flynn, Chris Seelbach and Yvette Simpson on a variety of topics ranging from connecting the streetcar to Uptown to the Charter reform initiative to judging the Bockfest Sausage Queen competition.

Sitting in on various sessions — ranging from how we improve the health and environmental sustainability of our neighborhoods to intermodal transportation to how to leverage public dollars for neighborhood-based initiatives to community gardens — I was reminded of some of the recent rhetoric bandied about by politicians, most notably Mayor John Cranley, that seemingly sought to drive a wedge between downtown/Over-the-Rhine and what he characterized as “the neighborhoods.” And I always found it puzzling, for purposes of that particular brand of rhetoric, that somehow downtown and Over-the-Rhine were no longer neighborhoods per se but rather a pinata of populism to be bashed for political gain.

It’s like we suddenly dropped down to just 50 neighborhoods for purposes of scoring some political points. Specifically, in a sitdown with the Enquirer editorial board after his election, Cranley promised some “early wins in the neighborhoods,” positing whether we want to build a streetcar (bad!) as opposed to Westwood Square or Wasson Way (good!).

In a similar vein, I worry about the divisiveness of “taxing” the residents of Over-the-Rhine via disproportionate parking fees to pay for streetcar operating costs when the benefits of the streetcar — such as the intense, accelerated economic development; the new residents and businesses attracted; the enhanced tax base; and the image of having the first stages of 21st Century transit infrastructure — impact the entire city as a whole. Why we would balance the budget of our transit infrastructure on the backs of one neighborhood is mystifying at best.

This type of polarizing politics is misguided but still common in our city. As if we need to choose between, say, pothole repair and town squares versus a streetcar, a Hobson’s Choice if there ever was one.

Of course, this is where events like the Neighborhood Summit can rise above the pettiness. The idea that “Collaboration Erases Boundaries” can transcend being more than just a marketing slogan was palpable on March 7. A “win” downtown is just as much a “win” for the neighborhoods as it is for downtown, we reminded ourselves, and that’s a point worth repeating.

Bringing together community leaders fosters an environment of collaboration via communication. As Mike Moroski, one of the summit planners, noted, “I think we can always strive to promote more ‘cross-pollination’ of community leaders.”

The best part of the Summit is meeting new, tenacious, like-minded people. Gary Robbins' (Spring Grove Village) idea of the sticky notes with contact info was a great start, but I feel we can facilitate even more “relationship building.” As City Manager Harry Black noted in his keynote address on Friday night, “While we have to maintain our neighborhood character, we also have to work together for the collective benefit of the City and region.”

It is worth noting that the scheduling gods clearly had mischief on their minds when they scheduled the summit for the Saturday of Bockfest weekend. That said, Bockfest is actually an excellent example of a neighborhood coming together to take advantage of its core assets and identity — in this case, brewery heritage with a soupcon of eccentricity.

And I say this not because I dragged myself out of bed for a 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. neighborhood summit the day after Bockfest kickoff, but because Bockfest demonstrates how a neighborhood can organically coalesce around the type of heritage, architecture and joie de vivre to form a sustainable brand and economic engine for the entire neighborhood. It’s a matter of capitalizing on your strengths and leveraging them for the benefit of the neighborhood as a whole, and events like the Neighborhood Summit provide an excellent laboratory to collaborate on some of those concepts with fellow leaders and government officials.

While “Collaboration Erases Boundaries” was the theme for the event, Black made clear in bold-face type, “We are 52 neighborhoods, but one Cincinnati.”

We are not a city of 52 fiefdoms, but 52 neighborhoods working together for a common good. The Neighborhood Summit hammered home that point in clear and convincing fashion.
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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.