City of Neighborhoods: The antidote to anti-urbanism

Cities are engines of our local and national economies, and centers of creativity, culture, and entertainment. But they are under more pressure than ever. This is the fifth in a monthly series, The Case for Cities, that will look at how Cincinnati and similar cities can grow by becoming places of choice, as well as models of social justice.

Cities have been whipping posts throughout history.

But the anti-city impulse in American life seems have been taken to new levels in recent years.

“We’ve just witnessed the most aggressively anti-urban rhetoric ever uttered by a presidential candidate, at least in my reckoning,” says historian Steven Conn, a professor at Miami University.

The rhetoric reached a fever pitch in 2020, an election year that also saw the emergence of Covid-19, which made some wary of densely populated communities. It was also a year of violent unrest in cities across the country after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.    

Candidate Trump rarely missed opportunities to badmouth the country’s biggest cities.

“Bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things,” Trump said during one debate. Urban enthusiasts promptly took pride in the quote, emblazoning it on t-shirts.

The great metropolis of Chicago? “It’s like, worse than Afghanistan.”

The booming city of San Francisco? “It is not even recognizable lately. Something must be done before it is too late.”

The city of Portland, Ore., which was the scene of riots in the fall of 2020, came in for particular condemnation by the ex-president. “Portland, call in the feds,” he tweeted. “Put these animals in jail now.”

Baltimore … Atlanta … the list goes on.

The comments, of course, are thinly veiled codes in political-speak. Cities (wink, wink) are homes to liberals, Blacks, gays, and immigrants. Therefore, “We have cities that are out of control; they're like war zones,” (July 2020).

But Trump simply took anti-urban sentiment to new extremes, Conn says. “This is the latest manifestation of a long-running, deeply ingrained impulse in American political life,” he says.

Steven ConnConn has written the book “Americans Against the City,” that traces the anti-urban impulse in our nation. The most recent presidential campaign, in which anti-city rhetoric was liberally employed, is nothing new, he says.

Even FDR, an icon of the Democratic Party, was anti-urban, he says. “Roosevelt himself was one of those Americans who really had disdain for American cities,” Conn says.

Roosevelt’s New Deal saw the creation of the Resettlement Administration, one of whose tasks was the creation of greenbelt communities far removed from urban areas. The suburb of Greenhills is one of those, created in the ‘30s to be a community surrounded by greenspace, with homes designed for backyard gardens.   

Especially in times of strife, moving out of the cities has been seen as the cure for our social ills, he says.

The ‘60s saw urban centers hollowed out, as the civil rights movement, riots, and fear engendered white flight. Riots broke out in the Avondale neighborhood in 1967, and again after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. In 1950, Cincinnati’s population was 504,000. By 1980, it was down to 385,000, and still falling.

Even the Founding Fathers (with the exception of Benjamin Franklin) were anti-urban, he says, with people like Jefferson and Washington, who were gentleman farmers who only traveled to the city when necessary.

But there’s a paradox here. Despite the rhetoric, cities today are more popular than they’ve been in recent decades. Most of the nation’s growth over the last 10 years happened in its most densely populated areas, the latest U.S. Census found. Cincinnati is beginning to gain back the ground it lost, as its population grew by more than 4% since the last census. There were similar experiences in other midsized cities. Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Lexington, Ky., and Columbus, Ohio all saw even bigger population gains.

“Despite this anti-urbanism sentiment, we are loving our cities to death and competing for whatever urbanism there is,” says Emily Talen, a professor of urbanism at the University of Chicago.

Dense, walkable neighborhoods have been in vogue for a couple of decades now, contributing to the growth in city populations.

Emily TalenBut the trend has also had a downside, Talen says – gentrification, displacement, and a loss of diversity. “We’ve lost diversity because there’s not enough urbanism to go around,” she says.

The cure? Return power to the people. Give urban neighborhoods the tools and resources they need to create the kinds of communities they want.

“A lot of times, neighborhoods don’t really have power and the ability to make decisions for themselves,” Talen says. “They’re mostly reactive, rather than being tasked with creating a vision for what kind of neighborhood they want to be, and then putting that into place. The ones that have power to control their destinies, that’s really rare.”

In Cincinnati, neighborhood power can be found in community development corporations, not-for-profit organizations with missions of improving their neighborhoods from the ground up.

A case study in College Hill

There’s about 25 CDCs recognized by the city of Cincinnati. Not every neighborhood has one; and not all of them enjoy the kind of community support and engagement they need.   

One that does is in College Hill, a West Side neighborhood that is in the midst of a remarkable renaissance.

It was a neighborhood group of gardening enthusiasts who were the catalysts for change. Tina Stoeberl moved to the community 22 years ago. Shortly after she moved in, she found a note on her back door inviting her to join a new community group that was forming, College Hill Gardeners. At her first meeting, she found a group of like-minded neighbors.

“I knew right away this was not just a bunch of gardeners,” she says. “This was a group of community activists. And they were going to change things.”

It started with simple projects, picking up litter, things like that. Then the Gardeners started joining other neighborhood organizations, populating their ranks with engaged members.

“I was the secretary of the business association and I didn’t even own a business,” Stoeberl says.

Opportunities are often borne out of crisis. The crisis in College Hill came around 2000, when two neighborhood anchors closed within about a year of each other: longtime, locally owned family restaurant Shuller’s Wigwam and the Kroger supermarket across the street. The two occupied corners of the busy intersection of North Bend Road and Hamilton Avenue, at the north end of the College Hill business district.

“The community had a panic moment,” says Seth Walsh, the executive director of the College Hill Urban Redevelopment Corp. (CHURC).  What would happen to the business district? To the neighborhood?

The answers began to emerge at a backyard barbecue where about two dozen engaged residents were invited to try and figure out what to do. At the event, the group began to face a difficult truth: the business district was already dying; it had been on life support for years.

A neighbor with years of experience in not-for-profit development told them, “You either fight back and rebuild your business district or you just accept that your business district is dead.”

Seth Walsh“They decided they wanted to fight back,” Walsh says.

They started small, then got a big win when a private developer agreed to build condos on the Wigwam property, and the neighborhood was awarded a million-dollar grant from the city to help finance it. But the project fell through, a casualty of the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

CHURC used the grant money to begin to buy properties in the business district to hold them for the kind of development the community was seeking.

At one of CHURC’s annual meetings, a benefactor offered to donate $200,000 to the cause if the community could match the amount. Neighbors began throwing dinner parties to raise money; a 5K race was organized. “We did everything you can imagine to raise money,” Stoeberl says.

They did it. The community was literally buying into a new vision for the neighborhood.

In the meantime, Stoeberl became a business owner, buying College Hill Coffee, a mainstay of the neighborhood since 1992. It will turn 30 later this year.

Despite the Great Recession setback, the neighborhood moved forward. In 2016, an $11 million development called Marlowe Court opened in the heart of the district – 53 affordable housing units for people 55 and up.

In 2020, ground was broken for new developments for the old Kroger and Wigwam properties – College Hill Station, 171 market-rate apartments, as well as condominiums and street-level retail.

With the promise of urban density, new businesses began moving in. Brink Brewing opened in 2017. College Hill wasn’t Brink’s first choice, but owner Andrew McCleese said he was sold on CHURC’s vision and the prospect of more housing and development in the community.

Now, with a coffee shop and a taproom, two essential elements for any neighborhood, the business district was on its way. A Japanese restaurant opened, and a Mexican eatery. More businesses followed.

A recently announced $9.5 million development will see the renovation of four old buildings on Hamilton Avenue, which will include a Sleepy Bee Café, two more soon-to-be-announced restaurants, and 26 affordable housing units.

College Hillians have continued to fund CHURC’s mission, and the not-for-profit has leveraged that with economic development grants. CHURC owns and controls properties in the district and uses the rents for cash flow to fund its operations. It now owns 31 properties in the neighborhood and employs a staff of more than 15 people, Walsh says.   

Community development corporations like CHURC answer to the community; they're not in it to just make a profit and move on to the next project. They empower their neighborhoods.

"Organizations like us reinvest in the community," Walsh says.  "At the end of the day, we are the community. We're not going to give it to a developer. We invest in it. It sets the standard for what we expect in College Hill."

College Hill is not a war zone. It's nothing like Afghanistan. Neither is Walnut Hills, Avondale, Madisonville, Westwood, Price Hill, Northside, West End, South Cumminsville, or any of the dozens of Cincinnati neighborhoods that have taken it upon themselves to create a vision for their communities and do the work to make it happen. 

You can read earlier articles in The Case for Cities series here.

You can view and listen to The Case for Cities conversation series here.

The Case for Cities: Cities of Choice are Cities of Justice series is a partnership between UC School of Planning and Soapbox Cincinnati, made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.