Why cities matter now more than ever

Cities are engines of our local and national economies, and centers of creativity, culture, and entertainment. But they are under more pressure than ever. Today begins 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.

The latest official count of the American people confirmed what we’ve seen happening for years: cities are cool again.

Most of the nation’s growth over the last 10 years happened in its most densely populated areas, the U.S. Census found. That was true of big cities like New York and Los Angeles, and of midsized cities like Cincinnati, which saw its population grow by more than 4%; Indianapolis (8%); Minneapolis (12%); Lexington, Ky. (10%), and Columbus, Ohio (15%).  And although the gains weren’t across the board – Cleveland, Akron, and Detroit lost ground, for example – overall, cities grew, and they grew by becoming younger and more diverse.

In Cincinnati, the growth was credited at least in part to sustained investment in housing and infrastructure in Over-the-Rhine, downtown, the riverfront, and a desire to live in neighborhoods that are walkable, interesting, eclectic, and fun. 

But as 2020 dawned, those years of progress threatened to become undone. The Covid-19 pandemic made densely populated places fearsome, and practically emptied out downtowns, as office workers plugged in from home. Then, the killing of George Floyd at police hands sparked protests, violence, and vandalism in cities across the country, including Cincinnati.

An old, familiar story started to make the rounds again -- that cities are places to be avoided. It was a story that was filled with not-so-subtle racial undercurrents.

“A very powerful negative narrative began to emerge,” says Terry Grundy. “The narrative became one that said cities are places of crime, places of disorder, places of unrest, and places that have an awful lot of those kinds of people.”

Grundy, a retired United Way exec, adjunct instructor in the University of Cincinnati School of Planning, and dedicated urbanist, helped organize a year-long series of monthly conversations with local and national thought leaders, led by School of Planning faculty, on issues of urban life: health, sustainability, housing, food, transportation, entrepreneurship, justice. The conversations were hosted (virtually) by The Mercantile Library and funded by the Haile Foundation and UC’s Simpson Center for Urban Futures.

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

This article begins a monthly series that will build on that project, and dive into the issues that cities have been leading the way on since they were invented: public spaces, arts and culture, entrepreneurship, innovation, and more. They will be viewed through the lens of social justice, as cities like Cincinnati and others are the most likely places where a transformation of our institutions and norms can occur that can lead our communities to become more inclusive, just, and equitable.

As the nation becomes more diverse, and metro regions cope with a shifting, pandemic-influenced world, issues of justice, inclusion, and equity have taken center stage, and the stakes for Cincinnati and similarly situated cities to continue growing are high.

“There’s a golden opportunity for some of these midsized cities to offer a quality of life at a lower price,” says Conrad Kickert, a former assistant professor of urban design at the UC School of Planning, now in a similar role at the University at Buffalo.  “But it’s not just the value proposition, there’s also a sense of community. This is our time to say here’s what we can offer; here’s what we can do.”

Cities that aim to be attractive places to live must also be places where social justice is demonstrated, says Vikas Mehta, a professor of urbanism at UC's School of Planning. "Cities of choice are cities of justice," he says.

Main Street, Over-the-Rhine.In Cincinnati, the urban renaissance is usually associated with the remarkable transformation of Over-the-Rhine. Twenty years ago, the sprawling neighborhood had been largely abandoned and left to die. A focused plan of investment backed by big corporations, City Hall, and a new not-for-profit development company turned the once-forbidding neighborhood into a destination.

But the transformation did not come without its costs. Displacement and gentrification are now the problems. “OTR has become a regional, if not a national, draw,” Kickert says. “But is it inclusive? No, it could be better.”

The beauty of cities is they are the places where such problems can be – must be – worked out.

In a 2015 essay, “Defining the Just City Beyond Black and White,” Toni L. Griffin cites “urban injustices” common to many cities – poverty, crime, economic division. But then Griffin, an urban design expert now at Harvard University, concludes on a positive note: “I am optimistic about cities — American cities, in particular — and our collective ability to facilitate and create greater urban justice for all.”

Efforts are underway in Over-the-Rhine and elsewhere to more equally share the growing prosperity of the urban core. Recognizing the need for the OTR business district to look more like the city as a whole, in 2018, the OTR Chamber, developer 3CDC, minority accelerator Mortar, and others launched Represent, a program to help minority entrepreneurs open brick-and-mortar spaces in the neighborhood.

This past June, it was announced that the program would hire a full-time executive director. That appointment has not been made yet, but 3CDC says that currently, 25% of its street-level commercial tenants (19 out of 76) are Black-owned businesses.  

Bruce Katz is one of the leading thinkers on cities as an author, consultant, and Brookings Institution scholar. Cities, he says, are not governments, but networks. They are complex networks of public institutions, private corporations, universities, not-for-profit organizations, philanthropies. Cities are where these valuable, talent-rich assets come together and work on the problems that cities, and by extension, the rest of the world, have.

Katz has recognized Cincinnati as a city that has taken a long-term approach to growing Black-owned businesses. Procter & Gamble and Kroger are regular members of the Billion Dollar Roundtable, a group of corporations that spend at least $1 billion with minority- and women-owned businesses, and the Cincinnati Chamber’s Minority Business Accelerator sets concrete goals and maintains a list of dozens of companies that have committed to diversify their supplier pipelines. In a July 2020 article that he co-authored, Katz held up Cincinnati as a model for encouraging minority entrepreneurship.

“Cincinnati’s model and approach are adaptable and implementable in any city and metropolis willing to dedicate the resources and cultivate a similar purpose-driven ecosystem …" he wrote.

James Johnson-PiettJames Johnson-Piett worked on Over-the-Rhine’s Represent plan through his New York-based consultancy, Urbane Development.  The firm works to improve urban neighborhoods, especially those in underserved communities.

“We want to make change in place, and cities are at the heart of that,” he says.

His firm was selected to help revitalize and manage an urban market in Brooklyn, the Flatbush Caton Market. The market was established more than 20 years ago to provide a home to dozens of Caribbean street vendors. 

Piett says midsized cities like Cincinnati can benefit from their sturdy, interesting housing stock, lower costs, and ease of transportation. “The ingredients are all there,” he says. “There’s a reason to show up in these places.”

Cities should drive the growth of their surrounding metro regions as talented people move to urban neighborhoods. A big reason to do that is the connections that can be made – professional and otherwise.

“Don’t dismiss the power of love,” he says. “If you want to meet someone and you’re between the age of 21 and 40, the likelihood is you’re going to meet someone in a denser, more diverse, more connected place.”

Gee HortonGee Horton had already met his wife, but the connections he made here enabled him to fully express himself through his work. A native of Louisville, Horton was coaching basketball in South Carolina when he was recruited to Cincinnati to coach women’s basketball at Xavier University. He then jumped to the private sector as a corporate recruiter, but then decided to pursue a recently discovered passion – art.

Working largely in pencil and charcoal, Horton has been the artist-in-residence at the Mercantile Library for the last year.

“I kind of discovered who I was in the city,” Horton says. “The city helped me figure out who I am, and create a pathway to do work like this, and also give back.”

At the Mercantile, Horton just completed a portrait of Peter Clark, a 19th century Black businessman, and educator in Cincinnati, and the namesake of Clark Montessori High School in the city's Hyde Park neighborhood.

A couple of years ago, Melis Aydogan decided to branch out from her P&G career and honor her family’s heritage with a pop-up shop that sells authentic Turkish coffee. She didn’t do it in the ‘burbs where grew up, she did it at Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine. Breaking through is easier in a city of our size, she says.

“In a place like New York and Los Angeles there are a hundred and one million things going on and it’s really hard to tap in to people’s attention,” she says. “Everyone’s a neighbor in Cincinnati. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone. We’re a pretty tight-knit community.”

Melis AydoganRuya Coffee was more than a strong cup of java. "The mission behind it is to be a positive voice for immigrants in America," Aydogan says. There were events with live music, and panel discussions to spotlight the immigrant experience.
In January, Ruya Coffee will be back, this time in the lobby of 21C hotel downtown. Coffee, fortune telling, and immigrant art will be on the menu. A dedicated gallery space on the second floor will feature works from local immigrant artists, and a Palestinian filmmaker is creating an immersive space to resemble an immigrant home.

Alexis Kidd came to Cincinnati for college from Sandusky, Ohio. But she wasn’t comfortable in the bigger city, it didn’t feel like home. Then she volunteered at the former Heberle School and discovered Cincinnati’s West End neighborhood.

“It was like the community I grew up in,” she says.  “My aunt lived next to us; my grandma lived across the street. We had relatives close by.” She got that in the West End, where she has spent most of her work and volunteer life since then.

She’s now executive director of Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses, the West End-based organization working to maintain and improve housing in a neighborhood that is in transition after a $250 million Major League Soccer stadium was built there.

Alexis Kidd"There's definitely a sense of urgency," she says of the effort to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood and keep housing affordable for those who've lived there for decades.

"Affordable housing doesn't just happen," she says. "It's a difficult task. There has to be a concerted effort on the city's part and by investors."

Liz Blume grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., and arrived in Cincinnati for grad school.
She discovered her community in the neighborhood of Clifton, where she raised two children, and found that juggling work, family, and school was easier in a dense neighborhood like that where the daily needs that keep life going are nearby.

“I made sure the pediatrician was close, the dentist was close, and I was not driving more than 10 minutes to get to work every day,” she says.

Blume has been director of the Community Building Institute at Xavier University for nearly two decades. Her group is dedicated to fostering equitable neighborhood development. “That’s what urban environments are,” she says. “They’re places where you have choices and you can make your life work in a relatively easy way.”

She’s seen both the decline of cities and the rebound. “I watched us throwing away those places with both hands in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” she says. “It’s clear that trend is changing.”

However, the new problems that reinvestment has brought need to be addressed, she says. “We’re recreating these places, but we’re homogenizing them, we’re sterilizing them,” she says. “We’re creating high bars to entry in places like Over-the-Rhine.”

“That’s not the way these places were built.”

Cities were built to be places where, as Toni L. Griffin, writes, all people, but especially “the least not” have access to opportunities and resources that allow them to be productive, thrive, and grow.

Today’s cities of choice will be also be the cities of justice where intentional effort is made to create opportunity for all of its citizens, and by extension, all those living around it and connected to it.

There is no formula for that, and each city needs to define what that means for its people.

As Griffin writes, “When we achieve the just city, we will know it when we see it.”  

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.  

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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.