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Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Cincinnati Is Cool by Mike Doyle

[ In 2008 Chicago Carless blogger Mike Doyle took a trip to Cincinnati and was blown away - Aaron. ]


(Photo: “I am Cincinnati; no flashbulbs, please.”–Leah Spurrier, co-founder of the Queen City’s fabulous High Street.)

I had been jonesing for a break from blogging before the end of summer, so when Cincinnati Jamie asked if I wanted to ride shotgun on a weekend trip back home to check on his Queen City condo, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t expect more than a few quiet days in a quaint backwater, a plate of chili, and some gratuitous references (on my part) to WKRP.

I admit it. Cincinnati blew me away. (See trip photos in my Picasa web album.)

That came especially as a shock considering the trip it took to get there. I had only ridden Indiana highways once before, on the way into Chicago five years previous with my refugee New York possessions. I remember two things from that drive: boredom from passing through 150 miles of the middle of nowhere; and thinking that the radio announcers were pulling my leg every time they mentioned “Michiana”.

I longed for that kind of action on last month’s 300-mile lengthwise schlep through the Hoosier state, highlighted only by a construction detour through the environmental degradation of Gary and ironic graffiti on a men’s room wall in Crown Point that read, “NASCAR: The other white race”. We intended to stop in downtown Indianapolis for me to take a look at the place. However, once I got a look at the skyline from the I-465 ring road, even after the three-hour drive from Chicago, I felt humming the theme to One Day at a Time and simply passing through sufficed.

It would be another hour to get out of flatland followed by a meandering drive past the Ohio border through hills and ravines on snaky I-75 before the next cityscape of any significance. Descending through Cincinnati’s West Side, following the course of the massive railyards in the valley below, the skyline took me by surprise. I half-expected yet another bombed-out rust belt burb whose downtown had been whacked with the ugly stick of Post-Modernism.

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(Photo: Cincinnati at dusk, from Covington, Kentucky.)

Yet, as we neared the Ohio River flats that house downtown, the pre-war Carew Tower and PNC Bank building took my breath away. Not just for their elegant, pre-war terra cotta beauty. But also because their still-prominent placement in the center of the skyline, neither upstaged nor blocked by taller, newer buildings, suggested in an instant a city respectful of the aesthetics of its built form.

From its history, that could follow or come as a complete surprise. Queen City of the West, Cincinnati was the first major inland American metropolis. Its early nineteenth-century commerce paved the way for the commercial giants of the latter 1800s, cities like Chicago and St. Louis. In the 1860s, the city gave freedom to thousands of slaves as a northern terminus of the Underground Railroad and, at the turn of the last century, cleanliness to millions of Americans as the birthplace of Ivory Soap.

Then again, Cincinnati’s brightest economic times happened in another millennium, and it also happens to be the only city in the nation to build an entire subway transit system, in the 1920s, only to brick it over for the next 80 years due to insufficient funds. So there’s a lot of unrealized potential and missed opportunity tied up in the civic psyche, too. Given all that, I was just happy the two towers were still standing.

We were heading for out first stop: Park & Vine, the hugely successful organic general store run by Chicagoland Bicycle Federation-escapee Dan-doesn’t-drive-either Korman. But first, Jamie gave me the nickel tour.

We exited I-75 at the riverfront and drove along the pedestrian-friendly deck hiding the now-sunken highway, past Paul Brown Stadium, the Great American Ball Park, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Roebling Bridge (little brother to my hometown bridge in Brooklyn). For a city of barely 330,000, I was pleasantly surprised at the effort made to liven the river’s edge here and link it back in to the rest of downtown.

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(Photo: Looking north across Over-the-Rhine from condo deck of the American Building on Central Parkway.)

Dan’s store sits in Over-the-Rhine, the gentrifying–but not too much–neighborhood on the north end of downtown, nestled beneath the imposing hills that make up much of the rest of the city. Now civic leaders want to build a modern, Portland-style streetcar between downtown and the still-downtrodden neighborhood to try and jumpstart investment there. A lot of people think the streetcar plan will just go the way of the subway–i.e. to nowhere.

Jamie could see the trained-urban planner in me already salivating at the ped-friendly streets, so we meandered through downtown on our way to Over-the-Rhine, with him as tour guide.

“That’s the Aronoff Center for the Arts, but look on the other side, too, the new building is the Contemporary Arts Center. It’s a Zaha Hadid building.”

Readers are getting the benefit of the URLs I wished had access to while Jamie commented on.

“Don’t look know–and don’t sing, either. That’s Fountain Square and Tyler Davidson Fountain from WKRP in Cincinnati fame. They show movies there during the summer. Carew Tower is catty-corner, and the modernist building is Fifth Third Bank Headquarters.”

I marveled at the number of pedestrians. “Is downtown always this peopled so late in the day?” I asked.

“I think there’s a football game later, but for the past few years it’s been like Chicago,” said Jamie. “More and more people come down here to play after work. Maybe we’ll come back later for the movie on Fountain Square. Now get out, we’re there.”

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(Photo: Over-the-Rhine’s Park & Vine general store.)

We hadn’t told Dan we were coming. Even after the bear hug that passed between him and Jamie, I could see him still beaming. The stress of the Bike Federation long gone, in the two years since his return to the Queen City, Dan Korman had finally become a happy man.

“Did you see the wallets made out of recycled bicycle tires?” He pulled one off a display shelf. “Look! Some of them still have the writing from the tire on them. That’s so cool!”

When he told me in 2006 he was ditching his Windy City communications career to open what I figured would be a glorified hemp shop in a marginal nabe of a secondary rust-belt town, I thought he had already begun smoking his product. As I purchased my recycled bicycle-tire wallet with the writing still on it from the happiest man on Vine Street, I knew Dan had made the right decision.

“Are you staying at the condo?” Dan asked Jamie.

“No, I have a renter in there. We’re staying in East Walnut Hills, in a rental condo that one of my client’s owns at the Edgecliff.”

“Did you guys go see Matt and Leah at High Street yet?”

“Not yet,” Jamie said. “But Michael will love it when we do. He seems to already be in love with Cincinnati.”

“Really!” said Dan. “Huh. It’s cool. Who knew, right?”

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(Photo: Jamie with happy Dan Korman, owner of Park & Vine.)

Next stop: a strong black woman. A 20-year Cincinnati resident, Jamie needed to check on the condo he left behind when he moved to Chicago three months ago. He left it behind in the American Building, another handsome, pre-war former office tower built on the border between downtown and Over-the-Rhine to wait for the subway down Central Parkway that never came. That’s ok, Jamie’s ex-next-door neighbor and former flight attendant, the very tony Toni, seemed to get around well enough without one.

“Oh my, it is so good to see you, Jamie! Let me tell you, you are lucky to have caught me and I’ll tell you why. I shall probably be leaving in a few days to bring some shoes to be fixed in Seoul–that’s South Korea. I had previously asked my friend to take them on ahead but she said no and now it falls to me to carry them all that way and you know, don’t you, that Miss Toni is a bit put out because of it. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be monopolizing the conversation. What do you think of my new artwork?”

As Toni paused to inhale–as I would come to learn, a rare occasion worthy of remark–I started to see the attractive side of Jamie’s 350-mile move away from her side of the common wall.

“I really had to come back to fix a problem with my car title so I can get Illinois plates,” said Jamie.

“Problem? What problem? Tell Toni about your problems, honey!”

“Well, the bank forgot to tell the DMV that I paid off my car note years ago, so there’s still a lien on my title,” said Jamie. “Wells Fargo told me I had to come here in person to clear it up.”

“Are you kidding me?!”

Then again, it’s always nice to have a strong black woman in your corner.

“You know what I’d do?” said Toni. “I’d piss on ‘em. No! I’d get a kid, a seven-year-old kid. Wouldn’t that be good? A kid of my own and I’d take him down to the bank with me and just when they stopped doing their job to give me grief I’d give the signal and my boy would whip it out. Just whip it out and piss all over them! Yes!”

From the look of the people I’d seen on the streets on the way through town, Toni was definitely not a stereotypical Cincinnatian. I had noted the uniformity of uniforms: flower-print blouses and black polyester trousers for women; dark, three-piece suits or slacks and tweed sport coats for men. (I figured the latter were county courthouse lawyers.)

I chalked up the Softer Side of Sears-ness of it all as the stylistic impact of the city’s main employers: the national headquarters or back offices of conservative banks (Fifth/Third Bank, U.S. Bank); conservative grocers (Kroeger); and conservative conglomerates (Macy’s, Proctor & Gamble). I couldn’t imagine any of these uniformed office drones ever whipping it out to give some unsuspecting clerk a bath.

Not for an instant would I put that past Toni.

“I’d even like to piss on some of the heifers that live further up in the neighborhood. Always with a hand out. Get a job, stop having babies, grow up! I had a career. I saw the world. I lived on Michigan Avenue. I hope that streetcar plan happens. We didn’t get a subway, but that streetcar will push ‘em all like rats away from a flood. Then you’ll see how good this neighborhood will become.”

The haves lashing into the have-nots in the Black community is not a practice confined to southwestern Ohio. But my introduction to the social dichotomies of Cincinnati was just beginning.

Finally sneaking away from Toni during one particularly deep pause to inhale and sip a sparkling tonic, Jamie and I headed for the hills. For the next couple of hours until dusk, he drove us to every scenic outlook above downtown, then across the Roebling Bridge into Kentucky, to peer back at the city from the Covington shore.

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(Photo: Daniel Carter Beard Bridge to Newport, Kentucky. Can you guess why locals call it Big Mac?)

The scenery felt familiar, like coming home, in a way. At each stop, as I
gazed at the city, I remembered the half-hour I spent sitting atop steep Parque Eduardo VII and peering down across Lisbon, between the Bairro Alto and Alfama hills, towards the old downtown Baixa. The visible terrain and ineffable energy touched me then, and try as my Portuguese friend, José, might, I would not be moved away from the view.

I felt the same tug inside every time I looked back across Cincinnati. As if, although I wasn’t of the place, in some way, some part of me was consonant with it. I knew I was falling for the city.

That love would deepen in short order. At sundown, we headed for Ludlow Avenue, ground zero of the student-laden Clifton neighborhood, to sample an entirely different skyline. There’s no need to mince words here. In one meal, I became an official Skyline Chili crack whore. Give me the mild chocolate-cinnamon laced chili in a five-way (ladled over spaghetti with beans, onions, and cheddar cheese) or on a coney (a Cinncinati hot dog with mustard, chili, and onions), I don’t care. I wanted–and still want–more. Now please. Sooner if possible.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to like the chili any more than I thought I’d be taken by the city. But as the evening wore on, I started to rethink my raging bias against small Midwestern urbs. The black raspberry chip 1870 Tower sundae I inhaled down the street at Graeter’s French-churned ice cream helped a little bit, too. (And considering how much chili I had already eaten, I was in no way surprised by Jamie’s look of abject shock when I ordered it).

We would have headed back to the Edgecliff then, but Jamie remembered my earlier question about evening liveliness downtown. He let me answer my own question as we sat on Fountain Square with several hundred Cincinnatians and their children watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory projected onto the roof of Macy’s across Walnut Street until long past even our bedtimes.

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(Photo: Love at first bite–Skyline Chili cheese coneys and a five-way.)

The next two days were a similar whirlwind of food, friends, and from-left-field observations about Cincinnati life. In the morning, we shared the best dim sum I’ve ever had in or out of Chicago at Clifton’s King Wok, with Jamie’s designer friend, Huong, and her young daughter, Hannah. While Huong explained the dating difficulties faced by a Vietnamese single-mom in southwestern Ohio, I was busy teaching her frantically energetic daughter how to walk like a giraffe-a-gator (“Stand on your tiptoes with your arm raised above your head, sneak up behind them, then CHOMPA-CHOMPA-CHOMPA!”).

Huong’s news was far less whimsical. “He was Anglo. We’d been talking online for awhile and he seemed like a nice guy. I think he’s about to ask me out, then he says ‘I have rice fever really bad tonight.’ What the fuck is that? Like he has no idea how insulting that is. Like he lives in a totally different world than I do.”

That’s exactly how I felt as Huong segued into a discourse about the Vietnamese practice of giving children dirty nicknames to ward off evil spirits. She whispered, “Hannah’s is ‘dirty black cock’. You guys should have one.”

I considered Jamie for a moment, then asked Huong, “How do you say ‘toothpaste poop’ in Vietnamese?”

Worlds would continue to miss colliding later that afternoon while Jamie and I visited the Museum Center inside the renovated historic Union Terminal. We lucked into a free tour of the building with a tour group comprised mostly of locals. I spent the whole time confused by an oddly handsome Kentucky bubba who apparently had no idea his bad-ass booted self was wearing women’s jeans. Yet when he opened his mouth to ask a question, the thick, south-shore drawl delivered a thoughtfully phrased query on the aesthetic merit of a restored mural.

“It’s always like that with the bubbas,” said Jamie. “Some cute construction worker with a day to kill, maybe an architecture hobbyist. But there’s always that touch of idiot savant about them that ends them up in the wrong department at Wal-Mart.”

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(Photo: Fountains outside the Museum Center at Union Terminal.)

I thought that was a bit harsh. Then again, my New York friend, Tony “You’d have to kill me to make me go back there” Skaggs, never had a kind word to say about growing up in Cincinnati’s Kentucky suburbs, either. By now I was wondering whether some unknown organism in the city’s infamously toxic water had the side-effect of turning fellow citizens bitchy towards each other.

I continued to wonder that evening, while supping with a couple of Jamie’s local friends on mind-blowing steak tartare and calf’s liver and onions in downtown Cincinnati’s sublime Bistro JeanRo, as one of them began to opine on the streetcar plan so near and dear to tony Toni’s heart.

“It’ll never get built. Mark my words. Who is it going to serve? The ‘element’. Who’s going to ride it? The ‘element’. Do you want to ride next to the ‘element’? I don’t. Is it gonna go anywhere I want to go? No. Who’s supposed to pay for it? The rest of us. Is that fair?”

Embarrassed, I looked around the restaurant to see if anyone within earshot had managed to hear the openly racist comments that had just emerged from our table. How balkanizing the properties of a civic social contract must be to allow locals to feel free enough to share shitty thoughts like that in the company of strangers (like me). More upsetting, by evening’s end, I was pretty sure Jamie’s friend had no clue at all about the implications of the things he had said.

How to parse a city of aesthetic beauty, civic pride, high cultural amenities, and, at the most unexpected times, low social graces? I found myself pulling for the place, despite the intellectual box I was coming to see some locals gratuitously living in. I wanted to stay an extra day to figure the place out a little better.

That was fine with Jamie, who still hadn’t been able to work things out with Wells Fargo (I half expected him to fill Toni up on tonic water and drag her and her bladder down to their nearest office). We wouldn’t be remaining at the Edgecliff. Unbeknownst to us, the unit we were staying in had been sold, and our desired third night coincided exactly with closing day.

Not that we were attached to the Edgecliff. Although we didn’t want to have to scramble to look for new digs, we were pretty certain wherever we ended up would be more permissive. Jamie had no doubt when we left, I’d be taking the property’s asinine folder of dos and dont’s with me. The best missive was almost Marina City worthy:

PLUMBING INFORMATION

Acceptable:
Any toilet tissue except the quilted brands.

Not Acceptable in Commodes or Sinks:
Quilted toilet tissue.
Kleenex.
Dental floss.
Depends.
Sanitary napkins.
Any type of wipe.
Paints.
Drywall mud.
Potting soil.
Kitty litter.
Grease.
Construction debris of any type.

Drumroll please…

Or any other unsuitable liquid down the pipes.

It was thusly in good humor that we headed to High Street, according to Cincinnati magazine–and me once I got there–one of the coolest home design and lifestyle stores anywhere, to beg fabulous co-owner Matt Knotts for a place to crash for the night. The answer was yes, but Matt was in the middle of a meeting with partner Leah. So we waved our thanks through their office window and set out for another round of Queen City adventure.

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(Photo: Best home design store in Cincinnati, High Street. Do I get that blue chair, now?)

What to do on a bonus afternoon in Cincinnati with a veritably still-chili-virgin in the car? Swing by Over-the-Rhine to pick up tony Toni and head out for more coneys. But tony Toni eats no coneys bought at Skyline.

“Honeys, don’t you know, now there is this Gold Star Chili I’ve seen underneath the I-75 Bridge in Covington, and now I think we’ve got to go, yes!”

And as everyone knows, there’s just no arguing with a strong black woman (not unless you want to end up with a wet pants leg), so half an hour later and there we were in Kentucky, munching down five-ways and coneys at the Gold Star where Covington bubbas go to pass around the communal tooth.

And a good thing they did, because I’d never have understood the wait staff if they hadn’t. Nonexistent teeth aside, this Gold Star did teach me two things: one, I’m definitely a Skyline man; and two, it’s probably time for me to stop avoiding the dentist.

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(Photo: Strong black women Jamie and Toni.)

Later, with Toni no longer in tow, we headed back to the fabulosity of High Street, only to find that Matt had already split for the afternoon. However his partner, the unsinkable Leah Spurrier, had not.

“You guys want to hear about my book? One of them anyway, I have a lot of ideas rolling around, but this is the one I just took three weeks off to begin writing. It’s about my life as a northern Californian Jew raised in Tennessee by a genuine Haight-Ashbury mother. When I was little, I used to ask my grandma why mom always looked the way she did. And grandma would answer back, ‘Because she’s always stoned, dear.’”

Leah seemed a far cry from the collection of Cincinnati social misfits I had spent the previous three days variously being warned about or meeting. I asked her what people thought of her store in such a conservative city.

“You know, Cincinnati is cooler than you might think. Downtown has a lot going on, a lot of new businesses and residents in Over-the-Rhine. We’re actually starting a blog on High Street’s website to try and help the buzz along. It’s not Chicago, I love that city. But people know there’s potential here, if they’d just loosen up and listen. I think a lot of them are just waiting to be told how good we’ve got it here.”

It’s rare for the cool people to be pulling for the squares, even rarer for the squares to be hoping to come along for the ride. I wondered if maybe, just maybe, Matt and Leah might be on to something.

That night, Jamie and I luxuriated in Matt’s style-forward Liberty Hill townhouse. The papier-maché caricatures under glass on the coffee table entranced me for an hour as Jamie tried to teach Matt how to Twitter.

Over dinner, we were all entranced by the twittering of a female patron at Ludlow Avenue’s Ambar Indian, a real contender for the title of worst South Asian food in Ohio. If it hadn’t been for her outlandishly loud yammerings to an embarrassed boyfriend who asked at one point for her to write down her side of the conversation on a napkin, we might have been more miffed when, in mid-meal, the wait staff at this palace of putrid pulled out a glue gun and started performing repair work on a nearby wall.

We washed those troubles away with another trip to Graeter’s (I won’t bother telling you how many pounds the scale said I gained after I got back to Chicago–feel free to insert your own weight here: ___) and retired back to the manse of Matt-fabulous. There, he told us more about his plans for local Internet domination.

“We want to use the High Street blog as a jumping off point, to create community. But we’re also creating a separate blog for the city. We want it to have downtown news, happenings, events, design, food, to really hook people together. We’re calling it, ‘Cincinnati Is Cool’. The name’s not as wooden as it sounds. All these boring corporate types always say the city is cool, but they never follow it up with action. We want the name to be a blunt reminder that this city has a lot to offer.”

I looked Matt dead in the eye. “Have you ever heard of Gapers Block? There’s this guy, Andrew Huff, I definitely think you should know…”

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(Photo: Angelic Matt and Jamie at Ludlow Avenue Graeter’s.)

The next morning, after making one last run towards the end-zone of teaching Matt to use Twitter, we rolled up the remains of our trip and packed them in the car to head home. We hugged Matt, headed to Park & Vine to say our good-byes to Dan, made one final (and finally successful) trip to the DMV for Jamie, and then it was time to roll out of town.

But not before one last stop (or so we thought) at a fabled Cincy eatery. As my plate of undercooked biscuits and gravy and over-singed fried eggs attested, Tucker’s, in deepest Over-the-Rhine, is not known for its food. But the family-run ramshackle joint, a seedy combination of half-hinged doors, swaying tables, and questionable sanitary practices, has been feeding all comers for 60 years. The morning of our visit, that included downtown office workers, local yuppies, and most interestingly, a steady stream of poor black kids and young men from the surrounding neighborhood.

The hustle the last group of diners put the white wait staff through, trying to enter without shirts and bargain down bills, didn’t go down with the same indignant fervor on both sides I would have expected from Chicago. These were downtrodden locals in a barely hanging-on corner eatery. The beleaguered nods and smiles that passed among all parties was perhaps my best clue into the soul of Cincinnati.

There was no artifice here. Nothing was prettified. Just basic communication passing among familiar faces. Unexpected, a bit shocking in its primal quality. But not out of place. It did make me wonder whether inside the average Queen Citizen beat the heart of a conformer. We may be down, but we’re down together, and as long as we lie low, things can’t get much worse, so let’s just leave well enough alone.

Was that the unrealized potential Matt and Leah were aiming to mobilize?

Getting lost in the West Side hills on the way out of town was a great excuse to stop thinking and driving in circles and make our real final food stop: Putz’s Creamy Whip. More old-school Cincinnati: roadside shack; cash-only; fabled Coneys; double-thick malteds. The menu didn’t exaggerate, I nursed my concrete-consistency malted until well into Indiana.

We finally did make that stop in Indy, too. Downtown there was certainly monumental, but small given the size of the surrounding city. I couldn’t help thinking of Milwaukee, another Midwestern burg with a downtown curiously unimpressive for a place of its size. (After several hundred more miles of boring Hoosier farmland, I also couldn’t help thinking God put Indiana on the map to make people appreciate Illinois and Ohio better).

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(Photo: Tyler Davidson Fountain at night.)

Arriving home in the Windy City, the Loop felt positively enormous after three days in Cincinnati. Yet the Queen City still loomed large in my mind. It still does. Two weeks of wondering, and I think I’ve hit on why. Despite the unrealized potential of the place–including the potential for locals to realize how good they really have it (and in this, Chicago and Cincinnati share a similarly misplaced civic modesty)–unlike other, far more time- and budget-ravaged rust belt cities, in Cincinnati the potential is pungent and palpable, not limping on life support.

In the end, I think those upstart Internet impresarios Matt and Leah have a point. Change happens thanks to thoughtful souls brave enough to believe in the fortune cookie of potential. When these two finally smash it open, I have no doubt in their case the slip of paper within will read in big, block letters, “CINCINNATI IS COOL!”

And in small print on the flipside, “Who knew?”

This post originally appeared in Chicago Carless on September 9, 2008.

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

On the Riverfront

Thursday I took a look at my “Cincinnati conundrum,” namely how it’s possible for a city that has the greatest collection of civic assets of any city its size in America to underperform demographically and economically. In that piece I called out the sprawl angle. But today I want to take a different look at it by panning back the lens to see Cincinnati as simply one example of the river city.

There are four major cities laid out on an east-west corridor along the Ohio River: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis (which is not on the Ohio River, but close enough. I’ll leave Memphis and New Orleans out of it for now). All of these are richly endowed with civic assets like Cincinnati is, having far more than their fair share of great things, yet they’ve all been stagnant to slow growing for decades.

This suggests a broader challenge: if urbanity and quality of life are so determinant of economic success, why aren’t these places juggernauts? It’s not that they are failures by any means, but they are long term under-performers.


Over the Rhine, Cincinnati – one example of the spectacular urban assets of these cities

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but since these cities share many characteristics, I wanted to show what they have in common. Doubtless some of these common threads play a role.

These cities came of age earlier than railroad based cities like Chicago. These are some of the earliest major cities in the region, and they owe their prominence to the era when the river was the major form of transport. They’ve all had a heavy German Catholic influence, hence the legacy of breweries and the importance of private Catholic high schools in these areas even today. They have bridge-oriented transportation traffic patterns and bottlenecks. They’ve got interesting geography with hills and trees and some similar climate patterns.

I find it particularly interesting that they have similar political geographies, despite being in four different states. Three of them are multi-state metros, obviously, because the rivers are state borders. But beyond that they all have hyper-fragmented systems of lots of tiny cities and villages that are fiercely independent. Here’s a map of all the municipalities in St. Louis County, for example:


Image via ArchCityHomes

All of these cities ceased annexing early and got hemmed in. St. Louis famously detached itself from the county completely to become an independent city. Only Louisville with its recently city-county merger grew out of this. But Louisville’s Jefferson County still features numerous sixth class cities and such that were excluded from merger, some of which are only a couple blocks in size. Hamilton County, Ohio and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania are similar.

Inside the cities themselves, there are also many well defined, distinct neighborhoods. These are usually small in size compared to what are called neighborhoods in cities like Chicago. Also, there can be deep divisions between the different sides of town. These are very divided cities. Cincinnati has the East Side-West Side divide. Louisville has the East End, the South End, and the West End. And which one you are from is a huge cultural marker. The North and South Sides of Indianapolis are very different and have some sniping back and forth, yet I don’t see the same visceral suspicion across the sides of town compared to say how Louisville’s South End (mostly working class white) sees the East End (the favored quarter). That helps explain why it took Louisville 40 years to build new Ohio River bridges, and why Cincinnati had to overcome unbelievable obstacles to build a streetcar.

These cities are also provincial and insular in their character. As a transplant to Louisville put it, “Louisville is parochial in all the best and worst ways.” These are cities with rich, unique architectural traditions, and with tremendously distinct local cultures compared to other cities in their region such as Indianapolis or Columbus, which have been largely Genericaized. So Cincinnati has its chili. St. Louis has its pizza. Pittsburgh even has its own yinzer dialect. In at least three of the four of these cities – I don’t know about Pittsburgh – the first question you get asked is “Where did you go to high school?” which tells you almost everything you need to know about them.

While provincialism is almost inherently negative as a term, this has big upsides for these cities too. They have an incredible sense of place and uniqueness. The brick houses of St. Louis are unlike anything else, for example. Again, the feel of these places is very notable in contrast to neighbors like Columbus and Indy, which give off a Sprawlville, USA vibe.


Trailer for film Brick: By Chance and Fortune. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. Please ignore the unfortunate preview image.

This provincialism comes with two associated character traits. One is a degree of solipsism. Solipsism is the philosophical proposition that nothing can be known to exist outside the self. It’s different from egotism. Egotism says you’re better than everybody. Solipsism says there isn’t anybody else. Obviously we’re talking degrees here, not absolutes. But this is key I think to the retention of those local traditions and local character.

I’ll give an example that illustrate this. Cincinnati arts consultant Margy Waller made a comment to me a few years ago that really stuck with me. She said that when people leave Cincinnati and come back, the stuff they did and learned while they were away might as well not have happened. She left and worked for several years in Washington, including in the Clinton White House. I’m not sure exactly what she did there, but if you’re working in the White House, by definition you’re operating at a bigtime level. But that’s barely mentioned in Cincinnati. Few people ever ask how her DC network or experience can inform or support the city.

Similarly Randy Simes is an instructive case. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati planning school, he got a job with a tier one engineering firm in Atlanta. But he also started and ran the blog Urban Cincy, which is a relentlessly positive advocate for the city and maybe its most effective marketing voice to the global urbanist world (the Guardian listed it as among the best urban web sites on the planet). Eager to come back to Cincinnati, he looked for a job there. But he couldn’t find one. Here’s a guy with 1) legitimate professional credentials 2) a top tier firm pedigree 3) the city’s most effective urban advocate 4) non-controversial, positive, and aligned with the political structure of the city and 5) he’s 24-25 years old and so it’s easy to hire him – you don’t need an executive director position or something. Yet no interest. Shortly thereafter he was head hunted by America’s biggest engineering firm to move to Chicago and then was sent on an expat assignment to Korea where he’ll be working on, among other things, one of the world’s most prominent urban developments (one that Cincinnati actually flew people in from Korea to present to them about). Jim Russell had a very similar experience with Pittsburgh.

The relationship of prophets and home towns has been known for some time, so I don’t want to pretend this is a totally unique case. But I can’t help but compare Randy’s case to blogger/advocate Richey Piiparinen in Cleveland, for whom an entire research center was created at Cleveland State (admittedly, he was already local at the time). I just don’t think Randy’s accomplishments outside Cincinnati resonated.

And secondly, these places do sometimes cross over into a sort of hauteur. I think because these were all very large, important cities in their earlier days and because they had so much amazing stuff, it bred a sort of aristocratic mindset perhaps. Having lived in both Louisville and Indianapolis, I clearly see the difference. In Indianapolis cool people will happily tell you how awesome they think St. Louis, Cincinnati or Louisville are. They’ll make visits to say the 21C Hotel or Forecastle Festival in Louisville and write and say great things about it and even how they wish Indy had some of those things.

But people from Louisville would rather bite their tongues out than say nice things about Indianapolis. If forced to, they will, but they do it in the most grudging way. I’ll never forget a travel guide for Louisville called the “Insiders Guide to Louisville” (I believe different than the one currently being sold under that name). In the intro they were bragging about Louisville’s totally legitimate food scene, but they had to throw in a gratuitous insult by saying something along the lines of, “Every city has good restaurants these days – even Indianapolis, we hear – but Louisville’s restaurants are truly special.” When Indianapolis Monthly did its “Chain City, USA” cover on Indy’s restaurants, I had to send it to my friends in Louisville since I knew they’d eat it up gleefully. (If you watched the St. Louis brick film trailer, you’ll also notice someone in it throwing a similar gratuitous dart at the Illinois brick used in Chicago).

Hot off the presses is this travel piece on Indianapolis written by someone in Louisville. As a travel piece, by is going to be positive by the very nature of the genre, but note the way the writer frames up the trip:

I bristle whenever I hear about flyover country – my home of Louisville is smack in the heart of what east and west coasters think is just the space they have to cross to get from one good part of the country to another – so I should be a little more open minded. But maybe because of my fondness for my hometown, it turns out I’ve been harboring a bit of the same snobbery that those fliers do – toward a northern neighbor.

My friend Kristian was bragging to me about Indy’s tech scene one day. I’d just gotten back from Cincinnati where I’d gotten to see their tech scene showcased, tour the Brandery accelerator, etc. So I said, “What about Cincinnati? Looks like they are rocking and rolling.” Kristian was like, “Oh yeah, they’re awesome. I was just down there and they totally get it, there’s some great stuff going on.” Then he made a comment that I think summed it up: “You know what though? They’re in love with their own story.”

That sums it up. These cities are in love with their own stories. That perhaps also explains a bit of it. With so many amazing assets it’s easy to be complacent. It reminds me of the famous quote from the triumphant (and boosterish) Chicago Democrat as Chicago started to pull away from St. Louis as the commercial capital of the Midwest: “St. Louis businessmen wore their pantaloons out sitting and waiting for trade to come to them while Chicago’s wore their shoes out running after it.”

If you’re too in love with your own story, you’re not going to work as hard as you should to take that story to the next level. After all, the story of these cities isn’t finished yet. But there’s a new generation in these places that aren’t wedded to the old ways. They love the story, but have some chapters of their own they want to write. As urban assets they have come back into fashion in the market, it will be interesting to see how they evolve. As the press for Pittsburgh shows, for example, there’s already plenty of signs of an inflection point. And in a region where places tend to flagellate themselves, having some cities with a bit of honest to goodness civic hauteur can actually be a refreshing change.

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Building a More Dynamic Cincinnati

This post originally appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer on April 8, 2014.

Cincinnati arguably has the greatest collection of assets of any city its size in America. So why has the region been stagnant to slow-growing for so many decades?

When you look at the stunning collection of advantages and assets of Cincinnati – its geography; the amazing dense, historic architecture (great contemporary architecture, too); top-notch cultural institutions; a large corporate presence; and so many pieces of local culture and flavor of a type that has been homogenized away in most places – it’s an embarrassment of riches.

Yet since 1970, while the U.S. has grown by nearly 52 percent in population, the Cincinnati region grew by 26 percent, only half as fast. Other than Dayton, the other surrounding metro areas have also grown about twice as fast or more than Cincinnati. Cincinnati has lagged on jobs, too.

How is this? How can Cincinnati have the best stuff, but be a growth laggard?

Part of it is that all the assets in the world don’t help you if you don’t take advantage of them. Most of these are located in Cincinnati’s delightful urban core. But Cincinnati has to some extent abandoned that core in favor of low-grade sprawl.

The city of Cincinnati has lost a big chunk of population, and its regional share dropped from about 40 percent in 1950 to only 14 percent today. By contrast, New York City is still at 45 percent regional population share today. And while it’s a slow-growing region, too, the city of New York is at an all-time high in population and is booming in many ways, such as its tech and real estate industries.

Even Hamilton County has lost population as a whole, dropping by about 120,000 since 1970. By comparison, Indianapolis’s almost identically sized Marion County gained 135,000 during the same period – this in a place with far fewer obvious assets.

What’s more, unlike its fabulous core, Cincinnati’s sprawl isn’t even that good for the most part. So Cincinnati has chosen to fight its battle where it has few marketplace advantages instead of leveraging its unique and compelling assets.

This has proven a demographically, economically and financially unimpressive strategy. Instead, urban Cincinnati and Hamilton County should align available financial resources to make the most out of the amazing urban environment and assets that exist there.

Meanwhile, the suburbs aren’t going anywhere and will continue to grow, so they should seek to do so on a higher-quality pattern that will be financially sustainable long-term. The problem with sprawl is often less about the environmental impacts than the fact that as they age, older suburbs that weren’t very high-income to begin with become financial albatrosses as they fill up with dead malls, aging and less market-attractive homes, legacy costs and similar issues. And unlike the high-quality classic architecture of the core, they’ve as yet proven less adaptable over the long term.

The wonderful collection of assets Cincinnati has may also have bred complacency. Another name for an asset is “the stuff we did yesterday.” But what are we building for tomorrow? What is our generation’s contribution to the pot?

Cities like Columbus that started out with much less understood in their gut that they needed to go out and create some things. They were hungrier. Cincinnati needs to recover some of that hunger and fire in the belly that motivates other places that are keenly aware of what they lack and are fighting every day to improve.

Cincinnati has also been plagued with deep and counterproductive community divisions. This includes the East Side-West Side split, city vs. suburb, three states, tea partiers vs. liberals, racial divisions, etc. This makes it harder to get things done than it should be because there’s no civic consensus. The streetcar debate makes that very clear.

Cincinnati needs to find a way to heal these wounds and build a durable consensus while leaving room for appropriate debate.

A strategy that works with, not against, the unique qualities and competitive advantages of Cincinnati; a more aggressive, hungry civic attitude; and a way to bridge community divides are three of the things that will help Cincinnati to realize the sustainable growth and prosperity it should have in light of the fantastic place that it is and the incredible assets it has.

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Indianapolis: The Sound Map Video

I post a lot of city videos. I also write a lot about authenticity in cities and marketing. Last week Indianapolis artist Stuart Hyatt sent me this one that I think manages to be very cool as a video but also provides a very authentic look at the actual experience of Indianapolis.

Stuart is working on a project called the Indy Sound Map designed to create, well, a sonic map of the city. He did this for Washington St. end to end across the city. Rather than stop at that, Jonathan Frey filmed his journey and Forrest Lewinger used the recording to create a soundtrack for the film that’s part of a forthcoming album. You can read more in this Nuvo article about the project.

First the video, then more commentary. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

What I like is that this shows Indianapolis as it really is, not as a fantasy world city of nothing but shiny downtown hipster joints. I also really like that there’s a big focus on actual people. That’s not to say this is a completely 100% portrayal of everything. The bus is overly stressed whereas the auto dominated nature of the city doesn’t come through. But on the whole the feel I think is right.

Obviously this was an art project not a marketing film. But I think it’s easy to see how you could take the basic concept of this and adapt it to marketing. Will that happen? Nope. All civic marketing is inherently ultra-conservative, and as someone rightly pointed out about a recent Cleveland video, the funders who underwrite such ventures expect that the end product will heavily feature them and be consistent with their brand values. But this I think shows that there are ways to show cities other than ultra-slick time lapses that can work.

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Beware of the Aristocrats: Architects and the Elite by a Texas Architect

[ I found this old blog post written by someone who posts under a pseudonym but who is an architect in Texas. Note that is was written as the Great Recession was in full slam. It's not likely to be a popular point of view here, but this goes along with my "failure to communicate" theme that examines why so many urbanist policies have not been widely embraced - Aaron.]

Whether it’s because humans have evolved in response to the challenges foisted on them by nature or because God wanted to ensure that universal agreement and understanding is impossible, people will always take sides. Humans belong to tribes, social classes, nations that compete against each other to obtain limited resources. Politics is by definition the study of this aspect of human behavior, as it tries to explain who gets what and why. There is much that can be understood about a political issue by taking looking at who represents either side. Knowing what cultural norms, values, and world views govern a tribe/class/nation/interest group will reveal lots about their motives and expectations facing an issue. Since there are as many groupings of values and philosophies as there are people and a finite amount of resources (natural and human) and time, political conflict will forever continue to remain with us. Compromises merely suppress long-running conflicts temporarily, or create new unforeseen conflicts (unintended consequences).

I keep the above concept in mind when looking at every issue, but in particular when it comes to environmental policy. As an architect these days it is well near impossible to avoid engaging in this issue. From my observation, architects, in desiring a status as independent craftsmen/artists, are relatively naive about the political dimensions of environmentalism and instead prefer to reflect on its attendant virtues of sustainability and harmony between man and nature. In the real world, we architects’ inability to solidly grasp the theory of economic value and the mechanics of wielding political influence makes us incapable of making lots of money or effecting real change. As we strive to improve the look and feel of our communities, we are often blissfully unaware of people’s economic interests and the major political factions and powerbrokers that make things happen in the real world (…until it slaps us in the face in the form of architectural review committees, value engineering or canceled projects).

For instance, nothing makes us architects happier than to realize a structure that responds poetically to the landscape or achieves efficient ways of harnessing energy. Anything that can result in smaller mechanical rooms or reduced ceiling plenums is welcome by us designers. Smaller A/C units, more compact ductwork, eliminating waterheater closets and elevator machine rooms not only allow us more freedom, they are also usually greener. For urban planners, density in the form of compact infrastructure and utilities is preferred over suburban-style decentralization, and it also delivers greener benefits as well. In isolation such thinking becomes orthodox, and makes design professionals antagonistic to opposing points of view. Outside this architect/planner bubble, such orthodox assumptions look increasingly idealistic. It ignores the valid economic interests of a majority of people, and it is too myopic to consider unintended consequences of translating their ideals into public policy. Issues of cost, personal freedom, and social winners and losers are often not understood fully by us architects.

This myopia among architectural professionals also makes us unaware of where we stand in the existing political landscape. As a result we are repeatedly manipulated by outside factions and movements, with questionable benefits to our profession. Our willingness to side with whatever faction to bring about our own aesthetic and enviromental ideals contributes to the paradoxical way architects are portrayed in society: in spite our fairly middle-class incomes, architects are perceived as elitists. The values that drive our work and our thinking often mirror the values of the economic and political elite. That’s not surprising when we realize that our profession almost exclusively depends on these elites for our paycheck. After all, it is extremely difficult to derive an income from middle-class clients alone. Whether we recognize it or not, our political objectives as a profession rarely diverge from those pushed by entities at the very top of society. Architects throughout history have always been, to put it crudely, mercenaries of the powerful- from carrying out the will of kings, popes and aristocrats to putting into concrete the social control on behalf of a modern technocratic state (e.g. Le Corbusier, Albert Speer, et al.)

The political agenda of the socio-economic elite and architects who depend on them continues to converge on the contemporary issue of environmentalism. As a philosophy, environmentalism offers a system of values and morals, an appealing sense of unity with the world for all people of secular persuasion. As a set of policies, however, environmentalism leads to inequitable outcomes that favor governments and their bureaucracies and encourage corporatist big businesses to use regulation hinder competition. Other winners are wealthy people who lament the upward mobility of the social classes beneath them. It is no coincidence that environmentalism emerged to the forefront of social consciousness as soon as a certain level of social wealth had been attained. This is firmly linked to people’s natural concerns about quality once the material abundance brought about by prosperity reveals the shallowness of seeking satisfaction from sheer quantity.

To value the quality of things, to consider important yet immaterial matters, these are luxuries. Before industrialization dramatically raised individual productivity and resulting in a broader distribution of wealth, land and political kinship were practically the only way to enjoy the luxury of contemplating about beauty, philosophy, science and mathematics. This traditional elite, the artistocrats or plutocrats, have been the lifeblood of cultural and intellectual development for most of human history. Although not necessarily the greatest minds themselves, they were benevolent patrons of the most influential artists, musicians, poets and philosophers. One thinks of King Philip of Macedonia and Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci at Amboise Castle, or of the lively salons taking place at a nobleman’s (or noblewoman’s) house. What are universities or non-profit organizations other than institutionalized salons where people can write, research, or create art and music on the dime of someone else’s private trust (a modern legal form of aristocratic patronage) or taxpayer funds? These sorts of modern ‘salons’ are privileged settings where people can focus on qualitative matters that are given relatively short shrift in the world outside governed by economic rules, even if they rarely produce works of quality.

So it was with reading a post by Brendan O’Neill, a British journalist, about Prince Charles’ latest hypocritical crusade, that I was reminded of a scene filled with finely clothed men in long white wigs sitting on plush chaises longues listening to the latest epic from their favorite young poet. The future King of England, inheritor of a tremendous family fortune and one of the biggest beneficiaries of taxpayers’ largesse, has dabbled in a number of public issues throughout his non-productive career. One of his main pursuits included architecture, in which he founded a school to promote the revival of traditional design. In recent years he has moved on to champion environmental causes and the virtues of growing organic food all while burning mind-blowing amounts of fuel on his private jet. As O’Neill reminds us, far from demonstrating the courage of conviction, Prince Charles is merely keeping up with his fellow English aristocrats who have played a larger than assumed role in raising environmental awareness. Reading the passage below undermines the idea that the environmental movement is a purely grassroots effort:

…Many of the major players in British environmentalism are posh, rich, and hectoring. One of Charles’s top advisers is Jonathon Porritt, a former director of Friends of the Earth and a patron of the creepy Malthusian outfit, the Optimum Population Trust (OPT). Porritt is a graduate of Eton, Britain’s school of choice for the rich and well-connected, and is the son of Lord Porritt, the 11th Governor General of New Zealand. The increasingly influential OPT also counts Sir Crispin Tickell (who is as posh as his name suggests) and Lady Kulukundis, the wife of a Greek shipping magnate, among its patrons.The head of the organic-promoting Soil Association, Peter Melchett, is also known as the Fourth Baron Melchett: that’s because he is the Eton-educated son of the Baron and Sir, Julian Mond — former chairman of the British Steel Corporation — and is heir to Sir Alfred Mond’s extraordinary ICI fortune…

…Zac Goldsmith, editor of the greens’ monthly bible The Ecologist, is the son of a billionaire (Sir James Goldsmith) and an aristocrat (Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the daughter of the eighth Marquess of Londonderry.) And if you thought it was grating to be lectured to by the mansion-owning, electricity-zapping Al Gore during his Live Earth bonanza two years ago, then spare a thought for us Brits: during Live Earth, we were given the Gore-approved “Global Warming Survival Handbook,” written by one David de Rothschild. Yes, David is a member of the mind-blowingly wealthy Rothschild banking family and is an heir to its enormous fortune.

Couple the above British “who’s who” with their American counterparts, namely the Hollywood elite (like Al Gore’s friends Laurie David and Leonardo Dicaprio) and it becomes clear that such consistent support from people at the top should make those of us from below a bit suspicious. If one’s convictions are influenced by one’s social status, then it make sense to look into why this aristocratic class is so involved in environmental causes. An overriding sense of guilt due to their great fortune is an obvious explanation, similar to my fellow architects’ feeling of culpability in destroying natural resources and adding to the energy burden with every building they design. Tied to this is a belief that possesssing a public profile demands protraying oneself as a model citizen. Just as we had chivalry for medieval knights, and social expectations for aristocrats to exemplify virtues of loyalty, respect and a reverence for tradition and intellectualism, today’s elites project an embrace of virtues that are judged preferable for public consumption. Being green is good, and no celebrity or European aristocrat could maintain a good reputation by openly shunning it.

Take away environmentalism’s emotional and social dimensions, and we are left with its political and economic dimensions. Suddenly the moral standing of the aristocratic eco-warriors crumbles. To begin with, if politics is the study of who gets what, how and why, then it becomes apparent that the aristocrats have the least to lose from environmental policy. Isolated by their wealth from having to struggle daily to make a living, they don’t tend to be aware of the vastly different priorities of people below them. Depending on what social status one belongs, priorities will range from the mostly material and monetary for those at the bottom, to ones that cherish qualitative, spiritual and intellectual at the top. Power enables one’s priorities to be enacted over another. In an aristocratic arrangement, a small landed elite has power over everyone else and thus enforce their priorities at everyone elses expense. If something is favored by an aristocrat, it is prudent to question the political motives of these self-appointed leaders.

If economics is the study of how goods and services are produced, distributed and consumed, then who would be the least familiar with all this than these very people who don’t produce anything but consume a lot? Environmental policies presents serious ramifications to economies worldwide, whether through regulations that that limit production or through subsidies that distort market signals and tax policy. While aiming to clean the environment and reduce carbon emissions, these policies tend to have the unintended (or intended) effect causing economic hardship to many and dragging down national economies through the wasteful use of capital and low productivity. From many contemporary architects’ perspective, policies that would force urban density, mass transit and less automobile use would result in a better built environment. The aristocrat would tend to agree, but for a potentially different reason: these policies would limit the personal and economic freedoms of the middle classes beneath them and would lower their standard of living relative to their own. It would keep the masses in crammed into cities, which tends to discourage property and home ownership, thus returning more power and influence to an oligarchy led by the governing elite and well-connected families.

Are these the kind of political bedfellows architects want? As a long-time admirer of the many fruits of traditional aristocratic culture, I understand the importance of the finer things that enrich life at an extremely deep level. It drives the passion of many designers and artists, and fulfills us more than the naked  pursuit of profit. Greek and Roman patricians along with most European aristocrats had a high disdain for merchants, traders and self-made men for precisely this reason. But in this age of republican democracy, shouldn’t architects respond to the ordinary needs of everyday people? Thus far many of us have been guilty of declaring that we are designing for the people, while in reality it was done from an elitist point of view. We claim to build and plan for the masses, only refer to them so abstractly that we come up with solutions that encumber personal freedom and economic mobility.

By embracing elitist points of view and political causes, architects are logically perceived as part of the world of elite, not of the common man. Our services are considered by most people as a luxury, even if architecture has a useful role in enriching the simplest and cheapest of construction. It’s ironic that although the building of shelter or the shaping of functional space are among the most primordial needs of man, the professional most dedicated to such endeavors, the architect, is considered largely unnecessary. If this is to change, it may require a revolution in the way we practice, but it has the promise of enabling architects to become independent advocates of design in the community rather than remote agents of the rich and powerful.

This post originally appeared in Architecture + Morality on June 12, 2009.

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Census Bureau Releases Updated Population Estimates

Last week the Census Bureau released 2013 population estimates for counties and metro areas. There are three main takeaways I saw: 1) the increasing dominance of large metro areas 2) the continued move to the Sunbelt and 3) deceleration of the exurbanization rate.

For the dominance of large metros, Richard Florida wrote this up over at Atlantic Cities. Here’s his money chart:

Clearly not all large metros are booming. And there are definitely thriving smaller places as well. But in the current economy, there’s a minimum scale you need to really be a viable competitor. I put that at 1-1.5 million in regional population. If you’re smaller than that, as a general rule you need some unique competitive asset such as oil (Fargo), state capital (Des Moines), a major university (Lafayette, IN), or some such. These figures are just more evidence for why aligning state economic development strategies is the right move. Don’t fight the tape.

By the way, some commenters criticized Florida for not including larger size categories and not proving correlation between size and population growth. But I don’t see that as the argument. Rather, it’s about the minimum viable scale issue. There’s a threshold value you need to hit.

The continued regional population shift to the South, and to a somewhat lesser extent the West, was well-highlighted by Wendell Cox. This isn’t popular in urban circles, but just as with the above, we have to start with actual reality. There was some view that the Great Recession would pop a Sunbelt bubble, but it doesn’t seem to have happened. Even a place with no heritage as a business center like Phoenix is growing again.

On the exurban migration change, a lot of core metro counties did better than expected. For example, Hamilton County, Ohio (Cincinnati) is shown as physically adding more people than any other county in the metro area. This is a county that has lost about 120,000 people since it’s peak population. Urban Cincy has the complete roundup.

I generally say that we should operate off of gold standard data (the Census Bureau’s population estimates being one such source) without trying to attack it when it doesn’t say what we like. So I’m going to roll with the headline numbers on county populations for the time being. But I do want to point out that last decade the Census Bureau vastly over-estimated urban populations. (Did the Census miss people in some locations like New York? Undoubtedly. But it’s hard to argue that the Census couldn’t find 25% of the entire population of the city of Atlanta. Outside of a handful of locales like Queens, I think the idea of large scale miscounts is off base). This decade the Census, much like state DOTs and their highway forecasts, has continued to double down on a false trend line. That’s why I say they may be on track for another estimating fiasco.

I would certainly encourage localities to correlate these estimates with other important data sources, especially hard count data for building permits and school enrollment, plus abandoned housing estimates. Can you foot those numbers to other things that are going on in your city?

Here’s a rundown of the statistics. All of these are only looking at metro areas of more than one million people.

Top 10 regions for net domestic migration:


Rank Metro Area 2011 2012 2013 Total
1 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 39,208 55,466 32,641 127,315
2 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 22,547 38,789 55,620 116,956
3 Austin-Round Rock, TX 30,240 31,041 25,908 87,189
4 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 4,389 36,582 32,014 72,985
5 Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO 20,935 23,197 26,536 70,668
6 San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 19,491 21,508 22,392 63,391
7 Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC 14,699 20,397 21,382 56,478
8 Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL 9,261 22,667 17,316 49,244
9 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 11,881 15,381 17,926 45,188
10 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 26,849 5,960 12,262 45,071

Top 10 Regions for Net International Migration:


Rank Metro Area 2011 2012 2013 Total
1 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 119,836 124,773 128,042 372,651
2 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 48,925 51,367 52,706 152,998
3 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 47,305 47,998 49,798 145,101
4 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 33,304 37,700 36,871 107,875
5 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 24,597 24,716 25,504 74,817
6 Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH 22,447 23,793 24,116 70,356
7 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 21,989 23,406 23,646 69,041
8 San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 22,073 22,903 23,534 68,510
9 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 19,033 18,869 19,501 57,403
10 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 16,348 17,376 17,520 51,244

Here is a list of all large metro areas, ranked by percentage population change since July 1, 2010. Total population change is also included:


Rank Metro Area 2010 2013 Total Change Pct Change
1 Austin-Round Rock, TX 1,727,784 1,883,051 155,267 8.99%
2 Raleigh, NC 1,137,351 1,214,516 77,165 6.78%
3 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 5,948,689 6,313,158 364,469 6.13%
4 Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL 2,139,372 2,267,846 128,474 6.01%
5 San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 2,153,288 2,277,550 124,262 5.77%
6 Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO 2,553,829 2,697,476 143,647 5.62%
7 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 6,452,758 6,810,913 358,155 5.55%
8 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 5,664,789 5,949,859 285,070 5.03%
9 Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC 2,223,635 2,335,358 111,723 5.02%
10 Oklahoma City, OK 1,257,883 1,319,677 61,794 4.91%
11 Nashville-Davidson–Murfreesboro–Franklin, TN 1,675,945 1,757,912 81,967 4.89%
12 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 3,448,425 3,610,105 161,680 4.69%
13 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 4,208,770 4,398,762 189,992 4.51%
14 Salt Lake City, UT 1,091,452 1,140,483 49,031 4.49%
15 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 5,581,524 5,828,191 246,667 4.42%
16 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 1,842,076 1,919,641 77,565 4.21%
17 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 5,304,197 5,522,942 218,745 4.12%
18 San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 4,344,584 4,516,276 171,692 3.95%
19 Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV 1,953,106 2,027,868 74,762 3.83%
20 New Orleans-Metairie, LA 1,195,757 1,240,977 45,220 3.78%
21 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 2,232,177 2,314,554 82,377 3.69%
22 San Diego-Carlsbad, CA 3,104,182 3,211,252 107,070 3.45%
23 Jacksonville, FL 1,349,095 1,394,624 45,529 3.37%
24 Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson, IN 1,892,323 1,953,961 61,638 3.26%
25 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 4,244,089 4,380,878 136,789 3.22%
26 Columbus, OH 1,906,243 1,967,066 60,823 3.19%
27 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 3,355,167 3,459,146 103,979 3.10%
28 Richmond, VA 1,210,015 1,245,764 35,749 2.95%
29 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 2,788,961 2,870,569 81,608 2.93%
30 Sacramento–Roseville–Arden-Arcade, CA 2,154,417 2,215,770 61,353 2.85%
31 Grand Rapids-Wyoming, MI 989,196 1,016,603 27,407 2.77%
32 Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH 4,564,054 4,684,299 120,245 2.63%
33 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 12,844,070 13,131,431 287,361 2.24%
34 Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD 2,715,312 2,770,738 55,426 2.04%
35 Kansas City, MO-KS 2,013,691 2,054,473 40,782 2.03%
36 Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN 1,237,851 1,262,261 24,410 1.97%
37 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 19,596,183 19,949,502 353,319 1.80%
38 Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC 1,680,120 1,707,369 27,249 1.62%
39 Memphis, TN-MS-AR 1,326,595 1,341,746 15,151 1.14%
40 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 5,971,397 6,034,678 63,281 1.06%
41 Birmingham-Hoover, AL 1,129,096 1,140,300 11,204 0.99%
42 Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN 2,117,344 2,137,406 20,062 0.95%
43 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 1,556,549 1,569,659 13,110 0.84%
44 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 9,470,335 9,537,289 66,954 0.71%
45 St. Louis, MO-IL 2,789,893 2,801,056 11,163 0.40%
46 Rochester, NY 1,080,081 1,083,278 3,197 0.30%
47 Pittsburgh, PA 2,356,658 2,360,867 4,209 0.18%
48 Providence-Warwick, RI-MA 1,601,798 1,604,291 2,493 0.16%
49 Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT 1,214,014 1,215,211 1,197 0.10%
50 Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI 4,291,400 4,294,983 3,583 0.08%
51 Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, NY 1,135,314 1,134,115 -1,199 -0.11%
52 Cleveland-Elyria, OH 2,075,690 2,064,725 -10,965 -0.53%

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Tiny Sydney

Remember the Cleveland video from last week? Well, the Cleveland folks already yanked it and replaced it with an edit that’s more usual suspects and less Cleveland authenticity. It’s still an advance, just not as far. The fact that they couldn’t even stand behind their video for a week and yanked it even after people were linking to it and even saying nice things about it speaks volumes how far Cleveland still has to go. You can go back and check out the new video if you’d like.

This week it’s back to time lapses. This one is, as the title implies, a short tilt shift of Sydney. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. Enjoy. h/t Likecool

See also: Miniature Melbourne.

As a bonus, here’s a Danish advert that’s gone viral. It encourages Danish couples to take vacations (I believe the sponsor is a travel agency, so this appears to be a purely money making scheme) to have sex that will hopefully result in pregnancies to boost Denmark’s flagging birth rates. Prove you got pregnant about the time of your vacation and be entered to win amazing prizes. Actually, Denmark’s fertility rate of 1.75 isn’t bad, especially by European standards, but it shows that despite all the nominal livability of the continent, the environment there hasn’t proven to be very pro-natal. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

The Guardian has more on this.

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Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Watch Chicago’s Middle Class Vanish Before Your Very Eyes

Daniel Hertz is back with another one of his great Chicago map posts and piece of data analysis. This time he looks at the decline of Chicago’s middle class in favor of the rich and poor in a post called “Watch Chicago’s Middle Class Vanish Before Your Very Eyes.” I will let you read it on his site but will include the animated graphic. Pay particular attention to the gray, which is middle class neighborhoods.

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Don’t Design Streets For Death by Chuck Banas

[ Chuck Banas doesn't write that many blog posts, but when he does, they are money. Here's one he filed from Madison, Wisconsin during a CNU conference in 2011 - Aaron. ]

Let’s start with a specific issue: street design. The Congress doesn’t officially start until tomorrow, so I’ve used today to get to know a bit of downtown Madison and critique the design of the streets and public spaces. This didn’t stop me from trolling the online pages of The Buffalo News; during a break this afternoon I spied an article today about sidewalks and pedestrian safety. Author Bruce Andriatch merely scratches the surface of this important issue, falling short of addressing it properly.

But who’s to blame him? A design subtlety that is lost on most non-planners, including Buffalo News columnists, is that sidewalks are a necessary element for safe street design, but insufficient in themselves. If pedestrians are being endangered, the design speed of the road is usually the culprit. Many if not most roads in this country are intentionally designed for much higher speeds than the posted limit. A 30 mph speed-limit sign on a road designed for 50 or 60 mph is a futile—and sometimes fatal—exercise in wishful thinking.

Pedestrian Injury Frequency and Severity Based on Vehicle Speed (Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, image from the Bicycle Alliance of Washington)

Here are the sobering facts: at 30 mph, vehicle-pedestrian accidents are fatal in about 5% of cases; at 40 mph, fatalities are 90%. This is not to mention injuries, which can be devastating in their own right: incapacitating injuries are significantly less likely and less severe at slower speeds.

Therefore, the actual, effective solution involves “traffic-calming” the roadway so that drivers naturally move at slower, safer speeds. There are many methods to accomplish this, used in various combinations according to the specific situation. These include: fewer and/or narrower lanes, planting orderly rows of roadside trees, allowing curbside parking, using brick or other types of pavers for the road surface, curb bulb-outs, employing roundabouts instead of signalized intersections, smaller corner radii, etc.

State Street in Madison, WI employs virtually all of the basic traffic-calming devices, including a narrow roadway, wide sidewalks, and orderly rows of curbside trees. This results in a street that easily accommodates all modes of transportation while being a pedestrian destination—it’s simply a pleasant place to be.

Done properly, traffic throughput is still maintained, with less stop-and-go frustration for drivers, and much greater safety and civility for all users of the roadway, including pedestrians and bicyclists. For the vast majority of surface roads, there is simply no reason to design for a speed limit over 30 mph. Doing so seems careless and downright irresponsible, but this is the unfortunate norm for most highway departments.

This isn’t to say that traffic engineers are malicious—they’re just following a prescribed set of rules. The engineering standards that govern most roadway design were written in the mid-20th century, in the midst of a obsession with the automobile and the high-speed expressway. Higher design speeds were considered safer for cars and drivers. This myopic goal ignored any other users, as well as the physical context of the road itself. That the road might be part of a town or city neighborhood hardly entered into the equation. Under these standards, still in effect today, roads are too-often treated identically to expressways, designed only for the high-speed convenience and safety of cars. What happens beyond the curb or shoulder doesn’t matter.

Buffalo’s Elmwood Avenue, the urbanistic equivalent of Madison’s State Street, employs many of the same traffic-calming methods, but sidewalks are often too narrow, driving lanes too wide, and street trees are often missing or poorly maintained.

The good news is that the rules are changing. The old standards, embodied mainly by the AASHTO highway design manuals, have been superseded by new tools and standards, most recently (and importantly) the ITE design manual Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach, adopted in 2010. Traffic engineers and citizens alike now have a sophisticated set of official standards with which to design roads that serve all users and all contexts.

Incidentally, on May 24, Transportation for America released a comprehensive report on pedestrian deaths. Dangerous by Design studies 47,000 pedestrian fatalities in the US from 2000-2009, mapping them on an interactive web page. Enter any location, and find out details on fatalities, thoroughfare type, etc. Check out pedestrian fatalities in your neighborhood; you may learn something about street design and safety in the place you live.

This post originally appeared in Joe the Planner on May 31, 2011.

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

Replay: Shock and Awe

This post originally ran on November 1, 2012


Felix Baumgartner’s record setting jump from 120,000 feet. If the video doesn’t display, click here.

Last month I attended a supper club event in Indianapolis were the topic was urban design in the city. We started the conversation by having people give their personal pick for best and worst urban design. My choice for worst design decision was changing the zoning to allow skyscrapers. I believe that for many years Indy restricted building heights such that nothing could be taller than the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, similar to other restrictions in DC, Paris, or Philadelphia.

My argument was that skyscrapers function very poorly in smaller, auto oriented cities. This is because skyscrapers require huge parking pedestals or attached garages to put all the cars. Each skyscraper thus ends up taking up pretty much an entire city block, which produces horrible urbanism and isn’t even very dense. The perfect example in Indy here is the American United Life Building. It consumes an entire city block, the building is set back from the street on all four sides and sits dead center on the block, and it is surrounded by many surface parking lots. The planned Block 400 project I heavily criticized is converting one of these blocks – into a big parking garage with nothing at street level. These buildings basically create huge dead zones, especially after 5pm when the buildings empty.

This past weekend I was with my friend Kristian, who organizes the supper club events, and he asked me why I’d said that. I explained my rationale. He countered by asking whether there wasn’t value in the overwhelming power of an urban skyline to announce a city.

This reminded me of a post I previously ran called “Saint Jane” by Will Wiles. He makes a similar argument saying:

The Nurbanist vision of carving up the city in this way is as diagrammatic and retrograde as Moses’ planning – and, similarly, it’s an assault on the complexity of the city, the city’s ability to generate its own fabulously complicated internal patterns that defy cursory inspection. The emphasis on little neighbourhoods, the stoop, local shops and walking distances, the “human scale” only tells part of the story of the city – after all, these things can be found in villages and small towns. All cities need sublimity, a touch of holy terror, a defiance of human scale that asserts connection to the greater urban whole. Elevated highways, crowds, tall buildings, interconnection and confusion – these things can be to some people dismaying and unpleasant, but the awe they strike is the overture of accepting the condition of living in a city. The Tube roundel is vaguely holy to Londoners – intensely reassuring – because it is a sign of connection with a system of vast complexity and importance.

Kristian and Will haven’t convinced me that skyscrapers in auto oriented cities are a good thing. European cities like Paris and Barcelona have proven that you can build real cities and great density without them.

But there is something to this idea that cities need to contain structures, systems, and symbols of overwhelming dominance and power, shock and awe. It’s notable that from earliest days, cities were set around immense temples and palaces that served this very functions. Skyscrapers can do this well, but so can stadiums, massive airport complexes, rail yards or ports, vast flyover interchange complexes, or huge industrial parks or buildings.

In our quest to humanize every element of the city, we have in a sense dehumanized it, by robbing it of the primal human longing for the transcendent, to be part of something larger than or outside ourselves, to find the limits of existence and go beyond them. Our obsession with Mars landings or Felix Baumgartner’s jump shows this uniquely human quest in action.

Creating a link to the transcendent is one of the most important things cities do, and perhaps more than anything else what separates them from a town. I believe this is at some level the fuel that powers so much else that happens there, why they are the locus of innovation, etc.

Part of this is by creating structures and systems that not only overwhelm, but at some level cannot be understood or grasped. It is one of the under-recognized virtues of megacities like New York, Sao Paulo, and Mumbai that it is impossible for any single human being to comprehend them.

In a secular age, the idea of the transcendent has little currency. Most people lack even the awareness to engage with the concept. Yet engage we must. To sever a city or society of its link to the transcendent by “humanizing” it or applying overly rigorous cost/benefit analysis to everything is perhaps to drain it of its lifeblood. The extravagant, incredible, overwhelming, and almost seemly pointless and impractical gesture may in fact be the most practical of all.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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