If you are familiar with Cincinnati politics, you know that a streetcar line is under contruction. You probably also know that voters voted for the streetcar twice. On November 5th in a mid-term election with low voter turn-out, the city elected a mayor whose platform was to stop the streetcar. The city elected a city council majority that does not support the streetcar.
I’m going to talk about being a progressive voter in a conservative town, and why my future city will be determined by the fate of this project. I will not debate the merits of the streetcar project. If you want to get a firm understanding of why I think the project should move forward, have a look at these two blogs. They do a good job of capturing the reasons that I am solidly behind completing the project.
I moved to Cincinnati in 1994. I came to attend the University of Cincinnati. Cincinnati was a big change from Canton. Everything you need to know about Canton can be communicated by saying that it was on the Forbes 10 worst cities list in 2011, I believe. Job opportunites are slim, and city ammenities are slimmer especially for someone who values biking and walking as much as I do. If you can’t get enough strip malls and Applebees Canton is the place for you.
Although Cincinnati is notoriously conservative it was still progressive as compared to Canton. I experienced many firsts here. I went from a driver to a walker/biker. I met people with religious backgrounds that were different from my own. I met openly gay people for the first time. I lived in mixed-income and mixed ethnicity neighborhoods. I tried Indian food for the first time, and promptly fell in love. And specifically in Over the Rhine, I saw my first drug deal, my first hooker and my first historic urban neighborhood.
My friends and I piled in the car to head to a Red’s game. White people from the suburbs openly gawk or are visibly anxious in troubled neighborhoods. While I was unaware of my own gawking on this particular day, I have seen many people do it in the intervening years that I’ve lived in troubled urban neighborhoods. We were in the car mouths gaping, when a hooker walking the crosswalk in front of us flashed us. Naive is an appropriate word to describe my state then, because it dawned on me that this woman probably didn’t lounge around in those heels and that dress for fun. I don’t know what I thought a real prostitute would look like, but I do know she had less teeth than what I was expecting.
It was in this unlikely moment that I fell in love with Over the Rhine. Maybe my experience as a closeted gay teen in the suburbs made me love that the people in OTR wore their problems on their sleeves. Things that happened behind closed doors in the suburbs, happened on the street there. I loved the honesty of it. On top of that, the buildings, the boarded up rotting buildings were among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The brick and mortar felt alive with history. They were eyeless, toothless sentries breathing with human triumphs and disasters of more than a century.
From that point forward, I regularly lived in Over the Rhine or near it. I could describe the vibrant community that’s been there for all of my 18 years here. I could tell the story of how the city made wrong turn after wrong turn in shining that blemished jewel. But that would take numerous blog posts. So, skipping much, the current iteration of OTR is a mixed-income, mixed ethnicity neighborhood. In addition to all that development money that was poured into rehabbing the stunning buildings, the city has added numerous bike lanes and has made improvements in the city bus system.
This brings me to the streetcar. Should the mayor kill this project, it is almost certain that a big transportation project won’t be attempted here for at least a decade. So, the question that I am left asking myself is do I want to be 50 and getting the public transportation that I want out of my city?
Because there’s another layer to this question. It’s not just that Cincinnati is lacking transportation, and the republican state legislature seems to only want investment dollars in highways, but Ohio has a defense of marriage amendment in its constitution. Practically, this means gay marriage won’t be legal here for another 6 years at the very soonest. And assuming this divisive issue fails to pass at least once that 6 years becomes 10. So that question, do I want to wait until I am 50 to have my family and transportation in Cincinnati when I could move and have those things now?
I’ve traveled enough to know that it’s unlikely I will find a neighborhood that I love as much as OTR. OTR is the largest, most intact urban historic district in the United States, making the area unique. I stayed to contribute to the neighborhood. I stayed to contribute to the city. Things have changed, they’ve changed so much that with or without the streetcar I think OTR will continue to grow. And this is great, but it also means that I don’t need to stay here anymore. It means that I can go to what I want. I’m ready.
Here’s a link to our work cleaning out the lagering tunnels to make room for tour groups. This particular effort was about clearing out the basement of the Guildhaus on Vine.