Urbanism, Sub-urbanism, and why I’m tiring of the Streetcar debate.

I’ve lived in Cincinnati for 8 years.

My first job was at Kaldi’s on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. Those first few years, I spent a lot of time in the neighborhood. I met my husband there and we were married a few blocks away.

Our first apartment was in Over-the-Rhine. We decided to plant our roots downtown for multiple reasons, many of which I won’t get into here. But, basically, we love Cincinnati and we believe that a strong urban core is the foundation of a strong city. There are other neighborhoods that we love, neighborhoods that might become our “home” someday. But, Over-the-Rhine was where our heart was.

The first two years of our marriage made me an “urbanite.” We lived in a large, industrial loft space in a barely habitable old brewery building. Both of our work offices were a mile away. Our church was a mile away. I learned to shop on foot, in small trips. I got used to the sounds of street life. We got to know our neighbors. We learned the history of our city, the feel of the streets and alleys, the loom of the buildings as we walked by.

We didn’t do touristy, out-of-towner things in our neighborhood; we learned to live there. When we first felt the call to purchase a home, we talked about multiple options, and multiple locations. I had one simple request: I must have either a walkable business district or lots of greenspace.

We tried to buy a monstrous estate on Dayton St. in the West End, but they refused our offer. (A friend bought it, instead.) We looked into purchasing a dilapidated old estate tucked away in North Avondale on 2.5 acres, but they weren’t interested in us as much as we were interested in them. They wanted to “develop” the land.

We walked through a few homes in Betts-Longworth; we walked through a few in Mt Prospect. And then we got an email from an acquaintance saying that he was selling his home in Over-the-Rhine and we called him right away.

The short version of the story is that the owner liked us. He liked that we are people of faith (like him). He liked that we were going to be raising a family in his old home, where he raised three children with his late wife. He liked that we are committed to a similar vision for the city as he had been for his 40+ years in the neighborhood. So, he reduced the price of his home to something we could afford and sold it to us.

That summer, we made the transition onto Orchard Street, which is perhaps the most beautiful street in the city. The house itself if a labor of love and a work-in-progress, but it offers plenty of space, room to grow, and everything an urban family could desire including a backyard (which will someday be functional as such).

I love our life in the city. I love the wealth of opportunities and experiences that it offers our children. I love the warmth of neighbors and passers-by. I love the architecture and parks and noise and lights. As a severe introvert, I love the ease of daily contact with other people, both friends and strangers, and the feeling of a city alive about me.

Living in the city is not always fun. It sometimes requires more work, especially with kids. So, I am sympathetic to those who say, “Oh! I could never do that!” And I am very sympathetic to parents who want a neighborhood where their young children can play outside unattended, where they can unload groceries from inside their garage, and where they don’t need to worry about issues like lead paint and air quality. And I believe that there are many legitimate reasons to live in sub-urban areas—closer proximity to family or work, for example.

There are times when my husband and I stare at each other from across the room and quietly suggest: Wouldn’t it be nice to park in front of our own house? And we often dream together of leaving the city far behind and relocating to a rural space where our kids can be wild and reckless in the woods and come home at sunset with dirty hands and muddy boots.

But, at the end of the day, I am officially an urbanite. And though some wild, faraway place may be in the cards for us someday, choosing against the suburbs is now a matter of principle for me, not simply preference.

What does this have to do with the infamous, polarizing issue of the Cincinnati streetcar? It’s become pretty clear to me that Cincinnati residents are not only divided on the issue, but that no one is budging. We’re at an impasse and the only deciding factor at this point is that the public voted a majority of pro-streetcar City Council members in the last election, which is why the streetcar continues to move forward.

The difficulty of the debate is that one side sees the development of a streetcar system as a legitimate investment in the future of the urban core and the other side sees it as frivolous spending on a pet project—“a streetcar to nowhere.” These are ideological issues, not issues of preference.

Basically, we don’t simply live in different neighborhoods; we live in different worlds.

There are legitimate reasons to oppose the streetcar. Heck, I’m a Conservative! I understand the need for fiscal responsibility and responsible spending. But even a fiscal conservative believes in the importance of sound investments, building a future, and creating a foundation. And even the hesitant supporters—those who support pursuing the streetcar project at a future time, though not now—would agree that a project like the streetcar has the potential to strengthen the urban core, bring economic prosperity, and offer opportunity for further development.

The problem is this: the majority of those in opposition to the streetcar have a fundamentally different view of the urban environment, its infrastructure, and lifestyle, than do its supporters.

They see the city as a holding place for poor, homeless drunks and a recreational facility for wealthy yuppies. They do not believe that normal people actually live here. They do not believe that people with their level of wealth or education would choose to live here.

They do not understand the design of cities and do not share the vision of car-lite, rail-strong city. They do not care about the thousands of Cincinnati residents whose lives would someday benefit from affordable, convenient public transportation. (How other people find their way to home and work does not worry them, so long as those people don’t end up living in their neighborhoods.)

Their lives are dependent on cars and highways. They have not conceded the high costs (physical, social, and environmental) of car-dependent communities. They do not know a world without a 30-minute commute.

They do not share parking spaces, driveways, sidewalks, front porches, or front yards; of course they cannot imagine sharing transportation.

They are willing to invest billions of dollars in improving over-used highways and bridges surrounding the urban core, while neglecting characteristically urban transportation options which bolster urban life.

They do not see the streetcar as a sound investment because they do not believe that a pedestrian, urban life is a legitimate lifestyle choice of rational people (and families). So, they refuse to relinquish their control of the urban core to those who actually live, work, and play there.

And no one is going to change their minds.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a die-hard streetcar supporter. As I said earlier, I believe there are legitimate reasons to oppose—or perhaps postpone—the project.

But, I am an urbanite.

I believe that a strong urban core is the foundation of a strong city. And so I have to trust the history of cities and contemporary experts of urban design. They both agree that a streetcar system is a solid investment for our city.

So, I am tired of the debate.

We don’t simply live in different neighborhoods; we live in different worlds.

I have chosen to invest in a historically-significant shared built environment.

Many others took out a half a million dollar loan for a private, .25 acre plot of former farmland.

I have already said that there are legitimate reasons to choose a sub-urban lifestyle. But, to oppose urban development because you do not believe that there is fundamental, inherent value to the urban core of our city shows a complete lack of understanding.

The strength of our urban core is the only thing that makes your comfortable life in the suburbs possible.

And, until you believe that, we have nothing more to discuss.

And, by the way–

Stop calling it a “trolley,” for pete’s sake.

It’s a damn streetcar.

39 thoughts on “Urbanism, Sub-urbanism, and why I’m tiring of the Streetcar debate.

  1. Great post…I'm going to tweet this out

  2. Great post, neighbor. I live in one of the apartments above the old Kaldi's space (now Park+Vine). I respect your choice to live and raise a family in the city, and can only imagine the looks and questions you may get from similar families in the suburbs. Let's continue making our community better.

  3. Liz…love this well thought out, fantastic post. Thanks for putting this out there.

  4. Nice post, articulated better than I've ever done. I gave up trying to change peoples minds long ago even though I actively campaign for it. I'm so sick of the back and forth and the funny thing is even though there are people I work with who live in the city and oppose the streetcar I can talk calmly to them about it, its the people in the xburbs who get red faced mad about it. Crazy.

  5. Fantastic. It's so difficult to explain why I live in the city, particularly to those who have families, much less legitimize why the streetcar (and overall expanded public transit) is so important. Thank you!

  6. Yes I think you hit the nail on the head, there is a 50/50 divide and half the people have written off all things downtown or urban as unuseful for anything other than banking/insurance/law offices, sports stadiums, courthouse, homeless people, and the occasional play or opera if one is so culturally inclined. I heard Saks Fifth Avenue is moving to a suburban mall from downtown – not that I shop at luxury stores, but when the most expensive stores are located in the center of the city its a sign of vibrancy and confidence in the downtown demonstrated by the fact that the citizens and corporations prize that central space more than outlying towns.

  7. Superb, great story.

  8. This was incredibly written, and I couldn’t possibly agree with you more. Cheers

  9. I think you’re in danger of being very naive here. Most people that don’t live downtown actually appreciate what the downtown lifestyle offers them. They supported the Banks, the continued development of OTR, and the stadiums, because they are obvious sources of economic (and social) growth. The streetcar is not.

    Take a ride on Hillside Drive and try to avoid a pothole. Hint: you can’t. Yet, we’re building a trolley downtown that spans less than three miles, and even with the best estimates, will operate at a net loss of millions every year. All of this with money we don’t have, considering we’re operating within a budget deficit.

    It’s not ideological at all. I live four minutes from downtown. I spend more time than most people do there. I’m a huge liberal. It’s important to remember that the city if comprised of more than just a downtown urban square. Although I would love a streetcar if we had the extra money and didn’t have other basic obligations to fulfill, we simply don’t, and that’s really all that matters in the end.

  10. While you make quite a number of assumptions about those who oppose the streetcar, like living on a quarter acre of former farm land, and not caring about the history of the city, or not understanding the urban core as a livable space, this is your weakest (and I’m afraid your fundamental) point:

    “But, to oppose urban development because you do not believe that there is fundamental, inherent value to the urban core of our city shows a complete lack of understanding.”

    I know no one who opposes the streetcar who sees no inherent value in the urban core….no one. In fact, most of the people I know who do not support it, love the city and would like to see an improved public transportation system that would bring more people there more easily. This doesn’t do it.

    Oh…and spare YOURSELF the “this is just a start” argument. I’m not listening because that’s the repeated song and dance that makes me tired of the debate.

    • From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MetroMoves

      On November 5, 2002 the tax levy, known as “Issue 7,” was rejected by 68.4 percent of Hamilton County residents.[3] MetroMoves received the most support in Clifton and Avondale, but received the strongest opposition in suburbs such as Indian Hill, Madeira, and Wyoming.[

      Also note the yellow line being the the first version of the streetcar envisioned in 2002 (what you call the initial start)

  11. Interesting read, but I think you are painting people opposed to the Streetcar project with a broad brush. There are certainly people who fit your description of someone opposed to the Streetcar, but there are people who are urbanites that don’t think the Streetcar should be a priority. Some people are concerned with the gentrification that is happening and see the Streetcar as being a subsidy to wealthy developers and property owners.

    I’m tired of the debate myself and find it troubling that we’ve invested as much as we have and now may walk away. I think the operating costs have always been a big issue and Streetcar supporters just ignored the issue because they had the votes on council. Now they don’t and it’s heartbreaking for them.

    I think the real issue is we put people in boxes and are too quick to write off those that we disagree with. City leaders should have done a better job of selling the idea instead of just pushing it through because they were elected. I’ve always been able to see both sides of the issues, but felt demonized for raising questions about the project, like the operating costs etc. At this point I hope it continues because we’re already so invested. And I’ve always said I would ride it and benefit from it.

    • Metro currently has an operational cost of 83 million with only 37% being covered by fares. How much would it cost to add additional lines that would simulate the Streetcar and how much development would those extra bus lines generate?

      Source:http://m.bizjournals.com/cincinnati/news/2013/11/18/study-metro-most-efficient-public.html?page=all&r=full

      How many people are not wealthy developers, but instead just took the risk to grow a business and create jobs there. Many of the business owners down there are not wealthy. The saw that the city leaders had a vision and believed in that vision. What is the alternative vision to drive development to the urban core?

      On of the reasons for investing so much in OTR was due to population decline of Cincinnati, and a whole lot of stock in houses that needed to be redeveloped to fight the decline (or in conservative circles it would be called a fight to broaden the base).
      The streetcar (good or bad decision) got a lot of people interesting in locating downtown (broadening the base). How will the incoming administration of the city broaden the base?

    • Wow, such a perfect response. I totally agree with everything you said!

  12. Hey, all. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Just to clarify a few things:
    First, this post is more than a year old and so, although I still stand by what I’ve written, my views on the issue have evolved a bit.

    Also, my blog has always had a very small readership and I get little traffic from people I don’t already know. I posted the link on my Facebook page and many of my friends linked to it on theirs. I appreciate that so many strangers have read this post today (over 1900 people!) but it has been a little overwhelming.

    And it should be noted that I often use hyperbole as a rhetoric device. I understand that there is no monolithic streetcar opposition. I was responding, at this point, to the loudest opposition voices. We all know that the moderate voices are never the ones we hear, though they are almost always the ones worth listening to.

    So, please continue to read and feel free to comment as you’d like–especially if you disagree. And, especially if you have something constructive to offer the debate.

  13. Great post! This really brought back memories for me. I grew up in suburban Cincinnati and like you turned into a proud urbanite after going to college at UC.

    There were many things I loved about Cincy. I had a huge, very inexpensive loft apartment on Central Ave. across from an old brewery turned art space called the Mockbee. I met a lot of cool people, threw dinner parties every Sunday and saw great music. However, I always knew that Cincinnati wasn’t a “healthy” city.

    Many areas downtown are either completely decrepit with abandoned buildings or just desolate office skyscrapers where suburban people work during the day. There are over 300,000 people in Cincinnati but only 6-13,000 actually live downtown. There is a large number of poor black people that live there and the remainder are either wealthy artistic class or younger hipsters, which means downtown is very liberal, while the suburbs are overwhelmingly conservative. This has contributed to racial tensions which culminated in the race riots of 2001.

    For a while I concentrated on doing what little I could to make Cincinnati better but after much internal debate I decided to leave and in 2006 moved to Portland, OR. I’ve never regretted that decision for a second. I too have a new family and I couldn’t be happier with Portland in that regard. We live right next to the city but there are dozens of parks we can walk to as well as amazing restaurants, shops and grocery stores.

    Portland has a truly vibrant, livable downtown with many modern apartment buildings and condos. In my experience there were about 20-30 bars and restaurants in Cincy that I would want to spend time at, whereas here there are hundreds and I find new ones all the time. We also have amazing beer!

    I think the effect an unhealthy city has on an individual or a family can feel very subtle but in the end I think it’s hugely significant. Choosing to stay in a place like that is a big choice that I think many young people grapple with and I would encourage anyone to be brave enough to get out there and go somewhere else.

  14. I would support a streetcar that actually went to places people (both residents and tourists) want to go. Start at the Horseshoe, go to the Banks, PBS, Convention Center, Fountain Square, OTR, Court House, Main Street, back to the Casino. Then you would have a route that took people places. The thing that grinds my gears is that, despite whatever else is talked about, there’s barely any money to fund the project and Duke Energy has already decided that it would be the City of Cincinnati who has to foot the bill for utility re-location for this project, to the tune of $3.75 million dollars.

  15. Love this! We’re raining our family on Main street and loving (almost) every minute of it!

  16. This is inspiring and very well-written. Makes me even more excited about our new home in OTR.

  17. This is a wonderful post – would you grant permission for me to repost this on Buffalorising.com? It would be of great interest to our readers. Is so I would need one favore of a few photos of your neighborhood to post with it.

  18. Interestingly, my city (Cincinnati and Kansas City are very similar in a million ways) is also building a streetcar system and there is the same opposition, arguments, and mindset here. As the tracks are being laid, there is daily snarling from suburbanites. As a conservative urbanite and person of faith, I found this perspective refreshing.

    • Um, the suburbanites aren’t the ones snarling… I live in KC and the suburbanites barely even know the project is happening because City Hall went out of their way to keep it off the ballot in Clay and Platte Counties. I am part of the opposition, and everyone that I’ve talked to is either a business owner upset by the tax increase, or an urbanite that wonders why we’re not fixing the sewers, improving the schools, or reducing crime. There’s a simple way to get suburbanites on board with public transit, and that is to expand public transit to the suburbs rather than replace existing bus routes in the city with a 2 mile streetcar that costs more than the the city’s budget to run 300 buses for a year. That’s just frivolous.

  19. Out of Curiousity, Liz, how are you going to be schooling your kids? My wife and love coming downtown for various reasons, feel plenty safe, but have determined that we couldn’t in good conscious raise kids downtown because we can’t afford private school. Are you going to homeschool?

  20. This is a big part of the resistance. Racism and classicism is another part of it. The fact that until recently the goal and benefits of the project were never illustrated properly by our very conservative media is another aspect of it. Provincialism is another part of it (many people who live here have ONLY lived here, traveled little and barely leave the side of the city they grew up on). Ignorance of Cincinnati history is another.

    The truth is without a streetcar, Cincinnati cannot remain relevant. We barely are as it is. Without it, we might not even be able to be solvent. Every city that can is building a system like this one. Every leg of those systems starts small like this one and later expands. (Our initial leg is longer than most actually.) This is a preservation tool used to keep bringing life into cities instead of bleeding it. With young blood comes money- tax money, specifically, and investment. That money goes into a city’s main pool and is used to help systems throughout the city barely surviving. It’s an investment. You build an extra floor on your house to eventually rent it out. Yes, maybe you could use an extra garage more at the time, but you know that the rental income will eventually bring you in that money to fix the garage and more. This is the philosophy. Young people do not want to drive. They want to live in the urban core and get around without a car. So you get transit going in the city to get them here, build your city, improve dying parts with the new income and expand the transit. Eventually those young people will get old, get married, move to the suburbs and raise kids. New young people will move here and the youth growing up here will be more likely to stay. Population steadily increases, city revenue increases, services and resources expand. Eventually suburban populations increase and everyone’s property values go up It’s a model that has worked in every city that does this. There’s nothing about us that will keep it from working here.

    It’s big picture thinking- the first move in a giant chess game to keep this city from dying, as many Midwest cities have and are. We have to get past thinking about investments in this city like checkers- only a move or two ahead. It’s how we were thinking through much of the 20th century, when we steadily lost our population. The twenty-first century requires some of the thinking we used to have in the 19th- when we were on track to become a major city. As Tarbell said, if we’d finished the subway, we’d be untouchable now. This is a chance to put us back on course- to be twenty-first century leader city and live up to our nickname again.

  21. Having a streetcar is a great thing for a city (my city Portland has a streetcar and a light rail) but it’s immoral to vote to fund it with taxation because taxation is violence in the form of theft.

    A couple of you have called it “investment” but this is a false equation. Investment is a voluntary act while taxation is forcing people to pay for something. Even if you want a streetcar and are willing to pay for it, it’s still theft unless you have a choice and you have no moral right to enforce that on others. If you vote for a tax to fund a streetcar you’re essentially putting a gun to everyone else’s head and stealing money out of their paycheck.

    Anyone who’s interested in having a streetcar and acting morally should find a way to fund it voluntarily

  22. I am a conservative urbanite raising a family in a neighborhood in Kansas City very similar to OTR. I oppose streetcar for many reasons. A bus can provide the same services as a streetcar at a much lower cost. Also, streetcars consistently over-promise and under deliver (despite what the city planners and union bosses who stand to profit off the project tell you.) Streetcars cannibalize bus service and compete with public safety funds. Because transit is such a subsidized project, when states make budget cuts, streetcars are generally the first thing to be cut.

    The “urbanite” vs. “suburbanite” fight is a false narrative created by the streetcar salesmen because urbanites are less likely to listen to reason when they feel like all of the opposition disagrees with their lifestyle. That’s how each side becomes entrenched.

    I’m aware that there have been charters and pro-streetcar candidates in the past, but this entire mess was started when Cincinnati City Council chose to build the streetcar without holding a public, city wide vote. Regardless of whose side you’re on or how wise it is to stop the project in the middle, the lesson we should all take away from this is that when a government attempts to exclude the public from an expensive, controversial public works project, there will be a large portion of disaffected citizens seeking retribution.

    Thanks for sharing; interesting perspective.

    • This comment resonates with me. As a marginal supporter of the project initially (and even more so now that we’ve already sunk a good chunk of money into it), I’ve become weary of many people who I agree with attributing the opposition to the project to either opposition to urban living in general or a lack of understanding of how the urban core and the surrounding neighborhoods (and even outer suburbs) are related. There are lots of people who are committed to urban living and to a strong urban core who just think that this project won’t make the urban core stronger. I think they’re probably wrong, but I know that they’re operating in good faith. To continue to characterize the opposition as operating out of ignorance, naivete, and bad faith is to poison the well and increase the partisanship that has turned this into such a mess in the first place.

      Speaking of partisanship turning this into a mess, this is a great example of why governments shouldn’t undertake significant projects without some degree of bipartisan support or a relatively strong majority. When you initiate a big, expensive project with small margins of support and energized, committed opposition, the chances of the project later being abandoned or gutted are just too high to justify taking a chance and making the significant investment on the front end. We’re seeing that problem with the ACA at the federal level and now with the streetcar at the city level.

  23. A street car to where? I am strong believer in mass transit,light rail in particular,that will take me somewhere I thought that when they redid Fort Washington Way and added a transit center,a great forward thinking idea.I also like the fact that the streetcar rail design will connect rail wise with light rail. But they have have NOT done their homework on costs,especially operational costs.You who live there,great.But what if I want to go from a Reds game to somewhere like the casino? Or to the airport? Poorly laid and thought out.

  24. So… the “strong urban core” requires looting people from the suburbs. Who is depending on whom?

  25. Pingback: A Quick Note about Subsidization | the walking green

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