Field Notes From A Gentrifier, Part II: Class, Culture, and Race (and Racism)

This is Part II of an ill-advised series of “field notes” from my experience as an unintentional gentrifier in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio. Consider it the purging of my current thoughts on/observations about gentrification, urban economics, class, race, and $3.50 tacos. Three related posts are planned so far. There may be more to come. Or not.

 

One of the reasons gentrification is such a hard thing to talk about is that it pricks our sensitivities to complicated social structures of class, culture, and race. But it doesn’t take long into the conversation to realize that we not only disagree about how these things play into urban development, but also what these things even mean.

Some definitions:

Class-
a :  a group sharing the same economic or social status    the working class
b :  social rank; especially :  high social rank    the classes as opposed to the masses

Culture
the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also :  the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time     popular culture     Southern culture

Race-
a :  a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock
b :  a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics

 

Gentrification is almost always perceived as a racism problem. This is evidenced by the fact that people complaining most about gentrification are almost always implicitly (or explicitly) referring to “rich white people” taking over “poor black” neighborhoods. But we know that redevelopment (in both equitable and inequitable ways) happens in all communities and at the hand of white and black people alike.

Yet, still, this is how the conversation usually goes:

Someone (usually a white someone) of influence in an urban development project will speak of the urban community as one plagued by blight and crime. They will point to their plan to “clean up the neighborhood.”

Or someone (usually a white someone) will move into a neighborhood and claim they’re interested in “helping make it better.”

But, instead of hearing the kind hearts of well-intended people trying to make the community a better place, we think they mean “I want to get rid of the poor black people in this neighborhood.”

Now, we know that there are many terrible people in this world, people who are legitimately racist or spiteful or simply ignorant. And they have done terrible things to other people including, but not limited to, taking over entire neighborhoods for their own interests. But let’s pretend for a minute that not all white people with the means or influence to change a community meet the description of Racist Colonizer. Cool? Cool.

Then, let’s be honest about urban blight and crime.

Because those who fight hand over fist to stop gentrification don’t seem to think there’s a problem to solve, but they’re wrong.

Over the past 50(ish) years, our urban communities have seen a devastating amount of economic and social disinvestment. There’s good reason why the urban stereotype is dirty, dangerous, and disenfranchised (I love alliteration). We can argue about why cities became such a dump at the end of the 20th Century (spoiler: racism has a lot to do with it) but you can’t deny it happened or that it was/is a problem.

In the almost ten years I’ve lived in Over-the-Rhine:

In alleys and on sidewalks, alongside your standard littered garbage, I’ve picked up (and properly disposed of) used condoms, used tampons, used heroin needles, and dirty underwear.

I’ve watched a well-dressed young woman drop her drawers and defecate on the sidewalk in broad daylight and then walk away like nothing ever happened.

At least weekly, in full view of my kitchen window, someone uses our alleyway as a urinal.

Human feces appears a couple times a year.

We’ve had 5-6 incidents of theft from our front yard, back yard, or vehicle. Twice it has happened right in front of my eyes by people who acted surprised that I was surprised by their stealing from me.

For a time, someone was hiding stolen electronics in our yard.

I once found a man sleeping under a tarp in our backyard in the afternoon.

I’ve watched countless (literally countless) drug-dealing interactions on and around my street.

I’ve found people passed out on the sidewalk from drinking or doping.

Gunshots. Lots of them.

A man was shot by police within view of my second-story window on a sunny afternoon.

At our old apartment, a woman rang our doorbell late at night and begged for help and said she was running away from her violent boyfriend and could I please save her?

I once woke (with most of my neighbors) in the middle of the night to a woman screaming that she had just been assaulted around the corner and needed help.

Strangers ring my doorbell just to ask for money.

(Oh, golly, city living sounds great, right?)

So, what’s my point in listing these incidents?
I want to illustrate that there are things that happen on a regular basis in mixed-income, dense, urban areas that simply do not happen with any comparable frequency in other places. (Other place have other problems, to be sure.) And that you’re crazy to try and justify and protect these characteristically urban blight and crime issues the same way you’d fight to protect an ethnic food eatery or the right for homeless people to loiter in public parks (both of which I support, btw).

But, what does this have to do with racism?
Well, I didn’t give you any indication whether the people involved in these incidents were black or white. And I can promise that it’s a nice, healthy mix. So my bigger point is that the desire to “clean up the city” it not about getting rid of black people. For most normal residents, it’s about simple quality-of-life things like making the city a place where kids and moms and old men in wheelchairs don’t have to dodge human feces while traveling down the sidewalk.

And for someone to call a white person a racist because they’re willing to say people shouldn’t crap in public is like saying that public defecation is somehow related to being black, which is a flat out, evil lie that should offend all of us.

So, okay. Maybe I’m right.
Maybe gentrification isn’t really about race.
But then what is it about?

It’s about class and it’s about culture.

And class and culture are more complicated and are issues of justice and personal responsibility and values, which means getting at the root of what actually makes us different from each other. So I understand why we would rather make it about race.  We are not responsible for our race or ethnicity. Even a marginally ethical person can and should be ideologically offended by racism. But we all get personally offended by criticisms of our class or culture.

If you ask me–which you didn’t, except that you’re reading my blog so you kinda did–the real gentrification conversation is less about what race of people are moving in or out of a neighborhood and more about

a) how to build a community where there is mobility between social and economic classes, facilitated through our means of housing, educating, socializing, and employing our residents and

b) how to design the community so that the cultural landscape (food, art, aesthetics, etc.) is truly representative of all the residents in the community, not just the new ones with money.

 

But where does that leave us?

I am a young, white, middle-class urban dweller. I may feel powerless at times in my neighborhood but, compared to some of my minority or lower-income neighbors, I have great influence. So I (and my peers) need to be pressed on these two questions. And we need to hold community leaders, investors, and developers accountable to them.

But we can’t have these really important conversations across class and cultural lines if we can’t, first, agree that there are some things about our shared community that none of us should be defending.

Some things are simply uncultured and class-less–
Things like heroin.
And stealing my kid’s bike.

And crapping on my sidewalk.

 

 

 

(Possibly) later in the Field Notes series:

How to Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis

My $13 Box of Macarons

Stay tuned!

 

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What a Children’s Library is Good For

Earlier this summer, it was announced that the Cincinnati Public Library is pursuing selling off a part of their downtown branch’s facility and consolidating services into their main building. Under normal circumstances, consolidating services sounds like a grand idea. Save space. Save time. Save resources. Right?

The situation at the library is a bit more complicated than that for two reasons.

First, the word on the street is that the library’s facility could be sold off to a private developer, transferring an entire city block of beloved public amenities into private investors’ hands. Our community (OTR) is already burdened under the heavy hand of big investments from people who seem to think they know what we need better than we know ourselves and we’re tired of it. So this is not a welcome option.

Second, most of the services that will need to be moved and consolidated are geared toward youth: the children’s library and garden, the teenspace, etc. (plus the makerspace!). The threat of losing the entire building is scary for parents (and kids) like us who make frequent use of it and its kid-friendly services.

So what can we do about it?

Well, we’ve seen how these things work. By the time the public hears rumors of this sort of thing, backroom dealings have already occurred. So I understand that it’s probably too late to do anything at all.

Plus, maybe the experts are right. Maybe the library can consolidate and still offer the same quality of service. So maybe it doesn’t even make sense to fight it.

But, for those willing to hear, there’s a lot that needs to be said in favor of the library as it is. And there are certainly a few words left to be spoken about the Children’s library, in particular.

 

Here goes:

  • The public library is one of the only free, indoor public spaces downtown. It provides public restrooms, comfortable chairs, internet access, water fountains, shelter from the rain and cold, etc. It is impossible to quantify the public good a library does by its very presence, in addition to any actual literary contribution to society. Losing any square footage, honestly, is a huge loss.
  • Because it is a completely free public amenity, it attracts a diverse group of patrons. So long as you follow the rules (which are few), all are welcome. This kind of inclusive space exists almost nowhere. It is worth protecting. While attending storytime, public programs, or just browsing for books, my kids and I have felt part of a truly diverse community. This is one of my favorite things about living downtown and one of the best things about the library.
  • The children’s garden is one of the city’s only public, enclosed outdoor spaces for kids. Washington Park’s playground is fenced in, as well, but the library’s garden is different. It feels like a natural escape in an otherwise concrete jungle. We’ve had picnics in the garden, school lessons, played tag, practiced bird watching, and more. There is another, very nice, walled garden at the library’s south building, but it is open to all patrons. Adding the natural chaos of children to such a dignified garden may be tricky for both parties.
  • The children’s library is heavy on books and lite on media. There are a handful of computers and iPads available for use (and, yes, my kids use them and love them), but the majority of the space is still occupied by books. Real books. The kind of books many libraries don’t even keep on public floors anymore. Consolidating the children’s library, I fear, means hiding all those lovely books behind closed doors. Which means we’ll now have to request a book from a librarian at the desk. Which means fewer children experiencing the pleasure of browsing through shelves of unfamiliar books to find literary treasure which is, honestly, one of the greatest joys of reading.
  • Because of the way the building is currently laid out, the children’s library seems isolated from the rest of the library. I understand how it’s likely a logistical nightmare for staff and management because, I will admit, I don’t often make my way over to “my books” anymore because it’s so inconvenient. But this kind of set-apart “kid space” is a dream for my kids. We walk into the building and they instantly feel at home. They roam within the confines of their own library without me hovering over. And it’s not really about “safety”; it’s about ownership and comfort. They can wander and browse and enjoy their pint-sized library world with their own librarians, their own kids-sized bathrooms, their own computers to use, their own garden, their own public events and summers camps and storytimes. Babies even have their own toys. My fear is that moving the children’s library to the other building means surrendering their domain and being grandfathered into a building where–like everywhere else in their world–everything is made for adults. This is nowhere more evident than the computer labs in the south building where most of the adults are busy watching music videos, playing video games, and (I’m sure) some are watching porn. What adults do with their free time is their decision, but that’s not exactly the cultural experience I’m hoping to provide for my children when I visit the library. So, it’s nice to let kids have their own space to be kids.

 

A few weeks ago, I thought I might gather some friends to stage a “read-in” in solidarity for the Children’s library and garden. In my mind, I was going to be a big hero and I was going to save the library and we’d all live happily ever after in our safe, spacious, kid-sized literary wonderland. But, like I said, I think it’s probably too late to actually do anything about this. So, I am relegated to writing instead so I can at least feel like “I said something.”

My hope is that, no matter what decision is made about the fate of our library, those in power are able to design the new children’s space to be as beneficial to the community as the current one is.

We love the children’s library. And, if/when it’s gone some day soon, we will damn sure miss it.

Even if we love the new one, too.

 

 

“The most common and the monstrous defect in the education of the day is that children fail to acquire the habit of reading.” – Charlotte Mason

Field Notes From A Gentrifier, Part I: How I Became The Enemy

Thus begins an ill-advised series of “field notes” from my experience as an unintentional gentrifier in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio. Consider it the purging of my current thoughts on/observations about gentrification, urban economics, class, race, and $3.50 tacos. Three related posts are planned so far. There may be more to come. Or not.

 

In 2005, I moved to Cincinnati from Elgin, Illinois. My first job in town was as a bartender/barista at a place called Kaldi’s on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine.

I knew that Over-the-Rhine had a reputation. I knew it had a history.

I knew to hide my bartending tips in my sock on the way to my car at night. I knew to make eye contact with the people I passed on the street. I knew that the storefronts were mostly empty after 6pm every night. And I knew that it wasn’t necessary to pay the parking meter most nights because cops didn’t give a rip about parking in OTR.

I knew that the produce at the Vine Street Kroger was never up to par and they didn’t sell organic milk.

I knew that Over-the-Rhine was thick with racial tension. I knew this because if I told the man from the street that he could not use our bathroom at 11:48pm on a Thursday night, he would call me a racist.

I knew Over-the-Rhine was a dark and moody place to be.

But I also knew it was alive with a steady current of creativity and strength and survival. I knew that its residents knew enough about all sorts of things to not be afraid to be out at night like everyone else was. I knew that the stories in the news were always only half-true.

I knew that Over-the-Rhine was more than dark and moody.

But I swear that I did not know it was the next big thing.

We got married in 2009 and our first apartment was a large loft north of Liberty in an old brewery building. There were a zillion building code violations and my mom probably cried the first time she saw it.

Our apartment smelled like hotdogs on Saturday mornings from the soup kitchen next door. There were cockroaches in the bathroom. There were rats. There were beer and dog piss leaks through the floorboards of the apartment above us. There was no real heating system. There were drunk neighbors. There were loud knocks on the door and the buzzing of doorbells at all hours of the day/night by people walking past. There were drug dealers perched on our stoop–literally–every day.

The landlord may as well have lived in Cambodia the way he cared for the place. Every good thing about that apartment was done with our own hands and our own money.

It was like the Wild, Wild, West.
We were newlyweds.
The rent was $650.

By this time, I was working at a non-profit doing community organizing types of things around the city and I had insight into the things “moving” in Over-the-Rhine. They had been in the works for a few years. There were big-time investors involved. There were things like development strategies and tax incentives at play.

But, honestly, it all happened so quickly.

While we were busy learning to be married and then having kids and working at our jobs, things were changing around us. We were like the proverbial frog, boiled alive in the pot.

Vine Street.
Washington Park.
Conversations about something called “a streetcar.”

We wanted to buy a house in the neighborhood because it was our neighborhood, not because we wanted to capitalize on someone else’s loss. The only person we (personally) displaced was a man who wanted to sell his house so he could move across the country to be nearer to his kids.

Sure, we knew it was probably a good investment. Sure, we knew that OTR was going to “improve” in the next few years. But it was still a gamble. And investing in Over-the-Rhine, in general, was still a calculated risk.

I didn’t think I was the bad guy.
I was just a young, idealistic wife and mother.
We wanted to plant some roots in a neighborhood that needed more stability. We wanted to start something, build something. And it seemed like there was space enough for us here.

I tell this story because it’s important to know that people–low income, high society, black, white, and everything in-between–move where they move for all sorts of reasons.

Because we can afford it.
Because we like the way the house looks.
Because our family lives there.
Because we can walk to work.
Because we want to make a good investment.
Because of the quality of the schools.
To start our first business.
Because we’re new in town and it’s all we know.
Because it’s time to downsize.

Or we move because of a bunch of reasons all mashed up together.

Most people moving into “gentrifying” neighborhoods don’t move there to cause trouble. They aren’t trying to displace long-term residents or raise the rent next door. Often times, they (like we did) think they can help make the neighborhood better for everyone through their investment and community engagement.

But that’s not the way things usually happen, is it?

It’s only a matter of time before I just blend in with all the 30-something Friday night bar hoppers. And then it doesn’t really matter how I got here, does it? All that matters is that I’m young and white, that I like eating macarons, and that my house has (at least) doubled in value since we bought it seven years ago.

Suddenly, I’m the enemy.

Sometimes I still feel at home in Over-the-Rhine; sometimes I don’t.
Sometimes I feel great about my investment in the neighborhood; sometimes I feel guilty about it, like my very presence signifies economic injustice.

All that has happened in my neighborhood in the past 12 years and all of my thoughts and feelings about it are too much and too many to share here.

Gentrification is a real thing. Affordable housing is a real concern. Equitable development is, indeed, an urgent matter. We need to be honest about how these issues affect the most vulnerable among us. But we also need to acknowledge that few things are as simple as “oppressor vs oppressed.”

The conversation about the issues facing my neighborhood and others like it need to be stripped of their unfair guilty-by-association politics so we can see each other as neighbors and friends. And that requires telling the stories about how we got here and why we want to stay. We are, after all, real people making real life decisions about how we invest our time and our money and our family life for the sake of our communities.

A community is a living eco-system and the parts all affect each other. There are both intended and unintended consequences of those decisions on the people around us. We need to be honest about how diversifying a neighborhood (socially, economically, etc.) will affect the quality of life as a whole. And we need to be honest about when the positive consequences outweigh the negative and vice versa.

Case in point:
The grocery store now sells organic milk.
But our old apartment now rents for $1800.

 

 

 

 

(Possibly) later in the Field Notes series:

Class, Culture, and Race (and Racism)
How to Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis

My $13 Box of Macarons

Stay tuned!

 

OTR Housing: Families Need Not Apply

The issue of family-friendly housing and urban development is nothing new. It’s been an ongoing conversation in urban planning circles ever since the middle- and upper-classes decided they wanted to move back into the city and city planners decided it might be a good idea to entice them to do so.

Cities used to be full of housing stock that appealed to families of every demographic and income level. But the latter half of the 20th Century decimated our cities’ diversified housing by paving over workforce housing, tenement buildings, and large historic multi-family buildings with surface parking lots and corporate headquarters for commuter business owners and their commuter employees. The working class and middle class were now happy in their comfortable and spacious suburbs, the poor were shuffled into isolated and subsidized ghettos, and the wealthy urban dwellers ruled the urban core.

Times have changed and, responding to the desires of both a new generation of city-lovers and aging Boomers who no longer need the school systems the suburban tax-base supports, city planners and property developers have started taking a more diverse group of housing-seekers into consideration.

Supposedly, the people holding and renovating what remains of the available housing stock in my neighborhood, for example, are interested in leaving space for more than young urban professionals and wealthy empty-nesters.

Or so they say.

Take, as a case study of sorts, the recent experience of a friend of mine from the neighborhood.

A few years ago, this family purchased and began renovations on a small-ish multi-use property just a block off of the booming Vine St. business corridor. The building was completed a year or so later and the commercial space became a low-risk pop-up-shop venue. The two studio apartments on the second floor became rental units (and eventually Airbnb units). The family of six moved into the third floor.

The family’s living quarters is small.
One bedroom, two baths, a comfortable kitchen, small bits of living space, and a semi-finished attic flex space for storage and whatever else they need it for.

Time passed and, about 18 months after the family moved in, they decided it was time to sell the property. This was partially because they were facing a job change and wanted to relinquish some financial responsibility. Partially because they were tired and overwhelmed by managing both the commercial space and the rental units. And partially because they wanted a little more space for their family.

The property was listed for sale and my friend started hunting for rental housing in the neighborhood to line up for the family if the building sells.

Which brings me to the issue at-hand.

Long story short, my friend has been met with not one, not two, but three separate property management companies in Over-the-Rhine who will not rent an apartment to them because their rental policies will not allow more than four people in a two bedroom apartment (regardless of the square footage) and (surprise!) not a single 3-bedroom apartments exists in their portfolio.

Okay, so first of all:
This doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road for my friend. She has a few options, including finding an independent landlord who has a single-family home or larger apartment to rent and doesn’t mind housing a larger family. But the chances are slim and the situation feels hopeless. For example: there is one 3-bedroom apartment (*ahem–a 2-bedroom with a study) currently available in the neighborhood, but it’s going rate is $3,000 a month.

But, even if she secures an apartment for her family, her situation illustrates a few important things that I’ve always said about the future of cities and of Over-the-Rhine, specifically.

– If urban planners and developers really want a vibrant, thriving urban core, they absolutely must make it more welcoming to families. I had some ideas a few years ago about how to attract and retain urban families and, were I to rewrite that post, I could probably add a few more.

There is a huge disparity between available housing for the highest and lowest income level residents when compared to what is available for middle-income families. My recent housing search in the 45202 zip code (excluding Mt Adams and East End) yielded zero rental units larger than 2 bedrooms. And there is not currently one condo or single-family home with more than 2 bedrooms selling for less than $240,000. (Most are listed between $500,000-$700,000.)

What does this mean?
This means that, apart from any low-income subsidized housing (which, I believe, is not publicly listed), assuming most prescribe to this “two to a bedroom” policy, there may be almost zero landlords in OTR willing to rent to a family with more than two children. And, if a family wants to purchase a 3-bedroom home instead of renting, they will need to be in the top 20% income bracket in our city. (Or, they can try their hand at purchasing vacant land to build on, but I could tell you another story or two about the nightmare that is for the average, middle-income, not in the OTR “in-group” resident.)

I’ve written more about this “missing middle” problem here and here because I saw it coming from a mile away. In fact, it’s perfectly illustrated by the fact that one of the largest in-the-works housing developments in our neighborhood, in an area of OTR that has historically been home to lower-income residents, does not seem to include a single 3-bedroom housing unit.

The people developing property in our neighborhood need a bigger, better vision for what a vibrant, diverse neighborhood actually looks like. It’s getting harder and harder to believe that any of these developers are motivated by anything other than the bottom line and what type/size housing unit can make them the most money. It’s all lip service. And it’s disappointing.

I read this article back in January about how cities could possibly design themselves out of the affordable housing crisis by bringing back the “missing middle” of housing. The idea struck me as so obvious and economical, but so “radical” that it seems impossible. Because, honestly, why would you build a reasonably-outfitted townhouse that sells for $220,000 when you can add a few faux-custom finishes and list it for $600,000? It would take a truly visionary homebuilder and developer to be so brave.

*As a sidenote, I am fascinated by the Betts-Longworth and City West districts of the West End for this very reason. They have the potential to be a model for a truly diverse, affordable neighborhood with all the amenities of urban living. I’d love to hear some thoughts about why City West seems to have flopped. I have some thoughts myself, but I don’t really know enough of the back story. It’s important to note, though, that real estate in these two districts has been moving faster in the past 2 years, housing values are rising, and they really could end up a (slow-moving) success story. It seems to be the commercial, not the residential, element that is holding it back.

 

And, on a larger scale, this “we can’t rent you an apartment because your family is too big” situation really begs some unfortunate questions about our American society, in general.

Among them:

Why do we think 1500-2,000 square feet is too small for a family of 6? My guess is that a lot of the single-family housing that has been lost in OTR over the last century was about that size and, at the time of use, was housing far more than 4 people. (Seriously, check this out.)

American families keep getting smaller and our houses keep getting larger. Look at the numbers. It’s absurd how much space we think we need these days. This is why developers don’t want to build 3-bedroom units; they would need to be huge to satisfy the desires of the average 21st Century American family.

And, trust me, the average wealthy family of four doesn’t want to live in a 2-bedroom home anyway. So trying to market a $300,000 2-BR, single-family home in OTR “for a family” is a lost cause. This is what leads me to believe that developers never wanted families in the first place. They are smarter than that.

Which begs the question:

Where on earth did Americans get the idea that children can not/should not share bedrooms? American families have absurd standards of privacy and personal space found in few places on the planet. If I want to let my four kids sleep in the same room, why is that a big deal? Sure, I know I’ll feel differently when my kids are teenagers and smell bad and want more privacy. But, families adapt as their needs change and good parents get creative with limited space (and resources). Shouldn’t it be up to the parents to decide what is best for their family? I mean, geez, some of my neighbors are living in one bedroom apartments with dogs the size of middleschoolers. But it’s not okay to throw an extra kid or two in a room with their sisters?

– And, then, anecdotally-speaking: Why is it now more socially acceptable to take your dog into the local coffeeshop or to the neighborhood bar than it is to live in a walk-up apartment with more than two children?

Welcome to OTR, circa 2016.
Families need not apply.

 

 

 

Gentrification And The Rest of Us

Such a loaded word, isn’t it?
Depending on what circles you run in, gentrification can either elicit thoughts of boutique clothiers and unintelligibly-named restaurants or Manifest Destiny and displaced natives.

In my neighborhood, the debate is hot.
Is gentrification the savior of urban neighborhoods or the worst white-on-black crime since Jim Crow?

Concerning the issue in general, I’m pretty sure I’ve come to a few conclusions about it. Among them:

– I believe that, as a whole, economic diversity in a neighborhood is a positive thing that benefits all residents. Development should be encouraged because development diversifies the economic base of a neighborhood and increases economic mobility in residents. (For an interesting study on the difference between economic mobility in a low-income neighborhood compared to an economically diverse neighborhood, read this: City Observatory- A New Look at A Neighborhood Change.)

– I believe that in the City of Cincinnati, Over-the-Rhine is an extremely important neighborhood for the vitality and viability of the urban core and the city as a whole. So even though I generally prefer grassroots development, I am willing to entertain the idea that, for such a strategic and iconic neighborhood, it may have been appropriate to “force the hand” of development via City investments and incentives. (To what extent is another question entirely. I addressed it, briefly, in a letter to City Council two years ago.)

– My memories may only be 12 or so years old, but the difference on a mass scale between the OTR neighborhood pre-2004 (when the City and 3CDC started major investments) and today is stark. It is, in many pockets of the neighborhood (though not all), like night and day. Many long-term OTR residents talk about the “good old days” of the neighborhood as if they were completely blind to its blight and decay. I have no doubt in my mind that many of the residents of OTR pre-2004 loved their neighborhood, supported each other, and felt “at home” here. I know some of these long-term residents. I am glad they are here and I hope they stay forever. They are good neighbors but that doesn’t mean it was “a good neighborhood.” There are lovable parts and people in any community, even in places with high vacancy, high crime, and poverty-level income. I believe their strong community bond and sense of co-ownership of OTR existed because of and in response to the immense need for stabilization in a volatile environment, not because they lived together in a model Sesame Street community. Basically, they needed each other.

No one owns a neighborhood and every neighborhood changes over time. This is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s simply the way things are. Unless you’ve got the resources to buy up the whole neighborhood, you are always just a small part of a much bigger picture and will always be vulnerable to having your neighborhood change before your very eyes. White yuppies weren’t the first people in OTR and neither were low-income and working-class African Americans. It is unfortunate and sometimes painful to be the one whose neighborhood no longer resembles the neighborhood you loved, but you are not the first and you won’t be the last.

 

But what does this all mean?
I am confident with my ideological positions about gentrification, but they don’t tell the whole story because the story of a neighborhood is as much (or more) about the people as it is about the quality of the public parks or the crime rate or the bar : resident ratio.

Honest conversations about gentrification flip past ideology pretty quick because the primary opposition to gentrification is rarely ideological–it’s personal. It’s experiential. It’s the feeling a resident gets when he surveys his neighbors or walks to the store in the morning. It’s the contrast between the memories of “home” ten years ago and the reality of home today.

And this is where the gentrification debate gets difficult because, even with a strong ideological commitment to the kind of development it brings, it’s hard to deny the experience of living in a gentrifying neighborhood is… troublesome.

At least it is if you have your ear to the ground.

There are a lot of legitimate frustrations with the way my neighborhood’s major developments have transpired over the past 10 years. Or, I should say, how the residents without power or control in the neighborhood have experienced these changes.

For example:

– Developments have been almost completely driven by outside investment and influence with a lot of placating and patronizing neighborhood input sessions that don’t seem to make a difference.

– The cultural representation of these new developments is distinctly Anglo-centric and high-cost. For such an ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood, this is a problem.

– The vast majority of new developments have been entertainment-focused rather than community need-driven. (Boldly illustrated by a new boutique hamburger joint whose slogan is “What the neighborhood needed.” Fantastic burgers; terribly insulting slogan.)

– There is an awfully small group of people holding ownership of a significant portion of the collateral in the neighborhood. These few gatekeepers are, literally, standing between individual residents and smaller, privately-owned development companies designing their own neighborhood. Those who have secured affordable development property (or business leases) have likely brokered a relationship with these gatekeepers. If you’re not in the in-group, you’re out of luck. (As evidenced by the number of business owners opening multiple businesses within blocks of each other while other potentially viable entrepreneurs stand by.)

-Developments have happened so quickly that the infrastructure of the neighborhood simply cannot meet the demands of the influx of visitors to the neighborhood. Case in point: parking. It’s just a joke at this point

-Property values rise. Quickly. Which is great if you have the resources to buy and sell at a whim or if you were just biding your time until you could sell your house at a gain and leave the neighborhood. But for many of us, it means being priced out of our own neighborhood and knowing that, even if we decided to sell for the gain, we’d never be able to come back. The neighborhood has outgrown us. All real estate is now either inflated market value homes or subsidized low-income housing and there is no room for those of us in the middle. (See this and this for more of my very unprofessional opinion.)

 

Basically, when the majority of neighborhood development is done by outsiders (or those who feel like or seem like outsiders) and is done so quickly that there is little room for diversity, community input, and organic growth, the experience of gentrification becomes troublesome. Residents feel like visitors in their own neighborhood.

It doesn’t matter if you are black or white or if you’ve been here ten years or thirty. It’s hard to live in a neighborhood that no longer resembles the one you fell in love with. Or the one that raised you. Losing control sucks, no matter who you are.

My goal is not to minimize the experience of people who may have actually been victimized in some way by gentrification, because I know they exist, but to say that “I get it” and “I hear you.”

And to say that it should be okay to talk about gentrification ideologically, in a way that legitimizes the value of development and economic diversity, but to still honor the personal nature of neighborhood living and the experience of the people living there.

I don’t want to fight gentrification because, in a neighborhood like ours, it was probably necessary. But I want to to fight for a more equitable, viable neighborhood that resembles more the people who live and breathe it each day and less the ones who come for the impossible-to-pronounce charcuterie and aolis.

What would OTR look like if it had been allowed a slower, more organic growth?
Would you still visit?

 

(Just for kicks some day, do a slow walk up and down Vine St., between 12th St. and 14th., then compare it to Main St., between 12th St. and Liberty St., and see the many differences between a quick-growth and slow-growth business district. Which do you prefer? Where would you rather live? Why?)

 

How Strong is This Marriage?

10 years ago, I sold a guitar so I could pay my way to Cincinnati. I had no job and no savings; I had found an apartment only a few days prior. I was moving for a relationship, not for a city. In fact, Cincinnati was barely a blip on my radar and, as far as I could tell, the move was temporary.

10 years ago.

When I knew my ten year anniversary was around the bend, I considered doing something to celebrate. Throw a party. Release a new cd. Write a Top Ten list of my best Cincinnati memories. But as the days inched closer and closer, my heart grew more and more conflicted and I let the day pass last month without making much of a racket at all. Not publicly, at least. Privately, my mind and heart were wide awake and wild.

What the hell am I even doing here?

Oh, I know what I’m doing here. I’m living a pretty wonderful, charmed life. I am wife to a wonderful husband; I am mother to three beautiful, spirited children. I sometimes play music and sometimes plan community events and sometimes host parties and concerts and sometimes write articles and blogs and other assorted read-ables. Heck, I “do” a lot.

But how many of us really measure the wealth of our life by what we “do?”

I don’t.

I want to know “why” and “for what” and “to what end” am I here?
And, in that way, the “do” is rather inconsequential.
The “do” can come later.

When did I fall in love with Cincinnati?

From the moment I arrived, there have been wonderful people who have embraced me as their own and shared the best parts of Cincinnati with me. Many of those parts are hidden away in their favorite corners of the city, tucked into houses and storefronts and laughter and singing songs that no one other than those they call their own would care enough to notice. This city has become familiar to me in a way that I never expected. It welcomed me as its child and I fell in love with it, hidden piece by hidden piece.

But what does it mean to truly love a city? And how much of my love for Cincinnati is more about what it has given to me than about what I can give for it?

And, what does loving a city truly require?

Cities change.
Living in a growing, changing neighborhood has been a huge challenge for me because this neighborhood was a huge part of that first affection I felt for Cincinnati. And, with every small change, I’m losing a little bit more of what made this city feel like it was “mine” in the first place. And if I, being here only ten years, can feel such torn affections, imagine the heart and mind of someone whose entire history centers here.

There have been many times in the past few years when I was ready to cut and run.

The truth is: I. Want. Out.

But I’ve thought a lot about love and commitment and the concept of marriage recently. Not related, specifically, to my marital relationship but more related to my marriage to mission and work and my love of place. Wendell Berry talks about the idea a lot when he talks about farmers and their relationship to their land. It’s the idea of husbandry and it’s, sadly, a concept that has lost its gravity in its modern usage.

What would it mean to marry myself to this place?
What would it look like to make a covenant with this city?
How can I love this city and these people with the kind of love required in marriage?

Look, I’m not suggesting that a person’s relationship to their place holds nearly as much weight as an actual marriage. But I am suggesting that maybe we don’t really understand what we claim when we claim to “love our city” if we’re willing to just walk away when the affections wane or when the greener grass next door peeks our interest. Most people don’t think twice if a better opportunity, a bigger house, or a higher-paying job shows up.

But maybe, like a good marriage, loving our city means much more than the tickle in our belly or the ebb and flow of our affections.

I like the word “efficacious.” It’s a word I don’t use in conversation because it would make me sound obnoxious. But it’s a good word. And it’s one of the words I remind myself of most often when I consider whether or not I am acting in love toward another person. In the context of loving, efficacious love would be a love that is productive, effective, constructive, or beneficial. It is a love that is fruitful. One of the best ways I’ve heard it expressed is by St. Augustine when, in relationship to God, he wrote: Quia amasti me, fecisti me amabilem. (In loving me, you made me lovable.)

In loving me, you made me lovable. How awesome is that?

What would it look like to love this city in that way, in a way that made it better? Made it truly lovely?

Then, after committing to see that love through, what does it look like to love a city that doesn’t always love you back, at least not in the way you wish it would? What about when it no longer feels as welcoming or accepting? And what would it look like to truly love a city that grows up to be something other than the thing you always wished it would be?

How do you love a city that no longer resembles the city you first loved?

I’m sure most people don’t care too much about this stuff. They just move on when their affections shift. Find a more comfortable place to call “home.” But I can’t get the questions out of my head.

Wendell Berry writes about the responsibility to one’s place:

When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong.

What is my responsibility to this city– to this place that adopted me as its own, who gave me back my faith, gave me another chance at love, brought me my babies, and cradled me into adulthood?

The truth is that sometimes I just don’t have it in me to give back. Sometimes I feel like I’ve already given too much and that I’d like to take some time for myself. I want to find a wooded, wild, quiet place to raise my children without the fuss of loving a place and a people in return. (Because, in the city, it’s impossible to ignore the heart beating next door. You can hear it through the walls. And I’ve got enough damage to repair in my own heart and my own home, thankyouverymuch.) Why not find someplace more comfortable? A place that doesn’t require so much work?

So, I’ll ask it again: why am I here?

How deep is my love for this city?
How strong is this marriage?

I can’t honestly say whether or not Cincinnati will be my home in ten years’ time. This city doesn’t really need me. Not in the same way my family needs me. There may be another vision or mission around the bend.

For now, I’m thankful for this city. And reminiscent. A little melancholy. And pretty hopeful for its future.

This city has given me a lot in ten years’ time. I am praying I have something to offer in return, even if it’s not for forever.

Parking Permits, Grocery Trips, and The Dream of a Car-Free City

So how, exactly, are we going to pay for the operational costs of our new streetcar system? That’s the question of the age in Cincinnati, isn’t it?

A few solutions seem obvious to me: rider fares, sponsorships, and minimal tax increases in the immediate area (known as a TIF district). Beyond that, I’m not city-savvy enough to even pretend to have any easy solutions.

A few weeks ago, Mayor Cranley made a seemingly off-the-cuff suggestion that the City simply charge downtown and OTR residents a couple hundred bucks a year for a residential parking permit and that those funds be used to operate the streetcar. I’m not going to waste time making judgements about the Mayor’s intent in proposing this solution. Instead, let me offer my perspective on the idea itself.

First, OTR absolutely needs a residential parking program.
This has been a topic of conversation for a few years now as the development in the neighborhood brings more and more non-residents into the neighborhood and as more employees need a place to park during open hours. On a personal note, the difference between the ease of parking four years ago and the situation today is nearly night and day. And with a 600-seat music venue opening around the corner, I’m preparing for a rude awakening for all of us in a few weeks.

The folks at UrbanCincy.com think that the Mayor’s idea is reasonable. (You can read the editorial here.) The basic gist of the editorial is that driving is already subsidized in many ways and that it’s reasonable to begin asking residents to actually bear the cost of their driving habits. They compare the average monthly parking rates in the area to market rates in other cities. And they suggest that this could be implemented city-wide with the funds being used for various developments in other areas.

I’m actually sympathetic to the idea of charging residents for parking permits and, in some ways, I agree with the UrbanCincy.com editorial. But I think there are a few errors here.

We know that the $300 suggested permit fee is hundreds of dollars above the yearly fees in other cities. Some might suggest that the lower fees of other cities are too low and that they don’t even come close to matching the current subsidies. But I argue that, even if that is the case, it’s still unreasonable. It’s unreasonable because it’s asking residents of our city, which is only now catching up to comparably-sized cities to pay exponentially more for the benefits found in cities that are steps ahead of us. It’s essentially asking us to pay 22nd Century prices for 20th Century amenities.

You might say, like UrbanCincy.com, that the $25 a month that it would cost is still significantly lower than the average monthly parking rate (on lots and in garages) in the neighborhood, which is about $89. Well, yes, you’re right. But that $40-110 a month pays for security and availability. My $300 would not guarantee me a spot anywhere near my home. It would simply guarantee a spot somewhere on a “resident-only parking” street in the neighborhood which, with increased meter hours on every other street, might not mean much at all. Heck, we can’t even find the means to enforce street parking restrictions and vehicle-related crimes as they stand now. Do you really think the city is going to work hard to protect my $300 parking space?

Now, if we’re actually suggesting that every resident in every neighborhood with publicly-funded transit (including road improvements) is going to be asked to pay the same fees, I would get behind that. But good luck getting city-wide resident support for a $300 yearly fee to park on city streets. A more reasonable fee that is comparable to other forward-thinking cities seems like a better idea.

Second, the Mayor was quick to suggest that low-income residents of OTR would not have to pay these fees. So, a couple living in a $300,000 condo (that did not already have a safe, convenient parking garage that they are willing to pay for) would pay the $300 fee and then any random resident who can prove they get mail at an OTR address but don’t make enough money to pay the $300 can park for free? Let’s assume that by “low-income,” we mean the standard measurements used for subsidized housing in OTR, which is essentially, those making less than $35,000 a year. (I talked about this more in a recent post about “affordable housing.”) But what about those making between $35,000-120,000 a year? You know, the working- and middle-class residents? There is a reason many of us don’t pay for monthly parking spaces: we can’t afford them.

I’m not one to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, so I’m not willing to write off the whole idea. I do think the City should institute an official residential parking permit program. But I think the rate must be reasonable, attainable for middle-class residents, and must be instituted in all areas of the city where the City is paying for transportation improvements.

Lastly, let me speak from a mother’s perspective.

As much as I’m sympathetic to the young urbanist agenda for car-free, rail-strong cities, it’s important to remind everyone that a strong urban core must make room for families, not just empty-nesters, yuppies, and the childless creative class. Joel Kotkin who is always good at upsetting people with his views on urbanism, said it perfectly in a City Journal article a few years ago:

“In California, particularly, state and local officials push policies that favor the development of apartments over single-family houses and town houses. But by trying to cram people into higher-density space, planners inadvertently help push up prices for the existing stock of family-friendly homes. Such policies have already been practiced for decades in the United Kingdom, making even provincial cities increasingly unaffordable, as British social commentator James Heartfield notes. London itself is among the least affordable cities in the world. Even middle-class residents have been known to live in garages, converted bathrooms, and garden sheds.

“…Ultimately, everything boils down to what purpose a city should serve. History has shown that rapid declines in childbearing—whether in ancient Rome, seventeenth-century Venice, or modern-day Tokyo—correlate with an erosion of cultural and economic vitality. The post-family city appeals only to a certain segment of the population, one that, however affluent, cannot ensure a prosperous future on its own. If cities want to nurture the next generation of urbanites and keep more of their younger adults, they will have to find a way to welcome back families, which have sustained cities for millennia and given the urban experience much of its humanity.” – “The Childless City”

But, why does this matter? What is the correlation between parking and families?
Well, let me speak from personal experience: the logistics of raising a family in the city can be really hard. Particularly when you have to consider transporting multiple bodies and nightmares like unloading a trunk full of groceries with three kids in the car and no available parking spaces.

My children and I have definitely adapted to a semi-pedestrian lifestyle, can go days without hopping in a car, and are accustomed to walking a few blocks from car to front door. And my kids know no different. So, many of my childless friends think I should just get rid of the car and save myself the $300 and the bother of finding a convenient place to park.

It’s that simple, right?
Oh gosh, I wish it was.

Maybe for a family with 2 or fewer children; maybe with no family to visit in the suburbs and across the country; maybe without my husband’s side-work that requires complete mobility; maybe in a city that isn’t surrounded by hills that only an olympic cyclist could pedal with kids in tow; maybe in a city where ZipCar had vehicles that would actually fit a family (or even mentioned kids or carseats on their website!!); maybe in a city where any of my closest friends were actually willing/able to live in the urban core where we could walk to see them rather than drive.

But I digress.

Look, I’m not complaining. I knew what I was getting into when I decided to stick it out here, kids and all. So, let me clarify: I don’t think that true, urban living is ever truly “convenient” in the modern sense. And I believe, completely, that anyone can adapt to a pedestrian lifestyle which becomes more convenient in many other ways. But I think making car ownership an impossibility for so many of us, based on its cost alone, means cutting off a demographic that is too valuable to the city to lose.

There are some magical places in the world where a large family can live in the urban core without a vehicle–and without a $250,000 income. (Seriously, you’ve heard of this woman, right?) But we don’t live in one of those places. We live in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is still struggling to rally residents around the thought of a simple commuter lightrail line. Heck! It’s taken years to coerce one of the country’s largest grocers to open a legitimate urban-platform store in its home city!

Our urban ininfrastructure is far, far behind, my friends.
We may get there some day and I hope I’m here when we do. But we are not there yet.
And if we think that charging a few thousand residents $300 a year to park on city streets is going to usher our city into the next era of urban renaissance, we are wrong.

I think our attention needs to focus more holistically on creating a livable city for everyone–all incomes, all demographics–where people don’t just come for $10 hotdogs, but can actually live and shop and raise kids and open businesses in the same place where the Symphony rehearses and the Reds play.

This is the kind of city I want to build.
Not one for the elite; one for my children.
And a $300 parking permit might not seem like a huge deal in the entirety of the transit issue, but it’s just one more example of how the urban middle-class of our city may be destined for extinction.

And, if there is no place for the urban middle-class in Cincinnati, then maybe I’m in the wrong city.

 

 

Where We Play: Eden Park

photo from historylines.net

photo from historylines.net

Eden Park– Walnut Hills

* This a guest post by Steve Carr, a husband, father, and pastor in Walnut Hills. Visit him online here.

Overview: Eden Park, located in Walnut Hills and bordering Mt Adams, is one of Cincinnati’s most popular parks. Yet those who visit often miss out on the wide range of opportunities hidden throughout the park. It occupies a strip of land between two hills overlooking the Ohio River Valley and boasts ample open spaces, trails, and numerous water features.

A system of paths connect the divisions of the park. Starting at the south end of the park (at Mt Adams Drive) is the Playhouse in the Park. Behind the theater is a “mini-park” area with a CRC pool. Descending the hill, you encounter the Art Museum and (down the hill) the Seasongood Pavilion. Behind the pavilion is a path to Mirror Lake, a popular walking destination. From here you could descend down the hill toward basketball courts and the remnants of the old reservoir wall (bigger kids love climbing up the incline of the wall since they’re practically steps). Usually, people opt to ascend the hill toward Krohn Conservatory. While the conservatory now charges an admission fee, it’s still an incredibly popular Cincinnati destination.

At the northern end of the park, up the hill from the conservatory, is the Twin Lakes—a place where children can feed the ducks and play on the playground. Yet this isn’t the end of the park, as you can ascend even farther up the hill toward the Eden Park Water Tower and scenic Author’s/President’s Grove. From there, you can cross the Arch Bridge to the Overlook, one of the park’s many scenic vistas.

General Cleanliness: Despite the high-traffic throughout the park, it is often very clean. The Twin Lakes area is a popular Sunday picnic location so it’s most chaotic then.

Parking: Parking is available throughout the park. If you decide to explore areas up the hill and don’t want to walk, you can move your car. If you decide to visit the Art Museum, you can save money by parking on Mt Adams Drive and taking the short walk to the museum.

Bathroom Facilities: Yes, in two locations: next to the parking at Mirror Lake and by the Twin Lakes at the top of the hill.

Picnic Areas: There are designated areas throughout the park. Still, the Twin Lakes tables are the most popular destination.

Playground: There are two playgrounds in the park. The most popular one is located at the Twin Lakes and was recently renovated. The lesser known playground is by the pool by Playhouse in the Park and is a great place to let smaller children explore a play set without getting trampled by older children.

Other Amenities: The Gazebo by Mirror Lake is very popular. There’s now a paved walking path leading from there up to the Magnolia Grove which is another hidden gem. You could visit this park over and over again and have a new experience on every trip.

 

Look for a separate review of Eden Park’s Hinkle Garden in a future post!

*This is the fifth in the “Where We Play” series. If you’d like to contribute a park review as a guest blogger, send me a note at ejmcewan@gmail.com.*