[The view of the vast Ohio River from the Taylor Southgate bridge, with Cincinnati's stadium-encrusted waterfront on the right, and Covington, Kentucky off in the distance.]
Of all places I have walked, Cincinnati has the saddest sidewalks in the world. I’ve never felt such pangs of regret, of tragedy, of missed opportunities than walking the streets of Cincinnati last summer. It’s one of the reasons why it’s taken me so long to digest my experience there, part of my last summer’s Amtrak trip through Chicago, DC, Savannah, Durham, and New London.
I was in Cincinnati for a friend’s wedding, staying in a nice hotel downtown, and my first reaction to the new place, after stepping out of the wonderful train station, was how similar the city seemed to my Twin City hometowns. Cincinnati, like the Twin Cities, is an old Midwestern river city that was extensively modernized during the 50s and 60s, and serves as a regional hub, boasting of local pride. The population of Cincinnati is just above Saint Paul’s, and just below Minneapolis’s. And, just like locals love mentioning Garisson Keillor, anyone from Cincinnati will tell you to try the skyline chili, a local mix of spaghetti, chili, oyster crackers, and tons and tons of shredded cheese. Similarly, the city’s slogan – “The Queen city” – is everywhere, as are barges and paddleboats and bridges and fans of the local baseball team. (Not only that, but the Twins and the Reds have long been joined in a kind of vampiric symbiosis, as their two General Managers had worked together and arranged a great many trades for some of the most mediocre players in the majors, like Kyle Loshe and Luis Rivas. [shudder])
There is, too, a similar sort of backwardness. Mark Twain allegedly quipped, ’When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always 20 years behind the times.” (And that was 120 years ago!) The same could certainly be said of Saint Paul, and in either place you get a provincial feeling of a place on the edge – for Cincinnati, the Ohio River marks the edge of the North and the great South, and the TC sits on the edge of the East and the West, with nothing between here and the Pacific Ocean save Butte, Montana.
[Just like in Minneapolis, Cincinnati has one of these sidewalk-eating parking ramps that sticks its little tongue out into the middle of the walkway and laps up cars, forcing people to walk underneath a concrete tunnel.]
If they are similar, though, Cincinnati seems to me a Twilight Zone version of the Twin Cities where everything urban has gone wrong. When I did some research on the city before going there, everything said that I needed to get to Fountain Square, which was the heart of the downtown. It was most disappointing. The fountain had been moved and de-centered a few years back, and today it lays surrounded by a desert of poured concrete, hemmed in by the tall dull facades of bland office buildings. There was an occasional group of people hanging around it the fountain, but it largely had the feel the many lifeless institutional modernist plazas that dot the landscape of American cities like measles (e.g. Hennepin County Gov’t center, which is actually far more lively than Fountain Square).
[Three views of fountain square, one of them flattering. The fountain is very nice, though. It spouts water in all sorts of ways from a great variety of cast iron figurines. One of my great problems with Fountain Square is that its not demarcated; its almost as if the street extends right into the middle of the square, and you can easily imagine some dude in an SUV just driving all over this piece of pedestrian pavement. It compares quite unfavorably to Saint Paul's Rice Park, for example.]
The city was apparently trying to liven up its square. They were hosting events, and had installed a giant rectangular TV screen above the facing Macy’s. The screen was largely illegible during the daytime, and screened a constant ‘big brother’ feed of the square, as if to say “you’re being watched.” But during the evenings, they were using the screen to show movies to the public, and I guess it’d be fun to watch a film there if you enjoy the visual experience of a drive through. It's certainly an attempt to move in the right direction, to recreate some life on the city's sidewalks, even if a few neck-craning details had been overlooked. But Fountain Square was far too institutional and alienating for me, even though the fountain itself is very nice.
[A scene that will be familiar to any Twin Citian: a map and skyway, only here it lurks in a city that doesn't even have winter to speak of.]
Cincinnati is also one of the few cities in America, save for our very fine Twin Cities, that can boast of a skyway system. I’ve often complained (and I will again) that our skyways are a soul-sucking blight on our downtowns, feature the worst kind of public space, and represent not just a stratified class system but reinforce a veritable fear of the out-of-doors, but at the very least we have a dozen or so cold winter days to justify these lifeless bridges between buildings. In Cincinnati, they don’t even have snow! It might be a bit hot, climate-wise, but if you ever want to see a place whose streets have been destroyed by skyways, go to Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s like an entire downtown of nothing but Town Squares and City Centre’s, Galtier Plazas and Pillsbury HQ’s. Most of the office buildings host interior atria, like this one in the gargantuan Westin Hotel,* where everything closes at 5 pm and boasts all the ambience of a high school swimming pool.
Cincinnati also has a legacy of terrible freeway placement, and auto-oriented streets. The interstate, I -71, runs directly between the downtown and the Ohio River, which, quite frankly, kicks the Mississippi’s butt when it comes to being a large, impressive river. (Our river might have a nice name, but it carries less water than the Minnesota, Missouri, Saint Croix, or Ohio…) And the large freeway makes it difficult, unpleasant, and boring to actually try and walk down to the riverbanks, to attempt to enjoy the wide muddy vistas between Ohio and Kentucky. The freeway in the way means that anyone trying to find the water has to explore the undersides of massive overpasses, spelunking along sidewalks that run under cars, along mesh fences. The riverfront itself is concrete, and there’s not much down there except the two massive stadiums that the city has no doubt subsidized to the gills, and a museum devoted to the African-American experience.
[Four scenes of the riverfront area, and how it makes life difficult for those on sidewalks. Everything's out of scale. Everything's concrete. Imagine walking around here at night!]
The stadia sit along the river’s banks like a hippo in a kiddie pool, and whatever hope the city may have once had to get people living alongside and enjoying the riverfront once again was surely nixed by these humongous concrete structures. Apparently, the giant blank space in the photo below will one day be a mixed-use development, but the funding hasn’t come through, and at present, the only thing that’s down by the river is the backside of football bleachers. (Now, I did go to a Reds game, an interleaguer where I saw Sammy Sosa delightfully strike out, and the experience was probably exactly the kind of isolated, completely determined environment that major league sports executives like – the kind of thing where the stadium is an island, and every dollar spend on the evening goes right to the team, from food to parking to souvenirs… (I dream of ballparks that are embedded in their communities, and allow for economic agglomeration effects and spillover with mixed-use environments near the stadium, e.g. Wrigley, Fenway, old Yankee, …) At least we’re cramming our new waste-of-money stadium on a small site between a garbage burner, freeway, and a giant wall of parking lots. (What Cincinnati did would be kind of like having two Metrodomes right where the new Guthrie theater is, virtually guaranteeing that nobody would enjoy walking along the riverfront ever again.)
[The side of Cincinnati's new "Great American Ballpark", where the Redstockings play. To its left sits a giant vacant parcel, where someday a mixed use development will be placed. Personally, I think its the perfect site for Trooien's Bridges of Saint Paul.]
It’s a shame that Cincinnati's riverfront is so dominated by pro sports, too, because the city’s bridges are wonderful to walk across. There are a number to choose from, leading from Ohio to Kentucky, but the one that everyone should walk on is the purple people bridge, a pedestrian-only walkway bridge that carries folk from Downtown Cincinnati to Newport, Kentucky. Now, Newport is a place that’s has one of those new suburban potemkin downtowns, like Maple Grove or Woodbury, with little shops lining a very walkable sidewalks along the riverbank. Every local that I talked to in Cincinnati told me to go down here, because it was nice, and because its practically the only place I ever went where I saw people from the suburbs enjoying themselves. If anything, Newport serves as an example of what the rest of the city could look like if they ever pulled their sidewalks out of their modernist asses.
[Two views of Newport, Kentucky: on the left shoppers prepare to enter a Barnes & Noble; on the right, people gaze at Cincinnati from a safe distance.]
Finally, a few folks told me that Cincinnati has a lot of corporate headquarters (a boast exactly the same as a common Twin Cities meme). But the one that I found, Procter and Gamble, sat on the edge of downtown like a fortress, surrounded by gates and concrete and giant parking lot moats. All in all, there were precious few sidewalk-friendly features in downtown Cincinnati, and from my street-level view, it seemed that most of what the government was attempting to do was having negative effects, making the walkability problems even worse. (The same holds true for the massive Kroger HQ.)
(The one exception was this nice rapid transit stop, along the street that runs just past Fountain Square. It was kind of like a Bus Rapid Transit stop, and definitely broke up the concrete uniformity of the downtown core.)
[One of the main streets of Cincinnati, Ohio, where people wait for the bus and admire the 60s architecture.]
So, that’s all the bad stuff. I suppose we should say that Cincinnati has a right to do what it wants with its space. As far as that goes, Cincinnati would be just another typical American city, like Dallas or Charlotte, albeit a particularly bleak and lifeless example. But that wouldn’t be enough to make Cincinnati's sidewalks the saddest sidewalks in the world . . .
No, the big difference between Cincinnati and the Twin Cities is that Cincinnati is far far older than Saint Paul or Minneapolis. In fact, Cincinnati was the first non-coastal boomtown in America,** and peaked sometime in the early- to mid-1800s with a flood of German immigrants crossing the Appalachians to get to the very-navigable Ohio River. Cincinnati boasted large populations of people who, at one time slaughtered more pork than anywhere in the world (Cincinnati named itself “porkopolis”). And today, Cincinnati has the largest contiguous historic district in the country in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. I’d read about Over-the-Rhine on historic preservation websites: it was a huge area of old buildings next to downtown Cincinnati, and had recently been given, en masse, historic preservation status. It was named after the old Miami and Erie Canal that had run from the Ohio River and around downtown, which the German immigrants had taken to calling the Rhine River as they crossed it to go to work every day.*** So one Sunday morning, I set out to find it.
I didn’t have a map, so I wandered off in what I’d thought was its general direction, off to the East in the direction of the train station. As it turned out, I was going completely the wrong way, but it became a blessing as I wandered into Over-the-Rhine from the back side.
[The street on which I found myself. Not a soul to be seen, really. Lots of vacant lots, in between the beautiful old buildings. This could be Minneapolis, in a bizarro world.]
I found myself entering the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood somewhere near York Street north of Liberty, and of all the cities I’ve wandred in, I can say that I’ve never been more blown away by the beauty of the old buildings. This part of the country has huge amounts of in-tact turn of the century hosuing stock… row houses with Victorian elegance, woodwork, porticoes and cornices, brickwork and bay windows, porches and stoops. I’ve also never been more blown away by the decrepit conditions of the houses I saw, as I wandered for miles through the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. I was solicited by a nice lady on a Sunday morning, nobody was out and about, and I didn’t feel like it would have been very ethical to take many photos of this part of town.
But there’s no doubt that this part of the city has never seen a bulldozer. Considering the amount of time I spend in Minnesota mourning the loss of old places – Nicollet Park, the Metropolitan Building, old Dale Street – its absolutely amazing to me that this amount of old building stock survived intact in the United States.
[Findlay Market, a quite nice place to buy a canteloupe, or sit on the stoop. Unfortunately, its the only nice place to do such things in the entire Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, as far as I could tell.]
I wandered for quite a while until I happened across Findlay Market, one of the last remaining old covered markets in the US. Findlay Market forms the heart of Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine community, and is hands down the most interesting place I saw when I was in the city. (In fact, its exactly the kind of old covered market that was bulldozed to make a parking lot in Savannah, GA ... a move which is now being undone at great cost.) It's clearly, too, the focal point of the city's attempts to renovate this huge, sprawling preserved gem, and when I was there I found a health food store, and a few dozen people gearing up for what promised to be fruit and vegetable sales, food sales, and a host of other things...
[The beautiful old buildings extend to the old canal -- the Rhine -- where they quickly transform into 60s modernist office buildings.]
The buildings in the neighborhood, just any of the buildings in Over-the-Rhine, were gorgeous three story brownstones that wouldn't be out of place in San Francisco, and the entire experience would have been like going back in time and stepping into a postcard, if all the houses along the streets surrounding the market hadn't been boarded up. I've had similar experiences in places like Memphis or Baltimore, where small parts of the city are somewhat renovated and surrounded by bombed out houses... but I felt like the social and economic activity in Findlay Market was primarily oriented toward the community that lived there, if only because I didn't think anyone else in Cincinnati would have been willing to come down to the Over-the-Rhine and frequent the marketplace.
But walking from Findlay Market back to the downtown center, you pass through block after block after block of gorgeous Victorian building, with opulent detailing and boarded up windows. There are a few places that are making use of the first-floor commercial space, including a fabulous old bar and used bookstore on Main Street that had been restored and served me a morning coffee. But none of the buildings had any shops. Wikipedia's entry on Over-the-Rhine lists is declining population thus:
- 1900: 44,475
- 1960: 30,000
- 1970: 15,025
- 1980: 11,914
- 1990: 9,572
- 2000: 7,500
Correction: The streetcar will be built, and will hopefully be running by 2011. Note that that is far sooner than the Twin Cities' University Avenue light rail, which has been on the books since the early 80s.
[Maybe its a coincidence, but Cincinnati has a Race Street, a "Jail Al", and a plaque dedicating the site of the first US Correctional Congress.]
(Don't get me wrong, there are people living in Over-the-Rhine, but I've gotten this far in this entry without mentioning Cincinnati's rather tragic history of race relations, and I 'd kind of like to keep the focus on the buildings. Here's a link to a video which I think reflects well the social conditions of the Over-the-Rhine, and its problems with relating to greater Cincinnati.)
If the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood were in Minneapolis, or Saint Paul, or San Francisco, it'd be one of the nicest, most interesting, most desirable addresses around. In Cincinnati, the very same neighborhood is languishing in a city that has spent all its investment capital on skyways and stadiums, leaving Over-the-Rhine to serve as an emblem of the tortured racial inequality that has marked America since its inception. It's why walking Cincinnati's streets you find the saddest sidewalks in America.
* The Westin Hotel Chain is also responsible for partially destroying one's experience of walkable, beautiful Savannah, GA. No doubt they promise pots of money to city councilmen...
** Saint Louis doesn't count.
*** The canal has a unbelievable, fascinatingly tragic story too.