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?)

 

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Read This: The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs

I was very happy to discover this today, as I searched for a few links to include on my letter to Cincinnati’s City Council regarding proposed parking changes in my neighborhood. I might post that letter a bit later but, for now…

An excerpt:

“…cities desperately need conservatives. These are places that have been abandoned to the left for decades. Many urban dwellers are hungry for better government. They want a more responsive bureaucracy. They favor unwinding many of the stifling regulations and perverse subsidies that have built up over the years. They are angry with the political patronage systems run by a governing class that has been unchallenged for decades. Why would conservatives cede this ground so easily?

Read it here: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/urbs/the-conservative-case-against-the-suburbs/

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.*

What’s Missing From the “Affordable Housing” Conversation?

This past week, in Cincinnati, Facebook and Twitter were on fire with comments and conversation about a Cincinnati Enquirer article that revealed the Over-the-Rhine Community Council (OTRCC) is trying to put an end to 3CDC‘s monopoly on the development of City-owned vacant properties in OTR. I’ve been planning on writing about similar issues (specifically, my evolving thoughts on the implications of gentrification), but I’m putting that aside for a while longer to write a bit about the issues addressed in the article.

I’m going to try to be brief because, gosh, there is a whole lot to say and I’m not qualified to speak about most of it. I’m just going to speak as an “insider,” as someone who started working in OTR right about the time when 3CDC began their development and someone who has lived here for the past 6 years. And, also, as someone who has secured affordable housing in an increasingly-difficult urban real estate market. I’m the first to admit that there are many other residents who are more qualified than I am to speak about OTR’s housing situation and the specifics of housing subsidies. But I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

(A few nights ago, I wrote a longer, more comprehensive post about this issue, but decided to condense it before I posted it today. I wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped to be. Sorry!)

Here we go.

There are three really important questions missing from the conversation about housing in downtown Cincinnati. Let me draw out the conversation here and you can let me know if you see the void, too.

The conversation at-hand (and in the article) is about the region of Over-the-Rhine north of Liberty Street and whether or not 3CDC should have first dibs on the development of various properties that the city owns. One of the primary concerns is “affordable housing.” But let’s forgo the specifics for a moment and speak more broadly about the issue of urban housing, affordability, and what is currently at stake.

What does the term “affordable housing” actually mean? Well, according to the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), it means housing costs that do not exceed 30% of a household’s income. But although the term “affordable housing” is a very broad term that applies to people at all income levels, those who concern themselves with fighting for affordable housing are usually speaking on behalf of those who are most vulnerable to rising prices. Because, really, when your income rises above a certain amount–$150k a year, for example–you could essentially choose to live most anywhere you want and find something that would be considered “affordable.” Usually, the term “affordable housing” is used in conversations about housing that is subsidized with public money to make up the difference between market rate prices and what residents can actually afford. (A local organization, the Affordable Housing Advocates, has some great fact sheets posted on their website that help explain the nuts & bolts of how this works out.)

Let me (try to) explain how this works in numbers, using the example of eligibility on the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) website.

As best I understand it, nationwide, there are a few levels of qualifying income for HUD subsidized housing and they vary from 30-80% of the median family income (MFI) for their particular area. But, in Cincinnati, the vast majority of people qualifying for the available subsidized housing are between the 30-50% of MFI level. The MFI in Cincinnati is about $71k a year and the average family size in the US is currently hovering around 2.55 people. So, using CMHA’s guildelines, a qualifying Cincinnati household could make between $17k-35k a year*. A single earner making $17k a year would make just over $8 an hour, a little over minimum wage. According to the data found here, the average full-time worker at this income level has less than a high school education. Now, for $35k a year, a full-time worker would be paid about $16.5 an hour.

So, there is your average HUD-qualifying family.

* I should have clarified that, according to the CHMA guidelines, the baseline for qualification is based on a four-person family. You can see the CHMA site to see how the income amount is pro-rated based on family size. Technically, my income amounts for a 3-person family are off by a few thousand dollars a year, but not enough to invalidate my estimates.

When we hear conversations about cities and developers guaranteeing “affordable housing,” we are usually talking about housing that this kind of family (as well as those who fall economically below this scenario) can afford at 30% of their gross income. So, to get specific according to government standards of affordability, affordable housing for this family may fall anywhere between $425/month and $875/month. If the market rate of rental units in any given area rises above these amounts, the government can step in and subsidize the cost for the family by either providing discounted housing or by paying a Section 8 landlord the difference in the amounts. Cities can also force developers into contractual obligations to provide this subsidized housing.

Now, let’s explore the rest of the people in our city and what would be considered “affordable” for them.

If we divide the US population into fifths, the lowest-income 2/5 of the population fall into the HUD-qualifying category ($0-35k/year). The next 2/5 fall into the “about average” median income category (which is 60-150% of MFI or about $36-100k/year). Remember, the MFI in Cincinnati is $71k a year. So, in numbers, affordable housing for the average family in Cincinnati would be $1,775/month.

What can the top 20% of earners afford to pay for housing? Well, the top fifth of Cincinnati households earn about $101k a year or more. Using the lowest earners in this bracket as our example, this high-income family could afford at least $2500/month in housing costs.

How does this all translate into the cost of home ownership? At the highest end of the lowest 2/5 income bracket here, affordability translates–roughly–into payments on a <$100k mortgage (including taxes and other costs). In the middle 2/5 bracket, we’re talking about payments on a $100k-300k+ mortgage. And, in the top fifth percentile, the price can increase astronomically.

What does this all mean and why does it matter?
Let’s bring it back to Cincinnati and Over-the-Rhine specifically.

And I’ll try to wrap this up as quickly as I can.

What is currently available in market rate housing in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati?

For Rent (just a snapshot, obviously): http://www.trulia.com/for_rent/5427_nh/map_v

For Sale (again, a snapshot): http://www.trulia.com/for_sale/5427_nh/map_v

Unless you’re checking those links in the year 2020 and the market has either crashed or soared, you might be saying to yourself, “Hm. Over-the-Rhine still seems pretty affordable to me.”

Until you look at this: 3CDC’s available housing stock.
A quick search for available units under $300k yields only two condos with two-bedrooms, both around $250k. The rest of the options are studios and one-bedroom condos. Their site does not list apartment rental pricing (perhaps because the market moves so quickly or because so few units are actually available right now). And there are currently no single-family homes available. (Though their website lists them as priced from $290k.)

So, now, back to the article.
Why is the Over-the-Rhine community up in arms about 3CDC developing more of this housing north of Liberty?
That’s actually a legitimate question seeing as 3CDC has done a fantastic job at increasing the economic viability of a few other areas of OTR. They are fiscally responsible, efficient, and historically-sensitive. And the overall safety, beauty, and quality of life in the neighborhood has undeniably improved. Anyone who claims otherwise is either delusional, has never been here, or was never here before 2005. But the OTRCC (You can read their letter to City Council here.) and other groups concerned with the housing situation in OTR see a problem and I think they’re on to something.

There are many properties sitting vacant and neglected in OTR, especially in the area north of Liberty St. And my understanding is that City Council is considering giving 3CDC a blanket permission to develop many of them however they see fit. But, 3CDC is not developing OTR for the actual, average resident of OTR (which has been, for the past few decades, a low income demographic). And they are not creating affordable housing for the other residents of Cincinnati who would like to move to OTR. They are developing OTR for the people who will buy those beautiful $300,000 condos you see on their website. The top fifth of the population. The $100k+ earners. The doctors, lawyers, and executives. The ones with .5 children or no children at all. Or the ones who have already raised their kids or retired early with their pockets full and sold the big family house in the suburbs and moved here for a new season of their lives.

You know the adage “if you build it, they will come?” Well, they built it. And, boy, they are coming in droves.

So, can you blame the rest of the community for wanting a piece of the action? Some of my neighbors have lived here since long before 3CDC incorporated. And they want access to the properties that the City of Cincinnati is poised, ready to hand-over to 3CDC for another manifest destiny-type of neighborhood overhaul. And they want the new developments and homes and shops and restaurants to look more like them.

So, it sounds like I agree with OTRCC, right?
Well, I do.
Sort of.

I think that 3CDC should start bowing-out of the development and let a more diverse group of individuals and businesses take ownership of some other regions of the neighborhood. And I think the City needs to find a way to release some of their holdings to responsible parties that don’t have multimillion dollar budgets. But when I hear the rally cry of OTRCC and I hear them say “we want more affordable housing,” I know that it’s far too difficult for a government to guarantee actual, market-rate affordability and that their only solution will be “subsidized housing.” And then I see the proposed “solution” to the problem, which is that the City will make 3CDC sign a contact that guarantees a certain percentage of the new housing is affordable for low-income residents, and I go—

“Wait, wait. Aren’t we missing something here!?”

 

So, tell me, what’s missing from the conversation about affordable housing?

I think there are three important questions we are not asking.

First-
What are the implications of an urban core with no affordable housing for the average median family? You know, the middle 2/5 of Cincinnati households with full-time wage earners who keep the economy afloat by bearing the brunt of the physical work, skilled labor, trades, and small, community-oriented businesses? Where is the average family going to go when 50% of the housing in OTR is subsidized for those below $35k and the rest is at a market price that is rising so rapidly that it will be unattainable in only a few years? And what about a family with more than 1 child? What will be available for them when anything not subsidized is either a one-bedroom, $150k condo or a $350k+ single-family home (like the ones 3CDC has already sold!)?

A common misconception is that middle-class families don’t want to live in the urban core. But this is simply not the case. Remember: if you build it, they will come. And if you don’t think that the most (economically) sustainable way to build an urban core is to build it for the hard-working middle-class, you are crazy. In January of last year, I wrote a bit about the possibility that urban revitalization in Cincinnati would force out the urban middle class. This issue is even more pressing now that vacant or undeveloped properties are at a premium (and held hostage by the City and by developers) and finished, rehabbed properties are unaffordable for the average median family.

There will always be subsidized housing in cities (even if not with public money) because good people will always speak for the ones who can’t speak for themselves. But there will not always be actual, affordable, pay-out-of-your-pocket housing for the rest of us. It’s those of us in the middle who will have to leave.

 

Second-
Does subsidized housing alleviate the burden of poverty for working families, or does it simply perpetuate it?
Think of it this way: if you were currently living in Section 8 housing in an area like OTR, increasing your income by $20,000 a year could easily disqualify you for subsidized housing (along with other available goverment aid). This would push you into that middle-income no-man’s land of affordable housing and make it nearly impossible to afford your current neighborhood.

Basically, subsidized low-income housing is a trap. And it’s easy to understand why so many people get stuck there. Why would anyone finish high school, attend college, apply for a higher-paying job, or encourage a spouse to find employment when it could mean being stuck in the middle-class where no one is looking out for you and you don’t always have the means to look out for yourself? Losing a housing subsidy may force a family to relocate completely out of their neighborhood, away from friends, family, and a wealth of job and educational opportunities.

Please tell me we can come up with a better option than subsidies.

 

Third-
Why aren’t we diverting more support to increasing home ownership among the working poor and low income families, rather than providing supplemental rent support? After all, the benefits of home ownership on families, children, and communities have been touted since The American Dream was first envisioned. I understand that short-term and emergency housing is necessary for some. But, surely there are many among the “working poor” would would rather find a way into home ownership than continue renting. If you ask me (and I plan on writing about this eventually), a goalpost of “gentrification” should be the economic mobility of all residents. In other words, how can we create an urban core where families stuck in cycles of poverty aren’t just placated there, but are actually moved upward and into self-sufficiency, while still being able to live anywhere they want for as long as they want?

 

 

There are still hundreds of properties left in OTR (as well as in Pendleton, the West End, and Mt Auburn) that would be fantastic opportunities for middle-income residents to develop businesses and create family homes in the urban basin of Cincinnati. And there are many good people with great ideas who would gladly take on the task. But there seems be a deep chasm between the desire of those who would and the resources of those who can. And, realistically, why would developers like 3CDC sell a property (that they bought for next to nothing) to a middle-income earner at $20k (for them to develop or renovate) when they could just as easily develop it themselves and sell it for $600k to a wealthy retiree?

I would love to see a stronger urban middle-class in Cincinnati. I think it’s absolutely necessary for the positive movement in Cincinnati to continue. (Read this 2009 piece by Joel Kotkin for a nationwide perspective.)

That’s why I don’t want “more affordable housing.” Instead, I want more opportunities for the working- and middle-class to develop a homegrown, economically viable community of their own in the urban core. And I believe that, when that happens, the fluid movement of all residents between income levels and social strata will be possible. And this is what is truly missing from the conversation about housing in downtown Cincinnati.

Thanks to folks like 3CDC, OTR is now viable enough to be the perfect ground for an experiment in what would happen if the people who “would if they could” finally get to.

The City of Cincinnati and 3CDC are holding the cards for the next phase of development here. I’m excited/scared/curious to see what the next ten years will bring here in Over-the-Rhine. And I’m hoping folks like me find a way to stick around and see it all happen.

 

Hey, Cincinnati Families!

I’m looking for a few Cincinnati families to contribute to a blog series this summer called “Where We Play.”

20140505-115912.jpg

You’d be responsible for reviewing a Cincinnati-area park or playground and allowing me to post your review on the blog. I’ll give you a list of questions to answer. You’d also take a few photos to post with the review.

It would be credited to you as a “guest blogger” and I’ll gladly link to your blog, if you’d like.

Preference will be given to bloggers and playspaces near the city center, especially lesser-known and off-the-beaten-path spots. (Including Northern Kentucky.)

Email me if you’re interested and let me know where YOU play!

Read this: News from Elsewhere

A few excellent articles worth sharing:

 

1. Here’s How Much Money You Must Earn To Buy A Home In 25 Big US Cities via Business Insider

Although this doesn’t seem to take into account the enormous amounts of debt and extravagant living expenses of most Americans, it does point to the fact that homeownership is relatively affordable for most of us. In Cincinnati, where the average home is just over $100k, “the American dream” is well within reach.

2. Pigs and Chickens Save Struggling Kansa School via World

I might not be a fan of standardized schooling, in general, but I could get behind an agricultural-based school. I wonder what this would do in an urban setting in the Midwest?

3. Chicago Aims to Beat Detroit on Horse-Drawn Carriage Ban via NextCity

Our city has a few horse-drawn carriages in the Central Business District and, as a downtown resident, I’ve heard varied opinions about them. This article offers an interesting discussion about the issue and how it’s playing out in two other cities.

4. The Yuppie Price Index for Services via Locality

Cincinnati was not included in this list (I wonder why?), but it’s interesting nonetheless. What exactly does it cost to be a yuppie in this city?

5. The Case for Big Cities, in 1 Map via the Washington Post

In 31 states, one or two metro areas account for the vast majority of economic output in the state.  Those numbers make clear that while you may like to hate on big cities, you — and we — need them.

It’s hard to ignore such striking facts. I would love to see one done on a local level. There’s got to be some Cincinnati-based data analyst willing to put together a similar study (and infographic!) for our region…

 

 

Enjoy!

 

A Quick Note about Subsidization

Subsidization.

Depending on which side you’re on, the word elicits either hope or disgust.

I’m sympathetic to both sides.

I have worked in the nonprofit industry for the past 9 years and know firsthand how stark the difference is between private donations and corporate funds. In our world, the difference between small award money and large government grants can easily mean the decision of sticking to volunteer help vs hiring paid staff, seeking free tagline promotion vs paying for billboards, or repairing outdated computers vs upgrading to new office supplies. Subsidies make the impossible possible. And, when used strategically, they provide better services and improved efficiency which, in turn, actually paves the way toward independence and increased capacity.

Conversely, I understand that the goal of every entity is to be independent of government handouts and subsidies, free from corporate entanglements, and at liberty to make decisions without needing to answer to those who are actually footing the bill. And I do believe that privatized systems usually do work better and more efficiently (which is why I am not a Socialist).

When it comes to an issue like the Cincinnati streetcar–whose controversy has made national newsthe opposition has a legitimate point: Why should residents in the outskirts of the city subsidize a project that (directly) benefits only a small minority of the population? Like I said, it’s a legitimate question.

So it needs to be addressed.

One of the gentlemen who commented on my blog post about the streetcar debate echoed many other Cincinnatians when he wrote (mocking me by his quote):

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

I am sympathetic to his point and I’ve heard it said a million times in a million different ways. But I believe it speaks out of a misunderstanding of how vibrant cities actually work.

A metropolitan area is a complex machine. If a city were the human body (the most complex machine in existence), the city’s infrastructure would be the veins and arteries and the people would be the blood vessels. The urban core is the heart of the city. The heart pumps the blood that pushes out into the rest of the body to move the limbs and keep the brain functioning at full capacity. If the heart dies, the rest of the body dies.

What does this have to do with subsidies?

No part of the body–or the city–functions alone. We all want to pretend that we exist independently of each other, but we don’t.

Too many of us have a false sense of autonomy.  It’s as if we believe that we are “self-made men” who have not (directly or indirectly) benefited from the financial investments of others. And maybe it’s true. Maybe we never accepted $20 from our parents for gas money. Maybe we didn’t attend a public university with the help of some sort of financial aid. Maybe we purchased our home with cash and have never borrowed from a bank. Maybe our neighborhood association paid for the street lights on our street. Maybe we wrote a personal check to off-set the cost of the mega-grocery store relocating to the shopping complex down the road. Maybe we don’t send our kids to Cincinnati Public Schools or use city trash services. Maybe we live off the grid and use electricity from solar panels (that were made by a company that was not partially-funded by a government grant).

Maybe someone somewhere lives in a place that is growing and thriving and a safe, wonderful place to live, but where everyone pays for only their own stuff and no one ever has to share anything.

But I don’t live in that place.
I live in a city.
And, in a city, we share.

When we choose to live in a city–and I don’t mean an “urban area,” I mean an incorporated City in the proper sense–we make a promise to cooperate with our neighbors to make the city a better place for all of us. When we have an opportunity to embark on a new project that could benefit us all, we do it together or we don’t do it at all. And, if we can’t agree how to do it or how to pay for it, we put it up for a vote and the majority rules.

I understand that some people are skeptical of the streetcar project. I’ve admitted many times that I’m a bit skeptical myself. But, in this instance, the majority has already ruled.

Twice.

When people on the edges of Cincinnati say that they “shouldn’t have to pay” for development in our urban core, they are functioning with that false sense of autonomy. They act like the quality of life or culture, energy, or economic vitality of the urban core means nothing for the quality of their own lives. It’s as if they’ve never watched a Bengal’s game. Or had a job with one of downtown’s Fortune 500 companies. Or their kids didn’t beg to go see the fireworks on the riverfront or the Christmas tree on the square or the exhibit at the museum. Or they didn’t buy their wives or husbands or grandparents or secretary a ticket to the Symphony or the ballet.

Amenities and cultural institutions are what make Cincinnati a vibrant and desirable place to live, work, and play. A healthy urban core gives businesses and institutions a safe and comfortable place to exist and a safe and comfortable place for you to bring your out-of-town guests (and take your urban-chic family photos, which are all the rage among suburban folk). Without a healthy urban core, we decentralize these amenities to a point where we lose the very thing that draws people here in the first place–our shared identity.

We, collectively, choose to subsidize the infrastructure of our city because it’s what keeps the people–the blood, if you will–moving in and out and around the entire machine. Without a healthy urban core and an efficient and updated infrastructure, we simply cannot make the city the machine it needs to be to sustain the rest of the parts.

Said another way:
We can live without an arm, but not without a heart.

Or:
If you want a healthy city, you need to pump some love into its heart.

My Problems With The Suburbs

It should be no surprise that I favor urban areas and adamantly support families choosing to live in urban environments. I’ve made a lot of bold statements about the value of urban environments, the quality of life available to urban families, and (what I believe to be) the challenges inherent in suburban living. When I make these statements, my suburban friends sometimes take offense. Some offense is appropriate, of course. I am, after all, calling their most basic lifestyle decisions into question. But, too much offense would be disingenuous. We all, every time we make a life decision for ourselves and our family, are calling other people’s decisions into question. Just because I say my reasons out loud should not make me an enemy.

That said, before I quickly explain my thoughts on the suburbs, I should clarify some things for people who don’t speak the language of the “city vs suburbs” question because much of the offense comes from misunderstanding what I mean when I say certain words or phrases. I apologize, ahead of time, for the way these clarifications will lengthen this post.

So, some clarification:

1. When I speak of an “urban” environment, neighborhood, or area, I do not mean a large, metropolitan city. Of course, large cities are “urban,” but urban design extends to many other built environments. When I speak of an “urban” environment, I am speaking less of size or population and more of issues related to city planning and design. Urban areas are spatially dense, socially diverse, economically diverse, are supported by a public infrastructure, and are culturally unique, regardless of their size.

2. Urbanism extends beyond the center of large cities. To give an example: Cincinnati is a metropolitan area of almost 3 million residents, divided into 52 distinct neighborhoods and surrounding municipalities. In a city like Cincinnati, the Central Business District is not the only definitively “urban” neighborhood. There are multiple neighborhoods within the city that could qualify. The same goes for some of the surrounding municipalities. Likewise, in a city like Chicago, the central urban core is much larger than in Cincinnati and the sub-urban sprawl extends much father from the core. Many of the surrounding municipalities are designed much the same way as large cities, but on smaller scales. Many of these areas are ex-urban areas or commuter cities that depend, in some way, on the vitality of the nearby large city, but also have their own urban character.

3. Not all “urban” areas or cities or parts of cities are the best example of the best of urbanism. I am speaking in generalizations. If your situation or experience does not match my assessment, then you are welcome to share the difference between your situation and my assessment, but it does not negate the truth of a generalization.

4. As should be obvious by my numbers 1 & 2 above, areas outside (or even far from) a city are not necessary the “suburban” areas I take issue with. The purpose and design of sub-urban areas has shifted drastically in the past 150 years and, so, the areas established outside cities at the turn of the 20th Century will be very different from those developed in the past 3o years. In general, most of the areas that meet my critique are those developed post-WWII.

5. It seems ridiculous to even have to say this, but I will. As in number 3 above, not all “suburban” areas are the best example of suburbia. Again, I am speaking in generalizations. If your situation or experience does not match my assessment, then you are welcome to share the difference between your situation and my assessment, but it does not negate the truth of a generalization.

6. Now, for my suburban friends: I will say, and have always said, that there are legitimate reasons to live in the suburbs. I have many wonderful friends and family who live in neighborhoods and houses that I would never choose to live in, but have made what they believe to be the best decision for their family. I did not have a “bad” experience growing up in the suburbs; I had a pleasant and safe suburban childhood. Unless you ask me for advice, I’m not out to make personal judgements about your personal decision, but I am willing to call out the entire culture of suburbia based on what I know about the design of the suburbs and have learned about the nature of vibrant, thriving communities. Maybe your community will fit the bill; maybe it won’t. That’s not for me to decide. If our life situation changed and my husband got a great job in the suburbs or if we needed to move in with or nearer to my parents or my mother in-law, I may find myself in a different position. But, regardless of where I live now or in the future, I am not afraid to make bold statements about the design of suburban areas and what it means for the lifestyle of those who live there.

7. It should also be said that I am not a professional urban planner and a purist may argue with some of my definitions. If you want to know the real ins and outs of the “city vs suburb” debate, look to someone else.

So, here goes.

My problems with the suburbs are as follows.

Suburban areas are characteristically homogeneous. Everything from the appearance of the buildings to the income of the residents is the same after the same after the same. There is no economic or social diversity–everyone lives the same kind of life, drives the same kind of car, has the same kind of job, and lives in the same kind of house. There is no aesthetic diversity–every building was designed by the same architecture firm for the same developer to look exactly like the other building next door. This is true for suburban business districts, churches, and schools, as well as residential developments.

There is no value in the aesthetics of an area that is designed for economic expediency by a large, corporate land developer. Beauty is an afterthought when efficiency is valued above creativity. A “custom home” in which your choice is between beige and ivory vinyl siding is not truly custom by any stretch of the imagination. When every lot is the same size, every home is the same average sq footage, and the city legislates the color of your painted trim, there is no room for aesthetics. It is boring at best and ugly at worst.

Real estate and property values in the suburbs have a tragic economic depreciation rate. What is the lifespan of your home? What will your home be worth, in its current condition, in 30 years? Which areas are still thriving during our economic recession? Look it up. I dare you. This is especially true for big-box commercial developments and crappy strip malls which seem to be designed to for demolition in 20 years, just to make way for another economically expedient, aesthetically-void development.

You simply cannot survive in the suburbs without a car. Even in suburban areas where things are close in proximity, nothing is designed for pedestrian traffic. A walk to the grocery store–even if it’s three blocks away–is a death wish in suburbia. Try going to visit a friend, picking up Chinese food, or taking your child to school without using a vehicle. Add up the cost the average American family incurs by relying so heavily on car use–especially in a two-car family. Add up the time wasted in a year’s worth of commuting. It will amaze you.

Physical space in the suburbs is completely privatized. Have you ever been out of town, passing through a suburban area, and tried to find a place to stop and walk around? To stop and let your kids play? To stop and park and take a break from driving? Good luck finding any space that is not owned by someone else. Nothing is shared–not driveways, not yards, not parking lots, not even ponds or pools or walking paths. Sure, some homeowners’ associations or corporate office complexes do a good job of creating an appearance of “public space,” but it’s different. And only an outsider can really feel the difference. Spending leisure time in someone else’s suburban empire requires–more often than not–paying your way. Buying something in a dining establishment, paying for recreation, or shopping are often your only options.

The economy of suburbia is entirely corporate. Hey, I like eating at Chili’s as much as the next person and I still buy my jeans at the GAP. But, another Chili’s restaurant or Sam’s Club or Wendy’s does nothing to bolster my local economy or put my neighbor’s kids through college. Sure, it might be good for tax revenue, but do some quick research on the economic return of a “mom & pop” establishment, when compared to a corporate entity. What is worth the investment? If the economic return is really so substantial, isn’t it worth paying an extra dollar for your sandwich or cup of coffee?

The suburbs require no personal interaction in your own community. The average suburban resident may go days without interacting with a single neighbor. Heck, you may not even know their names. Private driveways, closed garage doors, privacy fences, and long, off-set front entryways say to neighbors, “This is MY kingdom. Call ahead, please.” Close friends live a 30+ minute drive away. Shopping is done at a corporate mall across town. You hire a contractor from the Yellow Pages instead of the local newspaper. You attend church in someone else’s neighborhood with people who live somewhere else and who you see for 2 hours a week on Sunday. (And you call this “community?”) You live here. You mow your lawn. You send your kids to the safe, clean schools. You pay your taxes. That’s all that is required of you.

In closing,

Obviously, living in an urban area does not guarantee a different life. There are dying and vibrant communities everywhere. So, why do I think urban design is superior? Easy. Building community might not be contingent upon design, but it is aided (or hindered by it) and urban areas are, by definition, designed for it. So, choosing to live in a place that is designed to be inaccessible to outsiders, economically hollow, and fiercely privatized is counter-productive to the very nature of community-building. It might not make it impossible, but it does not make it any easier.

Is it “easy” to live in the city? In some ways; not others.

Is it “easy” to find a place to live that is both “urban” and affordable for a family? Not everywhere, but you’d be surprised.

Is living in an urban environment “comfortable?” Not necessarily.

Is sacrificing the personal security blanket of suburbia worth the investment into the urban, shared environment? Absolutely.