Cincinnati is a beautiful city; cheerful, thriving and animated. Charles Dickens, American Notes, 1842
By Tony Lang
The Cincinnati Enquirer
About 160 years ago, Dickens visited our city and found it worth writing about. Visitors still are impressed, despite the jolt to Cincinnati's wholesome image from rioting in April.
A few weeks ago, Cincinnati 2012 President Nick Vehr asked me what my biggest surprise was in comparing Cincinnati with other U.S. metros for the Enquirer's 10-week Great Cities Test.
I said it was that Cincinnati beat out some top cities on many different rating systems. I was born here, lived all but six years of my life here, and started this project skeptical of the city's high rankings by authorities such as Places Rated Almanac 2000. It gave metro Cincinnati an over-all ranking of 11th up from 19th in 1997. That's 11th in the nation, ahead of 343 other metros. Oh yeah?
We explain our rankings
But week after week, favorable rankings kept mounting from other sources and my own research the airport, the riverfront, low crime rates, UC research rankings, even numbers of blacks cops and numbers of black judges. In the middle of the project, new Census 2000 numbers started rolling out, and several neighborhoods here erupted in protests and looting, as if to remind us that numbers don't tell the whole story about any city.
So why did The Enquirer score Cincinnati a 7 on a 10-scale in its Great Cities Test?
That's what all the indicators and personal opinions added up to after nine weeks of rating metros. After all the data on sites such as mon ey.com, scorecard.org and census.gov, I went back and looked up Places Rated's combined scores for metro Cincinnati: 73.34. Slightly better than a 7. Not great, but better than average.
Some here sneer at Cincinnati even aspiring to be a great city, as they sneer at a Cincinnati Olympics or our periodic appearances on most livable lists. But you seldom see in front of the critics' houses any moving vans bound for Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville or parts beyond.
A few observations after months of comparing Cincinnati with other metropolitan regions:
Cincinnati and Hamilton County are losing population. They are trying to adapt to change, but are they adapting fast enough?
Charles Darwin argued: It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.
The same is true for cities. Responsive often boils down to speed. This fragmented Tristate metro isn't organized for speed or efficiency.
Top cities are very well-run. Phoenix heads many lists. Reason Public Policy Institute ranked Cincinnati 30th in delivering efficient government services behind Indianapolis, Columbus and Cleveland. Cincinnati swings between spectacular successes like the all-new Fort Washington Way and abject failures like the Nordstrom project or Over-the-Rhine.
For decades, City Council drove unique shops out of downtown, subsidized failure in Over-the-Rhine, wasted millions of taxpayer dollars, and discouraged market-rate development. It's no accident the rioting started where it did. Census-shocked city leaders now are nervously asking: Where have all the middle-income residents gone?
It's pretty simple: Cities losing population need to give people compelling reasons to stay or move back. It starts with serving the customers not city staff or crony contract agencies.
Competitive regions got it together: They all fight over turf, but successful ones unite behind a common purpose, be it sports for Indianapolis, research for Raleigh-Durham or high-tech for Austin, Texas. The Bible says a house divided against itself cannot stand. If council, cops, neighborhoods or this region resist partnering and continue to split along racial or income lines, the flight of middle-income taxpayers will continue or accelerate.
We said 10 weeks ago one tradition that helps make Cincinnati so livable and bring us together is that we're a city of fests. Everybody loses if they are shut down. It is irresponsible and self-defeating to protest innocent festivals and businesses.
Yet even now, Cincinnati still has rare civic, architectural, corporate and environmental legacies that many fast-growth gazelle cities would give billions for. This city still has a sense of place and loyalty to place, though loyalty's a bit frayed. Some newer, super-wealth regions such as Silicon Valley have super problems. Middle- or lower-income workers needed to supply basic services can't afford to live there. And their restless, high-paid techies may move at a shift in the stock market.
We said 10 weeks ago too many cities, like people, begin as originals and end as copies. Metro Cincinnati needs to find its own unique equilibrium, and that includes a balanced mix of incomes, housing and industry clusters.
Great cities don't take foolish risks, but their cultures are driven by new ventures and ambition to be the best. Cincinnati ranks No. 1 for lowest business failure rates. It's good to be safe, but new super-wealth centers such as San Jose and Palo Alto invariably report high business failure rates. It's called churn. Risk is the price of innovation.
This year Cincinnati voters, finally, will directly elect their mayor. Imagine that. This is a city that invented cans to keep even its potato chips stacked and safe.
But not everything here is Pringle-ized. It was gutsy to hire Zaha Hadid to design the new Contemporary Art Center. Dot.com companies in Cincinnati's Digital Rhine dared to take a chance. Even giant Procter & Gamble is restructuring to speed innovations to a global market. The city also is trying to reposition itself. The last generation left the riverfronts half-done. Completing them has to rank high among tests for this generation. Another test will be if this region decides to hang together or hang separately.
Great cities don't accumulate great talent, spirit or wealth by always playing it safe. They're like nowhere else, constantly renewing themselves, full of surprises. In the ratings, metro Cincinnati scored more than few surprises good and bad. It's still more than a few notches short of greatness, but it isn't too late for us to revive that world-beater city that Dickens witnessed.
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