Monday, May 21, 2001

Part II

The island America forgot

        Second of consecutive columns about fixing racial problems in Cincinnati. Sunday's column: You can't buy peace

        Two people on a desert island. One white, one black. They can't get along, and can't get along without each other. They call it Cincinnati.

        What if a Hispanic or Asian castaway swims ashore? Two authors who have studied cities from opposite ends of America came to the same conclusion: It's a good thing.

        “Why don't immigrants come to Cincinnati? You should ask yourselves. That's something Cincinnati is going to have to have,” said Joel Kotkin of Los Angeles, author of The New Geography. Invited to Cincinnati by the Metropolitan Growth Alliance to talk about technology and the new economy, he was stunned that nobody at the MGA meeting brought up our recent riots.

        “We were zipping along as if the riots had never taken place,” he said. “You don't want to sweep this under the rug. What has happened to Cincinnati is devastating in the new economy where workers can live anywhere they want.”

        Mr. Kotkin's comment may not be what the MGA invited him for, but it was exactly what the MGA promised: a large-scale snapshot of our region — potholes included.

        “African-American leaders here are asleep,” he said. “They act as if it's still 1965 and the only minority is African Americans.”

        But in Cincinnati, blacks are virtually the only minority. In the latest Census, Hispanic population grew by 50 percent nationwide. Cincinnati's 42 percent growth looks impres sive — until you see the actual numbers: In our region of 1.6 million, Hispanics added 10,000. At 17,000, they are 1 percent of our population. Asians doubled to about 1.4 percent. By comparison, Chicago is one-fourth Hispanic.

        Mr. Kotkin says immigration can inject new energy and culture, to repair crumbling neighborhoods and revive a city that is stale and “dour.”

        “Hispanic culture is like a solvent put into this very sterile black/white thing that has screwed up the U.S.,” he said. “It rearranges your politics.”

        Fred Siegel of New York City agrees. The author of A Dream Once Lived Here said census figures should set off alarm bells that Cincinnati is an island that America forgot.

        “Why didn't Cincinnati share in population gains in other cities? There's no large immigration. You're not attractive to empty nesters and baby boomers.”

        Mr. Siegel, who plans to devote a chapter to Cincinnati in his next book about dysfunctional city governments, says immigration “makes accommodation possible” because race issues are no longer black-white, right-wrong.

        But nobody is talking about bold ideas like that. Instead, Mr. Siegel said, “Cincinnati seems determined to follow the mistakes of the past,” stuck in “riot ideology,” a misguided belief that riots are a sad but necessary engine of social “progress,” which requires more spending on failed government programs.

        Mr. Siegel urges Cincinnati to focus on police reform, riot repairs and the people at street level who deal with the damage, but are ignored when big business and politicians huddle to buy peace at any cost.

        “You need one definition of justice across the board,” he said.

        For the white community, that means eradicating bad cops, racism and profiling. That's happening, with an MRI of the police division by the Justice Department and a racial profiling lawsuit settlement that will X-ray police-community relations. Some cops have been sent to jail; others are being prosecuted.

        But it's not enough to address only the "white" side of the problem. Most black people don't think suspects who shoot at cops are "victims." Most don't condone violence by looters or support neighborhood leaders who rip off taxpayers and the poor. Most don't think cops are guilty without a trial. But that's what we hear from protesters, talk radio and the crowd at council meetings. And that sounds like a warped definition of justice.

        Police want a commission to study black-on-black crime, which is epidemic in the neighborhoods where police shootings triggered the riots. “They are on to some thing,” Mr. Siegel said. “If you look at victim profiles, the perpetrator is 14 to 15 times as likely to be black.”

        There once was a city with a weak mayor, a divided council, a police department beyond civilian control and fragmented jurisdictions — it was rocked by riots. No, not Cincinnati. Los Angeles in 1992.

        Mr. Kotkin says L.A. learned that the glitzy made-for-TV “rescues” by government and big business were a flop. “All the big stuff has failed and the little stuff worked — the grass-roots efforts in neighborhoods and businesses.”

        In New York, it took an even-handed, tough mayor named Rudy Guiliani to set a single standard of justice, Mr. Siegel said.

        And both agree: Cincinnati's melting pot is burning on the bottom because it needs to be stirred with spicy cultures and fresh dreams.

        While other cities are discovering the strength and vitality of vibrant new ethnic groups, Cincinnati's idea of immigration is a new bank president from Chicago or a new CEO at Federated.

        That needs to change. We've been an island long enough.

        E-mail: Past columns at

Sunday's column: You can't buy peace

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