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Sunday, June 29, 2003

A way to overcome our fears



By Jeffrey Stec
Guest columnist

Since the Supreme Court announced its decision on the admissions policy at the University of Michigan Law School, I've taken time to consider how diversity might help build a stronger Cincinnati. While we know that experiencing diversity helps us discover a deeper human connection, many still wonder how such lofty aspirations could actually improve Cincinnati and our everyday lives.

For starters, diversity will help us repopulate our magical urban basin (Downtown, Over-the-Rhine, Walnut Hills, the West End, Clifton Heights, Price Hill) because urban lovers embrace diversity. Members of author Richard Florida's now-famous "creative class" leave places like Cincinnati for diverse cities such as Austin, New York, San Francisco and Boston. If we were to create a more diverse urban core, more of our local creative types would stay in town. Because we all yearn to experience the artist in us all, a strong diverse city center will help revitalize our entire region. (Think of how a vital New York City financially anchors suburban Connecticut.)

But why doesn't everyone like to experience diversity? The answer is simple: Fear. Creativity is, by definition, the exploration of the unknown, and with uncertainty comes fear. Experiencing diversity is about confronting our own deepest fears, and such practice will help us with any new venture, be it a change in relationship or a career move. So diversity is not just a goal, it's a teaching mechanism for coping with our fear, for getting us to think outside our own personal box.

Right now there is a lot of fear in Cincinnati, between African-American and white communities, in Over-the-Rhine between middle-income residents (and their developers) and the existing lower-income population (along with their social servants); between suburbanites and the "undesirables" walking our city streets.

How many African-Americans attend the Taste of Cincinnati and Oktoberfest? How many neighborhoods have complained about the influx of Section 8 housing? Why is the stadium wedged onto a river site? Why is there a boycott in Cincinnati? It's because we have segregated our races and our classes, both in neighborhoods and businesses. In a more inclusive community like Nashville, Tenn., I experienced the joyful rush of an age, race and class-diverse nightclub. In just a few hours, I met many people who helped break down the seemingly great separation between my life circumstances and theirs. I left the club not only happier, but with a better understanding of the people behind complex social issues.

The opportunity before our city leaders, then, is to create a diverse, urban neighborhood in our center city that allows different kinds of people to experience each other on a daily basis. Not only would such a neighborhood attract creative class members to Cincinnati, it would symbolically jump-start the healing of these old racial and class wounds. Once we have a place in which we all can gather, we will begin to address the fears that have stopped the social and economic growth of our community.

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Jeffrey Stec, downtown, 35, is co-facilitator of the Urbanists, a group devoted to promoting urban living.




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