Ground Zero in Urban Decline

Cincinnati isn't just a town down on its luck. It's the future of the American city.

Welcome to ground zero in inner-city decline: the Over-the-Rhine district in Cincinnati, Ohio. This is the neighborhood, settled a couple hundred years ago and named for the predominantly German immigrants who once populated it, that was at the center of America's most recent spasm of social turmoil. In April, after police shot an unarmed black man, hundreds of Cincinnati residents took to the streets to protest entrenched racism and economic inequities. Cincinnati -- once renowned as the Queen City of the Ohio River, once dubbed "Porkopolis" for its dominance in pig processing, once famous as the home of baseball's legendary Big Red Machine -- is now known for civil disorder and a sagging population. The 2000 Census underscores that Cincinnati's glory days were somewhere in the past: During the 1990s, the city lost over 30,000 residents, or about 9 percent of its population.

Any prospects for revival in this Midwestern city were dealt a staggering setback by images of smoldering fires in the streets, angry men hurling bricks through storefront windows, and shop owners holding vigil over their property with shotguns. In less than a week, more than 600 people were arrested for disorderly conduct, vandalism, and assault. Urban decay -- vacant buildings, declining population, few jobs -- provided the tinderbox for the riots that thrust this famously staid city into the national headlines.

If the nation was shocked -- this was a town known for its conservatism, restraint, and bedrock Midwestern values -- so were Cincinnati's city leaders. Prior to the riots, the business community had been cultivating the city's reputation as a bastion of middle-class values and the German work ethic, regardless of the current residents' cultural heritages. The unrest provided a dramatic counterpoint to other recent development efforts. Earlier this year, in a bid to win the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, local activists and leaders put together an 800-page document touting Cincinnati's competitive advantages. In 1996, voters in Hamilton County, of which Cincinnati is a part, approved a sales tax increase to underwrite the construction of two new professional sports stadiums -- a baseball-only stadium for the Reds (the nation's oldest professional baseball team) and a separate football facility for the Bengals. The city and county have also invested substantial public funds in redirecting Fort Washington Way, a freeway providing easy access to downtown from the outer edge of the metropolitan area.

All told, those recent investments in downtown and riverfront improvements have cost Hamilton County residents close to $1 billion, and that's not counting the interest on bonds. The city lists 34 projects on its downtown development plan; if everything on that wish list gets built, the total price tag would be something like $4 billion. And yet Cincinnati has little to show for the effort, other than some white-elephant public works projects and the wreckage -- physical and emotional -- from this spring's riots. "The problems of the city," notes city councilman Phil Heimlich, "are not so much that white and black people don't get along; it's that white and black people don't stick around. I think the most important fact is that the city has lost almost 10 percent of its population over the last 10 years."

Cincinnati is a very specific place: Well-known for its steep hills and riverfront location, it has been built into its landscape in a singular and striking way (Winston Churchill once called it "America's most beautiful inland city"). Yet Cincinnati is also a very generic place in today's America. It's a city smack dab in the middle of a long, slow decline -- not just in population but in prospects for the future. Its story -- a sad one, though not without some measure of hope -- is one that is being played out in urban centers throughout the country. The reasons for Cincinnati's decline and the misguided attempts to reverse it are all too representative of what's happening throughout the U.S. today. For good and ill, what's happening in Cincinnati may well be coming to a city near you. If, in fact, it's not already there.

In 2001, the Fannie Mae Foundation studied three dozen of the nation's largest cities and found that most have been losing population since the 1970s. While some cities gained population during the '90s -- including such long-bleeding cosmopolises as New York and Chicago -- more lost ground: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Rochester, Syracuse, Toledo, Baltimore, Buffalo, Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and the District of Columbia, among others, continued long traditions of population decline.

A closer look inside Cincinnati's city limits reveals a more troubling trend: Only three of its 48 neighborhoods added people between 1990 and 2000. One of those neighborhoods -- Queensgate -- only grew because the city built a new jail. Twenty-six neighborhoods lost more than 10 percent of their population. The Over-the-Rhine area saw its population shrink from 9,572 people to 7,638.

A Long Line of Spenders

Cincinnati's recent orgy of high-profile, publicly funded projects is hardly its first. At the turn of the 19th century, public works projects served mainly to line the pockets of political boss George B. Cox's friends, earning Cincinnati the reputation of a corrupt frontier burg. The excesses of corrupt city bosses helped inspire a series of reform groups, including the Taxpayers' League, in 1880. By the early 20th century, the same sort of public works projects were carried out in the name of social welfare -- whether the project in question entailed constructing a 15-mile commuter rail and subway system or taking over the local utilities. Despite its public profligacy, Cincinnati ranked among the nation's largest cities at the turn of the 19th century -- a gateway to the West and a thriving commercial center sustained by the Ohio River and the Miami-Erie canal. The city quickly became a center for industry, hosting the nation's largest concentration of factories making soap, cleaners, shortening, candles, oils, and chemicals. The legacy is symbolically embodied in the twin towers of Procter & Gamble's world headquarters in the heart of the city's downtown. Pork processing and beer brewing rounded out the list of major industries.

The city's German history reaches back nearly two centuries. An ethnic German was elected its first mayor in 1802, and by the 1840s, the city was printing bilingual ordinances. By the mid-19th century, one-fifth of Cincinnati's population spoke German, and Germans are largely credited with the expansion of savings and loans, called "bauvereins," that created a foundation of homeownership among the middle and working classes. Even in the mid-20th century, high-rise apartment buildings were scarce, an architectural legacy that benefits even the poorest neighborhoods, including Over-the-Rhine.

In the wake of the riots, city leaders created a task force -- Cincinnati Can -- and charged it with developing recommendations to address the simmering problems of urban decline. The effort is strikingly similar to Rebuild LA, the largely ineffective effort to revitalize South Central Los Angeles after its riots in 1992. Whether Cincinnati Can actually does anything to revitalize the city, this much seems certain: It will provide cover for dozens of other projects that elected officials and prominent business leaders have trumpeted in recent years to stimulate the city. For instance, city leaders are pushing hard to expand the money-losing, municipally owned and operated Dr. Albert A. Sabin Convention Center. The proposal would double the size of the current convention center to more than 600,000 square feet.

Citizens for Civic Renewal, a nonprofit local urban reform organization, commissioned "regional government" guru Myron Orfield to do a study of the region. Orfield, an elected representative in the Minnesota state legislature, is best known for Metropolitics, an influential 1997 book published by the Brookings Institution that argued that declining inner suburbs were as much a victim of sprawl as central cities. Orfield's preliminary report, released earlier this year, highlighted growing inequalities among the city, its inner suburbs, and the growing outer suburbs, and called for regional planning to minimize them.

If his past is any prologue, Orfield's final report, to be released later this year, will call for more regional government and revenue-sharing to redistribute income from relatively wealthy neighborhoods (and suburbs) to relatively poor inner-city neighborhoods (and suburbs). A multibillion- dollar light-rail project has also been proposed by the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana council of governments (OKI), an organization that includes 105 representatives of government, business, social, and civic groups in an eight-county region. Proponents argue that the rail system will do just about everything -- reduce regional congestion, promote economic development, revitalize inner-city neighborhoods, and constrain sprawl.

The Actual Effects

What seems to be missing in the mess of publicly financed projects is any rational -- let alone balanced -- debate on whether such endeavors have any positive effects, much less the pie-in-the-sky results proponents routinely claim. Sports stadiums have emerged as a classic case in point. "Adding professional sports teams and stadiums to a city's economy does not increase aggregate spending for the city," wrote Lake Forest College economist Robert Baade, a leading expert on the subject, in a 1996 study. In fact, according to Baade's research, adding teams "appears to realign leisure spending rather than adding to it and is, therefore, neutral with regard to job creation." Baade's conclusions are based on his analysis of economic growth in 48 cities between 1958 and 1987, some with and others without new professional sports stadiums. Other analysts go even further, arguing that public investment in a sports stadium might reduce economic growth by siphoning money away from other important projects, such as road improvements, or from lowering taxes.

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