Cincinnati's Bigger Problem — And Ours

Riots and racism are only the tip of the iceberg.


The curfew has been lifted in Cincinnati and things are slowly drifting back to normal in this generally sedate Ohio River city. In the wake of riots triggered late last week by the police killing of an unarmed black resident, most attention has been understandably focused on racial issues.

The police department, involved in the deaths of 15 black suspects since 1996, is rightly coming under particularly intense scrutiny. The town's mayor, Charlie Luken, is convening a wider-ranging commission to study ragged race relations in the Queen City. "We have a community in crisis," Luken told the press, as he announced plans for the sixth such panel in the past 30 years. About 120 black firefighters have just pulled out of their union, claiming it doesn't do enough to represent their specific concerns.

According to U.S. Census data, Cincinnati is the eighth most-segregated city in the U.S., with a "dissimilarity rating" of 74.2 percent (meaning that about three-quarters of blacks would have to move to white neighborhoods to achieve integration; Detroit, the country's most segregated city, has a dissimilarity rating of 84 percent). Cincinnati is now 43 percent black, up from 38 percent in 1990.

Here's the rub for Cincinnati: The city does indeed have a fistful of serious problems with race relations. But such problems are dwarfed — and fueled — by more systemic problems that include a declining general population, rotten public schools, a hostile business and regulatory climate, and a misguided local government that is hell-bent on pursuing counterproductive "development" plans that will do little or nothing to rejuvenate the place.

In these particulars, Cincinnati is hardly alone — it is representative of larger American cities, the vast majority of which continue to lose residential populations to surrounding suburbs. According to Census data, a number of major cities that had long experienced downturns–including Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, and Boston–gained residents in the past decade. Yet 82 of the nation's 100 largest cities posted population declines over the same period.

None of this is meant to diminish the issue of police brutality, particularly possibly racially inflected police brutality. But generally speaking, flourishing cities don't erupt into riots after such incidents. Indeed, a growing economy that is understood to be inclusive to all seeking opportunity is one of the best hedges against all forms of civil chaos, whether we're talking rioting or crime in general.

According to the 2000 Census, Cincinnati is home to about 331,000 people, making it the 54th largest city in the country. (As a long-term indicator of decline, consider this: In 1900, the city was the country's 10th largest.) Over the past decade, Cincinnati lost about 9 percent of its total population, while the greater Cincinnati area grew by about the same amount. The majority of leave-takers were white, but Census data show that each of the city's five major black neighborhoods lost population, as wealthier African Americans beat a path out of the city as soon as they were able. Such population loss correlates with relatively weak job creation, too. According to Housing and Urban Development, between 1994-1997, job growth within Cincinnati was 3.2 percent, compared to 15.2 percent in the surrounding suburbs.

Why are people and employers going elsewhere? Simply put, it has become more attractive for more people to live and work in the suburbs: Increasingly, the 'burbs offer everything traditional cities do, and generally with fewer hassles. (See "Horizontal Cities," July 2000.) Given that, there are real limits to what any city can do to woo residents back.

But Cincinnati, and many other cities, are following paths that exacerbate the exodus. For instance, Cincinnati is funding massive public works of dubious economic value. These include two hugely expensive public stadiums that, when fully completed, will cost well over $750 million and soak up virtually all prime riverfront development areas coveted by actual private industry. The football stadium, which opened last year, came in over-budget by more than $50 million; the baseball stadium, which will be ready for 2002, is already $20 million over its original estimate of $280 million.

Similarly, there's a clamor to double the capacity of the money-losing, city-owned convention center (even backers of this plan admit such a move would simply double the facility's annual losses) and to put in a light rail system to make it easier for suburbanites to access a relatively barren downtown. The city is also subsidizing construction of single-family homes that are selling for over $300,000 a piece.

Such largess accomplishes little more than driving up the overall tax and regulatory burden, which in turn drives away more businesses and residents. At the same time, the power-brokers in Cincinnati have moved slowly to remedy one of the main engines of urban flight: the public school system, which all concede is mediocre to awful. Last year, the teachers union serving the Cincinnati district signed on to a merit-pay system — the nation's first for a large district — that will ostensibly reward educators who coax strong performances from students. Whatever its intentions, the plan is weak and will almost certainly have no effect on student or school performance. At the same time, the union — and the education establishment — has been doing everything possible to slow the growth of charter schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools.

The results of all this are as predictable as they common: They end up making the city less worth living in. The same dynamic that is playing out in Cincinnati is playing out across the country. Indeed, Cincinnati is perhaps unique only in this regard: It can now add a recent riot and credible charges of police brutality to the already long list of reasons to leave town.