Social Issues

Trouble, Right Here In River City


The riots have been quelled, the curfews lifted, the citizen review boards convened, the artificial turf in Cinergy Field (nee Riverfront Stadium) replaced with actual grass, if only for one year. In other words, things are slowly drifting back to what passes for normal in Cincinnati, the famously conservative Ohio River town best known for being home to a neo-Nazi former baseball team owner, supporting a choke-a-holic third-rate football franchise that for most of its lifespan wore uniforms that were disturbingly similar to the Cleveland Browns' shit-colored getups, generating a Who concert trampling incident far more dramatic and entertaining than all of Pete Townsend's rock operas, serving as the setting for the most depressing sitcom of all time, having Jerry Springer as mayor until he wrote a couple of checks to pay for prostitutes, and mounting an unsuccessful attempt to jail a museum director for showing pictures of consenting adults engaged in acts one would expect to be A-OK in a town that proudly bills itself as "The Queen City."

Which is to say that the diversions are over for Porkopolis, once improbably called the country's "most beautiful inland city" by British statesman and heavy drinker Winston Churchill. Residents can no longer expect to while away the hours by barricading their homes in anticipation of total anarchy, or by dodging apparently gratuitous bean bag attacks from Cincinnati's not-so-thin blue line. As the long, hot summer settles in like the inevitable in-store gas attack following a heaping plate of Skyline Chili, Cincinnatians have to face the fact that they are living in hell.

To be sure, Cincy still has race problems up the ying-yang, problems that go far beyond the recent police killing of an unarmed black resident. The cops have been involved in the deaths of 14 other black suspects since 1996 and the city is, according to Census data, the eighth most-segregated city in the country. "We have a community in crisis," Mayor Charlie Luken told the press, as he announced plans for the sixth blue-ribbon race relations panel in the past 30 years.

But here's the rub for this town that features a prominent street named after Pete Rose, the most disgraced baseball great since Shoeless Joe Jackson couldn't say it wasn't so: Its race troubles are dwarfed by a more systemic problem, one that Cincinnati shares with over 80 percent of the nation's largest cities: Nobody wants to live there anymore.

If WKRP In Cincinnati was any indication — and there seems no reason to question its, or any other sitcom's, perfect mimetic qualities — people have long equated moving to Cincinnati with dying. But where Dr. Johnny Fever, Venus Flytrap, Les Nesman, Bailey Quarters, Mr. Carlson/Big Guy, and the rest of the show's maladjusted gang were content to stay put, today's real live residents have packed up and left town. Over the past decade, Cincinnati lost about 9 percent of its total population (now down to about 330,000) 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 also lost population, indicating that African Americans, in a rare moment of transracial solidarity, beat a path out of the city as soon as they are able.

In such 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 and unincorporated areas. According to recently released 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.

Part of this urban exodus is due to major demographic shifts. The centralized city, say theorists such as Joel Garreau and Joel Kotkin, is a social technology whose day in the sun is over. For any number of reasons, including the changed nature of work and technological innovations, people no longer need to be as close to each other as they did at the start of the industrial era; in Cincinnati's case, this help explains why job growth in the surrounding suburbs over the past decade clocked in at over 15 percent, compared with about 3 percent in the city proper. Traditional urban areas, say the likes of Garreau and Kotkin, will flourish only to the extent that they can offer a radically unique and distinct experience that outweighs all the negatives of city living (such as crime, high costs of living, relatively dilapidated housing, rotten schools, and proximity to urine-soaked improv street theater). Sadly for most cities, there are very few places — New York, say, or San Francisco or Chicago — that can offer such a rich menu of possibilities.

There are, then, real limits to what cities such as Cincinnati — where the downtown offers little more in terms of food or shopping than can be found in any decent mall — can do to keep its residents. (And here's yet one more reason to move to the suburbs: one of Cincinnati's downtown highlights, the original Hustler bookstore, has been dwarfed by a Hustler "superstore" that recently opened in nearby Monroe.) But like many other cities, Cincinnati is following a path that exacerbates the urban exodus.

For instance, the city 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 river front real estate. 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 at best simply double the facility's annual losses) and to put in a light rail system to make it easier for suburbanites to access the increasingly barren downtown. In bizarre scheme to retain wealthier residents, Cincinnati is also subsidizing construction of single-family homes that are selling for over $300,000 a piece. Such largess, always sold as a way of making a city "first-class" and "competitive" with other cities, 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, power brokers in Cincinnati and elsewhere 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 as weak as the Bengals' offensive line — teachers will be evaluated as rarely as once every five years, and it will take years to actually can underperformers — and will almost certainly have no effect on student or school performance.

The results of all this are as predictable as they common. They end up making a 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.