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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Reclaiming our city from the mistakes of the past

Cincinnati, as well as, many other cities are spending billions of dollars to fix the mistakes made by misguided policy and investments of the past. Cincinnati actually fared better than many cities in this regard...protecting some of it's urban gems (Over-the-Rhine) from the wrecking ball. Other areas weren't as lucky (West End).

The Eisenhower Interstate System efficiently and brutally tore through the West End of Cincinnati; rendering a beauty like Crosley Field practically obsolete. It also ripped through a dense, diverse, urban neighborhood. The funny thing is that the two places that were Cincinnati's points of entry to many immigrants were ruined for the sake of the interstate system and other 'urban renewal' projects. Immigrants would come in along the Ohio River and find jobs along it's powerful economic riverbanks. Others would come in by train and pass through the mighty Union Terminal, find working class jobs in the West End and settle down.

Well we all know what those two key locations are like today, and we know what they were like in the past. A key issue however, is what they'll be like in the future. The Banks and Cincinnati Riverfront Park are rebuilding a neighborhood creating a beautiful green space for Cincinnati. Different from the warehouses and docks that once existed, but overall a very nice alternative.

Now there is the often over looked West End...what about it. It seems to be sitting there with a whole lot of nothing going on. Sure there are some warehouses and distribution centers, sprinkle in a little residential here or there and you have it. If it weren't for City West it would still be the massive symbol of 'urban renewal' that it is. But wait, don't write it off quite yet. The Cincinnati Museum Center claims residence to the West End, as well as it's rail yards. Quietly behind the scenes people have been working towards a high speed rail plan for Ohio. Combine this with the great success of the Museum Center and you have the potential for something great.

Flooded Walnut Street (1913)

The Gateway Park District is something that could end up being more important, more impactful and just more impressive than the highly touted Banks project. It has the ability to reclaim the West End from it's 'urban renewal' blight and turn that area back into a main entry point for the Queen City. It will be interesting to watch this project proceed, but one thing is for sure...Cincinnati seems to be trying it's best to reclaim our city from the mistakes of the past.


Anonymous said...

Nice post, Rando. Urban renewal has claimed so much of our past urban neighborhoods. That isn't to say that it didn't accomplish some of the goals of the effort, but certainly sacrifices were made, many would say TOO much sacrifice was made.

However, all these projects in Cincinnati (American Can/Factory Square, Gateway, 3CDCs projects, the Banks, Riverside Dr. condo projects, etc.) are certainly drawing interest in suburbanites, to say the least.

What is most impressive, I think, is the scale of these projects. In order for rejuvination to occur in an accelerated manner, the large-scale feasibility is very important in determining the success of a project/neighborhood. The future looks bright!

Kevin LeMaster said...

Thanks for referring to it as the West End and not "Queensgate", which is basically just the name of a massive industrial park.

The West End needs projects like the Union Terminal "Gateway" and City West to jumpstart some momentum. This neighborhood is seeing very little investment in its older housing stock. Successful redevelopment will hopefully cause more of the small-scale rehabbers to take a risk.

Anonymous said...

Good post Randy...

I doubt however that Cincinnati intentionally "protected" OTR. Rather, inept politicians in the 1960's failed at attempts to demolish the historically significant neighborhoods, much like any other "development" related initiative proposed in the past 20 years. Fortunately for Cincinnati, this ineptitude paid off and will ultimately reward the city with future dividends.



The Urbanophile said...

It's tempting to view the decision makers of the past as idiots, but let's not be too harsh.

First, we don't know how much of what they did was actually a mistake. What would Cincinnati be like without an interstate highway system? There's no guarantee that it wouldn't be in far, far worse condition. We are all tempted to believe that if our preferred policies were chosen, everything would be great. We assume a simple cause and effect world. But reality is just one lesson after the other in the law of unintended consequences.

Second, what makes us so much smarter than they were? It's easy to look back and judge the past. But keep in mind future generations may judge us just as harshly. One thing that today's planners have exactly in common with yesterday's is an absolute faith that they know what is right, and that their development models should be followed. This leads to a willingness to engage in vast social experimentation and change which may end up a disaster. I think that, given the past track record of planning, we should take a bit more of a humble view and not be so willing to completely remake the urban fabric to fit our visions.

Randy Simes said...

I didn't say that anyone was an "idiot." The point I was making is that mistakes were made, and that cities across the nation are working VERY hard to correct those mistakes.

With that said, of course it would be completely different if Cincinnati had no interstate system. Would it be better or worse; probably worse...but once again I never attacked the idea of having an interstate system in Cincinnati. But should that interstate have been built through one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city or was it correct that the interstates essentially walled off a river city from it's river?

These were issues that were discussed and did have people who were very strongly opposed to the decisions that were made at that time. They choose to go with the options they did...when you compare those to the alternatives presented you can make an educated decision that some mistakes were made.

As for planners...planners at the time of the Eisenhower Interstate System were under EXTREME pressure to either take or leave HUGE amounts of federal funding. That federal funding was required to be spent on certain types of 'urban renewal' projects...therefore there was really no option for those planners involved. Kind of like the feds saying raise the drinking age in your state to 21, or we quit giving you highway funding. You quickly toss all of your thoughts/morals/values to the wind, because there is NO way you can dismiss that funding.

As a Planner myself, I don't know if all my ideals are correct...or if they are right for the future generations to come. But all Planners have the ultimate task of creating a society that is not only viable/sustainable today, but 20/40/60 years down the road. That is certainly a hard task...I'm certainly not a fortune teller, but I use my formal training/knowledge to the best of my ability to make the best decisions I can...I think most Planners would echo those same sentiments. Maybe it's a coincidence that most Planners have almost identical 'personal beliefs' or maybe we have similar education backgrounds. If the education is flawed then that is something completely out of the control of most people.

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