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Saturday, July 25, 2009

The ILOVECINCINNATI Conundrum

Suddenly a lot of cars around town drive by with stickers that say ILOVECINCINNATI on them and I wondered where they came from. Today, I found the answer out by asking someone who had one. So, I'm not going to share the answer here (it's easily found out by asking a few questions) but the conversation that followed sparked some thoughts that are definitely appropriate in this forum.


If you are reading this, you likely care deeply about Cincinnati, and also genuinely believe that with some hard work, dedication, and an updated way of thinking it can be a much better place to live. I, too, am of that thinking, but sadly I would think that we are in the minority, especially when you start to read the comments on other media outlets around town.


So, my question is why? Why is it that many other cities around this country, some of which we aspire to be like and even others, that we don't have a much greater sense of civic pride than we do? When I stopped and thought about it, it made even less sense. Isn't Cincinnati mostly made up of people that grew up in the area, and if so shouldn't it hold true that our civic pride should at least match that exhibited in other cities mentioned on this blog and elsewhere?


I've noodled this around all night and have come up with three ideas:

  1. Our Region Breeds Separation - Between different suburbs, counties, cities, and even states that make up the region we actually only identify ourselves as Cincinnatians by our mailing addresses envelopes and when we are out of town.
  2. A Unified Stance - While we're never going to reach a point where every citizen agrees on priorities, we are set up in such a way that our "leaders" fight amongst each other more than they work together. One could argue that competition is good, but to me, a unified stance is better.
  3. Lack of That Signature "Thing" - Be it an industry that our city was founded on, a specific food that is actually eaten outside our region, or something similar. We don't all have that one positive thing we can each identify with, and just as importantly, the nation identifies us with.

I put this out there less for my voice to be heard but more to spark conversation. So what have I missed and why is it that you have the pride you do in Cincinnati?

16 comments:

The Urbanophile said...

Do people who live in NKY or the north counties or SE Indiana actually think of themselves as being from "Cincinnati"? Where do they identify themselves as being from when people ask?

When I was a college student, a lot of my friends were from Northwest Indiana. They told me they were from Chicago. It took a bit of time for me to figure out they were actually from Indiana. (This was at Indiana University, mind you). Chicago was such a powerful brand label, they wanted to associate themselves with it. Other cities, such as Detroit, have brand images that people want to disassociate with.

It would be interesting to know the degree of affiliation people actually have to "Cincinnati", especially considering that few of them likely ever lived within the city limits.

Living in Gin said...

I grew up just across the river from Cincinnati in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, and I've always been proud to call Cincinnati my hometown. In my mind, the arbitrary political boundaries that chop up the region don't mean a whole lot except on Election Day.

I know some people in NKY loathe the city of Cincinnati and want nothing to do with it, but I think that way of thinking is becoming increasingly outdated as Cincinnati continues to improve itself, and as a younger generation rediscovers the city that their parents had sworn off.

Nathan said...

I think you're first point is key. We divide our city up into neighborhoods, hills, school districts, etc. seen more as different than unified or having any shared interests. It's why issues like the streetcar, however inaccurately, are seen as only affecting a small section of the city but having to be paid for by all. West Chester wants to be it's own city. Norwood, Wyoming, etc.

I would greatly appreciate a survey of the percentage of those who live more than 10 minutes outside the city but less than an hour who have visited downtown Cincinnati in the last, say, 5 years, and vice versa. Neighborhoods in Cincinnati are very diverse, and that's a good thing, but diverse does not have to mean disconnected.

VisuaLingual said...

You know, it's almost funny how provincial and divided Cincinnati really is, and how much that seems to hurt the city in different ways [when it comes to tangible things like making decisions about the streetcar, say, but also when it comes to something like civic pride]. Meanwhile, cities like NYC and SF are widely touted as having really strong and distinct neighborhood identities. Part of the appeal of visiting them is checking out so many different neighborhoods.

I'm not sure that Cincinnati needs its single signature whatever, or that it doesn't already have some contenders [pork industry, goetta, Cincinnati chili, Larry Flynt -- maybe not the positive associations, but they're all true].

As an outsider to this city, all I can do is shake my head and wonder about what people's problem is. For instance, the commenters to the Enquirer site seem to live on a different planet from me. They don't come downtown; I don't go to West Chester. They hate art; I can't imagine life without it. Luckily, within this divided city, I've found my own little bubble, just as they've found theirs.

Dawn Messerly said...

I think you really hit on something with point #1.

I moved to Cincinnati from St. Paul MN 2 years ago. I've spent most of the last two summers back in MN so I am often reminded of the differences between the two places.

One of the things I really can't relate to is this whole east side - west side thing in Cincinnati. I don't understand how such a small city can have a division that so many people feel so strongly and seriously about. Granted, I don't know the history of the city well enough to know the genesis of this division, and if I did, perhaps it would make more sense to me. I understand a healthy rivalry, but this east side - west side thing seems to go beyond that. I grew up in the Twin Cities - and I never sensed such a strong "us vs. them" mentality between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Of course there are people who will focus on the differences between the two, and you have neighborhoods all over the region that foster their own identities, but in the end, Minneapolis and St. Paul are two cities that make up the greater whole of the Twin Cities. I don't get that sense about east side - west side in Cincinnati. They don't seem like two parts of the same whole, they just seem like two different parts that are content to tout their differences and remain separate.

I don't really know how this affects a greater sense of civic pride, but I do think that it makes you wind up with people who take pride only in their own distinct part of the city. When someone in Hyde Park says they have pride in the city of Cincinnati, are they thinking of the same Cincinnati that includes Price Hill?

D R E W said...

i have noticed those bumper stickers, too, and wondered the same thing. when i finally found out WHO was behind it, i didn't like it. i don't want to start a fight, so i will leave it at that.

Living in Gin said...

Okay, I'll bite... Who is behind the stickers? (I'm currently exiled to NYC, so I can't ask around.)

Living in Gin said...

Nevermind... Just did some Googling.

The stickers are apparently produced by Crossroads Church. I have some thoughts about that, but it would be tangental to the valid questions raised by Rolfe's article.

On the surface, I don't have any problem with the sentiment expressed by the stickers, regardless of their origins. If people love their community and are striving to make it a better place, more power to them. If there's anything Cincinnati needs, it's a bit more civic pride.

N O R T O N said...

UrbanCincy...your three points could easily be turned around as unique positive assets that Cincinnati has:

1.) "Our Region Breeds Separation" - the geography of our region generates, in the words of Aaron Betsky: "villages that nestle in all the little valleys of those hills, and the great radial avenues that just go on and out - Madison, Reading, Colerain. Especially on the west side, the hills are commanded by institutions, a seminary, a hospital, a high school, then dive down to a tight little bowl of a community."

2.) "Unified Stance" - debate and political difference is only healthy...an overarching dictator-esque political unity sounds like a scary thing to me!

3.) Lack of Signature Thing: We do have a positive thing to identify with: The Ohio River is our greatest and most unique asset. Without it, Cincinnati would not exist.

David Ben said...

Very, very well done Dave. As an outsider myself, I constantly wonder why this mentality exists, and I've come to some similar conclusions as you have.

To norton above: I think there is a lot of value in trying to see some of our faults as assets, but I think you are a bit off base with the reasoning. 1: Separation absolutely has its merits, I agree. But I side with Dave here. A fragmented mentality with territorial overtones undercuts the potential for citizens in this area to legitimately and proudly identify as Cincinnatians. 2: An overarching dictator sounds scary to me too, but to have someone, or a group of people, with a unified vision and the jurisdiction to enact it is a healthy thing. Local control of local issues is vital to rapid, efficient responses to community problems. A unified and future-minded mentality for the region as a whole would allows the local squabbles to still exist, while still moving in a similar direction. 3: To say that a nearly one thousand mile long river that touches six states is a "unique asset" is simply wrong. Is it a positive attribute? Yes, absolutely, without a doubt. But is it unique? No. Not in the least.

At visual: ask 1,000 people not from Cincinnati to associate pork with a major US city, and I'll bet that 999 of them come up with something other than Cincinnati. Ask them about goetta, and the same number will not even know what goetta is. Skyline may be associated with here, and certainly has larger brand recognition than goetta, for instance, but I seriously doubt that non-Cincinnatians in Texas are eating Skyline. As far as Larry Flint goes - some non-Cincinnatian Hustler readers may be able to associate his name with the mag., but he is widely unknown outside of here. Dave's right: Cincinnati has very little to call its own. We have local pride in our sports teams but its tough to find a Bengals fan outside of 50 miles. We have some local pride in our foods, but they are no Chicago hot dog, or Seattle coffee, or NY pizza.

So what can we do to instill more civic pride?

VisuaLingual said...

David, although these are drops in the bucket in terms of civic pride, the stickers mentioned above, as well as the work of small area businesses like Nati Evolvement, Wire&Twine, Alternative Motive, and our own do their small part to visual articulate bits of civic pride.

I don't know that my examples are the best ones, but they are things that Cincinnati can claim. Your examples are debatable, too. I agree with this "conundrum," although I personally really appreciate the fact that it gives me my own opportunity to contribute to what the city is, how residents celebrate it, and some of the forms that Cincinnati pride can take.

matt said...

Maybe we just need to start an alternative webpage/blog to the CincinnatiUSA site. They promote all the major institutions and seem to keep tabs on some of the major festivals, but in doing so just kind of end up with an "everytown" sort of feel for Cincinnati that isn't going to attract people from farther away cities. The thing about Austin is that they kind of just took something already going on and went with it for the whole "live music capital" thing. With the promotion of it as such it probably built up their live music amount even more.

What people want when they visit a place, and what Cincinnati isn't great at promoting, are those unique little things that make us great and different as a city. You see it in blurbs that people write about us (from ex-Chicagoan who visit, and in the recent NY Times article). When people do visit they realize there is something special happening here. Perhaps people could just suggest ideas for thematic "tours" or "guides" on unique aspects of Cincinnati that appeal to people, make them feel like they've truly discovered an inner peace of the city that we seem to guard just a little.

Certainly there are a lot of wonderfully historic things about us as a city. You could do the German thing culminating in German beer and food, see architectural heritage, the unique cincinnati foods tour, do a river theme exploring along the bike paths and parks or doing a riverboat tour, or brewery history if you're the beer type. Maybe a tour of the centrally located parks with city-vistas and how to do it on a bike. As a city we also need to identify these things and enhance them, taking care of our architecture instead of demolishing it, bringing the revived breweries back to the abandoned buildings in OTR, establishing and enhancing ways to get around town and up to various city-views from the downtown areas whether on foot, by bike, or by car.

I remember seeing an interview with a pastor of an OTR church, commenting on how black neighborhoods are never really celebrated the way you see a Chinatown or a little Italy. Perhaps in addition to its German heritage, OTR could really be celebrated as a center of African American foods, music, and culture. It could increase civic pride and keep OTR wonderfully diverse, providing perhaps some increased understanding after our storied history of race relations in the city.

I think the thing everybody seems to agree on (besides some home-town naysayers) is the amount of potential represented in the area, and certainly within downtown specifically. Having moved from elsewhere and spent 5 years at UC, I left for a few months to face a staggering job market and came back to be able to start something and really be a part of change in Cincinnati. Perhaps if there were a way to sell Cincinnati's potential..the fact that you can come here, live for less, and afford to try different things, to start a business without much, that you could attract the type of people that we really want and need in the city, who will create a buzz around Cincinnati. Perhaps after-the rebranding of our city logo, we could solicit the idea of a unique brand of the city itself and perfecting our presentation to everyone else.

Living in Gin said...

Cincinnati landlords and realtors should be advertising their listings in the Village Voice... The city would probably get a flood of talented young professionals who have been priced out of NYC.

(I'm only partially being tongue-in-cheek here.)

The Urbanophile said...

A couple things.

First, you have to understand how a lot of urban advocacy sounds to people in the suburbs. People complain about suburbanites not wanting to support the city, but when, for example, VisuaLingual chooses to live life without a car (a type of life often touted by urbanites for its superiority), one consequence is a deliberate cutting off of oneself from the suburbs. How does that look to them? Everything is a two way street.

2. Norton is right on. You have to turn what you've got into a winner. Cincy is fragmented. But fragmentation can be good or bad depending on how it functions or is positioned. It has amazing diversity. Make those assets rather than trying to wish something else were there.

To me, generating pride in the city is about giving people a reason to have pride. Set out a vision of what the city and region will be, an ambitious but realistic vision. Then get out there and start making it happen. Great messages by themselves can attract passionate followers (witness many religious movements). Time for Cincinnati revival, anyone?

Dave Rolfes said...

Thanks all for the thoughtful comments. The post was meant to spark conversation and get folks thinking and it sure seems to have accomplished that.

As a new writer for the site I was also in a way trying to gauge the audience a bit and you guys did not disappoint.

Thanks for taking the time to read and respond!

Tel said...

I think this is a great conversation to have. As an outsider who has lived in various other cities, I'm not sure I agree with most of your ideas.

There are many admirable areas that are separated into distinct neighborhoods. There's NYC, Baltimore, ATL and even New Orleans. Of course, there are larger metro areas, like DC, that encompass different states as well but still have civic pride. I also think people may not know Cincinnati chili like they know, say, a po boy or a Maryland crab cake, but I do believe it's something people are somewhat familiar with, a little less with the goetta and other things. We have a great opportunity to spread the word about something else that's great: Moerlein beer. It doesn't have to be something that's just edible. :)

I sort of digressed there...

The real issue, I think, is the lack of a unified stance. I saw where someone mentioned earlier that commenters to the Enquirer seem to live on a different planet (i.e., they don't venture to the city and city dwellers don't visit the burbs). I think this might have more to do with a lack of civic pride.

In the cities I've lived in, the independent rags, blogs and, for the most part, newspapers tend to focus on what's going on in the city, with the occasional foray into the suburbs for, say, a review of a Northern Virginia Chinese restaurant that a president frequented. For the most part, though, the emphasis was what was going on within the beltways/loops. Cincy is sprawled out, as most cities are, but here, it seems to me, people try to focus on reporting on everything that's going on all over the tristate. That's too much.

Building civic pride depends on being proud of your city. That's really where the uniqueness is. So, media in all its forms needs to do a better job of telling the positive story, events, experiences and activities taking place within the urban core.

When you pick up a paper or an independent weekly and you look at dining options or festivals, you shouldn't see things that are out in the middle of nowhere. The people that are going to go to those places likely live there, or at least closer to them, and already know about them. There's no need to promote the suburbs since they have a captive, familiar audience. Promote what's going on in the city for a change.

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