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Monday, February 22, 2010

Once and Always A Stakeholder

The party line was this: I moved back to Cincinnati because my freelance work was rarely based out of New York City -- counter to my expectations when first striking out as a self-employed writer and video producer -- so I had an opportunity to finally get away from Gotham’s pound-of-flesh rents. Hello, profit-margin, right?

Truly, the full answer defied the time-limits of polite cocktail-party conversation. Every city in the country offered a lower cost-of-living and a healthy handful promised opportunities to share my life with good friends and family. But only one city had gotten into my blood.

Large crowds gather outside the CAC to get in to the Shepard Fairey opening night [LEFT]. Great American Ball Park is the home of the nation's oldest professional baseball team the Cincinnati Reds [RIGHT]. Photos taken by Jeremy Mosher & Randy Simes.

A recent Vanity Fair article written by A. A. Gill explored the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY, and opened with an offhand dig at Cincinnati, saying that “it's not in the nature of stoic Cincinnatians to boast, which is fortunate, really, for they have meager pickings to boast about.” Gill is of that breed of lazy sensationalists more concerned with eliciting reaction than approaching a nuanced -- even intimidating, surely -- mental space, and this line, casually flippant, and really, totally extraneous to the rest of the story, served his aim. Picked up by blogger Katy Crossen earlier last week, Crossen challenged local bloggers and Twitter-followers to boast why they are proud of Cincinnati. And the responses began to pour in, detailing everything from the Zaha Hadid-designed Contemporary Arts Center to the world’s first professional baseball team.

Me? When I first moved to New York for college, I was often asked to describe Cincinnati, and I came to rely on a fond but accurate snapshot: “Big city amenities; Small-town feel.” We account for ten Fortune 1000 companies -- including 75% of Ohio’s entries in the Top 100 -- but we value our neighborhoods, and local religious roots have connected millions of people through Catholic schools. Introduce me to anyone from Cincinnati and give us ten minutes together, I would say, and we’ll come up with at least one mutual acquaintance.

Seven years into my New York adventure, I loved being able to indulge in all of my passions, fed by the culinary offerings, the public transportation, the neighborhood movie theaters, and the vast comedy scene. But I was suddenly disappointed to realize that nearly a decade on, the emotional connection to my surroundings had only grown so deep. Perhaps the size of the city was responsible, but I was struck by an epiphany that the things tying me and my peers to New York were most often cultural and career opportunities. Friendships were nice, but the relationships weren’t the priority or the motivating factor for residence -- even if social opportunities were.

I would argue that even with amazing museums, pro sports, and an emerging cultural scene, community remains the Queen City’s defining trait. And I would suggest that beyond the interpersonal relationships that grow so strong here, our defensiveness derives from our relationship to the city itself. Cincinnati, the whole intangible idea of it -- the people, plants, buildings and backstory -- functions like a family in a way that other cities with more transient populations don’t. It’s only natural for a person to defend his home, as an affirmation of his life choices, if nothing else; our relationship to Cincinnati is, I think, more complicated and more rich. We love it even when it frustrates us. We shape it, even as we are shaped by it.

The sun sets on my time in New York City [LEFT], and I start my journey anew in the city I love [RIGHT]. Photos by Jeremy Mosher & Randy Simes.

And I think that’s the difference: because Cincinnati is inhabited and led by homegrown folks probably more than any other city our size or bigger, a sort of mutual osmosis goes on. A Cincinnatian owns a stake in this city; woe to those who aspire only to rent it for a few convenient years. Yes, new residents have been known to be intimidated initially, but they can still become part of the family, part of this wholly unique place and experience, if they’re willing to put up with -- and occasionally revel in -- the quirks and foibles. (We wouldn’t let a family member bring a new spouse into the herd without doing due diligence, right?) Cincinnati will look out for us. It will give us the opportunities to outgrow it, but never let us forget where we came from. It will welcome us back, even if we feel the need to leave the nest for years at a time.

Returning from a business trip to the far side of the Atlantic last weekend, I had a layover in New York. Few things in this world are breathtaking like a banking bird’s-eye view of Manhattan at night, but as I picked out landmarks from my vantage high above the city I had long called my home -- and meant it -- I recognized something new: that I am thrilled to be living in Cincinnati again. Do I miss life in New York? Certain elements, yes. But given a choice, give me family, evolving but ever-loyal, sitting proudly on this big bend in the banks of the Ohio.


Randy Simes said...

Thanks for joining the team here at UrbanCincy Jeremy. We're all glad you made your way back to Cincinnati, and that you're excited about experiencing the city for all it has to offer while sharing that with everyone here.

Leiflet said...

This is a nice article. I am a recent transplant to Cincinnati, and i'm realizing how many other cities like to take digs at smaller cities because they're perceived as backward. So, essentially, if you're not New York, SF, Los Angeles, or Chicago, you're not worth the breath it takes to say your name.

That's pretty lazy, really. The article in VF is really lazy, too. The Creation Museum is not something that anyone i know gets excited about. And the "writer" didn't think to mention, "Oh, well, actually, it's in Kentucky." They just wanted to spectacle to make fun of.

Unknown said...

I'm currently undergoing the NYC- Cin conversion. My biggest gripe is the view of downtown as "work" and "reds/bengals" to 95% of the metro population.

I cant for the life of me figure out why its perceived as better to own starter home on a hill in Mt. Lookout, than to own a historic home with character in Prospect Hill, and enjoy the amenities that we are taxed for in Hamilton County...

Then again, I couldnt figure out why people commuted 2 hours into NYC either.

David Ben said...

Welcome to Urban Cincy, Jeremy. Glad you could join us!

I am one of those Cincinnati transplants you mention. I didn't break into 'real' Cincinnati until a little after midway through college because I was in the self-induced Xavier bubble. Xavier brought me to the area, and it just so happened that Cincinnati is here too.

After getting sick of the rote campus life, I began branching out more. Though that experience, I felt tinges of the aversion to breaking into the Cincinnati social scene you mention, but it was actually significantly easier to get involved than I had originally thought. The small town feeling you describe can provide a conceptual barrier to entry, but in fact, it allows great access to the social networks here. Once connected with one person, it is very easy to meet more and more new people.

BB said...

I'm currently coming back to Cincinnati from Philadelphia for basically the reason of lower cost of living plus a job that doesn't require me to live in any particular city. While I agree there's a lot of great development going on in the city, I don't really believe there's much that's boast-worthy from Cincinnati. I think a lot of the "great" things we have are kinda mediocre when compared to even other midwestern cities. I agree with the above comment about downtown that people here view it as a place for work and to see sports and nothing more, but I'm more frustrated that people think that now that people go down there to drink at bars our downtown is now "revitalized". The restaurant pickings are still pretty slim comparatively, the shopping/retail selections are abysmal, there's no grocery store (seriously, how can you expect people to want to move downtown and not have a grocery store?). The city is also extremely prohibitive if you don't own a car.

I too like the sense of community here, but it also is the city's downfall. It's what brings about that mentality that the world begins and ends in Cincinnati, Ohio. It's what causes Cincinnatians to respond indignantly when someone from a big city says that there's not much to boast about here. I'd even blame it for the reason Cincinnati seems so behind the rest of the country.

Sorry to be a Debby Downer or a Devil's Advocate. There's a lot of things I like about the city but having come back from the east coast there's so many things that frustrate me to no end about this city.

Randy Simes said...


I think you're right that there are still a lot of things that need to improve in Cincinnati and its center city, but it's encouraging to see that some progress is being made and that the center city seems to once again be viewed by many as important.

Perspectives like yours, Jeremy's, and David's are valuable, because you offer an outsiders view of the city we all know and love. This outside perspective allows us to take a step back and realize where it is we need to go without getting to caught up in the progress we've currently made.

Living in Gin said...

There seems to be a lot of NYC vs. Cincinnati navel-gazing lately. (The whole VF thing, and the Cincinnati Man just posted a piece about why Cincy is better than NYC.) Very timely for me, as I'll be moving back to Cincy from NYC this Sunday.

As I commented on the TCM article, the cost of living makes a huge difference. In moving from NYC to Cincy, I'll be paying one-third the rent for an apartment that's three times as large, and I'll actually be able to see things like grass and trees from my window.

I had a lot of romantic ideas about NYC when I first moved there in 2004 and then again in 2007, and some of those notions are backed by reality. But most of the time, the day-to-day experiences of living in NYC don't measure up to the hype. As I got older, quality of life and quality of relationships have become more important to me than being in the middle of all the action. Most of my NYC friends are similarly transient, and may or may not end up leaving the city as they get older over the coming years. Most of my friends in Chicago have already left, or are making plans to leave. New York and Chicago may be great places to spend spring break, but Cincinnati is where I'd prefer to wake up on Christmas morning.

John Schneider said...

"The city is also extremely prohibitive if you don't own a car."

Really? No kidding? I've lived very well without a car in Cincinnati for many years and have never felt deprived.

Here's an idea. Sell your car and use the $500 you're now dumping into it each month (be honest -- it costs you a lot more than you think it does) and put that sum toward a terrific apartment in the center of the city.

This works especially well if you both live and work in Downtown or OTR. On the other hand I've lived downtown forever but don't work there, and I somehow manage.

It's a no-brainer. I know lots of Downtowners who've given up their cars completely and many more who still hold onto them but seldom use them. Some have confided to me that they had never felt true financial independence until they got rid of their cars.

Learn to walk everywhere that's less than a mile away, take the bus or rent cars when you need to.

You'll be amazed at your newfound sense of freedom, and you won't miss your car at all.

Almost anyone can do this. You should try it.

Jeremy said...

@BB & @JohnSchneider -- As luck would have it, I nailed a pot-hole just last night, ruining my front-right wheel and putting me among the car-less (even if only temporarily). Living outside the city center, as I do, I've been challenged to figure out how exactly to get repairs made, thanks to suburban sprawl. (In a way, that really provides fodder for both pro- and anti-car camps.) I bought a bike last summer and have been using it more and more, but Cincinnati has a ways to go to be fully bike-functional. To wit: how does one easily (and safely) bike down to Clifton or Downtown from a relatively-close, young-professional-friendly neighborhood like Oakley? An answer isn't obvious to me, and that in and of itself is a problem. Living downtown or Uptown without a car is doable, but we still have work to do to make it a viable option everywhere within the city limits.

As far as "boast-worthy" Cincinnati, we have a legitimately great beer culture -- good craft beers are widely available, and even brewed locally. Our skyline, nestled as it is between hills and a kink in the river, is dramatic and beautiful, even if it's less expansive or iconic than New York. Or, read the Zaha Hadid feature in the final 2009 issue of the "New Yorker" and try not to be impressed that Cincinnati is home to her first work in the Western Hemisphere. These aren't "good" things here. These are things that distinguish us outright from other cities.

And finally, re: the "insular" community here. The flight I alluded to in the article above actually got stuck overnight in NYC due to mechanical problems, affording me the chance to have dinner and catch up with college friends. As I described how great the move back has been, one asked, "So, it's been good to hang out with your high school friends again?" I proceeded to rattle off a list of cities where all my closest friends from that era were now living; it's (largely) a whole new cast of Cincinnatians that have welcomed me with open arms. It's in our nature to do so -- so long as newbies can give chili a fair shot, at least feign excitement in the Shootout, and act genuinely happy to be here. Or, keep their mouths shut if they can't.

Unknown said...

I don't understand the recent fascination of comparing NYC and Cincinnati. I mean, let's be honest, no city, overall is going to beat New York City.

That hardly means that a city like Cincinnati is completely void of anything of note or interest.

Cincinnati doesn't need to be NYC. Cincinnati just needs to be the best Cincinnati it can be.

5chw4r7z said...

Wow BB, people move to the suburbs without a grocery. Whats the difference?

Leiflet said...

Funny enough: I'm a transplant to Cincinnati from Knoxville, TN (and before that California). I've been posting on this blog for nearly a year now and i have yet to have ONE response to any comment I've ever made. I don't know if it's some sort of Cincinnati rite-of-passage, or simply that the outsiders just weird out the locals.

I've come to appreciate this city more, but ironically, i've felt most included and affirmed by other transplants. I can count on my hand the number of natives who have made me feel welcomed.

Interestingly, this thread helps to pinpoint what is tough about Cincinnati-- people who move here and don't "give the chili a chance" get SNUBBED! I've never been to another city that DE-values outsiders the way Cincinnati does. Other major urban areas that i really love -NYC, Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Tokyo, Mexico City-- really thrive b/c they incorporate new ideas and cultures.

Cincinnati is very adamant about Cincinnati culture. Case in point: have you EVER read an article trying to argue the fact that New York is an amazing city?

I have seen huge changes, even since i moved here, and i am really glad for it. But i agree with BB: this city is far behind other cities. I hope that everyone who lives here will keep looking forward to new ideas and opinions-- especially dissenting ones!

Leiflet said...

and btw Schwartz, people move to the suburbs to get AWAY from things like retail and stores. People live downtown to be in arm's reach of them.

Randy Simes said...


My interpretation of Jeremy's introduction piece here is much less about NYC vs. Cincy, and more about his background and how he ended up back in Cincinnati.

Jeremy is the first to talk about NYC's positives over Cincinnati, and UrbanCincy as a whole regularly looks to what is being done elsewhere around the country and world to see what we could be doing better.

Part of the reason behind why Cincinnatians, and Midwesterners in general, go out of their way to tout their own cities is because of the constant negativity shown towards their cities. UrbanCincy was started as a response to the constant negative focus on the city by local media outlets. So much of the premise of this website is about being positive and sharing what is good about this city...and if something is wrong, how can we improve it by learning from others (i.e. transit, nightlife, regionalism, political fragmentation, attracting/retaining young talent).

I hope you haven't felt left out or slighted here at UrbanCincy because we honestly do value the opinions of everyone and especially love to hear from people who have an outsiders perspective about Cincinnati. If you'd like, send me an email and we can even work out a guest editorial piece where you can share some of your most important concerns with the readers...or feel free to drop by one of the next UrbanCincy events and chat about them there with the team.

Leiflet said...

Hey, I appreciate it, Randy. No hard feelings, though something certainly struck a chord.

I actually sent a letter to Vanity Fair telling them my feelings. I'm fighting for this city, if you didn't pick that up. (BTW, people on the West Coast and in the South fight for their cities, too. It's not just a Midwest thing).

To me, though, involvement entails being an outside (and outspoken) voice. I have a point of view that others might not, and in some ways, that should be valued as highly, in a different way.

If you look back, you'll see me commenting on quite a few posts. I'm not just dropping in to get defensive. It was more that i thought, you know, no need to pick on the odd one out (in this case, BB).

Randy Simes said...

I'm very much aware that you comment fairly regularly on UrbanCincy. I read every comment that is posted and digest what it is each person has to say.

In terms of BB, it's not so much what he said that got people upset (I know several of the commentors here personally), but rather how he said it. Most realize that Cincinnati is far from perfect, and that our center city has still a long way to go before we achieve true success...but that doesn't mean Cincinnati lacks boast-worthy elements.

We could compare cities and their attributes all day long and come up with different standings for them. But I'm not sure what comparing Cincinnati's arts scene to Paris, France or Paris, KY accomplishes. I'm also not sure what good it does saying that Cincinnati has so far less to do than Manhattan, NYC or far more to do than Manhattan, KS.

We need to be aware of what other cities are doing, and what they currently offer. But engaging in a constant ego-driven pissing match we do ourselves a disservice.

Ian said...

BB is right when it comes to the attitudes that people have here.

I grew up in Toledo, and have lived in Cincinnati for 8 years now. I love this city, and I know other transplants like myself who share my sentiment. I actually feel like the people who are the most negative about Cincinnati are actually the ones who grew up here, who are perfectly willing to let New Yorkers convince them of the insignificance of their city.

I actually think it's pretty easy to become part of the community and feel at home here. Though most of my family still resides in Toledo, I feel more at home here.

Where he's wrong though is in the pessimism. There is plenty to offer, not the least of which is an excellent local music scene. There's plenty of good retail here - I honestly don't understand what's "abysmal" about it. Is there something you need that you can't buy here? There's a plethora of great bars to hang out at and restaurants to eat at. Cincinnati actually has more bars per capita than any other American city.

I could go on. I think sometimes that it's just a matter of pessimistic attitudes that prevent people from realizing how great Cincinnati actually is.

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