A Green Future for Manufacturing in Norwood?

On February 19th, I attended an event on “Building the Future: Manufacturing’s Software Revolution” at the Siemens Motor Manufacturing Plant in Norwood. The Atlantic monthly initiated the event, Siemens generously underwrote it, and the governor of Ohio, the mayor of Cincinnati, and a U.S. congressman from northeastern Ohio all came and spoke.

Domestic manufacturing is viable again. That’s because of discoveries of new sources of energy (particularly natural gas from fracking), rising costs of transportation, and increasing wages in Asia and elsewhere. The domestic manufacturing boom also benefits from the understanding that design and production benefit from the closest possible integration, something difficult when designers live on one continent and producers live on another.

Perhaps the key development has been product lifecycle management (PLM) software which enables manufacturers to quickly simulate product designs over and over again, to insure that they can be efficiently manufactured, used, and serviced, before any steel is cut or plastic molded. The Siemens plant in Norwood, first constructed in 1898, is an excellent example of how software technology can turn a potentially obsolete facility into a state-of-the-art factory.

I heard a lot of good news at the event, including Siemens’s generous $67 million grant of software to Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. The grant means that Cincinnati State students will be familiar with the software that five hundred companies in Ohio use, allowing them to hit the ground running from their first co-op experience. The grant exemplifies Siemens’s commitment to building the new middle class. And much of the event focused on the transformation of once-devastated Youngstown, Ohio, into a leader in software-aided manufacturing.

I attended the event because I’d love to see something similar to the Youngstown story happen in the aging industrial satellite towns of Norwood and Oakley. Around the turn of the twentieth-century, Norwood emerged as a major manufacturing center and Oakley was on its way to becoming the global center of the machine tool industry (by the World War II era, the Soviets called machine tools “Cincinnatis”). But in the last decades of the century, much of the industry of Norwood and Oakley disappeared, including the GM plant that sprawl across the area around the Siemens plant and virtually all of Oakley’s machine tool industry. Bringing some of those jobs back is crucial to the future health of our city and region.

I also attended the event because I live nearby and hope that someday we will see the emergence of a walkable city within a city in the area. I often marvel at the range of institutions, facilities, amenities, and talented people that are within a three-mile radius of Xavier University where I work. A manufacturing base would go a long way to making that city within a city viable.

My interest in walkable cities is driven, in part, by environmental concerns. We appear to be awash in cheap energy at the moment but I remain skeptical about the long-term project of globalization (the importation of, say, Thai beer has always been my go-to example of the craziness of globalization; transporting Thai beer thousands of miles to the craft beer center of the world strikes me as “coals to Newcastle”).  Even if fossil fuels remain cheap enough to justify the transportation costs, I’m worried that the global climate can stand the pressure (despite our own icy experience, globally this past January is the fourth warmest on record). So the revival of local manufacturing strikes me as a good and prudent idea. I’m also interested in a walkable city-within-a-city because of the pleasure I get from walking diverse, engaging, and pleasant city streets and the distinct lack of pleasure I get from driving, sitting in traffic, parking, and paying repair and insurance bills.

So, of course, I walked to the event. As I approached, a dozen late-model SUVs and luxury sedans cruised past me toward the parking lot, attracting not the least attention from the several security guards present. My arrival, in contrast, raised modest suspicions. Nothing came of it as I assured the guards I had indeed registered for the event; we even had a chuckle over my pride in being the only “walk-in” that entire morning. But it was my first inkling that perhaps I would find myself out of step with some aspects of the proceedings.

The room was filled with smart, dedicated, and good people. But I can’t say it was the greenest, most environmentally-conscious event I’ve ever attended.  To be sure, a major topic was energy efficiency, which makes as good sense environmentally as it does economically. And the logic of project lifestyle management software certainly reduces waste (an elaboration of the old “measure twice, cut once” principle). But as the speakers explained the advantages of product lifecycle management software, I listened in vain for the discussion of the alpha and omega of economic activity, extraction on one end and disposal on the other. In theory, PLM software includes concern about extraction and recycling, but you wouldn’t know it from this event.

Instead I heard about the tens of billions of dollars in recent manufacturing investment and the anticipated $90 billion in new investment in the chemical industry alone. And if any idea dominated the whole event, it was the need for speed – and the pace of innovation – in a global economy. I am not blind to the benefits of new jobs and economic revitalization, but as I thought of all the accumulated capital that needs to be invested at a profit, and the speed at which those profits are to be generated, I shuddered for the environment.

Will the biosphere handle all these additional extraction and waste? The amount of material that passes through our economy is already enormous. Researchers calculate that supplying the needs of the average middle-class family moves some 4 million pounds of material through the economy every year, much of it toxic and all of it eventually dumped into our air, land, and water. No matter how efficient our new methods, they will still require mining, pumping, burning, and disposing of countless tons of material. We need to be smart and responsible about what we produce.

We need good paying jobs and manufacturing can supply many of them. But we need a sense of proportion and we must ask if we need all these things we will be producing. The event included a presentation from a representative of the medical technology field; as a cancer survivor, I do not underestimate the usefulness of technology provided to doctors for gathering information about the human body and repairing it. But I’m skeptical that every product the market will bear represents an addition to our quality of life. And I’m doubtful that we can simply grow ourselves out of income inequality and the shame of poverty. Instead, I suspect the environmental degradation this will entail will only worsen poverty and inequality.

The emphasis on speed and the pace of innovation troubled me the most, in large part because I fully understand that the global for-profit economy demands it. But the emphasis on speed trickles out of the economy to touch every aspect of our society. One expression of that was the governor’s emphatic wish that the educational system encourage our children to start thinking about careers IN THE FIRST GRADE (his emphasis)! This is the educational system of Dickens’s Hard Times updated for our era, molding kids for the jobs we have determined the market will demand.

Career planning in the first grade does not sound like the way to create the thoughtful and responsible citizens – skeptical, questioning, values-oriented, and, yes, innovative – that we so desperately need. I’m not optimist about turning things around, given our priorities; the grateful president of Cincinnati State pointed out that Siemens’s $67 million grant nearly equaled his institution’s annual budget of $75 million. But can we really dispense with education that prepares students to define, analyze, and assess qualities, goals, and values? Is it all about preparing young people to take their places in the social machinery without a thought of what the machinery produces, or what kind of society it creates?

Nevertheless, I found the entire event informative and stimulating. One speaker asked the crowd (of perhaps 250 people) if anyone had ever been in a factory before. A remarkable percentage (I’d estimate 90%, including your faithful correspondent) raised their hands. As the speaker said, we were in Ohio, a state with a great tradition of manufacturing. Siemens, I should add, appears to have a series of admirable environmental initiatives in operation at the plant. And the sponsors and attendees emphasized the need to rebuild the middle class and attack the underlying sources of poverty. Click here to view the entire event on streaming video. Don’t miss the final interview with U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan; Ryan’s point that we should think more about the need to make things and less about the need to make money provided one of the more hopeful messages of the event.

Can We Write an Ecological Narrative for the City?

It’s a snow day today in Cincinnati.

My university (Xavier) is closed so I’m taking a bit of time to post something. I should do this more often as I’m constantly producing various things about environmental history for the classroom. People (or is it just bots?) keep coming to the website, so maybe there is a growing interest in human ecology and urban environmental history. Or at least I can keep the bots occupied.

But the video, which describes an early paper out of which the project emerged, at least gives an idea of where I started from.

Here’s a short video presentation on my new book project. The project, as these things do, continues to evolve. I say in the following video that I’m investigating about 75 years of speculation about the relationship between the city and the rest of nature. But I’ve already rushed back beyond that 75 year barrier. I had been roughly thinking of the project as “regionalism and urban sprawl since 1932.”  But I’ve been recently writing about the emergence of ecology and city planning around the turn of the twentieth century and, specifically, about the sporadic efforts to bring human ecology and city planning together. Most recently, I’ve taken the story back even further to begin to ask whether we can locate the beginnings of an environmental ethic in our Puritan and pragmatic heritage. The perils of being a historian.

Xavier’s new M.A. in urban sustainability and resilience: an interview with Liz Blume of the Community Building Institute

Well, it’s been quite a while since your not-so-intrepid blogger has posted anything here (aside from the recent post on Central Parkway) and yet the visitors keep coming. The site passed 2,000 views this week. Thanks for that. I have not been totally unproductive, either, even aside from my day job (teaching US history at Xavier). Several of us have been working on a new graduate level program at Xavier, a Masters degree in urban sustainability and resilience. It is now scheduled to begin in August 2014.

My main collaborator in this project is Liz Blume, the executive director of the Community Building Institute (a collaboration between Xavier and the United Way). Liz has extensive experience as a city planner and community organizer and is involved in what seems like every major project going on in Cincinnati today. There would be no M.A. program at Xavier without Liz’s talents and energy.

I recently sat down with Liz and asked her (among other things) about the M.A. in urban sustainability. So, at long last, I have my first interview to post. Please excuse my limitations as a film maker (not to mention as an interviewer). I shall hone my skills in the future. But in the meantime, I wanted to get this up and out there.

If you have any questions about the M.A., don’t hesitate to contact either Liz (Blume@xavier.edu) or me (Fairfiel@xavier.edu). A brochure for the program appears below the interview.

Click here for brochure: Xavier MA Urban sustainability and resilience

Central Parkway’s Lost Promise

Cincinnati earned a reputation in the 19th century as an unusually green city, at least in terms of its leafy, hilltop suburbs. But by the turn of the century, the city began to engulf the first ring of suburbs and many worried that the city would lose its attractiveness. The development of a comprehensive system of parks for the entire city seemed a good way to preserve the suburban virtues of the cool, green rim that had been annexed to the city proper around the turn of the century.

Hence in 1907, the city hired the nationally-renown park planner George E. Kessler to develop an appropriate plan. Kessler emphasized the need for open spaces and recreational opportunities and believed Cincinnati still had an opportunity to become one of the most beautiful of American cities. Kessler’s plan focused on removing “unslightly conditions” from privately-held properties, preserving scenic vistas, providing abundant green and recreational spaces, knitting the city together with improved cross-town parkways, and promoting civic patriotism with monumental parks and buildings. He envisioned 18 parks, 17 public squares and playgrounds, and 35 parkways that would also serve as landscaped parks that enhanced the value of adjacent properties.

Central Parkway, built atop the deteriorating and unused Miami and Erie Canal and connecting the downtown business center with all the major residential neighborhoods and parkways, stood at the center of Kessler’s plan. His expansive vision for Central Parkway included a pedestrian mall flanked by Music Hall, City Hall, and the Courthouse.

He also wanted to preserve Washington Park as an open-air park with a wading pool at one end. Sadly, Kessler’s plan fell by the wayside in the 1920s with the new interest in “master” planning, which offered a comprehensive blueprint for all development instead of specific proposals for parks or sewers or transit. Eventually zoning supplanted Kessler’s park plan in the drive to preserve the cool, green suburban rim of the city.

Today, we have at best a remnant of Kessler’s vision. The parkway has been largely given over to automobiles, although there is talk of making it more bicycle friendly: http://news.cincinnati.com/interactive/article/20130816/CINCI/130816031/Cycle-track-options-Central-Parkway . This summer I tried to describe something of what Central Parkway could be and has become (my apologies for the wind blowing through my microphone).

So I stopped first at Walnut and Central to try to capture the place of automobiles on Central Parkway today:

Then I tried to suggest something of the more pedestrian-friendly cityscape of the 19th century, standing at Central Parkway and Vine (I hadn’t yet figured out where the microphone is on my camera so the first part is muddled – oh well).

Finally, I stopped for a surprisingly pleasant few minutes in the meridian to try to suggest something of what Kessler might have had in mind and what Central Parkway might still mean to the Cincinnati of the future. This little film has little or no wind or muffling (progress!) and has the added advantage of providing a memory of the cool breezes of mid July on this cold December day).

For more on Kessler’s plan, see Zane L. Miller, “Greening the American City,” in Queen City Heritage (Spring 1993), 3-8. A useful picture essay on the parkway can be seen at http://www.blogotr.com/otr/canal-subway-parkway-the-history-of-cincinnatis-central-parkway-in-images/ .

Wasson Way: Toward a Different and Better City?

Wasson Way is a proposed 6.5 mile mixed-use trail along an right-of-way belonging to the Norfolk Southern Railroad. The proposed $7.1 million project would stretch from Xavier University in Evanston through Hyde Park and Oakley, past Madisonville and Mariemont to the Little Miami Scenic Trail in Newtown. As many as 120,000 people live within a mile of the proposed trail and many more live along various connecting trails. For example, plans are moving forward for a Little Duck Creek Scenic Trail in Madisonville that would connect with Wasson Way. On its western end, Wasson Way will connect to the bike lanes along Victory Parkway and hence provide a reasonably good connection to downtown. Wasson Way will thus link many parts of the city and region, improve circulation and access, encourage a healthier citizenry, and help Cincinnati fulfill its pledge to reduce carbon emissions and become a greener city.

Some hurdles remain in front of the project, including negotiations to purchase the right-of-way, finding the necessary funding, and addressing the concerns of all stakeholders. There is some concern that the bike trail might preclude eventual use of the right-to-way for a light rail system, but trail supporters argue that the project will preserve the right-of-way (a central purpose of federal rail to trails regulations) and that the trail can be maintained alongside a light-rail system. Studies from around the country show that local property values and small businesses benefit from such mixed-use trails and that public safety increases as well. Not only are bikers and walkers alert, conscientious citizens but a public right-of-way can be policed while the existing private right-of-way cannot. Cincinnati City Council has passed two resolutions in the past year, calling on city administrators to push the project to completion. Possible funding sources include monies from the proposed parking deal and the Focus 52 neighborhood fund as well as foundation and federal grants.

Many Cincinnatians, including myself, have walked portions of the trail. One highlight is the spectacular trestle that skirts Ault Park (here’s a look at the trestle with Jay Andress, who is spearheading the effort to build the trail). Passing through several lovely neighborhoods and lively commercial districts, the trail is more than a recreational asset, though it surely is that. It is also a much-needed transportation corridor in an area where both the railroad right-of-way and the sprawling grounds of Ault Park and the Hyde Park Country Club often make roundabout routes necessary. A walk or ride through the area will turn up multiple dead ends and cul-de-sacs. Wasson Way will therefore improve circulation in the area and increase access to important resources and amenities. It will also enable many residents to commute to work or school – or run errands or have an evening out – using their bikes or simply their legs.

Speaking of dead ends, here’s one along Old Red Bank Road. You can reach it along a short bike path from the intersection of Madison and Red Bank that can connect with Wasson Way. I’m obviously confused in this video. The road I’m looking at isn’t Beechmont Levee, as I’m sure my viewers will know. Beechmont Levee probably wouldn’t be raised so that water could go under it! Beechmont Levee is actually off to the right (southwest) a mile or so in this video. Nor is the road it Route 32, which is a ways back behind, to the south . It’s Columbia Parkway, US 50.  Despite my confusion, I’m including the video, well, just because I like videos. But also to suggest how a bike trail might improve circulation, increase access, and save us from having to spend money, fight traffic, and burn fossil fuels to take the heaviest thing we own (our cars) a mile down the road to buy a gallon of milk. (The trestle I mention isn’t the one skirting Ault Park but a second trestle, spanning Red Bank Road).

Wasson Way will connect a host of organizations, institutions, attractions, and commercial developments, including Walnut Hills High School, Xavier University, the new University Station development on Xavier’s campus, Burwood Playground, Withrow High School, Rookwood Commons, the Hyde Park Plaza, Ault Park, historic downtown Mariemont, Bass Island Park, and the Little Miami Golf Center, and dozens of professional services, office parks and small industries, as well as many restaurants and bars. It even goes by a branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles. You could ride your bike to renew your driver’s license!

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Think of Wasson Way as a low build alternative to the much more expensive and disruptive Eastern Corridor Project. Planners use the term “low build” to describe solutions that improve conditions with a minimum of expensive infrastructure. That’s what Wasson Way could do. The Eastern Corridor Project’s proposed relocation and improvement of Ohio State Route 32 is a particular concern to neighborhoods and townships, where residents worry about the disruptive damage that will be done to thriving business and residential districts as well as parks and the beautiful Little Miami Valley. In a world increasingly concerned about the use of fossil fuels and the environmental costs of the car culture in general, Wasson Way should be given every opportunity to help improve our transit options, our physical health, and the health of our communities. Although much of the push for the project has come from the Hamilton County Transportation Improvement District, County Commissioner Greg Hartman has recently questioned the wisdom of spending scarce resources on the $300 million project.

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In conjunction with other trail projects (the Ohio River Trail, the Little Duck Creek Scenic Trail, the Murray Road Trail, the bike lanes on Victory Parkway, the proposed bike lanes on Central Parkway, etc.), Wasson Way might be the beginning of a different and better city, one that is more walkable, green, and lively. These trails nicely complement form-based codes, a new form of zoning that the city is experimenting with. In place of the old zoning logic of segregating retail and commerce from residence, form-based codes encourage mixed-use, walkable development. The new codes establish guidelines for the forms of private buildings in order to create humanly-scaled and attractive public spaces. Good trails and form-based codes can get us out of our cars and encourage us to enjoy the variety and diversity the city has to offer, while getting to know our neighbors, shedding pounds, and improving our health.

Wasson Way promises to be the most successful urban bike trail in the nation. It might be a catalyst for even bolder changes. In Ecocities: Building Cities In Balance With Nature, Richard Register urges local activists to establish alternative, ecological zoning maps that concentrate activity and preserve open space. I’ve often wondered what kind of walkable community might be possible in the three square mile radius around the intersection of Montgomery and Dana Avenues.. Consider the range of opportunities, assets, and amenities within that circle. In addition to many of the places described above in reference to Wasson Way, there are Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the Cincinnati Zoo, the Civic Garden Center, the Mill Creek Greenway, Spring Grove Cemetery, Avon Field, and (barely within the three-mile limit) the University of Cincinnati. That is a formidable city within a city with employment, education, retail, recreation, culture, and beauty all within easy reach, without the use of an automobile.

Metro Plus service is already linking many of these places by rapid transit bus. And public transit will be crucial for those unable or unwilling to walk or ride, just as it is now an essential service for those (particularly the very young and the very old) either unable or unwilling to drive. New and better trails can build on Metro Plus and change our experience of the city. “To walk or take transit is a public act,” Jane Holtz Kay writes in Asphalt Nation, while the automobile tends to turn all space into private space. Is there anything more disconnected from the life of the city than the motorist speeding through the streets? Is there anything more connected to the life of the city than the pedestrian, the bicyclist, or the user of public transit? These alternative forms of transit bring us all into closer contact and equalize access to all the city has to offer.

This vision of a less auto-centric city is not a pipe dream;even the staid Cincinnati Enquirer has seen the future and is promoting greater use of bicycles in the city. But we can and should think more boldly. As I look back at Register’s suggestions, I’m surprised to see how many elements are already happening in our city. Try to recover something of the natural history of your place, he recommends, discovering where creeks, ponds, outcroppings are. How many people are like me and now have a much better understanding of where the Little Miami River is and where it goes, not to mention that there is something, right under our feet, called Duck Creek. Find out about the cultural history of your place, Register adds, those forgotten neighborhoods and buildings, and the story of how the natural setting was transformed. The discussions surrounding the Eastern Corridor project have encouraged just this. Establish walkable centers, Register continues, and locate railroad rights-of-way, essential for bikes and public transit. We are well on our way to doing all these things.

We can do more. Register urges activists to use eco-zoning maps to identify existing centers. Draw a series of concentric circles around them. Establish high densities on one-fifth to one-third of the land, closest to these centers. Establish low densities on the rest of the land, especially land furthest from the centers. As we rely less on the automobile and increase density in already existing centers, we can devote less used parts of the city to agriculture and green spaces. And don’t let density scare you. These are places people are already drawn too, not least to see – and be seen by – other people.  Density also reduces the cost of urban infrastructure and makes public transit financial feasible. Draw in locations for nature corridors and agriculture, Register advises, and then adjust the concentric circles accordingly, making room for plants and animals to migrate. Creeks are one such corridor – give them wide berth in less dense areas, narrow berth in centers where land has a high social and economic value. We can make Cincinnati a much greener city, one that works with natural processes not against them. The city might even promote biodiversity instead of endangering it.

For more information on these issues, you might start with the Wasson Way organization website and the website for the Eastern Corridor project. On the Eastern Corridor project, WVXU recently had an excellent program, including an overview and questions and comments from callers. You might also find the form based code institute’s webpage useful: . Finally, see the City of Cincinnati’s page on form based codes.

The City of Light, Midwestern Style

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It’s a hard argument to make to those who don’t like the city, but the future economic health of the entire metropolitan region depends upon a vital and successful central city. Sure, much of the retail and employment base of the region has shifted to the periphery, but the concentration of financial, corporate, educational, medical, and cultural capital remains in the central city. As do some crucial regional assets like the Greater Cincinnati Waterworks, the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati, and the Metro public transit system (funded by city revenues). Moreover, the reputation of any region still depends upon the well-being and attractiveness of its core. When outsiders think of, say, Detroit versus Chicago, the reputation of the central city obscures or accentuates the opportunities the entire region provides.

This is one of the reasons why the fate of Over-the-Rhine (OTR), our priceless ensemble of 19th century architecture and streetscapes, is such a crucial question for the entire region. In the neighborhood just north of downtown Cincinnati, trendy bars and restaurants have long crowded emergency shelters and food banks. The nation’s most beautiful nineteenth century architectural cityscape has been a backdrop for homelessness, poverty and despair. A neighborhood of appalling juxtapositions, of problems and possibilities, Over-the-Rhine has bewitched many of the city’s most impassioned citizens. And yet paralysis has often been the result. Beginning in the early 1980s, developers argued that federally-funded historic preservation represented the only hope for OTR, while social activists struggled to protect the interests of low-income residents. The center of the nineteenth century city’s public life became the focus of the twentieth century city’s bitterest civic debate.

But now development appears to have won in Over-the-Rhine, particularly since the creation of the Cincinnati Central City Development Corporation (3CDC) in 2003. A tax-exempt, private, non-profit corporation, 3CDC has the support of the city’s business and civic leadership. And as Over-the-Rhine becomes a magnet that brings people into the central city as both residents and visitors, the city’s attractiveness is shored up along with its tax base. At least potentially, every resident of Cincinnati can benefit from this revitalization of the city’s public life and finances. But Over-the-Rhine also poses in an acute form the question that confronts revitalizing cities across the nation: how do we make cities attractive to upper-income groups that have tended to prefer suburban life while maintaining the socio-economic diversity that is part of the city’s attraction and essential to our aspirations for social justice? As the civil disturbances of 2001 suggest, even those most focused on the financial bottom line cannot avoid the question of whether an urban and regional revival can be built upon a foundation of injustice.

Developers and new residents recognize the value of urban diversity, but they also tend to support aesthetic standards, political organizations, and attitudes to public space that discourage that diversity. To be sure, the small entrepreneurs, residents, and consumers who bring activity and resources to the neighborhood have legitimate concerns about the quality of public life and public safety.  And it is wrong – if common – to blame economic and racial inequality on small businesses and environmentally-conscious residents who are attracted to the walkable neighborhood. The sources of that inequality are much broader and longer-term. But, on the other hand, the struggle over the future of OTR may be our best chance to force these larger issues of inequality onto the public agenda.

I don’t pretend to have the answers – or even all the questions – regarding what is happening in Over-the-Rhine. But it does seem that a neighborhood that once housed 45,000 people (early in the 20th century) and has declined to a population of well under 10,000 has room enough for diversity. And if we make the effort, long-time residents can benefit in many ways from the neighborhood’s rehabilitation (through, for example, increased employment opportunities, improved public services, and enhanced public safety). And it also seems that bringing suburban residents of the region into the central city, making them feel an attachment and commitment to the city, is a crucial task. In an era of declining budgets in both federal agencies and city halls, political alliances that reach across metropolitan jurisdictional boundaries offer the best means of crafting public policies that will secure a better future. Again, I don’t pretend to have all the answers but I do believe the city’s and the region’s future is at stake in Over-the-Rhine. No wonder OTR has proved to be such a lightning rod for controversy.

The recent renovation of Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine by 3CDC is only the latest chapter in the controversy. Long an important resource for the neighborhood’s low-income residents, Washington Park – many fear – has been redeveloped as a resort for the neighborhood’s affluent newcomers and a tourist attraction for outsiders. Which brings me to Lumenocity, the recent free concert held in Washington Park. Along with 35,000 other residents of the metropolitan area, I attended the event over the weekend of August 3-4. It was impossible not to be impressed with the size of the crowd, the mix of cultural institutions on display, and the light show itself. During the second half of a concert that brought together the talents of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Pops, Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Opera and the May Festival Chorus, a digital light show brought the treasure of Music Hall to life. I have to imagine that 3CDC’s leaders felt a certain vindication and, indeed, a well-deserved one. The event cannot help but have been a good thing for the city.

Of course, some of the tensions inherent in the transformation of Over-the-Rhine were also evident in the event. At the center of the park, an overwhelmingly white crowd (in a city over 40% African-American) set up chairs in front of the temporary bandstand (hence my perhaps cryptic comment in the video below about “something missing”). I didn’t stay in the center once the concert started, but I can say that, despite a few controversies over latecomers and sight lines, a festive mood prevailed and lots of impromptu and spontaneous conversations ensued as we waited for the program to start.

I spent most of the evening on the periphery of the park where, I am happy to report, a much more diverse crowd (and, before the concert, an alternative sound track) prevailed.

I saw lots of people wandering in and out of the event from the surrounding residences and heard lots of friendly street corner conversations (some of which you can hear in the background of the video below). Long-time residents do appear to be embracing the park. And it was simply delightful to be out in the city and to be sharing something that did not cost any money and was open to all. For one night, Cincinnati was a city of light. For it to keep and deserve that reputation, we all need to redouble our commitment to making Cincinnati a lively, green, and just city.

For a similar account of the transformation of Washington Park, from someone who knows a lot more about it than I do, see Kathy Y. Wilson’s commentary in City Beat: http://www.citybeat.com/cincinnati/article-25932-a_day_at_the_park.html

For more on the role of central cities in the well-being of regions, see David Rusk, Cities Without Suburbs: A Census 2000 Update  (2003) and Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, The Metropolitan Revolution (2013)

Southwestern Ohio’s Jewel: The Little Miami Scenic Trail . . . and What We Need Next

I first started taking one hundred-mile plus bike trips at the age of fourteen in New Jersey, a beautiful and diverse state that gets a bad rap. My first trip took me from Summit, atop one of the long, low ridges of the Watchung Mountains that slowed urban sprawl from metropolitan New York, to the Delaware Water Gap on the Pennsylvania border. Another trip in the early 1970s took me through the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey and to Cheesequake (from the Lenape word, chiskhakink, for upland) State Park. I have also biked in southeastern Indiana for many years and have often said that region has some of the most beautiful bicycling in the country. I’ve also biked in quite a few states and provinces in the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada, all too often negotiating busy highways and gravel roads.

All of this is simply to say that I have done my most enjoyable – and safest – bicycling on our own Little Miami Scenic Trail. Starting in the village of Newtown (near the Little Miami Golf Center), the car-free trail meanders some seventy-five miles to Springfield, Ohio (but be careful – and considerate – at the many crossings of streets, roads, and highways). Along the way, the Little Miami links with more than a dozen other bike trails that provide access to a great deal of southwestern Ohio and, with the Ohio-to-Erie trail (not completed but very much in use), the entire state of Ohio. The Little Miami trail also provides access to two state parks, John Bryan and Caesar Creek, as well as the state historic site of Fort Ancient (a ceremonial mound built by the Hopewell peoples roughly two thousand years ago).

The Little Miami Scenic Trail is one of the longest paved rail trails in the country. The trail, in other words, has been built along the old right-of-way of the Little Miami Railroad, constructed in the early 1840s (President Lincoln later rode it on the way to his inauguration). The Ohio ?????????????Department of Natural Resources purchased the right-of-way in 1979 and the trail took shape in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps as many as half a million people use the trail yearly. Our trail is well-maintained, as well, thanks in part to the many volunteers you see along the trail. Trees are always coming down and the trail is sometimes obstructed by flood-borne debris (particularly where it passes under Interstate????????????? 275 near Loveland) but such interruptions of service are quickly taken care of. The trail is a great example of the benefits of public spending, as it encourages fitness, respect for the environment, and appreciation of regional history.

Speaking of regional, the Friends of the Little Miami State Park have published a wonderful guide to the trail, filled with fascinating material about the history and natural history of the region.

Here are some photographs (and uninspired captions) from several rides I’ve done this spring and summer. The river has been quite high most of the summer, unusually so. It’s 110 miles, round trip, from Newtown to Xenia, 113-114 if you actually go into the town. It’s 135 to Yellow Springs. I did the Xenia trip this week. I’ve done the Yellow Springs trek but not this year yet.

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But what’s this about what we need next? Well you have to ask how you get to the Little Miami Scenic Trail from Oakley (where I live) or Norwood, Hyde Park or Evanston, or points west? Ah, there’s the rub. I come down Brotherton Avenue, a heavily-traveled, pot-holed road that, at least to me, feels pretty dangerous.

Others would come along similar roads. And I’m relatively lucky because I’m able to use the Murray Bike Path and some lovely side streets in Mariemont.

But in the end, we’ll all wind up at Wooster Pike which, to me, feels like shooting the rapids before we get to the relative safety of the bike trail.

We could, however, have a much easier route to Newtown and the LIttle Miami bike trail and, beyond, access to the entire state. And that’s the Wasson Way bike trail, which could well become the premier urban bike trail in the United States – not least because it links to one the country’s premier rail trails, our own Little Miami Scenic Trail. More on Wasson Way in a coming post.

Finally, here’s some footage of what it looks/feels like on the trail. I understand serious bikers call people like me “Fred”s. I’m definitely a Fred and have been since the mid-1960s when I first started biking to school. But biking is for everyone. So check out the Little Miami Trail.

A Breathtaking Urban Landscape: Eighth and Plum

?????????????I continue to believe that Cincinnati is one of the best kept secrets in the country. Another data point for my belief is Eighth and ?????????????Plum, on the western edge of Cincinnati’s downtown, and the approach to it through Piatt Park, which is – at least potentially – one of the most breathtaking urban landscapes in the United States. While Piatt Park is a much-needed green oasis in the city, the intersection of Eighth and Plum provides corner lots for three spectacular buildings. The question is, what’s on the fourth corner? And what does that tell us about the city?

 

St. Peter in Chains Cathedral (built 1845-1847) remodeled, 1952-1955): Bishop John Baptist Purcell, determined to connect the Catholic Church to the new republic, had the cathedral built to invoke Greek democracy and Roman republicanism. “Dayton marble,” a high-quality limestone from quarries around Dayton, makes up the exterior walls. The tower is a series of octagons, stacked one upon the other. Note the cross-shaped windows on the tower. The Corinthian columns on the portico are the key classical element.

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Old City Hall (built in the mid 1850s, now demolished): The old city hall arose on a “park-like setting at 8th and Plum” (Painter, 32).

Plum Street Temple (1864-1867): The Isaac Wise Temple. Wise was largely responsible for the development of Reform Judaism. He, like Purcell, wanted to integrate his religion into the civic life of the republic. The temple is constructed from Cincinnati’s classic red brick, from kilns in the Mill Creek valley working the distinctively colored, iron-rich mud. The red brick is trimmed with white stone. The design is consciously invocative of Moorish architecture, particularly the Alhambra in Granada. But the Moorish elements are encased in Gothic arches. The red brick was originally painted grey to resemble stone.

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Cincinnati City Hall (1887-1894, designed by Samuel Hannaford): Go ahead, touch those rough, red, rusticated granite boulders on the first floor (sandstone above the first floor). Constructed in the wake of the Courthouse Riots (1884), City Hall is built to project strength, stability, and permanence. One of the Cox machine’s favored architects (and the architect of Music Hall), Hannaford modeled City Hall after H. H. Richardson’s Allegheny

Richardson's Allegheny Court House in Pittsburgh

Richardson’s Allegheny Court House in Pittsburgh

County Courthouse in Pittsburgh. Cox rarely spent time in City Hall, lacking an official position and preferring his suite of offices in the business district and, at night, Weilert’s and other saloons along Vine Street. Note the asymmetrical design and how the corner towers and turrets seem to squeeze the massive building into the smallish urban block. See any gargoyles on the outside? Inside, notice the various allegorical murals (all but the one over the Plum Street entrance vestibule done by the Pedretti brothers) and stained-glass window, lit from an interior court. Note also the marble staircase and mosaic floors. This is a building built by and for a great, powerful city.

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Piatt Park: In 1817, the Piatt brothers donated land for a public market. The space never became a market but instead served as the city’s first park. Named Garfield Park after President James Garfield in 1882, it was renamed Piatt Park in 1940. The Covenant-First Presbyterian Church frames its western end (just beyond the statue of William Henry Harrison) and, beyond, you can see the minarets of the Wise temple, the classical steeple of St. Peter’s in Chains Cathedral, and the massive tower of City Hall. Long a hangout of the homeless, and more recently of the Occupy Cincinnati protesters, Piatt Park has also been, at least in the wishes of city officials and developers, a premier residential district in the city.

But back to the corner of Eighth and Plum. What’s on that fourth corner of this spectacular urban space?

Pardon that annoying wind noise in this video (not to mention my excessive verbiage)

One last observation from nearby Central Parkway: 

Sources: Sue Ann Painter, Architecture in Cincinnati (Ohio University Press, 2006); John Clubbe Cincinnati Observed (Ohio University Press, 1992).

Geeky Professor Visits Devou Park in Covington, Kentucky

I can’t remember exactly when I got it into my head that I needed that iconic image you get of downtown Cincinnati when you come around the bend on I-75/71 on the cut in the hill in Kentucky. But I biked all over south Covington one Sunday looking for it, ascending every hill I could find. No luck. Then I asked my son and a former student, both of whom had lived in Covington, where you might find that view. Devou Park came the answer. I’ve lived in the area for nearly 30 years and had never heard of Devou Park (although now that I know about it, I see references to it everywhere). My son added that I’d get some good exercise in the process of getting the right photo.

So I recently headed out for Devou Park, in a roundabout fashion, first heading southeast from Oakley. When I finally got to Covington I didn’t go the usual way, on Highway Avenue along the river and then up Park Road. Instead, I took Pike Road to the south end of the park. Then, after fruitlessly riding up the impossibly steep but blessedly short Quarry Road in search of the bike trail I thought I’d seen on the map, I headed up Montague Street and into the park, a very steep climb. I arrived at Drees Pavilion and the famed overlook rather out of breath.

Perhaps it was the hypoxia (lack of oxygen) that led to this outburst of professor-ese.

And then this sober second thought (actually, it’s a pretty easy ride back to Oakley).

Devou Park is a wonderful resource for the region, a 700-acre park that began as a 500-acre gift to the city of Covington from William and Charles Devou in honor of their parents. The park contains the Drees Pavilion (a banquet hall that generates funds for the upkeep of the park), the Behringer-Crawford Museum of natural history, and a public golf course. I’m not a golfer but the $34 greens fees ($36.50 on weekends) seem pretty reasonable. And from what I could see from my bike, it’s a beautiful course. The park itself is full of stately trees and walking/biking trails. I didn’t see all that many bikers up there but there were plenty of walkers and picnickers, not to mention the golfers.

I’m not sure I got my iconic image. I envisioned it as a contrast with the image in this website’s banner, creating something of the Nick Carraway  experience from The Great Gatsby. You know the passage. Nick is watching the “moving glow of a ferryboat across the [Long Island} Sound” and then “as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” Well, these two images are a long way from

that, but the trip did make me appreciate, all the more, the remarkable range of parks that the region has and, yes, the beauty of Cincinnati’s setting.

As for the iconic image of the city you get from the interstate, I now realize that motion is a key element of that, the way the city suddenly appears in all its glory as you come around that bend (as this site makes  clear). So I’m still in quest of that.

Tour de Hyde Park a Blast

I recently attended the Hyde Park Blast and thought, all of the sudden, that I’d found myself in a European city right in my own backyard. The Blast, the inspiration of Cheryl Koopman and Chad Sims, has been held since 2001 to raise money for cancer research (this year benefiting the Wellness Community and The Cure Starts Here). The event features running and bicycle races, live music, and lots of food and drink spilling out of Hyde Park Square’s restaurants and bars along stalls on the sidewalks and in the streets. This was my first visit and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the diverse – and fit – crowd that attended the event. It showed off Cincinnati as a city that loves its outdoors, for recreation, fitness, and festivity. And it attracted some strong riders, amateurs and professionals, including riders from other states and countries.

The racecourse stretched along Erie Avenue from Edwards to Shady Lane, up Shady Lane (pictured),DSC00008 around a tight corner along Zeigler Avenue, down Monteith Avenue and back along Erie to Edwards.  Erie between Mooney and Paxton and Edwards between Observatory and Wasson had been closed for the event.

Somehow I’d forgotten to bring my trusty camera but, perhaps inspired by the athleticism, I ran back home to grab it and captured at least a few images of the last, ninety minute race.

Here’s a short clip that gives some sense of the crowd, although this was well down Erie where the crowd thinned out considerable. I have no idea how many people attended but closer to the square you had to squeeze by people along the sidewalks.

Here are the riders heading up Shady Lane:  

And here there are coming back down Monteith:

I tried to capture the sound in these two clips: