Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Urbanism, Sub-urbanism, and why I’m tiring of the Streetcar debate.

I’ve lived in Cincinnati for 8 years.
My first job was at Kaldi’s on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. Those first few years, I spent a lot of time in the neighborhood. I met my husband there and we were married a few blocks away.
Our first apartment was in Over-the-Rhine.
We decided to plant our roots downtown for multiple reasons, many of which I won’t get into here. But, basically, we love Cincinnati and we believe that a strong urban core is the foundation of a strong city. There are other neighborhoods that we love, neighborhoods that might become our “home” someday. But, Over-the-Rhine was where our heart was.
The first two years of our marriage made me an “urbanite.”
We lived in a large, industrial loft space in a barely habitable old brewery building. Both of our work offices were a mile away. Our church was a mile away. I learned to shop on foot, in small trips. I got used to the sounds of street life. We got to know our neighbors. We learned the history of our city, the feel of the streets and alleys, the loom of the buildings as we walked by.
We didn’t do touristy, out-of-towner things in our neighborhood; we learned to live there.
When we first felt the call to purchase a home, we talked about multiple options, and multiple locations. I had one simple request: I must have either a walkable business district or lots of greenspace.
We tried to buy a monstrous estate on Dayton St. in the West End, but they refused our offer. (A friend bought it, instead.)
We looked into purchasing a dilapidated old estate tucked away in North Avondale on 2.5 acres, but they weren’t interested in us as much as we were interested in them. They wanted to “develop” the land.
We walked through a few homes in Betts-Longworth; we walked through a few in Mt Prospect.
And then we got an email from an acquaintance saying that he was selling his home in Over-the-Rhine and we called him right away.
The short version of the story is that the owner liked us. He liked that we are people of faith (like him). He liked that we were going to be raising a family in his old home, where he raised three children with his late wife. He liked that we are committed to a similar vision for the city as he had been for his 40+ years in the neighborhood. So, he reduced the price of his home to something we could afford and sold it to us.
That summer, we made the transition onto Orchard Street, which is perhaps the most beautiful street in the city. The house itself if a labor of love and a work-in-progress, but it offers plenty of space, room to grow, and everything an urban family could desire including a backyard (which will someday be functional as such).
I love our life in the city. I love the wealth of opportunities and experiences that it offers our children. I love the warmth of neighbors and passers-by. I love the architecture and parks and noise and lights. As a severe introvert, I love the ease of daily contact with other people, both friends and strangers, and the feeling of a city alive about me.
Living in the city is not always fun. It sometimes requires more work, especially with kids. So, I am sympathetic to those who say, “Oh! I could never do that!” And I am very sympathetic to parents who want a neighborhood where their young children can play outside unattended, where they can unload groceries from inside their garage, and where they don’t need to worry about issues like lead paint and air quality. And I believe that there are many legitimate reasons to live in sub-urban areas—closer proximity to family or work, for example.
There are times when my husband and I stare at each other from across the room and quietly suggest: Wouldn’t it be nice to park in front of our own house?
And we often dream together of leaving the city far behind and relocating to a rural space where our kids can be wild and reckless in the woods and come home at sunset with dirty hands and muddy boots.
But, at the end of the day, I am officially an urbanite.
And though some wild, faraway place may be in the cards for us someday, choosing against the suburbs is now a matter of principle for me, not simply preference.
What does this have to do with the infamous, polarizing issue of the Cincinnati streetcar?
It’s become pretty clear to me that Cincinnati residents are not only divided on the issue, but that no one is budging. We’re at an impasse and the only deciding factor at this point is that the public voted a majority of pro-streetcar City Council members in the last election, which is why the streetcar continues to move forward.
The difficulty of the debate is that one side sees the development of a streetcar system as a legitimate investment in the future of the urban core and the other side sees it as frivolous spending on a pet project—“a streetcar to nowhere.” These are ideological issues, not issues of preference.
Basically, we don’t simply live in different neighborhoods; we live in different worlds.
There are legitimate reasons to oppose the streetcar. Heck, I’m a Conservative! I understand the need for fiscal responsibility and responsible spending. But even a fiscal conservative believes in the importance of sound investments, building a future, and creating a foundation. And even the hesitant supporters—those who support pursuing the streetcar project at a future time, though not now—would agree that a project like the streetcar has the potential to strengthen the urban core, bring economic prosperity, and offer opportunity for further development.
The problem is this: the majority of those in opposition to the streetcar have a fundamentally different view of the urban environment, its infrastructure, and lifestyle, than do its supporters.
They see the city as a holding place for poor, homeless drunks and a recreational facility for wealthy yuppies. They do not believe that normal people actually live here. They do not believe that people with their level of wealth or education would choose to live here.

They do not understand the design of cities and do not share the vision of car-lite, rail-strong city. They do not care about the thousands of Cincinnati residents whose lives would someday benefit from affordable, convenient public transportation. (How other people find their way to home and work does not worry them, so long as those people don’t end up living in their neighborhoods.)
Their lives are dependent on cars and highways. They have not conceded the high costs (physical, social, and environmental) of car-dependent communities. They do not know a world without a 30-minute commute.
They do not share parking spaces, driveways, sidewalks, front porches, or front yards; of course they cannot imagine sharing transportation.
They are willing to invest billions of dollars in improving over-used highways and bridges surrounding the urban core, while neglecting characteristically urban transportation options which bolster urban life.
They do not see the streetcar as a sound investment because they do not believe that a pedestrian, urban life is a legitimate lifestyle choice of rational people (and families). So, they refuse to relinquish their control of the urban core to those who actually live, work, and play there.
And no one is going to change their minds.
I am not, nor have I ever been, a die-hard streetcar supporter. As I said earlier, I believe there are legitimate reasons to oppose—or perhaps postpone—the project.
But, I am an urbanite.
I believe that a strong urban core is the foundation of a strong city. And so I have to trust the history of cities and contemporary experts of urban design. They both agree that a streetcar system is a solid investment for our city.

So, I am tired of the debate.
We don’t simply live in different neighborhoods; we live in different worlds.
I have chosen to invest in a historically-significant shared built environment.
Many others took out a half a million dollar loan for a private, .25 acre plot of former farmland.

I have already said that there are legitimate reasons to choose a sub-urban lifestyle. But, to oppose urban development because you do not believe that there is fundamental, inherent value to the urban core of our city shows a complete lack of understanding.

The strength of our urban core is the only thing that makes your comfortable life in the suburbs possible.

And, until you believe that, we have nothing more to discuss.

And, by the way--
Stop calling it a “trolley,” for pete’s sake.
It’s a damn streetcar.