Episodic Urbanism: The Streets of Cincinnati
Fountain Square, Cincinnati. Licensed for use under Creative Commons by hjoew.
It is party season in Cincinnati. As in true in almost all places where the weather drives most people indoors or even to warmer climes in the winter, spring brings a mass movement of bodies out onto the streets. Crowds linger at lunch, turning the voids above underground parking garages into public space. On weekend evenings, sidewalks once whipped by winds now become obstacle courses of swaying bodies moving from bar to bar. In the brief period before the heat of summer sends everybody back inside, downtown is alive.
At least, it is in places. This last weekend, we ran errands downtown, and found the department stores and what remains of small stores mostly deserted. A few tourists wandered the streets, looking for something to do. We realized then that the notion of the center city as a shopping destination is rather old fashioned, even if Cincinnati happens to be the home of the country’s largest department store chain, Macy’s.
We were back in the evening, dolled up in tuxedos, attending one of the many fundraisers and parties that mark the spring season. After the obligatory rubber chicken and uplifting speeches honoring those better than us, we wandered outside, past the throngs clustering around various bars, bathing in breezes and music. We went to another party, where late in the evening an underground space hosted an underwear fashion show. We cruised through Cincinnati’s diversity, enjoying all the spectacles it had to offer.
And yet. The places we visited presented distinct nodes where such spectacles appeared. There are currently two or three of those in Cincinnati: one around the intersection of Sixth and Walnut Streets, one on Vine Street between 12th and 13th Streets, and perhaps one in the Banks, a new development next to the baseball stadium. They are fun and lively places, but in between, the city is silent. The office buildings and hotels loom over largely empty sidewalks and unleased stores. There is no continuity between these electronic campfires. “Shall we walk up to Vine?” I overheard one guy ask his friends as we were heading towards Sixth Street; “Naw,” responded the other, “It’s too far. Let’s drive.” He was describing a journey that would take them maybe 10 minutes–but would seem much longer given the emptiness of the landscape they would have to transverse.
Not only is the activity isolated, but so are the people who cluster around these places. They are generally white and middle class or upper middle class. Of course, it is great that those with means are coming downtown. Certainly, there is some mixing of classes in our downtown hub, Fountain Square, but it is only to watch the giant television screen mounted on top of the adjacent Macy’s.
I see this pattern repeated in city after city in America, from nearby Indianapolis and Louisville to the smaller town of Springfield, Mo., where I was a few months ago; there we shuttled from one node of renovated warehouses and storefronts to another past the remains of Route 66. Cities pride themselves on their “civic hotspots,” but these remain just what their name implies: moments of life in urban deserts.
Cincinnati is working harder than most cities to do something about that condition, from planning a streetcar line connecting some of the dots to installing public artworks, but it still has to confront what I think is a fundamental fact about the American downtown: it will never be the kind of multilayered, multifunctional, and diverse hub of activity that we would like to think it once was. The question then is: How do you design for such an episodic urban condition? I, for one, have not seen any good answers to that conundrum.