On the Rails of Progress

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As I post this, there is a demonstration in support of the Cincinnati Streetcar being held. The hope is that a showing of support will convince the new mayor to not cancel the project and that if he does cancel it on Monday, that petitioning to get the streetcar on the ballot will begin.

This will appear in the upcoming edition of Streetvibes.

There is some percentage of citizens in Cincinnati who want to see the streetcar move forward. Whether it be because they see the streetcar as an instrumental part in the redevelopment of OTR or simply believe that the cost of ending the project would be on par with the cost to finish it. The underlying motive seem to be some notion of progress–The main group lobbying for the streetcar calls themselves “Cincinnatians for Progress.” That our city will ride into the future on the rails. That the streetcar will be some kind of transformative vehicle that will put Cincinnati at the level of Portland or Salt Lake City. But what is this city of the future?

The progress talked about in conversations about the streetcar is of the narrowest kind. It ignores realities about the city and the people who live here, even the people who live along the route.

Over the last twenty years, Over-the-Rhine has been the site of some of the most advanced redevelopment in the country. The transformation of Vine and Main, South of Liberty is unmistakable. The numbers indicate some level of change as well, according to Social Areas of Cincinnati, which summarizes census findings, Over-the-Rhine is no longer in the bottom tier of the socioeconomic index. And there are now active storefronts along Main and Vine. And SCPA has a new campus. And Washington Park has been renovated. And Liberty Street is going to be altered to better serve a diversity of traffic. And breweries are opening up on every corner. But there is another side to this. A side that illuminates the true scope of our city’s progress.

Cincinnati has a child poverty rate of 53% and an overall rate of 34%. Both numbers are on the increase. Black families made up 96% of all impoverished families in OTR in the 2010 census, down only 1% from 2000. Progress seems to be leaving many behind. It begs the question: who is this progress for?

On the Enquirer’s website there was a image gallery titled “Thanksgiving Eve in Over-the-Rhine” showing photos of people enjoying the night at various bars and restaurants in the neighborhood. Of the roughly 100 people pictured, only around 10 were people of color, and only half of those were black. This in a neighborhood with a black population of more than 70%. On gallery page for an event called “Dîner en Blanc,” which was a $70/seat dinner in Washington Park, where the food is not provided and the diners are to dress in all white, there is only one readily identifiable African American in the photos, he was providing entertainment.

Developers and politicians will say that they are trying to create both economic and racial diversity (in that order), but I think it’s actually the other way around.

The development policies affecting Over-the-Rhine are instead creating a new economic and racial segregation. Not that our city has not been segregated since the beginning. It was so bad after the 1829 anti-black riots that half of the black population left the city to form Wilberforce Colony in Ontario, Canada. The riots were a populist movement that worked alongside legislation that targeted the lives and livelihoods of blacks in Cincinnati. Measures were passed to reduce the growth of the black population. Today, the same dynamic occurs in a slightly different way.

Our new Mayor, John Cranley, is responsible for some of this. In a reaction to the Timothy Thomas riots in 2001, Cranley, then a council member, passed the housing impaction ordinance, which limits development dollars or tax breaks from being spent on certain kinds of affordable housing projects. The affordable housing that is built with those dollars is now market rate housing, with rents and requirements for income far above the $10,500 or less that 61% of families in the neighborhood make in a year. Thus, long-term residents wanting to find new affordable homes must get on a waiting list (often years long) and look outside the neighborhood.

Other ordinances which temporarily exiled people convicted of drug crimes or prostitution out of the neighborhood were passed in the 90’s but were found to be against the law ears late. Over the period the Drug Exclusion Zone was in effect, 1500 people were temporarily banned from entering OTR. These ordinances work alongside racist policing strategies that disproportionately target blacks and black neighborhoods. The Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce pays the police department for increased policing on blocks of their choosing, and police routinely execute their dubious powers in breaking up groups of blacks standing on the corner, harkening back to the days of old Jim Crow.

Throughout this whole period of redevelopment, the Drop Inn Center has been the target of disdain by developers. The Drop was founded nearly 40 years ago in an act of civil disobedience by buddy gray and the members of the Over-the-Rhine people’s movement, squatting and occupying to make space for the most vulnerable citizens of OTR. But there has been an un-peopleing of these citizens, and an unending attack on the mission of the Drop. 10 years ago, it was in the way of a new music and arts district comprising of the left bank of Washington park. 5 years ago, it was cited as the malefactor in the decline of the the park. Today, the official plans are to move it to an old plant in Queensgate. In 1997, the head of the OTR chamber called the neighborhood a “warehouse for the poor,” today, the solution to the homeless crisis is to actually warehouse the poor.

Progress and diversity, those are just words. The vision of 3CDC and other developers is counter to the results of their actions; even as they speak of economic diversity, they kick out the poorest residents. And now, the streetcar, will barrel up from the banks to Findlay Market, pumping white people into the relatively untouched spaces of North OTR. In this way, it is not unlike the railroads of the imperial era. When we had conquered the continent, killing off the American Indians and enslaving the imported blacks, we built the transcontinental railroad. And it tied the coasts together, like a bow on the gift of the new world 300 years in the making. All of this–the railroad, the slavery, the killing–was done in the name of progress. A white supremacist progress.