It was recently announced that the board of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County have plans to sell off the north building of the main downtown library and consolidate the services housed in that building in the older southern space. This has rightly caused concern among librarians and cardholders a like. On August 22th the Cincinnati DSA held an event on this move as the beginning of a campaign to save the north building and protest the anti-democratic makeup of the board. I was invited to speak as a member of Socialist Alternative on the history of 3CDC who is overseeing the sale. My speech is included below. You can see a video of my talk on the facebook page of the Cincinnati’s branch of Socialist Alternative.
My name’s Ben Stockwell with Socialist Alternative.
I want to thank the DSA for having us speak tonight. I think it’s really important that we’re having this conversation, especially at the library.
Socialist alternative has branches across the country, and we have been involved in similar campaigns about the use of public money and public spaces before. We led the “block the bunker” campaign in Seattle, which successfully stopped a police bunker from being built in favor of over hundreds of units of affordable housing instead.
This divest–invest framework is something that we should be thinking about as we move forward in the fight against privatization, police brutality and for the public good.
I want to dedicate my contribution to Tom Dutton, a community activist, who died just a few months ago. Tom was a fighter for our side all his life. As a professor at Miami who, each year, brought students down to learn about gentrification in OTR and help organize a fight back. Tom was always willing to help, any active struggle, and he would be here tonight if he was still with us.
Others have already mentioned 3cdc tonight, and I think the relationship between the library’s board and 3cdc should cause extreme concern.
I’ve found myself in many movements over the years–around housing, policing and gentrification–and almost inevitably we run into the bulwark of power that 3CDC represents. In many way, 3CDC–the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation–is just a facade for the larger workings of the capitalist class–the richest 1%–who control so much of our lives. They want to privatize and profit from everything.
Their ownership of the biggest companies in the city, their control of the enquirer and other media outlets, their direct line to the city government and all the various bureaucracies–give them so much power that we are regular people don’t have. At least not under the current system. And I think it’s a shame that again, we’re looking at potentially losing some of our power by ceding more public ground to big businesses.
I want to talk about some of the history of the lost ground tonights.
It’s important to start with a discussion of what gentrification looked like before 3CDC was formed and we also have to take a close look at the riots of 2001. It’s not immediately obvious, but the riots played a huge role in this history because, at a basic level, they disrupted the gentrification in Over-the-Rhine and Downtown that had been happening at a much smaller scale than we’re used to today. Groups like the OTR chamber of commerce and Downtown Cincinnati Incorporated – DCI – had been working for decades to redevelop small portions, focused mainly on mainstreet in OTR.
The retaking of the neighborhood in 2001, by its mostly black and poor residents, scared the rich from investing more in the neighborhood. Just 5 years previously the headline “OTR is up for grabs” appeared in the Enquirer after a movement leader named Buddy Gray was murdered. The article predicted that “death would mean a gentrification blitz on the poor neighborhood.” And for a moment it was. But in April 2001, our side retook the streets and reclaimed the space for ourselves.
The uprising was about more than just police brutality, it was a fightback against the racist assault on the poor and working class in OTR and other neighborhoods. At its core, the fight was about the ability for everyone who lives in a space to have a say in how they live their lives–how their neighborhoods and cities function. The uprising was a collective “NO!” to the powers that be.
And it is by posing alternatives that change people’s daily lives and offering them the chance at a little bit more control in their lives, we can build these movements that have that power.
Back to the history of 3CDC:
In 2003, amidst a budget shortfall and a power move by developers, the planning department was shuttered and a few months later, 3cdc was established to oversee the redevelopment efforts in downtown. It’s a public private partnership–with the emphasis on the private.
From the beginning, 3CDC’s board consisted of the city’s most powerful and wealthiest individuals, with representation from P&G, 5/3 bank, Western and souther, the Enquirer, and Cintas and others. These board members and 3cdc’s employees and their developer partners are altogether unaccountable to the public.
The formation of 3CDC’s board represents, a re-consolidation of gentrification efforts after the riots. It was the ruling class’s attempt to realize their long term plans for the downtown area on a much larger and more ambitious scale than before. And they’ve been quite successful.
3CDC has overseen a lot of development projects, including many that forced poor residents out of their homes, people should look up the case of the metropole hotel–now the 21 century hotel–for one of the most egregious examples.
Their role has always served a dual purpose: it’s not just that they want to renovate a space to make it better, they want to have control over it, either by taking ownership directly, using federal funds for housing and other grants and convoluted leasing schemes to rip off the city, or simply by rebuilding the space in a way that prevents it from being used like it once was. Among the most important of these new uses is the turning of unprofitable public space into profitable private space.
This is essentially what has happened with Fountain square which was 3CDC’s first highly visible renovation project. In a complicated scheme, 3cdc paid the city for the space for $7.5 million for the space and pays $100 a year in rent on a 50 years lease. They have total control over the events that go on at fountain square. Anyone who has ever tried to have the most benign political event on fountain square knows about all of the hoops they have to jump through to get a simple permit to use the space.
This process, like with the library, was shrouded in secrecy and public debate was actively stymied.
They had “listening sessions” and “town halls” but crucially, like on the library board, residents and workers have absolutely no vote–it’s all left up to the redevelopers and 3cdc’s board.
If it wasn’t enough that there isn’t representation and voting from the public on 3cdc’s board, the motion to lease the space to 3cdc was approved in a special meeting of the planning commission and then passed in “emergency” session of city council. It’s perfectly clear at this point that these emergency sessions of council are held to block public debate on controversial issues–like they did when they tried to sell off the parking meters a few years ago–Citybeat has a great article about this that came out a few years ago.
Washington Park has a similar story. Notably, we can just look at the differences in the use to see what the vision of 3cdc is. They removed a school, a pool, and basketball courts. Residents of OTR were blocked from attending meetings, and in one case, only Josh Spring from the homeless coalition was let in to speak, and the rest of the people who came with him were kept out. The management lease for the park is, I think, up in another 70 years, so just about everyone in this room will be dead before we get the space back.
In lieu of talking more about Washington park, I want to plug Tom Dutton again, who wrote extensively about the project, dating back to 10 years before they broke ground. He made connections between the privatization of the paces and how that enclosure always circles back around to the profit motive not public good.
Even if they promise that nothing will change, the scale of the project and the time it takes to complete them destroys any expectation that thing will return to normal
Zeigler park up on Sycamore street is the latest example. People should keep an eye on rents and amenities around the park, and ask themselves: who is this for? Just weeks after the park opened, residents surrounding the park received letters from their landlord informing them of an immediate rent increase–specifically citing the park renovation as the cause.
This is a model they’ve gotten really good at, and something that they are beginning to expand out of the urban core–Cranley likened them to “marines arriving on the beachheads.” Group slike 3cdc, which are controlled by the city’s top 1%, are seen as the leaders in reshaping each and every neighborhood in the city always in the image of the richest citizens.
I know in Northside where I have lived for the last 5 years, we’re starting to see huge changes–especially the transformation from a working class to an upper class neighborhood–that are only possible because of the success of 3cdc down here.
These redevelopment projects are like cataclysms, to borrow a term from noted urbanist Jane Jacobs, they destroy the space and its meaning.
And This library project represents the latest move by 3cdc to steal from the public wealth and take away control from the people. It would be one of the greatest losses we’ve faced. But it doesnt have to be this way.
And this is where I think we need to take a cue from the movements surrounding the events of the riots in 2001, at least in terms of the numbers and ambition. We need to get the largest amount of people involved, including the librarians here at the main branch and all the other branches, who have already expressed their dismay at what is occurring.
The library is a crucial public space, that we need to protect with everything we have. It’s one of the only institutions in this city that offers space for meetings like this anymore.
With that, I want to give the full support of Socialist Alternative to the demands that are being raised tonight:
- for the immediate stop to the selling of the north block of the library,
- for the enfranchisement of the public and the librarians with actual voting power–and they should be in the majority–not just in the daily running of the library but the strategic planning of the entire library system.
- This democratic demand opens the door too a more ambitious program that can challenge the power structure of our society
That means taxing the rich, some of whom are members of the libraries board, so we can build more libraries and schools and hospitals, and pay everybody that works there a good wage.But we should set our sights higher.
As a socialist, I understand that it’s not the corporate boards or the foundation heads who are the agents of change in our society–a broad multiracial working class movement is the that can fundamentally transform society for the needs of the masses instead of the profits of the few.
Ultimately, we have to put our political faith in each other and the majority of working people in this society to take democratic control over public resources.
This fight to defend the library from private hands is about our right to the city. The right to our public spaces and the democratic control of resources in the public interest. To borrow a phrase from library board member Michael Moran–this is where we should “plant our flag”
Everyone here needs to stay involved and join Socialist alternative or the DSA–you can sign up for more information at our table in the back, or talk to me or Vince or someone else after.
I look forward to working with the DSA and everybody else in this room as we continue this fight.