Unraveling the urban differences between Cincinnati and Chicago

I am a native of the Greater Cincinnati area, but I have spent the better part of my adult life living and working in Chicago. I left Chicago in 2007 for greener pastures in New York City, and then ultimately found my way back home to Cincinnati earlier this year. However, I still look back on my time in Chicago as having an enormous impact on my thoughts about urban planning and design, architecture, and mass transit.

In June of this year, and after a long absence, I spent my first weekend in Chicago since becoming involved in discussions about Cincinnati’s ongoing urban renaissance. Once I arrived in town, I could not help but look at my old stomping grounds in a whole new light, and see Chicago’s urban development through the eyes of a born-again Cincinnatian. Over the course of a few days, I was able to explore a few key differences between the two cities, and perhaps come home with a few insights that can be applied to Cincinnati.

Urban Form:
The first and most obvious difference between Cincinnati and Chicago is one of sheer scale. While driving through Indiana on the way to Chicago from Cincinnati, the transition from rural cornfields to suburban sprawl (and its inevitable traffic jams) began while I was still a good 40 miles away from the Chicago Loop. Here in Cincinnati, 40 miles in any direction from Fountain Square would be considered far into the hinterland. Indeed, it is possible to find oneself in a relatively rural area in less than five miles from downtown Cincinnati, depending on the direction of travel.

Topography plays a large role, of course: the Cincinnati area’s steep hills prevent large-scale development in many areas, while the vast plains surrounding Chicago offer no such limitations. I see this as an advantage in Cincinnati’s favor: In addition to providing unique vistas and hillside neighborhoods that Chicagoans could only dream about, Cincinnati’s geographic setting allows for an easy escape to the country without having to drive through 40 miles of strip malls and traffic congestion (assuming one isn’t trying to escape via I-75 or I-71).

Chicago’s scale is apparent when flying into either of the city’s two airports, especially at night. Chicago’s relentless street grid stretches from horizon to horizon, with the radial streets and freeways all leading to the mountain of skyscrapers downtown. The city’s magnificent lakefront parks form an elegant transition from dense urban neighborhoods to the empty expanse of Lake Michigan. The entire city — so orderly and logical from above, like a circuit board — has the appearance of a vast machine. Down on the surface, though, the machine-like efficiency of the street grid leaves little room for quirks and eccentricities such as Cincinnati’s Mt. Lookout Square or O’Bryonville.

Commercial Districts:
Aaron Renn recently wrote a thought-provoking article about how cities treat their ordinary spaces versus their special spaces, and I believe Cincinnati has the edge in this regard. We don’t have the “special spaces” that Chicago has, such as a Magnificent Mile or a Grant Park (although that is changing for the better as Cincinnati develops its riverfront), but we have a vast number of unique “ordinary spaces” that each have their own character. For example, Chicago’s neighborhood business districts tend to be linear corridors along straight commercial streets, with relatively little distinction from each other. Aside from the makeup of the retail establishments, the urban space of Broadway in Lakeview isn’t much different from that of Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park or of Lawrence Avenue in Albany Park. Here in Cincinnati, even if you disregard the types of businesses that occupy the storefronts, there is a real difference between neighborhood business districts such as Ludlow Avenue, Hyde Park Square, and Over-the-Rhine.

Speaking of Over-the-Rhine, there is simply nothing like it in Chicago, as OTR was a bustling urban neighborhood when Chicago was still a remote trading post. Chicago’s present form didn’t come into being until after the Great Chicago Fire, by which time many buildings in Over-the-Rhine were already a generation old. For an urban neighborhood that comes close to resembling Over-the-Rhine, one must look east to New York or Philadelphia rather than west to Chicago.

Residential Neighborhoods:
If Chicago’s commercial avenues are rather drab, that city’s residential side streets offer many lessons for Cincinnati. Upon taking a turn down a leafy side street in Chicago, a pedestrian immediately enters a lush, green world where the noise of the city fades away and the harshness of the sunlight is filtered out by a dense canopy of trees, usually flanked by ornate row houses, bungalows, or apartment buildings. The importance of greenery cannot be understated, and as Over-the-Rhine continues its rejuvenation, Chicago shows that when it comes to street trees, there’s really no such thing as too many. It’s no coincidence that OTR’s Orchard Street — arguably the greenest street in the neighborhood — is also one of the most sought-after streets for renters and homebuyers.

Cincinnati’s dominant grocery store chain could also learn a thing or two from Chicago’s two largest chains on how to design and operate “big box” grocery stores that add life to urban business districts, rather than suck life from them. Throughout Chicago’s denser neighborhoods, Dominick’s (a division of Safeway) and Jewel (a division of Albertson’s) are building stores that place the main entrance at the corner of the building, facing a busy intersection, rather than behind an ocean of parking. In many cases, the stores are multi-story affairs with residential or commercial space above, and parking in a garage tucked around the corner.

An urban-scaled Dominick’s Store in Lincoln Park

One of the first such stores is a Dominick’s location at the corner of Fullerton and Sheffield, adjacent to a CTA rapid transit station and DePaul University. The ground floor of the store contains a deli, butcher and seafood department, florist, bakery, a Starbucks, and the checkout lanes, while the second floor contains aisles of groceries and general merchandise. Large-capacity elevators allow customers to transport strollers and shopping carts between the floors.

Up in my old neighborhood of Edgewater, a Dominick’s store at the corner of Foster and Sheridan — an older suburban-style store not unlike the Kroger store in Corryville — is being replaced with a modern store that respects the neighborhood rather than turning its back on it. If Kroger’s two largest national competitors, Safeway and Albertson’s, are tripping over each other to build urban-scaled grocery stores in dense neighborhoods, then Kroger’s claim that there is no market for such stores would seem to ring hollow.

Public Transit:
Another key difference between Cincinnati and Chicago that cannot be ignored is public transit. While Chicago’s system of public transit is not perfect by any stretch, Chicago has a culture in which taking a train to work or for shopping is simply accepted as a routine fact of life for most people, rather than as something that is done only because one has no other choice. There is no stigma, and a wide variety of demographic groups can be found represented on the city’s buses and trains on any given day. Regrettably, only a handful of American cities have achieved this, and Cincinnati is not yet one of them. To its credit, the Chicago Transit Authority has recently completed an ambitious upgrade of many stations on the city’s north side and west side, with further upgrades elsewhere in the city underway.

The newly-renovated CTA rapid transit station in Lincoln Park

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the difference in general attitude between the two cities. Chicago has a certain swagger that Cincinnati lacks, a confidence among the populace that the city is capable of doing great things and attracting great people. This is a double-edged sword, in that Chicago’s reputation of being “the city that works” involves a strong-man mayor who has almost unlimited powers, who can easily crush any community opposition to his plans.

Indeed, while certain Chicago neighborhoods are high-priced hotbeds for economic development, vast parts of the city continue to look as if they were imported from Detroit. There is also the corruption: In Cincinnati, it would be almost unthinkable for a City Council member or department head to be hauled away in handcuffs by the FBI and indicted on federal corruption charges. In Chicago, such occurrences happen often enough that they barely even make the local news.

Cincinnati, on the other hand, has a long-standing inferiority complex that has proven difficult to shake. But as major projects such as the streetcar, The Banks, and Central Riverfront Park are completed, perhaps Cincinnati will adopt a unique swagger of its own, while avoiding some of the pitfalls of our younger and larger neighbor to the north.

  • Jake

    you just perfectly summarized the pros & cons list that I’ve made up for deciding whether to move home to Chicago or back to Cincy.

  • Come on, Cincinnati. Where’s our swagger? 🙂

  • I am a former Cincinnatian who has lived in Chicago for the past three years. You’ve made many great points and I tend to agree with your assessments. Perhaps one of the larger cultural issues between the two cities is that so many people in Chicago are transplants from smaller cities, cities such as Cincinnati, Indianapolis, etc. Very few people make their way to Cincinnati except for a career move. My peer group of late-twenty-early-thirty-somethings move to Chicago for all sorts of reasons (career, cultural, mostly) because those opportunities exist and are strong. It’s easy to be an artist or musician in Chicago because there are so many resources available.

    Cincinnati’s strong in that regard, but you have to look harder — the opportunities are present, but just smaller in scale. That can be a deterrent to the creative class, of which I suppose I am part of.

    It is possible to carve something very special out of a life in Cincinnati. I made my move to Chicago for a relationship and I do *like* living in this big city full of great restaurants, amazing galleries and music venues, and a strong economy. However, I miss Cincinnati and feel that the city can offer so much if one is looking to put some work into making something happen.

    Cincinnati has new galleries, new locavorish restaurants, sustainable development, and a steadily-improving urban core (maybe gentrifying in some aspects?).

    I’ve given it so much thought and I’d much rather be a part of something new than something established. Give me a challenge and an opportunity to take something from the start.

    I guess it’s clear by now that I’ve been actively looking to make a return to my hometown. It sounds silly to say, but my heart aches for a return to Ohio. I can always come back and visit Chicago, if I feel like it.

  • Stephen Wuebker

    After traveling to Chicago recently myself for the first time, I finally got to see what the Magnificent Mile was all about. What did I see when I arrived? Larger versions of every store in Kenwood Mall and Rookwood Commons. Nearly the entire place was one chain store or restaurant after another! The ESPNZone was closed and boarded up for good. How Magnificent! I am delighted that Cincinnati does NOT have a special place like that.

    I had a really great visit in Chicago, but I didn’t find much there I couldn’t get back home in Cincinnati. (and not pay 12% sales tax to boot!)

  • I agree about the Mag Mile… Once upon a time, it was truly a unique place. But during my 11 years of living in Chicago, I watched as it was deliberately and systematically transformed from a grand Parisian-style boulevard into a slightly less-tacky version of Times Square. Similar transformations, to a lesser scale, have happened throughout many of Chicago’s neighborhoods, and that offers an important cautionary tale for Cincinnati.

  • Jonathan Liffgens

    Very good observations, David. Since I’ve never been to Cincinnati, I can’t comment about the specific neighborhoods to which you refer, but as a former resident of Pittsburgh (which I’ve been told is similar in scale and culture to Cincinnati), I couldn’t agree more with your remarks about the geographic features affecting the character of neighborhoods. Cities that have hills, hollows, rivers, etc. allow neighborhoods to develop a sense of personality that neighborhoods in Chicago lack. In Chicago, owing to the lack of defining geographic features, neighborhoods tend to bleed into one another and it’s often difficult to know where one neighborhood ends and another begins. In addition, I’ve always been puzzled at Chicago’s lack of attention to public spaces away from the lakefront. With the exception of a handful of plazas in the Loop, few neighborhoods in Chicago benefit from a really well-designed public park where people can enjoy spending time in a safe, clean and eventful space. Even in the Loop, it’s virtually impossible to find a public space with a pub or a restaurant that affords the opportunity for sidewalk seating. It’s a travesty that the recent development on Block 37 turns it’s back on Daley Plaza.

  • I definitely agree with Zach’s point about being able to create opportunity in Cincinnati versus being part of opportunity in a city like Chicago. There are a lot of Cincinnatians doing interesting things, many of them a bit under the radar, and much of it not adding up to something grand that builds a reputation within the region or beyond [Soapbox’s constant bragging about innovation, to me, only proves that the city has an inferiority complex in that regard]. In a lot of ways, the barriers to innovation are lower in Cincinnati.

    Zach, Chicago will always be only a Megabus ride away.

  • Jake


    Chicago is actually one of the rare flat cities where neighborhoods do not often bleed into each other. While the bleeding is true along some of the angled commercial thoroughfares, it is not largely true throughout the rest of the city. Railroads contribute to this the most, since Chicago is laced with them more than any other American metropolis, but is also caused by the boulevard park system, the river branches, & cemeteries. They all for borders that are not as distinct as topography, but alter the morphology of different neighborhoods.

    Many of Chicago’s neighborhoods are similar, but Lincoln Square does not bleed into Albany Park; Bridgeport, Chinatown & Bronzeville remain distinct despite proximity, etc. etc. etc.

    The most common “bleeding” of neighborhoods occurs in areas where a neighborhood has gotten “hot” & realtors try stretching the boundary of what is Bucktown or Lincoln Park. Which effects how the new residents to the city identify the names of neighborhoods, even though the actual built form & activity does not bleed between the two.

  • Chicago is a terrific city, and I think Anthony Bourdain is correct when he says that Chicago is one of two or three cities in America that truly feels like a metropolis. Chicago boasts terrific and diversified transit options, ethnic diversity, unique cultural experiences, and an overall “big city” feel.

    Interestingly enough, I have heard many people say that Chicago feels like any other Midwestern city, but on steroids. This, I think, actually speaks to the quality of many other mid-sized Midwestern cities like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee that also boast terrific downtowns. If these downtowns were 8x larger, they would be pretty comparable to Chicago’s urban center.

    The one really major difference, of course, is the public transit in Chicago. This has been transformational for the city and has more or less defined the city’s image nationally and internationally. On top of that the public transit has created dynamic urban neighborhoods all over the city. One can only wonder if a city like Cincinnati had great public transit like this how would places like Norwood, Westwood, East/West Price Hill, Walnut Hills, and Northside might differ. I suspect they would be more densely built and more populated. They would also be much more connected to one another providing an interesting and diverse experience amongst Cincinnati’s unique neighborhood districts.

  • Former ChiTown Resident

    As a born/raised western suburbanite of Chicago, I commend you David for your astute observations between the two cities. I love the fact I am here in Cincinnati and don’t miss the traffic, train commutes or the lake imposed snowfall and subzero windchill factors. However, I do miss the eclectic culture and vibrant nature not just in the friendly confines of downtown but within the urban sprawl and stark definition of neighborhoods. This is not to say it is not evident here in Cincinnati it is – but on a much more muted scale. Terrific article and thanks for sharing!

  • Bobby

    Zach-I too am a former Cincinnatian currently residing in Chicago. I’ve been in Chicago for 12 years and when I left Cincy I couldn’t get away fast enough. I was in my early 20’s and frustrated by the sloooowwww way in which things changed there. I also moved to Chicago for the openness, creativeness and diversity of the city and yet ironicly I can’t wait to get back to the charm and relative effectiveness one can have in a smaller more managable city like Cincy. I’m encouraged by all of the recent developement of the urban core and would love to help in any way I could to push that renaissance along. My partner and I recently bought a house in Mt. Washington and the only thing that’s preventing us from returning full time is the lack of job opportunities. So until those full time jobs come I guess we’ll be doing our bi-weekly trips back and forth to the Queen City. Thanks for the great work Randy and to all contributors to this blog!!!

  • Davida

    Zach – great post. I have made the same observations. I moved to Cincinnati after time in both Chicago and New York, and I agree that Chicago is basically a Midwestern city on steroids. In NY, you see FASHION; in Chicago, you see the newest from Banana Republic; in Cincinnati, well… we don’t see stirrup pants any more! (But I’ll defend Chicagoans a bit to point out that Chicagoans don’t shop on Magnificent Mile. I used to live three blocks away, but all the tourists on the Mile used to drive me cray: when you reach the top of an escalator, keep moving!)

    But Zach, how do you feel about the competition between the streetcar and regional transit system here in Cincinnati? Should we in Cincinnati spend money to help suburbanites get into downtown? Or should we spend money to make downtown more desirable?

  • Davida —

    I think the streetcar will work very well with the existing public transit system in Cincinnati. From what I understand of the streetcar (my mom’s fiancee is a big proponent of the system), it functions a lot like a downtown “circulator” — kind of like the Chicago Loop. I believe the streetcar will really improve people-moving in downtown Cincinnati and will present an alternative to cars.

    I do think that for the Cincinnati urban core to grow, you have to make it easier for suburbanites to get downtown. You have to give businesses a reason to build offices there — if the commute sucks, that’s a big deterrent to business and worker alike. Improving accessibility makes a place more desirable.

    If only Cincinnati built the light-rail instead of stadiums, we’d be years ahead of the development cycle and downtown would likely be markedly improved and bustling. It’s getting there, but it’ll take a little more time.

    I’d love to see investment in HOV lanes on I-75 and I-71 and bus-only expressway lanes and rapid transit. Does SORTA have commuter stations in the 275 perimeter suburbs? If not, they should. SORTA buses should function like Chicago’s METRA.

  • leif

    I am always disappointed that no one comments about the neighborhoods in Cincinnati in terms of ethnic breakdown. For me, Chicago is all about the different classes of immigrants that move and live there. Last time i visited, i drove underneath a giant Puerto Rican flag hovering over the road (which was Humboldt Park, i think).

    Cincinnati somehow has no “ethnic neighborhoods”: no Chinatown, no Japantown, no Koreatown, no Little Italy, hell– no Germantown!! For a city that boasts its German heritage, i find this to be really ridiculous. How many Indian restaurants are there in this city– and yet there is no central indian neighborhood!

    People love to comment on the variety of neighborhoods in Cincy and the “little gems” or “quirks”… but to someone who has lived in bigger cities, the lack or organization is actually pretty annoying. To me, Northside is a better model than OTR– i think that’s an actual honest to goodness neighborhood that is growing organically without all the ballyhoo about organizing and development.

  • Dan

    Leif – it’s my understanding that most “Ethnicitytown” neighborhoods sprang up where they did because of ghettoization – i.e., they are where “undesirables” were forced to live. This pressure really isn’t extant in our current era. Nowadays, unless a city has substantial international immigration, new ethnic enclaves are unlikely to develop.

    Over the Rhine *is* Germantown by another name. There’s just not a lot of continuity between turn of the century residents and current residents due to the ghettoization/emptying of OTR in the sixties.

    Finally, on Northside vs. OTR – I live in Northside and love it and it’s my favorite neighborhood in the city. But the comparison you’re setting up is unfair. Northside didn’t fall as far into disrepair as OTR did, and its commercial core remained more or less intact and occupied in the 20th century. Northside’s housing stock is primarily free-standing homes which are very feasible for individuals and families to rehab, and that’s been happening for decades. OTR, on the other hand, consists primarily of older, taller, and much bigger Italianate buildings which are more difficult for individuals/families to rehab, and the retail scene in OTR was completely devasatated in the back half of the 20th century. It’s just a much more difficult neighborhood to rehab without some concerted and well-coordinated efforts.

  • leif:

    Cincinnati is fairly unique in the lack of designated ethic neighborhoods. But I would contend that this ethic branding is fairly contrived in most cities outside of the major immigrant destinations like NYC, DC, Chicago, Philly, SF, and LA for example. Cleveland’s “Asiantown” is a joke, and its Little Italy is tiny and mostly devoid of real ethnic authenticity.

    But when viewed in a historical context it becomes more clear why Cincinnati’s German population is not more pronounced. Anti-German hysteria during WWII removed much of Cincinnatit’s physical German identifications, but it also drove the German population into hiding. But even to this day, the proliferation of butchers, for example, is a direct result of this strong German population that still exists in Cincinnati today. The influence and overall integration of German culture in the Cincinnati region is quite similar to that of the French culture in the New Orleans-Baton Rouge area.

    A tangible Italian population still exists on Cincinnati’s west side in the West Price Hill/Covedale area, a strong Jewish population is concentrated in Amberly Village and North Avondale, a large Latino community exists in Hamilton, and a strong African population exists in Westwood. So it’s not that these populations and ethnic enclaves don’t exist, it’s just that they’re not pronounced in Cincinnati for much the same reason that the gay population in Cincinnati is not pronounced with a clearly defined LGBT neighborhood (Northside only kind of counts).

  • Dan

    Randy – excellent points. As I understand it, the deGermanification of Cincinnati began even earlier – it actually started with the 1917 entry of the US into WWI. That’s when the library withdrew its German language collection, it was frowned upon to speak German in public, street names were changed (Republic used to be Bremen Street, Yukon used to be Hanover Street), and the public schools stopped offering classes in German. This was a Very Big Deal – at the time, around HALF of the city spoke German and there were numerous residents who *only* spoke German. WWII cemented the process.

  • Sam

    As a cyclist, yogi, outdoors enthusiast, and urban child at heart I have thoroughly enjoyed living in Cincinnati for the last year. During much of this year and the year prior (during which I lived in Huntsville AL) I was dating someone in Chicago. 2x or more monthly visits offered me plenty of opportunity to experience Chicago (though often only on weekends) and to this day I still feel overwhelmed by the city. I noticed after several months I would find myself returning to the same neighborhoods with my then girlfriend, places we knew and places that knew us. Only when I would be riding my bike around the city and suburbs would I be exploring with that childlike sense of wonder. This ability to see and experience many new things was always available and I will always appreciate Chicago for that.

    Cincinnati however holds a larger place in my heart for its intimacy, my ability to feel more comfortable as an urban cyclist, and topography that provides a much better workout! Chicago is terrific with bike lanes and sheer # of cyclists keeping people aware to our presence, but by riding in Cinci, I feel very much like Zach with his art, in that I am helping to create a new sense of partnership between cyclists, drivers, and other pedestrians.

    From the yogi perspective, Chicago has amazing studios, a plethora of classes for any flavor, and months of awful weather to spend indoors meditating and furthering one’s practice. However I hold a strong opposition to the commercialization of yoga and often go through long periods without attending studios, opting instead for community yoga in parks, small sessions in neighborhood “studios” with the same 5-10 people every week, or simply walking through a natural area where life moves a little slower.

    In summation both cities are terrific, but I see it as a series of fortunate events that my relationship ended before I made a rash move to Chicago, as I can clearly see now that Cincinnati is presently the place for me to learn, love, and live.

  • Adam

    I moved from Chicago to Cincy (suburbs) about 8 months ago. I love the smaller scale, slower pace, hills, trees, rivers and perhaps less corruption. Traffic is a breeze here, so while mass transit might help, it doesn’t seem urgent to me. Not sure if the streetcars are the best investment or not. Chicago’s lakefront parks and real estate are to me clearly better developed than the Ohio riverfront. But Chicago doesn’t have the quaint/romantic enclaves. It is quite different and hard to compare. I think St. Louis might be more comparable in terms of age/development. Other than the Forest Park area of St. Louis, I like Cincinnati much better.

  • leif

    Ah, Dan and Randy, thanks for the points. Reading back over my post, it comes across as being much more negative than i meant it to.

    Thanks for pointing out the German/OTR connection. Definitely makes sense. Before this i lived in SF, where there are strong community-based neighborhoods (Chinese, Italian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Mexican). So to me, that absence is felt strongly. That was my main point– that Chicago has these neighborhoods, which were not mentioned in the article. Randy, you pointed out that those communities exist, though they are a 15 minute drive from each other. I guess that brings up another thing that you mentioned, Randy– why is Cincinnati so spread out?

    Thanks Dan for clearing up the Northside v. OTR. To an outsider, those subtleties are definitely unclear!

    I have lived in Cincy for nearly 4 years now, and parts of it have grown on me and parts of it have just become increasingly frustrating. As an outsider, I see a general hesitancy to critique the city, to criticize it, and to discuss what is lacking (and what could therefore could be improved). I’ve noticed that when I do so, Cincinnatians POUNCE on me!! I know that people have city/regional pride, but there is a defensiveness that i find surprising, still.

  • leif:

    I think the issue here that different does not necessarily equate to being worse or bad. Ethnic enclaves do in fact exist in many cities across America, but not all. Integration of various ethnic populations is neither good nor bad, it just is what it is. Cincinnati does not tend to have identifiable ethnic enclaves like those found in Toronto, New York, or Chicago for that matter.

    I think what the issue is for Cincinnati is the lack of in migration from ethnic populations today. There is a very small amount of this migration, and thus there are less and less new ideas and cultures being brought to the region. I don’t care if these individuals settle into ethnic enclaves, or if they spread out amongst the city/region…I just want them here.

  • Dan

    Leif – I apologize if we’ve come off as overly defensive. People in love with urban Cincinnati get it on both ends – both from suburban types who relentlessly denigrate the city and from bigger/cooler cities who sometimes pooh-pooh the progress we *have* made.

    As for why Cincinnati is so spread out, geography plays a huge role. When Cincinnati was developing in the 19th century, the hills were far too steep for the city to naturally grow up their sides. As a result, the neighborhoods in the hills around the central basin started off as their own small towns. By the time construction techniques and technologies like the inclines (essentially elevator platforms that could take people and carriages up or down a hillside) or streetcars made the hills easier to traverse, the rate of growth for the urban core of Cincinnati had already begun to slow. There was frankly no reason for the city to beome any denser.

    Personally, this is something I *like*. I like that our rolling hills are still wooded and have preserved terrific views. I like the clear distinction between neighborhoods. Cincinnati, for all its virtues, will never be a mega-city like SF or Chicago, and that’s okay. There’s not one singular model for great cities, and I suspect that some of the things that make a great city special don’t scale down well to medium-sized or small cities. What’s important is figuring out how the city can build on (and infill) on what’s already here to make it as great a medium-sized city as possible. what are the things that Cincinnati can offer that a Chicago or SF couldn’t?

  • Dan

    er, last few sentences should have read:

    “There’s not one singular model for great cities, and I suspect that some of the things that make a great GIANT city special don’t scale down well to medium-sized or small cities. What’s important is figuring out how the city can build on (and infill) on what’s already here to make it as great a medium-sized city as possible. what are the things that Cincinnati can offer that a Chicago or SF couldn’t?”

  • if you haven’t already, i can’t recommend highly enough William Cronon’s book on the growth of Chicago, “Nature’s Metropolis”, which starts to explain economically how and why Chicago became what it is…

  • MJ

    Great article, though I’ve never been to Chicago. However I grew up around the DC area and came to Cincinnati to go to college for a year in a half. I moved back to DC due to a family situation, but like Zach, I have this urge in me to come back and “stake out new ground.” (And I plan doing so within 6 months)

    My mother takes the typical Metropolitan outlook on diversity with cities. She favors the DC area for it’s ethnic diversity and frowns upon Cincinnati’s obviously black/white population. But to be honest, while I do welcome diversity, I can’t stand this attitude. First off, it ignores the rich history of Cincinnati’s Black Americans, urban Appalachians, Jewish Americans, and other ethnicities that live there. Secondly, I’m the kind of person that could care less about how diverse my community is if there’s no serious sustainable economic development. Economic solidarity should be a goal that always comes before forced diversity. People are not your buffet table which is a hard thing to tell idealists who want the world to look like New York everywhere they go. I get a bit put-off by this weird sudden urge to diversify cities that already have populations within them. Are people afraid to bring jobs into the black/working class white neighborhoods or something? Or does it just please them more to drive past “Little Ethiopia” rather than the projects?

    Unlike my mother, I absolutely love Cincinnati. Geographically, very few cities rival it in beauty. It’s such a green city! That’s why I can’t stand to see litter all over the place because this city can become something of the 22nd century no environmentalist could even dream of if the right moves are made. Some of the neighborhoods may be struggling, but they’re full of a bunch of interesting characters tucked away in the hood that are waiting for or acting on something positive. I’m hoping that eventually something similar to that of the Cleveland Cooperative model is brought into neighborhoods like Avondale, South Cumminsville, West End, or Evanston while parts like Over-The-Rhine are balanced out between the interests of OTR residents and downtown businesses.

    Northside is quite simply my favorite art district…ever. Somebody mentioned the lack of a descent art/music/party scene here, but from what I’ve seen put on by Bunk News (a local crew of Cincinnati young adult artists) is 50x more fun than anything I’ve been to in DC.

    Overall, I prefer Cincy to DC. Then again, I’m a nutcase who also thinks Detroit is going to shock everybody in 10 years when they reveal the first self sufficient city.

  • I’m catching this Chicago-Cincinnati pro/con argument only through the monthly review, so excuse my lateness. Both cities have their charms, but the energy of Chicago is really breath-taking. On the other hand, if you like hills, you’ll love Cincinnati.

    The point really is for each city to find its own best level, based on its geographical characteristics and its history, including its transportation history, which often comprises the outline of the urban form. Even big cities benefit from an asset-based community development approach and from a cluster economic development approach. Both theories share an assessment of what are our strengths, and how (creatively)could we build on them?

  • Drew

    I have to laugh a bit here. Chicago and Cincinnati aren’t even close to being in the same league. Why don’t you compare Cincinnati to Pittsburgh or Louisville or Cleveland instead? Those cities can teach us a few things (and vice versa) yet have similar populations. In some sections, this article is about as interesting as a comparison of The Ohio State football team to St Xavier’s. The only thing where Cincinnati has ‘the edge’ are hills and years.

  • David Cole

    Nobody is claiming that Cincinnati and Chicago are in the same league (however “league” is supposed to be defined), but that doesn’t mean the differences aren’t worth noting. There are plenty of things Cincinnati could learn from Chicago or any other city regardless of the population difference or that city’s standing on the global stage, and I would argue there’s at least as many things that Chicago could learn from Cincinnati if they were so inclined.

    I chose to write about Chicago because I’ve spent approximately equal parts of my life in both Cincinnati and Chicago and I think I’ve developed a pretty good grasp of both cities’ history and geography. If somebody wants to write a coherent article about the differences between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh (or Cleveland, or New York, or London), then I’m sure UrbanCincy would be happy to consider running it.

    I’ll leave others to judge how interesting my article is to them, but it was apparently interesting enough for you to take the time to comment on it over a month after it was published.

  • Connor

    I live in Cincinnati, and I agree with all of your statements about what Cincinnati has and doesn’t have. I’ve always been fascinated by Chicago, and plan to live there in my future. However, I would love to see Cincinnati transform itself into a smaller version of Chicago by adapting more of Chicago’s characteristics (such as efficient public transportation, and just creating a general buzz and sense of excitement in the city). The development projects going on downtown are a great start, but there still needs to be much more development. The East side has a certain buzz and personality that the west side and kentucky lack. (I live in Hyde Park and work in Colerain, the differences are blatantly obvious).
    More development, particularly near the city’s core, will hopefully spark excitement and in turn attract a more exciting and diverse population. THis is necessary, because like you said, the attitudes of the people in Chicago and Cincy are far too different. Unfortunately, many of the people in Cincinnati are just too traditional and boring to contribute to an ideal revival and expansion of Cincinnati (I’m talking to you, Colerain and Western Hills). A city is no better than the people that inhabit it. Time to step it up Cincy.

  • Savannah Berd

    I really enjoyed reading this, about 4 years ago I had to option to go to either place and I ended up in Chicago and bought a home here by Emerald Homes and I love it, its seems from this post I may have done well either way. I am happy here for now. Great read!