Recognizing cultural diversity key to Cincinnati’s future

[This week Zachary Schunn submitted the following guest editorial to UrbanCincy. If you would like to share your thoughts or opinions on a given topic, please send them to – Randy.]

“Where did you go to high school?”

Undoubtedly, if you have spent any length of time in Cincinnati someone has asked you this question. And if you grew up in the area, you have likely asked it of someone else.

Some people may ask this question as a way to reminisce about simpler times. But more often than not, the question is a means of categorizing someone. Is this person from the more industrial west side, or the more developed east side? Is this person accustomed to urban or suburban living? Is he/she from a religious family? A wealthy family?

This means of categorization seems innocent enough. Using a simple question to help learn more about a person is a valuable tool. Additional questions can be asked to glean greater insights into how that person’s native neighborhood helped shape his/her personality and upbringing. However, this categorization by neighborhoods often results from and further perpetuates the stereotypes that exist with certain area neighborhoods. And, perhaps worst of all, it makes an outsider new to the area feel even more like an outsider when the follow-up to the above question is, “Oh, you’re not from Cincinnati, are you?”

Of course, in a larger sense there is nothing wrong with identifying area neighborhoods by the noticeable differences between physical layout, architecture, culture, and/or demographics. The problem that seems to occur all too often in Cincinnati, though, is that these identification techniques are used to spread negative stereotypes about places and their inhabitants. While residents of a neighborhood may feel a certain pride towards that location, commonly this pride brings them to the belief that they are better than anyone else from an “inferior” neighborhood.

Am I exaggerating? Think of some of the stereotypes you may have heard. West Chester residents are spoiled. Those from Mason, or Anderson Township, or some other suburb do not really value Cincinnati’s urban core. Hyde Park residents are rich snobs. Northsiders are either all homosexuals or all yuppies and drug addicts. Over-the-Rhine is only full of poor blacks and newly-borne “hipsters” ignorant of the area’s history. And I’m not even going to touch on what I’ve heard people say about Northern Kentuckians.

Let’s stop right there. I’ll admit: I did not grow up in Cincinnati, so I am somewhat less in-tune to the stereotypes. Even so, I have caught on quickly that residents like to pit themselves against one another.

This is not a rare phenomenon. But, let’s compare this occurrence to another city for a minute: New York City, most specifically the borough of Manhattan. Anyone who visits this city for a brief time will quickly make a very interesting observation. Though New York City is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse cities in the world, its neighborhoods are still highly segregated. A visitor knows when he/she is in Harlem, Little Italy, El Barrio, Chinatown, or Greenwich Village. However, this segregation is used to celebrate the individual cultures that make up the city. Unique foods and shops align the streets of such neighborhoods. Festivals highlight the positives of each neighborhood, while negative stereotypes do not comprise everyday conversations to the extent that they do in Cincinnati.

Of course, Cincinnati can never compare in size or diversity to New York City. However, the concept of celebrating individual neighborhoods is still a valid concept that should be more aggressively pursued in order to erase the negative stereotypes that dominate conversations and create positive ones for the city.

The easiest way to change attitudes is to better recognize and honor the cultural history and diversity of the city. This can be achieved through “marketing” campaigns (tourist pamphlets, road signs, etc.), cultural centers, and/or special events and festivals. Such is already done extensively to celebrate the city’s strong German heritage. One cannot claim that the city has failed in this respect.

However, what about the other cultural and ethnic segments? The strong Irish-American heritage seems largely ignored, save for a pub here or there. There are large Greek and Jewish populations in the city that get little recognition. Though there is a small Italian festival in Cheviot every year, otherwise most other European immigrant classes and their importance to the city’s history are shunned. Further, what about the growing classes of Asian and Latino residents? Uptown boasts large segments of both eastern Asian (Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc.) and Indian residents. Surely, the mixture of Asian and Indian restaurants in the Clifton and CUF areas helps to represent these groups of people. But would it not be a terrific goal to begin some cultural event that further honors these newcomers and welcomes them as Cincinnati residents rather than regarding them as outsiders?

Ethnicity is just one demographic variable that defines citizens and shapes differences between people in an area. Cultural values can also shape neighborhoods. For example, the underground art and music scenes in Cincinnati are phenomenal, and are well represented by downtown, Over-the-Rhine, Northside, and—to a lesser extent—Mt. Adams. These and other neighborhoods should continue to capitalize on this strength, and develop “niches” for different art and music scenes in different neighborhoods.

On another note, the city’s complex history is part of what makes it great. But why is the most historical focus placed upon downtown and Over-the-Rhine? What about the great history of residences in Corryville, Mt. Auburn, or Walnut Hills? What about the unfortunate demolition that occurred due to interstate construction in the West End and Mt. Adams? Could this not be better emphasized as a way to both celebrate the neighborhoods’ history and call for a more optimistic and respectful future?

Other cultural differences exist between neighborhoods that could be further highlighted and/or expanded. On a positive note, the LGBT community has managed to highlight Northside (as well as Clifton, to a lesser extent) as an open and accepting community. Is there any reason why this openness, not just to the LGBT community but to diverse groups of people in general, could not occur in other neighborhoods? Further, what about the strong sense of ecology that is shown in some neighborhoods that could positively spread to others? For example, why isn’t there more of an interest in or draw to Price Hill’s Ecovillage? Cincinnati’s great park system has been written about extensively, but why do certain neighborhoods not do more to utilize these parks? For instance, some neighborhood parks at the peaks of “hills” offer some astounding views of Cincinnati. Also, more specifically, some parks such as Burnet Woods in Uptown seem underutilized, and it is unfathomable why Cincinnati does not better vocalize Mt. Airy Forest’s great hiking trails.

I have already listed a plethora of examples of missed opportunities to more positively portray the citizens, places, and events within area neighborhoods. Surely, there are many more. But the larger point is this: if the cultural diversity, great history, and interesting landmarks already exist in neighborhoods, it does not take massive development or great political upheavals to make people love the city; it only takes a change in attitude. So, instead of bickering over which area high schools are best, or why east-siders are better than west-siders, or why the young/old/liberal/conservative/rich/poor/white/black/[name your stereotype] people of the city are “ruining” everything, let’s focus instead of what makes any city great: its variety and diversity.

For in reality, as much as many of us (myself included) wish for this or that development, change, etc., we all know deep down that despite its “flaws” (whatever each of us individually considers such flaws to be), Cincinnati is a great city with a lot to offer. Thus, by better recognizing and marketing what is great about the different neighborhoods in our city, we can begin to change what is often an overall negative attitude into a positive one. A positive attitude should draw new residents into the city, and help them feel accepted and wanted, thus helping our city grow and prosper like any great city should.

Consciously and sub-consciously, shouldn’t this be what we are all striving towards?

At least until football season starts again. Then everyone can go back to arguing about which area high school is best.

Zachary Schunn is a recent graduate of the Bachelor of Science in Architecture program at the University of Cincinnati, and is currently completing the Master of Business Administraion program at UC, with a concentration in Real Estate Development. He has a growing interest and expertise in sustainable urban architecture and development, and is committed to seeing its growth in Cincinnati.

  • tcmacdonald

    Great perspective. As a Cincy transplant myself, I too am surprised at how pervasive these stereotypes can be. And as a resident of Fort Thomas, I cringe when I hear the standard vitriol aimed at those south of the border. Appreciate the enlightening take on how we can all embrace diversity and make this city a better place for everyone!

  • Wondering about “celebrating individual neighborhoods”. Are they celebrated in the silo communities or throughout the city? The former is segregation rather than diversity.

  • @F.L. Feimo: I think you can celebrate individual neighborhoods in such a way that isn’t negative. Self agglomeration is in fact not a bad thing. The United States is one of the rare examples around the world that follows the “melting pot” philosophy that blends everyone up into one identifiable culture.

    In most other countries you see people of different races, creeds and sexual orientations form enclaves throughout their given city. This, in a way, helps to preserve their unique cultural background. Where the tricky part comes in is that these must be neighborhoods where people willingly do this, and they must also be neighborhoods open to outsiders.

    If you get that appropriate mix then you get the beautiful “quilt” approach that has seperate identifiable neighborhoods based on the people’s cultural backgrounds. In Cincinnati we have seen the Italian, German, Greek, Jewish (to a lesser extent), and other cultures follow the “melting pot” pattern. This, I believe, has resulted in people identfying with high schools and economics rather than culture.

  • Jake

    I really enjoyed this post. Thank you so much.

    I live in Northern Kentucky and it is so frustrating to not be treated like part of the Cincinnati area. It’s all an integral part of this region and honestly people, it’s not third grade anymore. The farm jokes, incest jokes, and no shoes jokes can stop. You’re not funny and those jokes, quite honestly, never have been. I also enjoy when you talk about further highlighting the cultures and histories of other areas outside the CBD and OTR. I lived in DC for a year and when I came back I got very interested and active in the urban community in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about the areas of Cincy outside of OTR and downtown and the little bit I’ve managed to teach myself about the industrial West End. We should highlight more all the great areas we have besides OTR. Why not have a 3CDC-like thing for a lot of the neighborhoods around here? Covington could surely use it on Pike and Madison.

    Once again, great post.

  • @Jake: There are actually dozens of development corporations around the Cincinnati region. What sets 3CDC apart from the rest is their human capital supplied in large part by the major corporations located in the urban core. These bright minds then go out and create innovative funding structures to facilitate the reinvestment taking place in Over-the-Rhine and Downtown.

    Here is some more information CDC’s elsewhere in the Cincinnati region:

  • @Randy: Agree it is tricky, even when such neighborhoods are open to outsiders. Depends on why they were formed in the first place.

  • Jake

    Thanks for the link! I hope one day we can use that human capital elsewhere, too!

  • Zachary Schunn

    “Are they celebrated in the silo communities or throughout the city? The former is segregation rather than diversity.”

    Is segregation such a bad thing? In what I wrote above, I imply it is not. People tend to view segregation as negative–probably largely due to its association with Jim Crow days–but people are going to segregate nonetheless. People flock to areas with similar taste and culture to theirs. It’s human nature.

    The point I was getting at was using this segregation to celebrate different cultures (eg, as in New York) rather than suppressing them. It’s the oppression associated with segregation (esp. of certain races or ethnicities) that we should focus on eliminating, not the concept of segregation itself.

    Randy’s other points about the “melting pot” vs. “quilt” approach say it much better than I could have. The aim, though, is that in aggregating people of various cultures into an area such as Cincinnati you do not lose what made each culture unique.

    As for development outside OTR and downtown… it is definitely happening, but I am starting to wonder myself if all the attention given to the urban core is causing Cincinnati’s other neighborhoods–Mt. Airy, Mt. Auburn, Walnut Hills, Price Hill, etc.–to lose some of the character that makes them great. As we all know from the census results, they are definitely losing population…

  • @Zachary Schunn: I do not believe that the investment and attention in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine is what’s causing issues in Cincinnati’s inner-ring suburbs. In fact, the stuggle of inner-ring suburbs is a national trend.

    The problem is that those moving back to cities want the dynamic urban cores in which to live, work and recreate. These inner-ring suburbs are built to appeal to families, but those families have continued to move outward from city center for what they have perceived as more affordable, greener pastures. The building stock in these communities is older and often more expensive to upkeep than newer suburbs.

    Meanwhile, urban core neighborhoods offer up a product completely different and unique from the rest of a region. This is why we’re seeing growth in urban cores, and population loss in inner-ring suburbs, around the country in places like Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Atlanta, Chicago and elsewhere.

    This is part of a much larger socioeconomic trend, and it is one on which all cities need to capitalize. At the same time, these cities need to be figuring out a way to make those inner-ring suburbs attractive to families once again. If they fail to do that then they will have to examine a complete rethinking of those neighborhoods.

  • Fascinating post; thank you. I have to add two more thoughts [as a transplant to Cincinnati originally from NYC].

    First off, when I first moved here, the question about high school implied to me that the person had not attained a higher level of education. Nothing wrong with that per se, but it was really odd to me in a professional context. Before moving here, a parallel conversation would have easily included the [equally presumptuous in its own way] question about graduate school. It took me a while to realize that I was conversing with provincial but not necessarily uneducated people.

    Second, there are many neighborhoods in NYC, even in Manhattan, that are not celebrated and in some cases cases carry a stigma. The perception of neighborhoods and their inhabitants depends on people’s perspectives as well. Certain areas are known as tourist destinations, but plenty more are anything but that. That exists in every city, and Cincinnati is certainly not alone in having plenty of neighborhoods with “quiet” charms that are under the radar.

    Anyway, great post!

  • adam

    the odds of meeting someone actually ‘from’ NYC is slight, and if you are spending a lot of time on Urban Cincy, you’re probably not ‘from’ NYC yourself. Therefore there is little to be gleaned from asking someone what high school they went to if you are in NYC because you won’t know anything about it because there is a .0001% chance you’re from geographically proximate cities. NYC is a global city with MASSIVE population churn.

    However, people ARE likely to ask the equivalent question, ‘where are you from’? The answer might be Wisconsin, or Canada, or Tulsa, or Cincinnati. But dollars to donuts if they say the same town you’re from, your next question is follow up to get more specific. The ‘what HS’ question is the same as the ‘what state’ or ‘what city’ question. Its just that in a regional city with minimal population churn, no one bothers to start by asking what state, because the answer is 98% likely to be ohio, then cincinnati ohio.

    The question is more indicative of Cinci having a very low population churn than of some sinister prejudice that cincinnatians carry in any particularly unique way.

    This is only a big deal because everybody thinks it’s a big deal and won’t stop talking about it. There is some truth to all these things the OP and commentators have said, it’s just that the ‘what HS’ question is a molehill made into a mountain.

  • Zachary Schunn

    @Randy: I agree, I don’t think it’s the movement between inner suburbs and urban areas that is causing the problem (although it does occur, especially among the young). The mass exodus FROM cities is the issue. My point is more that, although the regrowth of urban areas is great, especially considering that demand is there, the devil’s advocate in me says that more of the city’s resources should be allocated to other neighborhoods. Maybe by improving transportation, building business districts, or lowering property taxes to entice residents to move in to these inner suburbs.

    @visualingual: Agreed on the second point. Having spent 3 months in NY, I actually found the lesser-known areas more interesting than the tourist destinations. Even areas like Harlem seem quite underrated, in my book.

    @adam: I don’t think it’s the question about high schools that is the problem. I simply used it as an example of the “me vs. you” stereotyping that exists in Cincinnati. In my experience, it’s often (though not always) used to segregate people into classes. Ie, the private vs. public school thing is huge, because it helps categorize people into socioeconomic classes. Instead, can’t we find techniques that classify people based on more interesting variables, such as culture or family history?

  • Neil Clingerman

    Even being from Warren County the whole “High School” question puzzled me. I would look at people kind of funny when being asked that and state the public school I went to in the city I grew up in, which quite literally was the only public school some 90% of my town went to. It did make me feel like an outsider, even though I’m from a hometown that still has mostly Bengals fans, a Skyline Chili and even could watch all the Cincinnati stations in my house on cable – in all actuality their was no need to label me that way, I was from a nowhere suburbia.

    I would disagree about Walnut Hills being categorized as an inner suburb. Its a quite intense urban district, which in its heyday wasn’t too much different than Wicker Park in Chicago. Hopefully if the city doesn’t wind up tearing half of it down (like I read on building-cincy) it will be a second wave area to gentrify after the basin is done. Looking at other cities patterns and Cincinnati’s late comer status, I’m pretty sure these are the areas that are going to be safe. I’d even extend that to relatively walkable early suburbs like Mariemont and Wyoming, where the character of the place makes the area an immediate easy sell. If places like Ravenswood can see a growing population in Chicago (which was a early 1900s commuter suburb turned city neighborhood – imagine a denser Hartwell with large 1920s courtyard apartments) than I’m sure that the neighborhoods your describing are going to be just fine.

    The problem areas are like North College Hill, and Springfield Township largely developed in the 1950s and 1960s where they are earlier suburbia, meaning that they offer the same things that an outer suburb does but everything is older and requires more maintenance. The architecture is not unique nor is the lifestyle that it promotes, you can get both in Warren County, but its newer.

  • what a joke

    Drum roll please….and the 2011 UrbanCincy Recognizing Cultural Diversity Award goes to 3CDC.

  • Dave

    This was a really great piece. I myself grew up in Fort Thomas (though will soon be moving to an apartment uptown). It’s nice to see the author and the other NKY residents pointing out how so many Ohioans do not even consider NKY part of Cincinnati. It’s silly.

  • Kevin

    From my own experience, I think a great example of a neighborhood celebrating it’s diversity and heritage is in Northside. With it’s yearly 4th of July celebration many groups and social organizations from all different types of backgrounds local to the area are highlighted in the parade down Hamilton Ave and it’s a great way to celebrate the neighborhood’s culture and diverse heritage. One problem is before I moved to Northside I never knew something like this existed. Something like this should be marketed or shared in a better way to show the city’s potential for acceptance.
    I’m sure there are other examples like this in other parts of the city, I’m just sharing my own experience since it seems to relate to this article.

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    People who think that only Cincinnatians ask where they went to high school haven’t lived in too many places. I’ve lived in 6 or 7 cities and when two people meet each other from the same place, they always ask what neighborhood they are from and which high school they went to. If they then know common people, they have a 20 minute conversation that necessarily boxes other people out. If people discover that they went to the same college, or worked at the same company, they do the exact same thing.

  • ML

    If you don’t think New Yorkers judge each other by geography, you don’t get out much! I remember my Manhattan and suburban friends speaking of outer borough residents roughly the way Ohio residents speak about Kentuckians.

  • @ML:

    That is certainly very, very true. In fact, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find stronger stereotypes than those made by New Yorks about New Jersey residents.

    That’s why I was mostly referring to the neighborhoods within Manhattan. (I guess NY’s stereotyping, like the city itself, is just on a much larger scale than in cities like Cincinnati.)

    To Randy’s point, the quilt-pattern of neighborhoods in Manhattan is a grand precedent for sure, and that probably hits more strongly at my overall point than inter-borough bickering.

  • Juan De Bonia

    Jake, couldn’t agree more…

    I’ve lived in quite a few places as well. The high school question is simply people trying to find common ground and make connections. It happens everywhere in a variety of different ways.

  • Neil Clingerman

    HS question: Were these other places on the East Coast by chance? I’ve heard that’s the case in Philly. I think Cincinnati shares this kind of neighborhood clannishness with the East Coast, probably the furthest western city (though New Orleans might also have it given its age and close ties to the Northeast early on) to really have it (which makes sense given Cincy’s history).

    NY Myopia/Stereotyping: New Yorkers have a “neighborhood clannishness” to the extreme. Get out of Manhattan and especially in Northern New Jersey (lots of “You aren’t from around here are you? when I was on vacation there) and people will stick to their neighborhoods very close and be suspicious of outsiders. However, I think this is weakening, Williamsburg (except for the Hasidic part obviously – though even then some Hasids are profiting from the hipsters) and other areas that attract immigrants (inside the US and out) have a pretty open attitude towards outsiders.

  • Dale Brown

    Cincinnati’s main problem (well, its not really a problem, its just reality) is that most of the communities are isolated by geography, whether it be a river or a hill. NYC is a bad example because you can walk, hail a cab, or jump on the subway and get to any of these communities. In Cincinnati you have to drive everywhere so its always a little more of a hassle to go anywhere.

    I’d say the other problem is lack of communication about the neighborhoods and offerings; I’m sure there are dozen’s of cool places that most people don’t even know exist.

    And yes, that invisible force field that is the Ohio river is laughable.