Is Cincinnati in the midst of a contemporary golden age?

Cincinnati is a city that lacks significant amounts of either in- or out-migration. This results in a relatively stable population base, and relatively predictable social trends. What it also means is that people often linger on the “good” or “bad” times they remember most.

The Cincinnati of today is one notably different from the Cincinnati of the past 20 years, however, many Baby Boomers reminisce about the golden years of downtown – that is the time when new office towers were being constructed and both the Reds and Bengals were winning.

Between 1970 and 1990, downtown saw the construction of 29 new buildings with at least ten floors. During the same time, the Reds won three World Series championships and the Bengals went to two Super Bowls. One could argue that these were the most recent boom times in Cincinnati history and, as a result, those that experienced the time period first-hand have written a narrative that it was a high point followed by precipitous decline.

2012 Reds Opening Day outside of Great American Ball Park. Photograph courtesy of The Banks.

This narrative was mostly true until the past half-decade. Cincinnati’s 21st century got off to a tumultuous start, but has otherwise been defined by success throughout the urban core. New hotels, office towers, residential midrises, nightlife, and shops have sprung up all throughout the Central Business District, and Over-the-Rhine is in the midst of one of the most dramatic urban transformations in American history.

At the same time, non-urban enthusiasts have been reinvigorated by the success of the Reds and Bengals on the field which has been now joined by the emergence of the University of Cincinnati as a major division one athletics program.

The combination of these two seemingly non-connected movements was perhaps most evident on Reds Opening Day this past Thursday. It was estimated that the largest crowd in history – 100,000 – gathered for the93-year-old Findlay Market Opening Day Parade. Many of those baseball revelers then conveyed at The Banks for what turned into a massive block party outside Great American Ball Park where a record crowd gathered to watch the Reds beat the Marlins on day one of the 2012 season.

Several new office towers, residential midrises and hotels are scheduled to be built in the coming years. This is in addition to the ongoing work on the Cincinnati Streetcar, Horseshoe Casino, Smale Riverfront Park, 21c Museum Hotel, and continued transformations in historic Over-the-Rhine.

All of this bodes well for continued success throughout the rest of the decade. And while it may still be early, Cincinnati’s Gen Xers and Millennials may eventually look back on the time between 2005 and 2025 as the golden years for their generation in the Queen City. The Baby Boomers established Cincinnati’s center city as an economic powerhouse regionally, and it appears that their children are positioning Cincinnati to be a diverse, resilient city for generations to come.

The city’s back. Back the city.

  • jasomm

    Very glad to see the renaissance materialize in new ways like a fantastic opening day…

    However, that last sentence of historic commentary siting generational contributions came out of left-field, and wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny.

  • We are right on the verge of having the Cincinnati we’ve been wishing for, this place is going to crazy!

  • Taft_Punk

    Now all we need is a legally unencumbered kickball league to complete the renaissance. 

    • camisadelgolf

      In case you’re interested, a bunch of friends and I get together for kickball every Sunday at Fairview Park in Fairview.  We meet about 7:00 PM and play ’til the sun goes down.  We’re mostly ages 25-35, but every type of person is welcome.  It’s laid-back, and we love to drink beer.

  • Aaron Watkins

    With a picture like that, they should be building the hotel at The Banks yesterday.

  • Hopefully contemporary architecture styles prevail in this Golden Age.

  • smckinley

    While I agree that downtown and OTR are now great places to be, and getting exponentially better, your history’s a bit off. Downtown Cincinnati never really stopped being the economic powerhouse of the region, although its power waxed and waned over the years. Well into the ’70s, downtown had stores and restaurants that were the best in the region, even boasting more four-star and above restaurants per capita than any place other than San Francisco. The skyscraper mania didn’t really hit until the late ’80s, was largely fueled by the Savings and Loan shenanigans of the time – Cincinnati was a major center of S & Ls – resulted in an office space glut we’re still working off, and contributed nothing to vibrancy downtown. Yeah, the ’90s pretty much sucked for downtown, but the seeds for a lot of what we see now in downtown and OTR were planted then.

    The whole “golden age” theme’s always hard to support I guess.

  • More public investment has brought more private investment while the decreasing profitability of suburban investment caused by the great recession has freed up investment for central locations. If the real estate bust hadn’t happened much of that investment would have continued to go to suburbia instead of downtown cincinnati. Even with the wind sometimes at downtown’s back now, the city, county, newly expanded port authority, and 3cdc need to make development the ultimate goal for everything they do. The goal should be to maintain the level of activity we have from now on. This should become the ‘new normal’ of cincinnati with these levels of investment for many years to come. 3cdc should see their ultimate goal as continuing until every last unused structure in the city of cincinnati is put back into productive use.

  • I will always be a faithful (and borderline fanatic) supporter of Cincinnati. I’m confident that in the next 20 years we will see unprecedented growth in our city’s culture and economy, as well as a revival of all that was lost in decades past.

    Long live Cincinnati!

  • Keith Morris

    Revitalization of Downtown is fine and all, but really not a unique occurrence. Downtowns in other nearby cities, including Columbus and Cleveland in Ohio, have also seen great strides. Where Cincinnati leaves others behind is the addition of a signature neighborhood right next door to Downtown which has unusually high density for the area, not to mention uniquely high-quality architecture, and then the only new inner-city rail line for who knows how long in the form of the streetcar all bode well. Don’t forget about the addition of the further removed neighborhood Northside, of which I’m still in need of a visit when I have the chance.

    Cincinnati just has to focus on connecting its neighborhoods as part of an effort to get more city pride vs neighborhood pride. The streetcar is a start, but there are other methods to make other neighborhoods w/ business district easier to get to and get around in without a car or  waiting for the streetcar entire system to be finished decades later. Northside, for example, has a lot of what I look for in an urban neighborhood I’d want to live: coffee shop, bars, live music joints, affordable restaurants, an arts presence, an alternative crowd, and apparently even on-street bike parking with a bike corral (more aggressive bike infrastructure in several city neighborhoods would really be great). But I don’t do cars and for my demographic there is no cycling infrastructure up and down Hamilton let alone down to Clifton or Downtown. Making that business district a shared road for bikes would be a nice step as would creating a non-stop bike route to Downtown.

    With the success of this neighborhood I can’t help but wonder why De Sales isn’t more hopping when it’s quite a bit smaller. Which reminds me, Cincinnati should do away with all of these “no pedestrian” signs in its urban business districts. Don’t they notice that they’re putting up that sign because there is sufficiently high pedestrian demand to cross the street at a certain location? I don’t see any “no car” signs in response to high motorist demand on some streets.

    Cincinnati seems to have realized that it has to not stick to the status quo there and just needs to commit to what has proven to be successful elsewhere (which is really just the status quo on the coasts and Minneapolis) and go full steam ahead.

    • Zachary Schunn

      I can send you info if you’re interested in bringing up these “no pedestrian” signs and/or other issues to Walnut Hills’ business group, or at the form-based code charette coming up.

      I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the news coming out of Walnut Hills in the next 12-24 months.  Lots of development in the pipeline that has yet to be announced.

      Good post, btw.

  • People used to think of downtown and otr separately, but increasingly they think of them together so when people describe downtown’s resurgence they are thinking of otr even if they don’t explicitly mention it.

  • Jeffrey Jakucyk

    It’s great to see the progress that’s happening, but people must not become complacent about it or stop being vigilant.  Chicago is a good tale of warning in this respect.  In the 90s, the redevelopment of much of the north and northwest sides of the city, not to mention the south and west Loop areas was phenomenal.  Chicago reversed the trend of declining population and saw a boom of redevelopment, what could be better? 

    Well, the great success of the Loop and north side neighborhoods was overshadowed by the continuing decline of the west and south sides, which make up a much larger proportion of the city.  The most recent decade saw Chicago lose population again.  This is not a good pattern. 

    So here in Cincinnati, it’s great to see development happening downtown and in Over-the-Rhine.  However, that success won’t be able to counteract the problems that come if Westwood, Price Hill, Bond Hill, Kennedy Heights, and Madisonville, among others, decline more than they already have.  Is there an easy solution to that problem?  Probably not, but it’s something that does need consideration.

    • I’d suggest that the development of the 90s caused the population decline of the 2000s. The professional class interests empowered by the 90s growth worked politically for laws and policies that actually hurt the middle/working class interests of those to the west and south. So they left. People saw all the debt to pay for downtown and northside growth and expected higher taxes and continued focus on those areas instead of the west and south sides. I doubt chicago’s move up-market could have happened without this loss of middle and lower/middle income people. I think cincinnati’s more modest attempt to make the same move upmarket will bring the same loss of moderate income people. It’s the price we’ll have to pay. More regional cost-sharing on transportation, sewers, schools, economic development efforts, etc. can lessen the negative effects of this in cincinnati or in chicago.

    • This is a really good analysis of the demographic trends in Chicago:

      I’m hoping in Chicago that with some degree of improvement of outer reaches of its transit system there will be additional growth outward towards the far west and far south sides.  Even though its a band aid, BRT should help a bit.

  • oldfiekp

    I’ll admit, I was a bit turned off by the article. The Baby Boomers certainly didn’t establish Cincinnati’s center, maybe the suburbs, as an economic powerhouse. And to say many of the Baby Boomers reminisce the golden years of downtown between the 70’s & 90’s is quite interesting since Cincinnati’s golden age ended when the highways were built. Even before the West End was destroyed and Mt Adams was cut off,  the neighborhoods in the basin were decreasing in population with the invention of the automobile and expansion to the suburbs. I’ll agree the city is on the edge of something great but without innovation there cannot be change. If Cincinnati has lacked anything in the last 50 years, its people willing to innovate. All the great companies of the city like Kroger and P&G were created when the city was on the forefront of innovation. After railroads and automobiles took off, so did everyone who had big ideas and dreams. Ever since, Cincinnati has not grown and lost talent to the coastal cities. However, the game has changed with the invention of the internet. Unlike the Baby Boomers or Gen X, 60% of Millennials in the age range of 18-24 would rather have internet than a car. Millennials have learned urban living is more beneficial not only to the downtown but the environment as well. As OTR is improving, so is the relationship of the younger generation to the city itself. Cincinnati is finally starting to look competitive again and with that, it brings and keeps talent in the city. In five years the Millennials will have the buying power that is greater than that of the Baby Boomers and then we’ll see how city develops over time. 

  • mobilecasedirect

    I loved seeing all the new construction downtown Cincinnati. During a recent visit (after being gone for 6 years) it was great to see the transformation & investment in the urban core.

    Others have mentioned the benefits from the real estate bust refocusing the dollars to urban projects & development. I really enjoyed your post Matthew. 

    Keep it up Cincy I may have to move back from South Florida, well maybe part time (can’t fix the weather)…

    Go Reds!