Big Thinkers: the one, the only John Schneider

Pop quiz.  Who is the most influential person in the city of Cincinnati?

a.  John Cranley, Mayor

b.  John Barrett, CEO of Western & Southern, Chair of 3CDC

c.  Margaret Buchanan, President & Publisher of the Enquirer

d.  John Schneider, “Mr. Streetcar”


John Schneider doing what John Schneider does best: talking-up streetcars

Call me crazy, but my answer is d., John Schneider, even though the vast majority of Cincinnati residents probably wouldn’t recognize his name.  John is a commercial real estate developer, member of the City of Cincinnati Planning Commission and most often in the news lately for his leadership on the streetcar initiative.

I met John in 2005, a short time after I started a non-profit writing center on Main St. in Over-the-Rhine.  Following the 2-1 defeat of his “Metro Moves” ballot initiative to bring light rail to Hamilton County in November of 2002, I have no recollection of what brought us together at InkTank World Headquarters – other than the obvious fact  that John is/was obsessed and would/will talk to anybody with ears about transportation.  He was one of the smartest, most well-informed people I’d ever met in my life and I realized immediately he had a different kind of brain.

Not a flashy guy, John doesn’t tell jokes or turn a lot of heads when he enters a room.  But there’s something about him, not charisma exactly, but a certainty about what he believes, that makes smart, caring people want him to think well of them.  Which must be why I paid good money to go on one of his trademark Portland junkets in the cold drizzle of a typical Pacific Northwest winter, my fingers numb even in gloves as we trekked out past the end of the line while John lectured on streetcar minutiae until our eyes glazed-over.  It was nuts.  Especially considering the fact that I’d ridden those same streetcars on vacation a few years earlier and already counted myself among his mass-transit converts.

Even so, it was only when I sat down to gather research for this profile that I realized how influential he is.  Which was when I finally noticed the obvious. John Schneider has not only been at the center of the streetcar debate, the one person that wouldn’t give up, who refused to take “no” for an answer no matter how many times opponents knocked him down. John Schneider has been smack-dab in the middle of almost every impossible, controversial mega-project undertaken in the city of Cincinnati for the last twenty years.

1.  The reconfiguration of Interstate 71 (Ft. Washington Way) through downtown Cincinnati, closing down west-bound traffic for 9 months and reducing the size of the highway by more than half, recapturing the riverfront and improving access to downtown.  I can’t even remember our city before the remake – but all the changes since then – the beautiful parks along the river, the Banks, the stadiums,  the Freedom Center – none of it would have been possible if John Schneider had not led the charge on a problem almost nobody else even recognized was a problem.

2.  Before the reconfiguration, the area south of 3rd street was located in the middle of a floodplain and was frequently underwater.  Now the area floods maybe 2 or 3 times a year, so that we can ride our bikes along the river or sit in swings to watch the coal barges glide downstream.  Residential units and restaurants have replaced the old warehouses that used to dominate one of our prettiest areas.

3.  John Schneider led the ballot initiative to locate the Reds stadium on the riverfront, going head to head with one of his best friends, Jim Tarbell, who favored the Broadway Commons option.

Known for his long walks through downtown where he has always lived – long before “urbanist” entered the popular vernacular – John is never just out for a little fresh air.  He’s looking.  He’s thinking.  He’s recording observations on his smart phone so he can call City Hall about a cracked sidewalk or glass in the street.  He misses nothing – reminding me more than once to talk to my HOA about the need to get the exterior of my building painted before it deteriorates any further, even going so far as to spell-out the type of paint I should tell them to use.

So when John talks “streetcar,” understand that “Mr. Streetcar” isn’t just talking about transit. That’s just one small part of the puzzle he’s been working on his whole life, quietly studying every detail that is a city, how it all works together, persistently sharing his vision with the rest of us Johnny-come-lately urbanists.  He’s repopulating a city where people want to live, one with low-rise structures, walkable streets with stores at sidewalk level, places that encourage the chance encounters that are the best part of being alive on an average day.  Anybody who is listening carefully can hear John’s three steps ahead of the pack, envisioning the next phase.  With the streetcar battle behind him he’s thinking about turning roads built in creek-beds back into creeks, the value of our old streetcar routes and how to revitalize Reading, Gilbert and Montgomery Roads, how it’s possible that someday trains might run in half the lanes of Ft. Washington Way if driving continues to decline.

 “Ideas rarely start with government,” John explained when I asked about how big development decisions are made.  “They come from citizens who believe in them”  –  a concept both intimidating and inspiring at the same time.

Without ever running for elected office or climbing the ladders of administrative bureaucracy, any citizen with the courage to dream big and learn, rock-solid determination, a thick-skin and the patience to endure can move highways and put down tracks that improve hundreds of thousands of lives for generations to come. Thank-you, John Schneider.  Your greatest legacy lies in all of us who believe we can change our world because of your example.

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