Steve Leeper and I both arrived in Over-the-Rhine a few years after Cincinnati’s social problems exploded in 2001. Our community had hit rock-bottom and everybody in town understood there was no choice but to be part of the solution. Steve moved from Pittsburgh to run the non-profit, 3CDC (Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation). I left a river-view office at Merrill Lynch to eventually start InkTank, a non-profit writing center where college-educated white people swapped stories with OTR natives who didn’t look or think like me.
We were both outsiders. People who had been living and working in Over-the-Rhine for decades didn’t trust us. But it was worse for Steve. Hired by corporate executives, he represented the interests of the economic elite and everybody assumed that 3CDC couldn’t rebuild OTR in a way that would be fair.
More than a decade later, with the Cincinnati Renaissance popping-up on list after list of “must-visit” destinations, you’d think the obvious hero of our turn-around story would be strutting around like the king of the barnyard, eager to recount every detail of every 3CDC development success. But that’s not the guy who showed up for the conversation orchestrated by Anastasia Mileham, VP of Marketing and Communications, when I asked if someone could explain how the money works at a non-profit development corporation. The guy sitting across the table from me sounded like he was on trial, like he felt I was out to get him.
The only time Steve’s eyes lit up and his voice softened during the hour we talked was when I asked about his 33 person board. He said they were the most cohesive, supportive group imaginable. “All they want to do is help.” Wow. What miracles happen when people believe in each other.
The reason I started writing Cincyopolis was because I wanted to be part of a more sophisticated public conversation about the built environment in Cincinnati, about what we value as a community, how we make those decisions and the public-private division of responsibilities and risks in making it happen. With all the development going on around town, citizens needed to be better educated about these important issues, ask for a more transparent process, and get involved. But has the tone of my writing become too negative, the focus more on the problems than solutions, on what’s going wrong with not enough emphasis on all the amazing things that are going right? How am I contributing to this climate of mistrust? Because Steve Leeper isn’t crazy. If he feels like he’s frequently under attack then he probably is.
So – let’s start over.
Please accept my sincere apologies for not publicly focusing first and foremost on all that’s going right in this city. And it’s not just our buildings. We rebuilt Cincinnati’s pride along with our city center, our belief in what’s possible at our little bend in the river. Demand exceeds supply in every single aspect of all the new 3CDC developments: fun, imaginative events free to all, 2-hour waiting lists for tables in restaurants, full parking garages, residential units that fill-up faster than they can be finished, parks and plazas where people come together who would never have a chance to meet otherwise – this combined with a renewed commitment to better address the needs of the homeless. And every single step along the way required super-human sensitivity to negotiate all kinds of different lives from yesterday to today.
Thank-you, Steve Leeper. Thank-you, to every member of the incredibly talented 3CDC staff that has made Cincinnati’s re-imagination their work. Thank-you, maybe especially, to all the corporate executives who believed in this community in our darkest hour, came together to invest so much time, knowledge and patient capital in our city’s future. Our turn-around is a model for cities all across the country.
Buildings are important, but they are just the physical manifestation of what’s really important in a community. What we’re constructing through this process is a way of listening to each other, sharing our concerns, and coming together that goes beyond the bricks and mortar. With so much work left to do to make this the city what we want it to be, let’s try to show up at every table always assuming the best about each other, asking what we can do to help.