COMMENTARY: Cincinnati's new mayor needs to show the imagination of an artist

The streetcar means more than numbers on a ledger

CINCINNATI -- Name a mayor doing great things in his or her city, and I'll show you a mayor who supports artists and the arts—how artists work, how they live and how they make (in)tangible differences in their communities.

John Cranley isn't rushing to join this list of mayors.

In the opening paragraph of his bio, on his own Web site, Cranley describes himself as “dedicated to moving Cincinnati forward so it becomes a center of opportunity and innovation.” It’s easy to dismiss this as a cut-and-paste line from a campaign template, but let’s at least hold Cincinnati’s new mayor accountable to his own bio. How does stopping the Cincinnati Streetcar Project in any way help the city become a center of opportunity and innovation?

Cranley's comments Thursday morning only underscore his inability to measure the streetcar beyond its cost. If he’s sincere in his dedication to opportunity and innovation—and not, as many streetcar supporters say, to those who backed his mayoral campaign—he wouldn’t treat the streetcar merely as red on a ledger. Cranley would instead see it through the lens of an artist.

Artists see potential and possibilities. They see landscape in color, not black-and-white. Unless, of course, the artist is working in charcoal. Or maybe the artist is colorblind. The point: Artists see in dimensions, in layers. They're not myopic cynics.

Over-the-Rhine owes much of its renaissance to the city’s farsighted visionaries—artists, designers and developers who saw (and see) something beyond and bigger than the city’s history of nearsighted punting and fumbling of opportunity.

The streetcar would bisect that history, bridging over gentrification by looping the northern stretches of OTR with the heart of downtown. This is something the mayor—any mayor—should champion. While I'm baffled at a route that doesn't wrap in the stadiums or casino, nobody has cited a plausible negative impact of the streetcar beyond the millions it would cost to finish the project versus the fewer millions it would cost to stop it.

Ask the artists, designers and developers who’ve staked their lives and careers into the city’s heart. Ask the people who patronize business downtown and Over-the-Rhine. They want the streetcar. They want to see the difference it can make—in vitality and energy, in the social and economic mix brought by a streetcar and other ways that aren’t easily read (or red) on a balance sheet.

Jason Snell is the vocalist and guitarist in the riff-rock band Ohio Knife and proprietor of We Have Become Vikings, a design firm with a small office in Over-the-Rhine. Among other positives, he said, a streetcar would illustrate the city's forward motion and jumpstart another wave of revitalization in one of the city's historically most troubled neighborhoods.

"In Cincinnati, we don't finish what we start. That's our history," he said. "I moved here with this optimism of the Reds moving to OTR—it got me excited, and I couldn’t understand why that didn’t happen. I think the streetcar is the same thing."

Snell wants to see the mayor leverage his position to encourage Kroger, Scripps, P&G and other major corporations to sponsor sections of the rail line—as did with Seattle's streetcar system, he said. (Scripps owns WCPO.)

"I’d say (to the mayor), look at options and think creatively about the problem. Don’t look at it as black and white," Snell said. "There are other creative means for finishing the job. You already have the tracks in the ground, and we’ve paid for a majority of this thing. Why not see it through?"

Eric Vosmeier, the producing artistic director of Know Theatre, also in Over-the-Rhine, initially had reservations about the streetcar, simply based on financial questions, until listening to proponents discuss benefits outside of a balance sheet. Vosmeier is leaving Know after this season.

"It’s the not listening to people’s thoughts that’s troublesome to me," Vosmeier said of Cranley. "For me, it’s really more about creating a place that has a set of assets that should be innate to a city. Regardless of the economic benefits of it … the permanence of this is one of those things I came around to. It’s not just about moving people. And you also have to take into account where we are in the process. You have to see the value in not stopping a project that we’ve already spent millions of dollars on. And that value is psychological, too."

Portland, Denver, Minneapolis and Charlotte, among others—not coincidentally, cities all boasting streetcars or lightrail—have made leaps in the past decade under progressive, forward-thinking mayors. These mayors saw themselves as sculptors of their cities, and they used their bully pulpits to help broker projects with the potential to connect neighborhoods

and move their cities beyond the ordinary.

Cranley needs to get out more. He needs to talk with those mayors and understand what they accomplished, and how. Alas, the only metrics that seem to matter to him are crime reduction and balanced budgets.

It’s hard to square Cranley, the mayor, with the Cranley who, a decade earlier, co-founded the Ohio Innocence Project . There’s a moral imperative guiding the investments of time, money and dogged pursuit of evidence necessary to free people wrongly convicted of capital crimes. The chief opposition to Innocence Project cases are some of the elected judges, prosecutors and law enforcement heads who see only political peril in the Project’s work.

Cranley, in his opposition to the streetcar, is behaving much the same—head down, eyes and ears shut to the benefit side of any cost-benefit analysis that might exculpate the streetcar.

In an astute October 2012 post on her blog, The Walking Green , Cincinnati musician and self-described conservative Liz McEwan wrote “The problem is this: the majority of those in opposition to the streetcar have a fundamentally different view of the urban environment, its infrastructure, and lifestyle, than do its supporters … (Opponents) do not understand the design of cities and do not share the vision of (a) car-lite, rail-strong city … They do not see the streetcar as a sound investment because they do not believe that a pedestrian, urban life is a legitimate lifestyle choice of rational people (and families). So, they refuse to relinquish their control of the urban core to those who actually live, work, and play there.”

One has to wonder: Did Cincinnatians elect a mayor who doesn’t fundamentally get his own city?

Cranley is less than a month into his tenure, and he’s already going against his central pledge around opportunity and innovation. There is one potential upside. Until now, it’s been hard to find local artists holding the torch of civic consciousness and activism. For artists looking for inspiration, Cranley is providing great material.

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