I spent more time cycling in Ohio than in any other state. Prior to this trip I had passed through Ohio many times; ten Interstates cross it borders so it is often on the way to somewhere else. Yet I had never spent more than a roadside overnight there. After more than a week rolling through the state I realized that Ohio is our entire country writ small. All the rhythms of our daily lives pulse here. Ohio has cities and suburbs, small towns and farms, dense ethnic neighborhoods and clusters of diversity, immense wealth, great poverty, horrific decline and tremendous opportunity. Ohio has Southern charm and Northern efficiency, and vice versa. Every pattern of daily American life is represented in Ohio. It is far from perfect, yet slivers of perfection can be found everywhere.
I enteredOhio over the Roebling Bridge from Coventry, KY to Cincinnati, which was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was completed in 1867, only to be upstaged later by its more famous brother, the Brooklyn Bridge. Crossing the Roebling, Cincinnati spread out before me. Paul Brown Stadium (Bengals) and the Great American Ball Park(Reds) flank downtown, twenty-first century sentinels of their city. The river flowed beneath me; railroad tracks ran along the shore, Interstate 71 whirred past. The dense grid of downtown streets gave rise to the neighborhoods crisscrossing the hills beyond.
Ohio has impressive infrastructure. Saddled between the Ohio River and Lake Erie, the state has excellent water access for an inland locale. For the past 200 years most east/west traffic across America has passed through Ohio and Ohio created the backbone required to ensure that it remained the route of choice. Around the 1820’s three different transportation modes attracted attention, though they became dominant in different eras. Between 1811 and 1834 the federal government financed its first highway, The National Road, connecting Cumberland Gap, MD to Ohio. At the same time railroads appeared as a potential means to cross the Alleghany Mountains, while canal systems were being developed to haul freight. Canal technology was the first to be widely implemented and by 1832 Ohio completed a canal system that linked Lake Erie to the Ohio Riverand provided freight access across the state. Since New York had opened the Erie Canal a few years earlier, goods from all over Ohio had ready transport to the Eastern seaboard and beyond during the period when all long distance travel occurred over water. In the 1850’s the B&O railroad was the first to connect Ohio to the east coast, signaling the beginning of the age of trains. By the end of the Civil war, the canal system was virtually eclipsed by the railroads. The railroads did more than transport local goods, they created junctions where towns developed and facilitated the modern concept of bringing raw materials from dispersed areas together to fabricate into finished goods. Ohio was an ideal location for such industry, as materials from all over the Great Lakes region could be transported to Ohio, turned into steel or other durables and then shipped east. By 1910 there were over 9,600 miles of railroad track in Ohio and the Cleveland/Akron/Youngstown area was an industrial powerhouse. But like the canals before them, the railroads peaked as cars and trucks ascended after World War II. Once again, Ohio responded with vigor by laying infrastructure for the emerging means of transport. The National Road became US 40 and eventually was paralleled by I-70. Today, Ohio has over 1,500 miles of Interstate highways with 21 different routes, the third densest concentration of Interstates of any state.
Twenty-first centuryOhio is overflowing with infrastructure – it literally has more than we can use. As a mature economy with slow population growth and declining industrial output, there are underutilized canals, railroads and even highways. Ironically, this excess infrastructure is what prompted me to spend so much time in Ohio, as the state has repurposed many of its railroad rights-of-way and canal tow paths into bicycle trails. Ohio has the most extensive system of rail-to-trial routes in the country, and is creating a continuous bicycle trail from Cincinnati to Cleveland. The Little Miami Trial, which follows the right-of-way of a railroad laid in the 1830’s, starts outside Cincinnati and extends 70 miles all the way to Springfield, with several branches to nearby towns. It is a beautiful ride, quiet and tree-lined, with trailheads every ten miles or so with restrooms and restaurants. In creating this wonderful asset,Ohio has developed a cottage industry of bike enthusiasts; there are bicycles everywhere in southwest Ohio. Bicycle trails may not be the economic engine that railroads once were, but they are preferable to having the tracks sit idle.
Just as Ohio has too much transportation, it has too much physical infrastructure as well. Though many cyclists steer around major cities, the architect in me likes to plow right through them, meandering in a general direction, soaking up their character. On my day in Cincinnati I spent a few hours looping around the city; I did the same in Columbus and Cleveland. Each represents the prevalent pattern of urban development and decay in America, wherein as we make more money, we move away from dense city neighborhoods to single family suburban neighborhoods and ultimately exurban acreages. Large cities often have a concentration of wealth in their central core where affluent people with urban sensibilities congregate, but these areas are usually surrounded by a ‘donut hole’ of poverty. Though there are exceptions, if you travel a half mile or so in any direction from the center of most large American cities, you will likely find yourself in a struggling neighborhood.
So it is in Cincinnati and Columbus, and certainly in Cleveland. I am intrepid on my bicycle, though not blind to precaution when riding the rough parts of town. The inner ring of American cities fascinate me; the well-proportioned buildings that defy abuse; the urgent graffiti, the people loitering on front stoops and in front of corner stores who watch me pass. I am an amusement in their day; they are a refreshing diversion after so many trees and cornfields. At ten miles per hour I can discern transitions in the urban fabric. How a railroad track differentiates an abandoned urban sector from one still holding on, how a boulevard can unite a neighborhood, while a hill can divide one. I see how brick townhouses extend only as far as the old trolley lines, beyond that are wood frame buildings, spread apart. I understand how institutions usually raise the bar of their surroundings, but wealthy neighborhoods are set some distance from the buzz of hospitals and universities. Actually, really posh neighborhoods set themselves apart from everything.
Cincinnati has every representative neighborhood; from snazzy condos downtown to bohemian chic in Over the Rhine, from desolation in the West End, to institutional stability around the University, from gentrified graciousness in Oakley and Hyde Park to the historic sophistication of Mariemont just beyond the city limits. Further out lie the suburban towns, with tract houses and highway exchanges and big box stores; development that reflects a ubiquitous American form more than any character inherent to Cincinnati. The architect in me cringes at the lost opportunities of the inner city and the pastoral devastation of the highway development but the observant cyclist notes the preference for pushing out with new construction rather than bolstering what already exists. Cincinnati is not unique, this pattern repeats in city after city and as I pedal I have the luxury of time to ponder why.
What Americans buy with our affluence, is privacy. A single family house is preferred over an apartment, our own yard is preferred over a community park, our own car is preferred over taking the bus, our own office is preferred over a shared cubicle. We like space and we like to claim it for our own. We want each of our young children to have their own bedroom, each of our grown children to have their own apartment, and our parents to spend their old age in assisted living rather than residing with us.
In 2008 the average size of a single family home in the US peaked at over 2,500 square feet. This has slid back a bit, but is still more than twice the average size of a house built in 1950. At the same time, our average household keeps shrinking. From a whopping 4.9 people per household in 1900, families shrunk to 3.0 people in 1950 and today our average family size is 2.6 people, with an increasing number of people living alone. In a similar vein, more of us have our own cars and our cars are larger, our offices are larger; every aspect of our lives grows larger and more private. There are indications that economic and sustainability trends may curb these appetites, but given our preference, we want our own space for working, living, and traveling, and we want a lot of it.
Since the checkered days of urban renewal, we have grappled with how to make the decaying cores of our cities viable. Early efforts, which usually involved highway construction and isolated towers in plazas, created some of the dreariest spaces on earth. By the 1980’s ‘new urbanism’ concepts championed high density, mixed use development with a greater degree of success. Affluent young people flocked to New York and Chicago and Seattle, but what about the Cincinnati’s and Cleveland’s of our country? They did not become magnets of urbanism. In fact, with the industrial decline of the late twentieth century, the amount of underutilized area in Rust Belt cities grew faster than ever. How do you draw people back into a city that so many have left, with a population already in decline?
As I made my way north and east through Ohio, people inquired where I was headed and they furrowed their brow when I said Cleveland. “Why would you go there?” Cleveland has a leprous reputation, even in Ohio. But I spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon rolling aimlessly though the ‘Mistake on theLake’; an afternoon that turned out to be one of the most memorable tours of my journey.
The day did not start off well. I left Massillon in light rain and after a few miles along the Ohio and Erie Cana ltow path the hard pack turned muddy, so I switched to the road and made good time to the city. I returned to the bike path outside of Cleveland but it ended abruptly and tossed me onto Independence Avenue. I followed in the general direction of the city. The surroundings became more industrial, huge metal structures with pipelines running overhead; train tracks below, railroad bridges above, conveyors at angles, cylindrical tanks pressing all around, and a highway hundreds of feet above, towering over all. The sky grew dark as the silhouettes of the skyscrapers loomed above the industrial foreground. Torrents of rain fell. I took refuge under the highway overpass. After fifteen minutes the storm passed, the sun sparkled off the roof of the factory sheds and I pedaled on.
It is not easy to bicycle into Cleveland. Never was a city so chopped up by highways and tracks. I angled west then east then west again until eventually I got to Euclid, which I rode to Public Square, saw the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the lakefront, and the humorous rubber stamp sculpture next to City Hall. After lunch I headed into the neighborhoods to experience for myself the tragedy I had heard was Cleveland. Block after block of vacant lots, burned and boarded up buildings, rows of warehouses with broken windows open to the weather; wide avenues without a single car; side streets with one or two occupied houses; Hispanics and Blacks passing Sunday afternoon on their porches. Compared to its surroundings, shiny Euclid Avenue seemed a pointless sponge for public money with its fresh pavement and fancy bus stops and a smattering of new development near Cleveland Clinic. All the expense seemed a feint gesture against the overwhelming decrepitude.
But the longer I rode, the more attuned I got to the fabric of the devastation. I noticed unusual development on the side streets; first buds in the snow. Adjacent urban lots where three Victorians once stood were joined together to create one plot for a single family colonial, an urban garden here, a McMansion there, nestled among the burn outs. I came to the intersection of Hough and East 66 Street and stopped short at the odd collection of uses. One corner was a vacant lot, paved, with a Navy recruitment billboard. The opposite corner contained a single story red brick building, tight to the street, abandoned. The third corner was a vineyard. Yes, a vineyard with neat rows of grapevines and a small sign that announced, ‘Reimagining Cleveland.’ On the fourth corner stood a new house, 2,500 square feet or more, two stories with an oriel window over the front door and a two car garage. A house just like the ones I had seen twenty miles back in the suburb of Brecksville. The lawn so green and the bushes so trim the owners must have a professional landscaper. I stood at the corner dumbfounded by the contradictions. No urban planner would ever dream up such a mix of incompatible uses. I stood in what was once a dense, bustling city, but the city had failed and in its stead stood a remnant of the city’s predecessor, the farm, a reminder of its bleak present, the vacant lot and empty building, and a tribute to its successor, the suburb.
The highest and best use theory of development would argue that single family houses and agriculture are inappropriate in a setting so rich in infrastructure; this corner warrants more than a single family house and a vineyard. But realistically, without the house and the vineyard, the corner has nothing. Cleveland is oozing infrastructure, it has streets and power and buildings and sewers to spare. It’s hard to imagine when it might ever be used to capacity again. It’s hard to pretend that the same old public outlays, like the Euclid Street busway, will make much of a dent in a city so far lost from our urban conceptions. Why are we spending money to develop buses in neighborhoods where few people live anymore, in a country where, given the choice, people prefer to drive their own car? The corner of Hough and East 66th was repurposed with stuff that people actually want; a parcel of agrarian idealism and a suburban house. I can’t help but think it’s better than letting the corner lay fallow.
Cleveland is an extreme example of urban decay (along with its sister city in decline,Detroit). Since the river burned and the industry left and the affluent fled, there isn’t much left, so we might as well accept anyone’s conception of revitalization as valid. But what about cities at the next scale down? What about the Massillon’s and the Mount Vernon’s, cities that still have downtowns and some commercial activity, but are being drained every day by the cluster of Wendy’s and Walmart’s along the highway, offering low prices, endless parking and drive through windows that downtown cannot provide? How can we turn their core infrastructure into something vibrant and meaningful once more? Do we value Millersburg and tiny Fredericksburg enough to make sure they don’t evaporate in a global economy? Is economic viability the only reason for a town to exist? Are there other reasons why towns deserve to survive?
I visited three small towns, each very different yet all near each other. Xenia, Yellow Springs, and Cedarville have each created niches to help them not only survive, but thrive.
Xenia was a railroad town until the railroads went away. Now, it is the Mecca of bicycle trails. Four trails converge on Xenia, the former Depot is a cycling information station, cyclists eat at the cafes, sleep in the B&B’s and help bolster the local economy. People drive to Xenia for the day, rent bikes and cruise the trails. If a bike needs attention, there are cycle shops aplenty in Xenia. It may not be the golden goose that four railroads use to be, but it is a defining character for the small town and provides enough boost over its agricultural and county seat functions to make a difference.
Yellow Springs thrives because of its unique identity. It is a self-styled rural Berkeley, the counter culture center of Ohio and home to Antioch College. Interesting thing about Yellow Springs is that, despite the turmoil at Antioch in recent years, including going bankrupt, closing and reformulating itself, the town continues to thrive. The gestalt of Yellow Springs, which developed alongside the college, is no longer dependent on the college. People come to Yellow Springs to visit or to live because of its singular identity. I sat in a café on the main street, among many other cyclists, and enjoyed dinner chatting with an Air Force officer from Springfield who told me he comes to Yellow Springs on a regular basis to experience a different way of looking at the world. The town is not all that pretty, if there is a preservation standard for main street it is not well enforced, it has none of the preciousness of historically preserved places like New Harmony or Madison, IN. Yet tiny Yellow Springs had more street life on a summer afternoon than any other town I visited on my trip.
About ten miles away from Yellow Springs by geography yet polar opposite in mind set is Cedarville, a straight-laced agricultural town that has the additional stabilizing influence of being the home to Cedarville University, a conservative Christian liberal arts university of 2,800 students. The college provides the economic and cultural differentiation to turn an otherwise past tense agricultural town into a place with busy downtown stores, a lovely Inn, and lively energy.
Ohio is checkered with successes and failures of how our physical environment supports or detracts from our principle of establishing ‘a more perfect Union’. A summer afternoon in Yellow Springs is a bit of Nirvana, a Sunday afternoon in Cleveland is a pilgrimage through a wasteland. What are the parameters we can extract from the range of cities and small towns I witnessed throughout the state?
We have to acknowledge that we cannot sell people what they do not want to buy. We live in a car-centric country that wants a lot of private space, and though priorities may be shifting for affluent urbanites, they still hold sway for most Americans. As we consider how to use our excess infrastructure, highest and best use may not be the correct measure if it cannot produce what people want. Better to have some use than no use. Instead of turning a street of dilapidated row houses into apartments, are we better served turning them back into single family houses, and maybe removing a few from the center of the street to create parking or a garden?
Small and mid-size cities have to search for what differentiates them from their competition. This means not only ‘how am I different from the next town’, but ‘how am I different from the big box stores on the highway’? The salient feature of every chain store is precisely that it is like every other one. Predictability is what they sell. A town must sell the converse – what makes it unique. Every town has a character of its own from which to draw, or it can solicit resources to make it stand out. In the past, towns sought industry, but new industry is in short supply, so now towns must try to find other drivers, usually services or attractions, to help them stand out. It is the rare town that has enough history to make the past their differentiator. A college is always a good bet, but there are other opportunities, such as services aimed towards seniors or veterans, teens or other specialty groups. The government could support revitalization of downtowns large and small by putting a premium on adaptive reuse over new construction for a range of projects from specialty housing to offices to service centers. The most successful solutions will be those that grow out of the unique characteristics of each town.
In addition, we need to establish revenue sharing schemes across city boundaries so that entire metropolitan areas support the central city upon which they depend. When pockets of poverty congregate in cities they pull down property values and increase the need for services. This leads to a downward spiral of tax revenue in relation to basic services required, which leads to a widening income / service gap between the city and its suburbs. Everyone loses when a city falls into decline. We need to acknowledge that and find ways to share the burden across the entire spectrum of those who benefit from cities.
Ohio is very neat and well-tended; the Germanic tendency for order prevails. The people are warm and inquisitive, and if they realized the economic disconnect between how they live and the rest of the United States, they did not reveal it to me. Northeast Ohio is an odd mix of staunch blue collarism and teetering poverty. Pedaling along Lake Erie’s pristine vistas, one might expect to see mansions, or at least upper middle class houses, but in most areas the houses on the lake side were exactly like the ones across the street, as if it were luck of the draw whether your 1200 square foot starter ranch built in 1954 had a lake view or not. Perhaps a view is immaterial when weighed against the values of the forty hour work week and weekends free for fishing and beer. In many ways northeast Ohio is the urban equivalent of southernMissouri; with real estate signs that proclaim ‘$0 Down and $533 a month buys you this house’ instead of ones claiming salvation. Of course in Cleveland even those signs don’t exist; property values are too low for realtors to even bother. As an observer it appears that Ohio suffers from having too much of everything in terms of ‘stuff’ for any of it to hold its value. Yet, the people shoulder on, cheerful and pleasant as their solid Midwestern reputations.
Cycling through Ohio was different from any state further west. Over eight days, I never cycled through a native landscape. Every inch of Ohio appears to be tended or shaped, and signs of industry are ever present. There is beautiful farmland and acreages of trees, but there is also always a canal or a path or a vestige of man’s imprint, past or present. Even beautiful Headlands Beach State Park has a huge concrete aggregate facility right next door. You look to the left over unobstructed Lake Erie, or look right and see industry in action.
I spent my last night in Ohio in Conneaut, the very northeast corner of the state, in a sweet motel overlooking the harbor. The next morning I rode east on US 20 heading for Pennsylvania. Leaving town, only miles from the Pennsylvania border, there was a new road being built with dozers and dump trucks clearing and filling. A sign on the highway read ‘East Conneaut Industrial Park.’ I was hard pressed to see how Ohio needed any more industrial capacity given how much was abandoned. But our human inclination is to do what we know how to do, which is not always the same as what we should do. In Ohio, people are much better at creating things new than figuring out how to reuse the discarded stuff around them. In that respect, they are once again a true reflection of our country at large.