In the few months since I started this blog I have profiled brave business leaders and what it looks like to overcome fear in a corporate context but I want to talk today about being a brave city.
A city is different than a corporation because it is the people that makes a city and democracy is the ultimate form of accountability. Business leaders and eras of leadership can define a corporation and while political leaders can leave a mark it is the people of the city that create the culture and define who a city is.
An interesting case in fear and bravery is Cincinnati. It happens to be my adopted hometown (I live in a suburb and own property in the city) and I have learned a few things about the culture of the community in the decade and a half since I moved there.
As background, Cincinnati was settled largely by Irish, Italian, and German immigrants - emphasis on the German. And each people group influenced the city in various ways. All three contributed to the heavy Catholicism, the Italians contributed to the architecture and the Germans contributed the staunch conservatism. Not political conservatism - although that is a hallmark of today's political influences, but rather a penny pinching, survive a famine or the Great Depression kind of conservatism.
This DNA manifests as a change aversion deeper than anything seen in other parts of the United States. At its core this change aversion is rooted in fear. Fear of trying new things, of stepping out boldly, of trying new modes of transportation, of embracing new industries. One of the best historical examples is when the 'Queen City' (that is the name we were given by Longfellow when we were the largest city in the West) placed a bet on barges as the nation's transportation future instead of the railroads and subsequently watched Chicago flourish and surpass Cincinnati as an inter-modal and commodities hub.
Or what about the half-finished subway? That's right, what began as a vision for 7+ miles of subways connecting previously disconnected neighborhoods in 1910 for a sum of $6 million ended in decades of squabbling over escalating costs and questions about the viability of rapid transit in a period of the automobile. What is left is hollow tunnels that exist to this day with no tracks and no riders.
If you live in Cincinnati, you are sick of hearing the famous Mark Twain quote, "When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it's always twenty years behind the times."
In its current incarnation the plan has weathered multiple elections, changes in mayoral and city council support to the point where $35 million has been spent to relocate utilities, build 10 blocks of track, buy the actual streetcars, among other investments only to see the new mayor halt all construction at the risk of losing $45 million in federal transportation spending.
(overview of current status, cost to complete & abandon - h/t Cincy Streetcar Blog)
For a city that has seen a massive renassiance over the past 10 years it is a line in the sand. After turning the tide with an emerging start-up scene, the re-birth of a great neighborhood in OTR (Over-the-Rhine), an improving reputation through movies and the media, the city had finally started to shake off the rust belt malaise that had beset it for the past few decades. Being at the precipice of a new story for the city - one that embraces change, is adventurous, and willing to make bold gambles only makes the current struggles that much more difficult to swallow for emerging Millenials and Gen X'ers who have fallen in love with the city only to watch fear creep back into the city's psyche.
The question for the city now is do we continue to live with the embarrassments of the past century or do we shake off the labels and condescension for a new future. The rest of the story will be written over the coming weeks and months but what is clear is that there is a growing group of people in the city interested in writing a new story for Cincinnati. One that isn't rooted in fear and failure but rather on hope, optimism, and bravery.