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Social Justice & the Streetcar

The streetcar in Cincinnati (New York Times)

We should be thinking about the social footprint of our projects as well as the environmental one. Consider the following, and discuss:

The New York Times wrote a great overview article about the Cincinnati streetcar, and in it the NAACP of Cincinnati is quoted as saying:

“The frustration is that the other 51 neighborhoods in the city are suffering,” said Christopher Smitherman, a City Council member and former local president of the N.A.A.C.P. “And these guys are talking about how they want a choo-choo train running through downtown.” (my emphasis)
The article goes on to talk about "fiscal restraint" as the opposition's position in the midst of a struggling city. I think anyone who studies this knows that market forces would not build a highway (say, like Cleveland's proposed "Opportunity Corridor"). The fact that private donors have had to pony up money for the streetcar is a major double standard. And there's real objective need to focus a project in order to bring success. I've even written about the need to consolidate bus routes in the West Side (effectively cutting some) in order to combine the labor outlay of those various routes into one, effective, frequent, predictable service. But even with this need to focus, what does it mean to leave out some of the poorest neighborhoods in a city? Coming from a suburb that had a significant black population, and having lived in the core city  that was majority black, and knowing the huge position of transit (note, Providence makes it to the list too, but not as high) in the lives of everyone in that region--but most especially poor and disproportionately non-white people--it's beyond shocking for me to wrap my head around an NAACP opposing a transit project. Maybe I just don't know the culture of Cincinnati, but to me, that would have been a wake up call that something must have gone wrong.

One of the most interesting posts I've seen about this question has been from former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa Londoño, who tweeted:

He also had this to say:

I know that Providence has proposed a kind of BRT, but as far as I know it has none of the positive attributes that would make BRT what it could be. There are no beautified medians, no physically separated, exclusive lanes, and no indoor stations to add to the comfort of passengers and speed of boarding. Could it be that if we tried a BRT system that had these features, it might also have a positive development effect for building density? And if the price is right, can we expand the pilot to include a larger swath of the city, perhaps going deeper into the South Side beyond the hospitals?

And lastly, unedited, I submit something my friend Kate Zaidan wrote on the tensions she feels about the streetcar. Kate is a Cincinnati native who moved back to her home neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine to help her ailing father with his store, Dean's Middle Eastern Food. The piece first appeared in Streetvibes, Cincinnati's alternative paper.

The interminable debate over the Cincinnati Streetcar has perhaps reached its pinnacle, even as the pavement on Elm Street has been sliced and shredded, with the rails literally in the ground. The five year debate has been given new energy thanks to the election of Mayor John Cranley and a cohort of city council members ambivalent (at best) about the project.  
The fact that the project remains controversial lends some insight into just how divided Cincinnati is, especially along of race, class and ideology. And no doubt, the streetcar is a complicated political project, pitting the young “creative class” against the (somewhat) unlikely bedfellows of the Tea Party and the NAACP . The streetcar’s base of support is largely middle to upper class white folks, while many poor folks and people of color, in addition to allies and activists on the left, see the streetcar as a project for moneyed urbanites, cementing Downtown and Over-the-Rhine as a playground for the rich.  
Is it possible to be anti-gentrification and pro-streetcar?  Right now, not really. One of the speakers at the Streetcar Town Hall two weeks ago referred to Buddy Gray’s poor people’s movement as a “separatist group”. The key players in the fight are mostly wealthy property owners and businesses, and the success of the project is consistently touted as economic development figures, not ridership projections or community benefits. As the pro-street car movement stands now, it is certainly of a particular race and class makeup, and as a result, the concerns of the poor are swept under the rug.  
But opposing the streetcar on the grounds of gentrification doesn’t actually do much to stem the tide of displacement, and more importantly, forgoes an opportunity to make real improvements in people’s lives. In this era of budget cuts, austerity, and policies that strip public services away in favor of private gain, opposing a massive investment in public infrastructure because of “gentrification”, a worldwide phenomenon rooted in the fundamental structure of our economy, amounts to little more than political posturing.  The real work begins when we fight to unpin community livability and public services to economic buying power. 
It is ultimately the logic of free-market capitalism that causes gentrification, not sensible planning and urban amenities. Improved city services, innovative transportation systems, better sidewalks and streetlights are all part of what makes a community livable, strong and thriving. When a community becomes livable, strong, and thriving, it also becomes a valuable commodity to be bought and sold. The bidding wars start, and eventually, poor people are priced out of their homes. Streetcars  (and bike lines and tree planting and litter clean ups) accelerate gentrification, a process that displaces poor people into neighborhoods without those amenities, until, of course, some developer sees the potential of an Avondale or a Bond Hill and starts the process over again. Mixed income housing is held up as the solution to it all, but the reality is that market rate development  can never be truly mixed, precisely because the market sets the rates. It’s such a pickle.  
As such, the question is not how to slow or stop gentrification, but how to chip away at the system that causes it in the first place. We don’t want to end gentrification, we want to end poverty. The process of creating a more just, more equitable society begins with an intentional leveling of the playing field, and part of that is building the necessary infrastructure to give poor people access to the same jobs, the same schools, the same safe neighborhoods as everyone else.  Affordable, accessible public transit is something we need to fight for, and the streetcar is a good as place as any to start.  
Furthermore, there are significant differences between the streetcar and other developments in Over the Rhine. The streetcar, while certainly benefiting from private funds, is a public project. The budget and all aspects are transparent and subject to democratic decision-making (hence the TWO referenda), and the project must conform to laws around minority and women contractors. But most importantly, it is for the public. It’s not an expensive condo or a fancy restaurant…anyone and everyone has access. Transit is actually one of the few places where the economic mixing so coveted by neighborhoods actually takes place, where rich and poor rub elbows and maybe has an opportunity understand each other a little bit more.  
Cincinnati is lucky to have a thriving and successful people’s movement in Over the Rhine, started by the visionary Buddy Grey. Part of what made the OTR’s people movement so successful is that it built something. People hunkered down, bought property and left a legacy. You can see it today as you walk down Vine Street, with boutique shops and restaurants sitting next to the Contact Center, Venice on Vine and Buddy’s Place. The purchase of those properties was future-oriented, and a savvy political step at creating the facts on the ground for the public to contend with. While those properties have most certainly taken a beating in the ongoing effort to gentrify Over the Rhine, that spirit could be easily transferred to the streetcar fight. Instead of opposing the streetcar, we should be demanding free fares, prioritizing routes that puts workers in front of their jobs, and connecting neighborhoods with neighborhoods regardless of their class status.   
We can have a vision for a just, equitable society, but that vision has to start somewhere. The streetcaris a fight that is happening now, and we need to decide where we fit in. We can either work against it, which is a great way for high-powered people to win political campaigns. Or, we can decide that we want to reduce our dependency on the private automobile (and mitigate climate change, oil wars, and poor air quality), and improve transportation access to jobs, shopping and entertainment.  There most certainly is a battle with the streetcar, and the battle should not be should it stay or should it go, but who it should serve and how.
I'd be the first to admit that even as city neighborhoods improve and rents go up, that the balance of not having to own a car can often mean that living is cheaper than it would have been with cheap rent and needing to own a car. And also, much of the "cheapness" we find so apparent about the suburbs is due to hidden subsidies, and what Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns Blog calls the "ponzi scheme" of suburban growth.

But with that said, and especially with the valid points brought to the table by Peñalosa, shouldn't we heed the call to take working people seriously when we think about transit expansion?


Please discuss. You've got better things to say than I do.



  1. There are some unique aspects of the NAACP-anti street car forces in Cincy. But, it's easy to see why black people wouldn't like it. The streetcar grows through what is still (I think) majority black Over the Rhine, and it's no secret the plan is to run most of them out and replace with upscale whites. The streetcar is an instrument of this.

    As far back as at least the Bus Riders Union fights against the LA rail plans, black people have clearly seen that many of these projects are not designed to serve their interests but are rather gentrification tools. You hear the same complaints in Portland re:bicycle infrastructure.

  2. Thanks for starting off the comments, Aaron!

    I'm not sure if I personally think the problem is with where the streetcar is so much as where it *isn't*. As I said, I think there are objective reasons sometimes that a streetcar project can't take over a whole city all at once, but I think we should strive to make transit projects meet the needs of as many people as possible, and I see why the NAACP might get the idea that this one doesn't do that.

    I'm not 100% against everything that is "gentrification". Like, I tend to be against the idea that we should keep crappy places crappy (and I'd like to clarify that I'm not calling people in a neighborhood crappy, but the lack of services, the blight, crime, etc., that goes along with living in a red-lined neighborhood) in order to keep them cheap. I think cleaning up a park or adding transit is just an objectively good thing. But I also think we have to look out for stuff like Rhode Island's tax loophole for art shops and wine stores. I like both of those things well enough, and they may be "small" "local" business, but it's a weird loophole that's meant to bring about "the right kind" of people and produce "the right kind" of neighborhood, and has nothing to do with just making the neighborhood nicer in an overall sense.

    I can't say that I've spoken enough with South Side residents in Providence to be sure of what people think (and I'm sure there are a lot of opinions) but I would personally like the see Providence's streetcar stretched more in that direction, because not having access to it in those neighborhoods seems borderline segregationist to me (not in the active, intentional sense, but in the de facto sense).

    I'd love to hear what others think.

  3. (I don't know why Google doesn't recognize me sometimes. That was James on the transportprovidence email).

    Aaron, I also noticed your post on the Siracha mess (http://www.urbanophile.com/2013/12/19/srirachagate-gives-a-window-into-californias-business-climate-problem/). I really liked this quote:

    "Urbanists put way too little thought into business climate, which can sound like such a shady way of saying cut services and taxes. But taxes are often the least part of it. It’s the regulatory apparatus that makes doing business in many places too painful to contemplate. This even affects city-suburb investment patterns. I’ve observed that in many places, the urban core is a flat out terrible place to do business, unless you’re very politically wired up.

    This doesn’t usually bother urbanists all that much until a trendy business they like gets affected. For example, an urban farming supply shop in Providence called Cluck got sued when they tried to open. *****The beautiful and the bearded were outraged and the shop was ultimately approved. But there’s no similar visibility or outrage when a Latino immigrant runs into the red-tape buzzsaw when he tries to open a muffler shop.*****" (my emphasis)

    I asked the city at one of the zoning meetings if they would consider having Spanish language copies of the zoning rules (it was actually someone else who brought this up, but then I seconded it). The city said they can't do this because the zoning code is a legal document, and having multiple versions of it could be legally complicated. I don't understand why that would be. After all, food stamps applications are a legal document, but they have those not only in Spanish but a range of other languages. Governments like Canada's manage to have English and French versions of things, as well as some of the common indigenous languages. I think for a city that has as many Spanish speakers as Providence, one of the ways of assuring that a Cluck!-like mess doesn't get ignored by the bearded/beautiful set is to make sure it just doesn't happen in the first place.

  4. The zoning rules are a legal ordinance, so probably need to be in English. The only laws I know of that exist in multiple languages in which all are considered official are treaties. (I'm pretty sure the food stamp laws are in English).

    However, just because the law would be written in English doesn't necessarily mean you can't have Spanish language materials that support them such as guides to the process, etc. This might actually be worth it. I took at quick look and half the population whose language spoken at home is Spanish only speaks English "less than very well." That's 30,000 people, or 18% of the population. Another 7,700 speak a language other than Spanish but don't speak English well.

  5. That seems like a really reasonable compromise. I know from having been through the process of getting food stamps that they not only have translations of things in Spanish, but virtually every possible language you could imagine that's reasonably likely to be spoken in the area. It may be that the things I'm seeing are just guides, rather than laws per se though.

    I don't know if this is in any way the goal of the Spanish-speaking population (in fact, I'd venture mostly that it's probably not) but personally I've always felt like sustaining diverse language communities is a good thing, in and of itself. A lot of people don't realize that the majority of the Irish immigrants spoke Gaelic when they first arrived to the U.S. It always seemed sad to me that this wasn't kept, especially in light of the language's overall fate (I guess it's coming back now a bit). Spanish isn't exactly going anywhere. But it still seems like it would be nice to have more stable multilingualism in the U.S., instead of just the kind where we're transitioning towards inevitable English.

  6. (I know that Rachel feels the same way about Yiddish.) It's never been a bad idea to get immigrants to learn English, but we should be learning more languages ourselves, and the overall pressure shouldn't be towards homogeneity. It's fun to have other sustained cultures in the area.