OWENSBORO, KY. — Randy Simes, an urban planner in Cincinnati with a keen sense of observation, founded UrbanCincy.com in 2007 to report on the transitional neighborhoods, evolving culture, and reviving post-industrial economy of his native Queen City of nearly 300,000 residents.
But it wasn’t until he posted before-and-after-pictures from Google Street View last May, comparing changes in well-known Cincinnati street corners from 2007 to 2013, that Simes’ neighbors and colleagues embraced his boosterish view that the third largest city on the Ohio River really was on an economic roll.
The comparative photographs illustrated how diminished, deteriorated, troubled, and low-functioning sections of the city had, over six years, sprouted new offices, new housing, new parks, and fresh opportunity.
“It’s the most popular page on the site by far,” Simes said in an interview. “In some places the difference was really jaw-dropping. These kind of changes have been going on here for awhile now. It’s really interesting because a lot of locals didn’t realize it was happening.”
By no means is Cincinnati’s slow awakening to economic promise and cultural transition unusual in the recovering cities in the six-state Ohio River Valley. It’s a story residents see unfold daily and ought to know. But to really accept its authenticity will take somebody else to tell them.
And for good reason. For 40 years the narrative in the cities and shoreline counties served by the river was such a terrible tale of job losses, urban decay, and population decline that almost all of the 981-mile river corridor served essentially as a national economic sacrifice zone. Real work, the day-to-day toil and time that people invested in making things, and that defined for decades how communities viewed their relevance, disappeared seemingly overnight in the 1980s.
A region that in the middle years of the 20th century set world-class standards of income growth, manufacturing technology, working conditions, and middle class prosperity had by the end of century been driven by globalization, obsolescence, deindustrialization, and wage decline to the bottom of the national heap. In the 1990s just about the only new industrial installation constructed on the Ohio River was a hazardous waste incinerator built next door to an elementary school in East Liverpool, Ohio.
With the free fall in the Ohio River Valley states came a general weakness in America’s overall economy and disillusion in the national spirit.
A new century, and a lot of courageous collaborations by municipal leaders, business executives, and university administrators, has turned the page on the region’s prospects.