Low Hanging Fruit


As a San Franciscan I get a lot of raised eyebrows when I mention that I recently bought property in Cincinnati. “Huh?” Then I walk them through it. Here’s the mom and pop business district along Hamilton Avenue in the Northside neighborhood during a recent Summer Streets event. This is a classic 1890’s Norman Rockwell Main Street with a hardware store, a Carnegie library, barbers, cafes, bars, funky little shops, and seriously good architectural bones.

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It’s the perfect human scaled neighborhood. Kids walk to school. Older people make their way to shops and the farmers market on foot. Riding a bicycle to work is a normal natural activity that doesn’t involve spandex and Tour de France levels of endurance. Bus service to the university and downtown is frequent and convenient. And you can hop on the highway and be anywhere in Cincinnati in minutes.

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I tell folks around here that Northside is the kind of neighborhood where you can buy a quality home next door to great neighbors like these and thisand enjoy public events like this for less than the cost of a really good parking space in California. No one builds homes or neighborhoods like these anymore. We no longer have the culture that created these places.

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On the one hand Northside is a compact walkable neighborhood with a distinctive urban feeling at its center. But on the other it’s surrounded by forested hills, a vast historic cemetery, and productive small scale agriculture with farm houses that date back to the 1840’s. It’s a true suburb in the best sense of the word. It offers a good balance of urban convenience and vitality at your front door with the countryside at your back.

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I spend a lot of time talking to people who long for a particular kind of urban living environment. It’s not Manhattan or Hong Kong exactly. It’s smaller and more intimate. It’s more like a friendly small town with ready access to big city opportunity and culture. The old street car suburbs of the 1880’s to 1940’s like Northside are pretty much spot on. But we just haven’t built great urban places like these for three or four generations. As a society we don’t seem able to do it any more.

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In most places built after about 1950 you can live in a French Provincial tract house on a cul-de-sac near the strip malls and office parks, or… you can live in a Spanish colonial tract house on a cul-de-sac near the strip malls and the office parks. Those are your modern choices. The best you can hope for is an enlightened city planner or civil engineer who stripes a few bike lanes on the sides of the high speed eight lane arterials. Big whoopee.

New Urbanists and the Smart Growth crowd are up against a massive wall of cultural resistance and institutional barriers. Trying to build new towns in the historical pattern or retrofit post war suburbs is not for the faint of heart. Personally I don’t have the desire to chip away at that mountain. Life’s too short. But there’s so much low hanging fruit out there. Neighborhoods like Northside exist all over the country. They’re already fabulous. They’re already filled with great people. They’re often very reasonably priced. And the best part is that all the obstructionist people who hate walkable urban places and obsess about how to accommodate all the cars have self-selected out. They live an hour away in the distant suburbs and want nothing to do with the city.

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at granolashotgun.com. He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for faircompanies.com, and is a regular contributor to Strongtowns.org. He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.

Lead photo by Travis Estell UrbanCincy

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Cincinnati is one of the

Cincinnati is one of the most beautiful inland cities in America (after Chattanooga) with a downtown that feels like a little piece of Manhattan.