Cincinnati was one of numerous big American cities that once heavily relied on the streetcar:
They were everywhere. For nearly a century — from the 1850s through the 1940s — streetcars were the most common way for Cincinnatians to get where they were going.
According to a report to common council in 1887, Cincinnati City Clerk Edwin Henderson said council had filed more than 70 ordinances relating to “street railroads” to date, and Henderson’s report detailed 25 routes in service at the time.
At their peak, Cincinnati’s railway companies offered commuters dozens of streetcar routes with nearly 250 miles of track.
Compared to other transportation options of the time, streetcars had numerous advantages: more consistent and producing less visible waste than horses, they were less noisy and followed street patterns compared to trains, and were faster and offered a larger range than walking. Streetcars opened up all sorts of new areas to development as residents could travel further on their daily commutes or regular trips.
Outside of the occasional attempt to revive a streetcar line, often for tourism purposes, most cities today do not contain visible evidence of the popularity of streetcars. Cincinnati is a city that is trying: a plan is in the works for a 3.6 mile loop that connects employment and residential areas. Still, across the broader city and region, cars reign supreme with their ability to go anywhere and offer drivers individual choices.
Here is a look at an early black suburb outside of Cincinnati that has fallen on hard times in recent years:
Then, as Lincoln Heights residents waited to incorporate, the county allowed white landowners in nearby Woodlawn to incorporate, giving much of the western part of what would have been Lincoln Heights to the white town. Then the county gave much of the eastern part of what would have been Lincoln Heights to another new white town, Evendale, including the land where the Wright plant was located. The residents of Lincoln Heights challenged this move in court but lost…
When the county finally allowed the city to incorporate, in 1946, the boundaries were radically different than black residents had once hoped, encircling about 10 percent—one square mile—of the original proposal. The village now included no major factories or plants and no industrial tax base…
But over time, Lincoln Heights residents found it more difficult to maintain that sense of community. For one thing, the jobs in nearby towns in factories and chemical plants started to disappear as American manufacturing began to shrink in the 1970s and 1980s. As unemployment rose, Lincoln Heights lacked a tax base deep enough to underwrite community development and other social-welfare programs. Soon, it became obvious to anyone who grew up in Lincoln Heights that if you wanted to make something of yourself, you had to get out. People who grew up in Lincoln Heights and were lucky enough to go away to college didn’t come back. Those who stayed largely were the ones who couldn’t get out…
Last year, two nonprofit groups, the Cincinnatus Association and Citizens for Civic Renewal, put out a study that concluded that Cincinnati and its suburbs needed to cooperate—consolidate local governments and share services—to thrive. The idea was supported by an editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer, which argued that cooperation could reduce inequality.
This is a common story among American cities and suburbs: when annexation boxes in communities, they lose the possibility of enlarging their tax base through acquiring more land and development opportunities. See David Rusk’s work in Cities Without Suburbs for more about how elastic cities – those that could annex because of different state laws (primarily in the South and West as compared to the Rust Belt) – have more positive social and economic outcomes. Any suburb would have a hard time recovering from the loss of major job centers and that it was a black community only made it worse.
This case also contradicts the argument that minorities moving to the suburbs is necessarily a positive thing. There are many poor non-white suburban communities and it may be even more difficult to provide social services and pursue economic development there.
For a look at some of the early black suburbs in the United States, see Andrew Wiese’s Places of Their Own.