Young City Dwellers and Political Agency

I don’t know how many of you have been following the Cincinnati streetcar debacle, but I have been glued to it. Long story short, the city just elected a new mayor — not too humble or consensus-building of a guy — and he is threatening to rip out their under-construction streetcar project, even though doing so may cost more than completing it.

It is absolutely nuts. I feel so terrible for the young people living in Cincinnati — I consider some of them my friends — who worked so hard on that project and had so much hope for their city. Even from my far-away perch in Cleveland, it makes me angry.

Chris Ostoich, founder of the Cincinnati company BlackbookHR, writes in the Enquirer that he’s considering leaving the city. I think he touched on something really important about any of us, just starting our adult lives in cities like this, when he said:

What you are in fact trying to kill is not just a project. You’re telling us that we are not important. That our voice does not matter. That our vision, our investments, our businesses, hell, our willingness to pick up trash off of the sidewalk –is for naught. That’s a tough pill to swallow, folks.

Sometimes it seems like, in these heated political times, we are so focused on fighting those people that are different than us, that we don’t recognize that they are fellow Cincinnatians, fellow members of the state of Ohio. And that, in hurting them, we hurt ourselves. The worst kind of political leaders are those that hate their imagined “enemies” more than they love the places they’re elected to help.

Image via Travis Estell

This problem is so much bigger than Cincinnati. Our policy decisions, when they are based on attacking an ideological enemy within us, weaken our society. Ohio’s gay marriage ban sends a message of thousands of Ohioans that they are not wanted and welcome, and many of them leave. Attacks on reproductive freedom is no different for independent women, yet those are the types of battles that our elected leaders in Columbus seem to be most focused on.

Tom Bier, a Cleveland academic, recently wrote an excellent editorial about how Cleveland needs help from the state of Ohio to recover. He wrote that it can’t recover on its own, which is something I agree with. This prompted some debate among my Facebook friends. And I had to say I am not the least bit optimistic the state of Ohio will help Cleveland, even though the state’s fate may rest with the health of Cleveland and the region it anchors.

Here’s why: too many Republicans at the state level see cities like Cleveland as their ideological enemy. This is a sad consequence of party politics and gerrymandering. But as a result, we have almost nothing substantial from the state level that helps Cleveland rebuild. We have no statewide housing policy. We have no farmland preservation plans.

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We have no statewide commitment to public transit. Our intense focus on our differences clouds the fact that Cleveland isn’t the enemy, it’s just a suffering city that, in its floundering, hurts all of us in Ohio.

So young people, urban residents can’t be the enemy, business people and students, or even hipster baristas, whatever they are. Ohio needs them badly. But it goes beyond that. Young people that are excited about living in cities like Cincinnati and Cleveland, they need a seat at the table. They need to know that their existences in these cities count for something. And not just on a token level.

I have been extremely disappointed with Cleveland (you could probably tell) observing the politics here in last few years. It has seemed to be like all the important decisions were made behind closed doors, and there was no opportunity for people like me to even see what was happening back there.

Even though in most of the political battles I’ve observed lately, my side lost, — Browns Stadium giveaway, publicly financed Hilton Hotel — I have felt a little more encouraged lately. A group of citizens in Ohio City recently won a battle against a new McDonald’s restaurant in their neighborhood. They actually defeated a big corporation. And even though the Browns Stadium deal went through, five council members voted against it.

Even if Cleveland is suffering, and even if I think it’s headed in the wrong direction — which I do — it’s much more acceptable to me if I feel like I’m able to influence the situation. And I don’t mean call all the shots personally. I just want to be given the sort of individual agency we’re all supposed to be promised in a democracy. I’m feeling a little more optimistic lately, because there seems to be some movement, and dammit, it’s only a little progress, but it gives me peace.

Still, nothing upsets me more than feeling like I’m being targeted, and hated, by the people who represent me politically. And I feel that too much in Ohio, as an unmarried, financially independent woman, as an urban dweller, etc.

One of the political leaders I admire the most, Abraham Lincoln, was such an inspiration to all of us, I think, for his ability to rise above the fore, his sort of moral clarity to put aside petty, ideological differences for the sake of the greater good. Here’s a slightly modified version of one of the most beautiful things he ever wrote, an awesome testament to his leadership and humility:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

What a stark contrast with the kind of leadership we’re seeing in Ohio from folks like John Cranley.

–A.S.

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