Urban Cincinnati [Part Three]

So the 1948 Master Plan, predicting that public transportation was the past and automobile traffic was the future, called for a superhighway that would connect the region. And the result is, in my opinion, what has affected the development of the city more than any other cause: Interstate 275. By the late 1930s, the government had proposed a system of superhighways. It wasn't until President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act in 1956 that the plan truly gained steam. In Cincinnati, construction on I-75 started in 1941 along the route of the old Miami-Erie Canal [another sign of changing modes of transportation]. Although planned in the 1940's construction of 1-71 didn't take off until two decades later.

Construction on I-275, a beltloop around the city, began in 1958 and wasn't completed until 1979 [I actually remember when I was a child, on trips out to Coney Island, seeing construction finished on the final piece: the bridge spanning the Ohio River at Kellogg Avenue]. The loop is between 84 and 86 miles long [depends on whose numbers you use], and is truly unique as it's the only business loop in the US to pass through three states.

Here are a few things to know when measuring the project's impact: I-275 is the longest continuous-looped expressway in the United States; no American city has a longer beltway. Not only that, it's the second longest in the world after a section of the Autobahn that encircles the city of Berlin. I guess we could brag that when our city planners wanted a loop they weren't going to wuss out and cut it short; they wanted the biggest they could buy.

What's truly fascinating is that no section of I-275 travels through an old neighborhood or town that predated the expressway; that means that all the areas that surround the expressway today was built after it's construction. There were some people who recognized the potential for profit the loop could bring. In the 1956, two years before construction on 1-275 began, Jeffrey Lazarus, owner of the Shillitos' department store chain, purchased 75 acres in Springfield Township in order to build a retail center there. Tri-County Mall continues to be one of the most profitable malls in the area.

What city planners failed to realize was that this beltloop was an invitation for sprawl; in fact, it actually encouraged it. People now had the option of taking advantage of the amnenities of a large metropolitan city without necessarily having to contribute to its tax base. 1-275 is the reason that the Greater Cincinnati Metropolitan area counts almost three-million inhabitants but the city proper only has about 300,000 people. To be fair, this kind of sprawl was taking place around the country. Magazines like Better Homes and Gardens began to present suburban living as the ideal.

When residents of the city flocked to the 'burbs, and their businesses went with them, the infrastructure of the city began to slowly deteriorate. And, on a personal note, the other thing that left with the businesses and people were churches. Traditionally, the city's largest churches were in the urban areas. But as middle/upper class parishioners left town, the congregations left with them. This ecclesiological sprawl could have been the nail in the coffin of the city's success.

Areas that were once affluent, areas that boasted large homes, were abandoned and soon became slums [the poor couldn't afford automobiles and, thus, couldn't leave the city center and public transportation]. Social-economic segregation became the norm and certain areas became the "bad part" of town. The public school system, already struggling, continued to decline rapidly. And while politicians and public officials offered various solutions to the problem, none of them worked.

And some who left the city would begin to spread a doctrine of fear about it. Wheras the phrase "suburban" was derived from "less than urban," the tables were now turned. So how did we get from this point to a renewed interest in urbanism? More on that in part four.

Information about the local interstate found at Cincinnati-Transit.