Panning the Sands

On a dark interstate highway in western Nebraska, I was driving a ten-year-old Jeep Cherokee through a downpour, with the windshield wipers providing a steady tempo, and the headlights of semi tractor-trailer trucks shining in my mirrors. The Jeep’s cruise control had stopped working somewhere around Des Moines earlier that day. My cat, Spong, sat quietly in a carrier on the passenger seat, and all my remaining material possessions filled the back of the vehicle up to the ceiling. Everything else I owned had been left behind in a rundown apartment building in New York City. On the car stereo was some lonesome ambient music. I specifically remember Patrick O’Hearn’s Panning the Sands coming up on the playlist during this stretch of highway, and nothing else could have made for a more appropriate soundtrack. The only other sounds besides the road noise and wipers were the squeaks and rattles that Jeeps are infamous for. Spong and I had been on the road for three days already, and it would be another two days before arriving in Eugene, Oregon to an uncertain future. We had spent the previous night at a friend’s condo in Chicago, and before much longer that evening I’d be pulling into the parking lot of a motel in North Platte.

It was mid-November, 2004. A week ago I had been working for an architecture firm in midtown Manhattan, but I lost my job the day after I told my boss I’d need to take some time off to have surgery on my shoulder, which I had injured during a kayaking lesson a few weekends earlier.

In all honesty, I had never been more relieved to be let go from a job. My shoulder had been badly dislocated and was still unstable and throbbing with pain two months after the injury, but right now, I was just happy to have the East Coast chapter of my life behind me. I had been feeling increasingly burned-out with life in New York City since moving there from Philadelphia earlier in the year, my career was at a dead-end, and this was the excuse I needed to leave it all behind and start a new life for myself out west. (Now that my shoulder injury was a pre-existing condition and I had no insurance, it would be another three years before I was able to have the surgery I needed. That’s a story for another time.)

Sahalie FallsThe Pacific Northwest had been on my mind a lot over the past few months. I had been spending almost every spare minute poring over the trip reports on NWHikers.net and Oregon Kayaking, and virtually exploring the region’s waterfalls via Bryan Swan’s Waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest. The lush, moss-covered forests and canyons of western Oregon seemed like the sabbatical I needed after some of the most difficult years of my adult life.

I had taken a long weekend trip out to Eugene in October, and did some exploring around the area while checking out local rental listings and the possibility of transferring to the University of Oregon to finish my undergraduate degree. One evening during that trip I was driving my rental car back to the hotel in Eugene from the coast, and I remember thinking: Here I am less than an hour from the ocean in one direction and less than an hour to the Cascades in the other direction, and I can get a two-bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood here for $650 a month. What the fuck am I doing in New York City? At that time in New York, I was paying over a thousand dollars a month for a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a gang-infested building, where the neighbor’s loud stereo literally shook my walls until 3 AM every night. What really got me was that my friends and co-workers didn’t seem to think there was anything particularly unusual about my living situation. “Yeah, welcome to New York,” was the typical jaded response. If this is normal for New York, I thought, then fuck it.

I had gotten in touch with somebody in Eugene via a whitewater kayaking message board, and he had a spare bedroom for rent. The minute my severance check posted to my bank account, I took the train over to a used car lot in New Jersey and purchased a 1995 Jeep Cherokee I had seen advertised online. The next few days involved a household triage operation in which I sorted those things I intended to keep from those that were expendable. My furniture at this point consisted of stuff that might have been appropriate for a college dorm room, so there was no great loss there. I concentrated on my books, clothing, computer, some essential kitchen elements, and a few things that held sentimental value to me. Most everything else was placed in the apartment building’s lobby under a hand-written sign that said “COSAS LIBRES”, which Google had told me was Spanish for “free stuff”. (The literal translation, I would find out later: liberated things.) The pile had been pretty well picked over by the time I loaded up the Jeep with my essentials and hit the road.

(photo: Brewdog / wikipedia.org)
(photo: Brewdog / wikipedia.org)

The trip from New York to Eugene was mostly uneventful, but some memories still stand out. The motel room near Youngstown, Ohio reeked of cigarette smoke. In Chicago it was nice to see some old friends again, however briefly. There was that late-night rainstorm in Nebraska. Later the next day, I drove through the town of Green River, Wyoming, which stands out in my mind as one of the most depressing places I’ve ever seen in my life. The rocky hillsides were almost completely devoid of vegetation, and almost every structure and vehicle seemed to be caked in a layer of dirt. I had been looking forward to seeing the Rocky Mountains, but was disappointed to discover that I-80 mostly bypasses the mountains via a series of high desert plateaus.

The night after I drove through Green River, I found myself driving through the densest fog I had ever seen, where I-84 passes through a valley in northern Utah and southern Idaho. I could barely even see past the hood of my car, so I slowed down to about 30 MPH and turned on my hazard flashers, while nervously looking in the rear-view mirror every few seconds to make sure some 18-wheeler wasn’t about to plow into me at 80 MPH. I thought about pulling over and stopping for a while, but I figured I’d be creating an even bigger traffic hazard on the side of the road, and for all I knew the fog could last for hours.  I eventually found myself tailgating the vehicle in front of me just so I could follow their red tail lights. If they had gotten off the highway onto some desolate ranch exit in the middle of nowhere, or missed a curve and plunged off a thousand-foot cliff, I would’ve been following a short distance right behind them. Eventually the fog bank lifted, and I found a motel somewhere in southern Idaho to spend the night.

The following day’s journey would take me up alongside the Snake River, over Oregon’s Blue Mountains, and along the mighty Columbia River into Portland. Mount Hood looming above the highway was a welcome sight, because I knew it meant I was getting close. From Portland, it was a relatively short hundred miles down I-5 to Eugene.

Looking back at that road trip, I still shudder at all the things that could have possibly gone wrong. I could’ve gotten into a wreck, or somebody could have stolen the Jeep from the motel parking lot late one night, or the Jeep could’ve developed mechanical problems somewhere out in the middle of nowhere. I had no insurance and just enough money to pay for the trip to Oregon and my first month’s rent, so there was no margin for error. Any number of unfortunate circumstances could have left me stranded in some God-forsaken town with no money and no remaining material possessions except the clothes on my back. Thankfully, none of that happened, and I found myself pulling into my new roommate’s driveway in Eugene five days after leaving New York. I had taken a 3000-mile leap of faith and landed safely on the other side of the continent.

Opal CreekThe next four months in Eugene were spent seeking employment, hanging out at the Starbucks near the University of Oregon campus, and whenever finances permitted, driving and/or hiking throughout the surrounding mountains.

One of my favorite hiking destinations was the Opal Creek Wilderness in Marion County, about an hour or so from Eugene. Opal Creek came within a hair’s breadth of being clear-cut back in the 90’s, but a determined effort by conservationists led to the area being designated a wilderness area by Congress. Today, it stands as the largest intact old-growth forest in Oregon. Mining claims in the Opal Creek watershed date back to the 19th Century, and there are a number of old abandoned mine shafts in the area. Even today, it’s not uncommon to find some people panning for gold and silver in the crystal-clear waters of the Little North Santiam River and its tributaries. The Opal Creek Wilderness is one of those magical places that, once you’ve been there, gets under your skin and never really lets go.

My residency in Oregon ended almost as abruptly as it began. I wasn’t having much success finding employment in Eugene, and with my unemployment benefits slated to expire in a couple months, the clock was ticking. One day I got a call from an old friend in Chicago with an offer of some long-term freelance work in exchange for free housing and a modest stipend, and while I was content with my new life in Oregon so far, it was impossible to turn down his offer. Within a few days I had said goodbye to the friends I had made in Eugene, loaded up the Jeep Cherokee once again, and headed back east. I spent the next couple years back in Chicago before deciding to give New York City a second chance in 2007, and then moved back to my hometown of Cincinnati in 2010. I began grad school at the University of Cincinnati later that year, and I’m now roughly halfway through my Masters of Architecture degree.

Looking back, the decision to leave Oregon was one of those life moments where I found myself facing a fork in the road, and while I have no regrets about the choice I made then or the choices I’ve made since then, part of me will always wonder how things would have turned out if I had chosen the other path. I return to Oregon often in my mind, and at various times since leaving, I’ve left the door open for a possible move back there. I applied to the University of Oregon for grad school and was accepted there, but I ultimately decided the University of Cincinnati made more sense for me.

I’ve always enjoyed being out on the open road, and one of my favorite stress-relief activities is to take a long Sunday drive on the back roads of Northern Kentucky. By the time I made my cross-country road trip to Oregon in 2004 I had already logged quite a few miles on the nation’s interstate highways, and I’ve logged a few more since then. The late newspaper columnist Lewis Grizzard, in one of his best pieces, nicely sums up the allure of the highway:

What I am thinking is maybe everybody ought to do this occasionally. I am at least free with my thoughts here. Out like this, a man can talk to himself and it seems perfectly natural. You can ask yourself a question on a Georgia back road and get an honest answer.

Finally, Siloam. Siloam won’t awaken for hours yet. The interstate approaches, laden with 18-wheeled monsters with big eyes and loaded backs bound for the city.

Parting with Georgia 15 is more difficult than I figured it would be. I will be home in just over an hour, but I realize that out on that primitive stretch I had maybe stumbled upon one of the modern urbanite’s last escapes. I had ridden about all that remains of the High Lonesome on a pony with automatic transmission.

(photo: Nate Cull / wikipedia.org)
(photo: Nate Cull / wikipedia.org)

The Aboriginal tribes of Australia have a tradition known as a walkabout, in which a young man leaves his life behind and wanders the countryside for an indeterminate period of time, as sort of a spiritual quest. When he returns, he is considered an adult. In modern times, the Aboriginal walkabout is apparently done in a pickup truck at least as often as it is done on foot, but the general idea is the same.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now look back on my Oregon trip as a much-needed walkabout, a purification rite in which all that was unnecessary in my life was left behind in that Manhattan apartment, leaving only the essentials riding in that Jeep Cherokee through Nebraska on a rainy November night. In the same way a prospector pans the sand and gravel of Opal Creek for gold, that road trip and the following four months in Oregon were a process of sifting what was truly valuable in my life from the gunk and detritus that had accumulated around it.

And it worked, for a while. Upon my return to Chicago, I found myself with a newfound sense of purpose that gave me the focus I needed to finish my undergraduate degree, gain some valuable work experience back in New York, and begin graduate studies in Cincinnati.

The passing of the new year has provided ample opportunity for reflection on the past year, and of setting goals for the upcoming year. 2011 has seen continued steady progress on my academic and professional goals, and 2012 is sure to see more of the same. In previous blog posts I’ve already discussed the possibilities for where I’ll likely end up for my five-month co-op placement later this year. It’s still very much up in the air at this point, but the most realistic possibilities include Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, or London.

But more fundamentally, I’m striving to make 2012 a year when I do more panning of the sands, to jettison the things and attitudes that are holding me back, let go of the past, and embrace those elements of my life that are truly essential. To stop worrying so much about other people’s expectations and judgements, and live according to my own aspirations.

2004 saw me take a walkabout that put me in the right frame of mind to finish my undergraduate degree and begin grad school. I’m hoping 2012 is the year I embark on another walkabout that will set the stage for my final year of grad school and the beginnings of my career and personal life after grad school. The highway has been calling my name in a big way lately.


Header photo: widescreenwallpapers.in

Unraveling the Urban Differences Between Cincinnati and Chicago

Originally published in UrbanCincy.com on 6 August 2010.

I am a native of the Greater Cincinnati area, but I have spent the better part of my adult life living and working in Chicago. I left Chicago in 2007 for greener pastures in New York City, and then ultimately found my way back home to Cincinnati earlier this year. However, I still look back on my time in Chicago as having an enormous impact on my thoughts about urban planning and design, architecture, and mass transit.

In June of this year, and after a long absence, I spent my first weekend in Chicago since becoming involved in discussions about Cincinnati’s ongoing urban renaissance. Once I arrived in town, I could not help but look at my old stomping grounds in a whole new light, and see Chicago’s urban development through the eyes of a born-again Cincinnatian. Over the course of a few days, I was able to explore a few key differences between the two cities, and perhaps come home with a few insights that can be applied to Cincinnati.

Urban Form

The first and most obvious difference between Cincinnati and Chicago is one of sheer scale. While driving through Indiana on the way to Chicago from Cincinnati, the transition from rural cornfields to suburban sprawl (and its inevitable traffic jams) began while I was still a good 40 miles away from the Chicago Loop. Here in Cincinnati, 40 miles in any direction from Fountain Square would be considered far into the hinterland. Indeed, it is possible to find oneself in a relatively rural area in less than five miles from downtown Cincinnati, depending on the direction of travel.

Topography plays a large role, of course: the Cincinnati area’s steep hills prevent large-scale development in many areas, while the vast plains surrounding Chicago offer no such limitations. I see this as an advantage in Cincinnati’s favor: In addition to providing unique vistas and hillside neighborhoods that Chicagoans could only dream about, Cincinnati’s geographic setting allows for an easy escape to the country without having to drive through 40 miles of strip malls and traffic congestion (assuming one isn’t trying to escape via I-75 or I-71).

Chicago’s scale is apparent when flying into either of the city’s two airports, especially at night. Chicago’s relentless street grid stretches from horizon to horizon, with the radial streets and freeways all leading to the mountain of skyscrapers downtown. The city’s magnificent lakefront parks form an elegant transition from dense urban neighborhoods to the empty expanse of Lake Michigan. The entire city — so orderly and logical from above, like a circuit board — has the appearance of a vast machine. Down on the surface, though, the machine-like efficiency of the street grid leaves little room for quirks and eccentricities such as Cincinnati’s Mt. Lookout Square or O’Bryonville.

Commercial Districts

Aaron Renn recently wrote a thought-provoking article about how cities treat their ordinary spaces versus their special spaces, and I believe Cincinnati has the edge in this regard. We don’t have the “special spaces” that Chicago has, such as a Magnificent Mile or a Grant Park (although that is changing for the better as Cincinnati develops its riverfront), but we have a vast number of unique “ordinary spaces” that each have their own character. For example, Chicago’s neighborhood business districts tend to be linear corridors along straight commercial streets, with relatively little distinction from each other. Aside from the makeup of the retail establishments, the urban space of Broadway in Lakeview isn’t much different from that of Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park or of Lawrence Avenue in Albany Park. Here in Cincinnati, even if you disregard the types of businesses that occupy the storefronts, there is a real difference between neighborhood business districts such as Ludlow Avenue, Hyde Park Square, and Over-the-Rhine.

Speaking of Over-the-Rhine, there is simply nothing like it in Chicago, as OTR was a bustling urban neighborhood when Chicago was still a remote trading post. Chicago’s present form didn’t come into being until after the Great Chicago Fire, by which time many buildings in Over-the-Rhine were already a generation old. For an urban neighborhood that comes close to resembling Over-the-Rhine, one must look east to New York or Philadelphia rather than west to Chicago.

Residential Neighborhoods

If Chicago’s commercial avenues are rather drab, that city’s residential side streets offer many lessons for Cincinnati. Upon taking a turn down a leafy side street in Chicago, a pedestrian immediately enters a lush, green world where the noise of the city fades away and the harshness of the sunlight is filtered out by a dense canopy of trees, usually flanked by ornate row houses, bungalows, or apartment buildings. The importance of greenery cannot be understated, and as Over-the-Rhine continues its rejuvenation, Chicago shows that when it comes to street trees, there’s really no such thing as too many. It’s no coincidence that OTR’s Orchard Street — arguably the greenest street in the neighborhood — is also one of the most sought-after streets for renters and homebuyers.

Cincinnati’s dominant grocery store chain could also learn a thing or two from Chicago’s two largest chains on how to design and operate “big box” grocery stores that add life to urban business districts, rather than suck life from them. Throughout Chicago’s denser neighborhoods, Dominick’s (a division of Safeway) and Jewel (a division of Albertson’s) are building stores that place the main entrance at the corner of the building, facing a busy intersection, rather than behind an ocean of parking. In many cases, the stores are multi-story affairs with residential or commercial space above, and parking in a garage tucked around the corner.

An urban-scaled Dominick’s Store in Lincoln Park

One of the first such stores is a Dominick’s location at the corner of Fullerton and Sheffield, adjacent to a CTA rapid transit station and DePaul University. The ground floor of the store contains a deli, butcher and seafood department, florist, bakery, a Starbucks, and the checkout lanes, while the second floor contains aisles of groceries and general merchandise. Large-capacity elevators allow customers to transport strollers and shopping carts between the floors.

Up in my old neighborhood of Edgewater, a Dominick’s store at the corner of Foster and Sheridan — an older suburban-style store not unlike the Kroger store in Corryville — is being replaced with a modern store that respects the neighborhood rather than turning its back on it. If Kroger’s two largest national competitors, Safeway and Albertson’s, are tripping over each other to build urban-scaled grocery stores in dense neighborhoods, then Kroger’s claim that there is no market for such stores would seem to ring hollow.

Public Transit

Another key difference between Cincinnati and Chicago that cannot be ignored is public transit. While Chicago’s system of public transit is not perfect by any stretch, Chicago has a culture in which taking a train to work or for shopping is simply accepted as a routine fact of life for most people, rather than as something that is done only because one has no other choice. There is no stigma, and a wide variety of demographic groups can be found represented on the city’s buses and trains on any given day. Regrettably, only a handful of American cities have achieved this, and Cincinnati is not yet one of them. To its credit, the Chicago Transit Authority has recently completed an ambitious upgrade of many stations on the city’s north side and west side, with further upgrades elsewhere in the city underway.

The newly-renovated CTA rapid transit station in Lincoln Park

Attitude

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the difference in general attitude between the two cities. Chicago has a certain swagger that Cincinnati lacks, a confidence among the populace that the city is capable of doing great things and attracting great people. This is a double-edged sword, in that Chicago’s reputation of being “the city that works” involves a strong-man mayor who has almost unlimited powers, who can easily crush any community opposition to his plans.

Indeed, while certain Chicago neighborhoods are high-priced hotbeds for economic development, vast parts of the city continue to look as if they were imported from Detroit. There is also the corruption: In Cincinnati, it would be almost unthinkable for a City Council member or department head to be hauled away in handcuffs by the FBI and indicted on federal corruption charges. In Chicago, such occurrences happen often enough that they barely even make the local news.

Cincinnati, on the other hand, has a long-standing inferiority complex that has proven difficult to shake. But as major projects such as the streetcar, The Banks, and Central Riverfront Park are completed, perhaps Cincinnati will adopt a unique swagger of its own, while avoiding some of the pitfalls of our younger and larger neighbor to the north.

Streetscape Projects Helping Transform Fort Thomas Business District

Originally published in UrbanCincy.com on 22 July 2010.

The bedroom suburb of Fort Thomas, Kentucky is perhaps best known for its streets of tidy, well-kept houses and its nationally-ranked public schools. Located along a ridge overlooking the Ohio River and downtown Cincinnati, Fort Thomas is an attractive destination for those seeking the relative peace and quiet of a suburban lifestyle, combined with convenient access to downtown Cincinnati along with walkable streets and plenty of historic character.

In recent years, Fort Thomas has become one of several Northern Kentucky cities seeking to enhance its appeal by revitalizing its historic retail district and rediscovering the benefits of pedestrian-scaled, transit-friendly urban development. Fort Thomas’s neighbor to the north, Bellevue, has received recognition for its ongoing historic preservation work, and Bellevue and Covington have both made strides in implementing form-based codes that could ultimately serve as a model for zoning code changes in Cincinnati.

Over the past few years, Fort Thomas has undertaken a number of projects to enhance the city’s role as an attractive community within Cincinnati’s urban core. These projects include new buildings for Highlands Middle School and Woodfill Elementary School, a new amphitheater and bike trails in Tower Park, and the restoration of the city’s iconic 100-foot-tall stone water tower at the entrance to Tower Park. Perhaps most visibly, though, the city of Fort Thomas has recently completed major streetscaping improvements to its primary business district centered around the intersection of Highland and Fort Thomas Avenues and its secondary business district — the so-called Midway district — located adjacent to the site of the former Army post.

Aspects of the two streetscaping projects included burying overhead utility lines, the reconstruction of sidewalks and crosswalks to include brick accents and other decorative elements, the addition of street trees and thoughtful landscaping, installation of pedestrian-scaled light fixtures and signage, as well as the introduction of benches and other outdoor seating. The first phase to be completed was the primary downtown district at Highland Avenue and Fort Thomas Avenue.

Now complete for a couple of years, the trees and plantings in downtown Fort Thomas have begun to nicely mature. Of particular interest is the focus on the former Green Line streetcar, which provided transit access to the Army post and served as a catalyst for much of the subsequent development in the city from the 1890’s through the 1950’s. Fort Thomas is the classic “streetcar suburb”, and today’s TANK bus route through town still carries the Green Line’s old #11 route number.

Following the completion of streetscaping improvements to the downtown district of Fort Thomas, the second phase involved similar improvements to the so-called Midway district, a secondary business district on South Fort Thomas Avenue that grew up adjacent to the former Army post and was named after the carnival midway at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The site of the Army post — originally built to replace the flood-prone Newport Barracks — is now home to Tower Park, a large Veterans Administration nursing home, and an Army reserve center.

The streetscaping improvements recently completed in the Midway district are similar in nature to those performed in downtown Fort Thomas. Included in the Midway improvements were the reconfiguration of the River Road intersection, which now provides a small civic space that can be used for outdoor concerts or a farmer’s market, and the addition of sidewalk seating for neighborhood establishments such as the Olde Fort Pub and the Midway Cafe.

There are still a number of vacant storefronts in the Midway district, but it is hoped that the now-completed streetscaping improvements along with other measures, such as the restoration of long-vacant officers’ housing nearby and marketing efforts by the newly-formed Renaissance District, will see the addition of new retail tenants to the Midway district.

Cincinnati’s 3C Dilemma: The Way Forward

Originally published in UrbanCincy.com on 24 May 2010.

One day in 1934, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia was on a TWA flight back home from Chicago, and his ticket indicated New York as the plane’s final destination. However, the plane landed in Newark, New Jersey, as that was the only airport in the New York region open to commercial aviation at the time. The stubborn mayor refused to get off the plane in Newark, insisting that he be brought to the city indicated on his ticket. “Newark is not New York!,” he exclaimed. His flight ultimately continued to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, and when the plane landed, the mayor — never willing to let a juicy PR moment go to waste — hosted an impromptu press conference to reporters about New York City’s need for its own airport. Within five years, an airport would be built in Queens that would bear Mayor LaGuardia’s name.

A great deal of virtual ink has been expended in recent months regarding the proposed 3C passenger rail line that will link Ohio’s three largest cities and serve as the foundation for future development of a true high-speed rail line across the state. In regards to the station location for the Cincinnati end of the 3C line, we face a dilemma not unlike the one Mayor LaGuardia faced in New York. If the rail line ends in Sharonville, does the 3C line really serve one of its three namesake C’s? Will there come a day when Mayor Mallory refuses to exit the train at Sharonville, insisting that it continue all the way into the city limits of Cincinnati?

There is nothing inherently wrong with having an intermediate 3C station at Sharonville, as it would provide convenient service to suburban riders in much the same way the Route 128 station on the Northeast Corridor gives Boston-area Amtrak passengers a way to avoid having to travel all the way to Back Bay or South Station in order to catch a train going the opposite direction. Assuming we want the 3C service to actually serve Cincinnati, though, the question then becomes: Where does the train go once it goes south of Sharonville?

Previous generations of Cincinnatians blessed us with a magnificent train station in the form of the Union Terminal complex, which opened for passenger service the year before Mayor LaGuardia’s famous outburst in Newark. As one of the most architecturally-significant train stations in the world, and located within a short distance of downtown, Union Terminal is the natural place to terminate the 3C line. The station is already served by Amtrak’s Cardinal three times a week in each direction between New York and Chicago, and has the facilities needed to serve intercity rail passengers such as a waiting room, ticketing office, baggage service, restrooms, etc. In time, Union Terminal could also easily accommodate additional passenger facilities such as expanded restaurant options, car rental facilities, and a streetcar or light rail connection to rest of the city. Indeed, there is near-universal agreement that in the long term, Union Terminal should once again fulfill its proper role as a stunning gateway to Cincinnati for rail passengers.

In the short term, however, 3C service at Union Terminal faces a number of logistical hurdles. Although the station once boasted the capacity to serve 216 trains per day (108 inbound and 108 outbound), Union Terminal’s current capacity is severely reduced. The Southern Railway demolished the passenger concourse and platforms in 1974 in order to accommodate double-stacked freight trains. Many of the station’s former passenger facilities, especially the concentric ramps used to provide bus and taxi access to the station, are now home to the Cincinnati History Museum and the Museum of Natural History and Science. Most crucially, the railroad tracks that serve Union Terminal through the Mill Creek Valley from the north are heavily congested with freight traffic during most hours of the day and night, and lack the capacity for frequent passenger service. Mitigating these limitations is certainly doable with the right amount of money and creative thinking, but doing so will require several years of planning and construction, and isn’t something that’s likely to happen during the first few years of 3C service.

With that in mind, attention shifts to the location of a temporary station that will serve the city until the capacity issues at Union Terminal can be resolved. Here are a few of the most likely options that have been put forward.

Entrance to the Riverfront Transit Center on 2nd Street

Riverfront Transit Center

Located under Second Street along the downtown riverfront, the Riverfront Transit Center (RTC) was created out of space left over from the reconstruction of the adjacent Fort Washington Way in 2002. Rather than spend the considerable money it would take to fill in the space with dirt, planners wisely decided to create a space that could one day be used for some form of passenger rail service. (In the meantime, the RTC serves as a convenient staging area for charter buses during sporting events at the Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium.) Unlike other proposed 3C station locations, the RTC is within easy walking distance to the Central Business District, and would not require connecting transit service to reach downtown.

However, the Riverfront Transit Center lacks the passenger amenities needed for intercity rail travel such as a climate-controlled waiting area, baggage facilities, etc. The enclosed nature of the station would require costly air handling systems to vent diesel fumes generated by idling passenger trains, and the station lacks the vertical clearance needed to accommodate the double-deck passenger trains that are often used for intercity travel. Additionally, reaching the station by rail from the west would require the same capacity improvements through the Mill Creek Valley needed to provide service to Union Terminal, and reaching RTC from the east would require the complete rehabilitation of the Oasis Line and the construction of connecting tracks along Pete Rose Way. While the RTC is ideally situated to serve as a station for future light rail service, it is not a realistic option for intercity passenger rail service.

Montgomery Inn Boathouse

In light of the problems associated with bringing intercity rail service into the Riverfront Transit Center, a location near the Montgomery Inn Boathouse on Riverside Drive was proposed. While this location avoids many of RTC’s issues, it would still require the rehabilitation of the entire length of the Oasis Line, and possibly preclude the Oasis Line from being used for future light rail service. Additionally, the location is separated from the Central Business District by several blocks and the I-71 / I-471 / Columbia Parkway spaghetti junction, and nearby residents objected to the noise and pollution that would be caused by diesel trains.

Oasis Line running along Cincinnati’s eastern riverfront

Lunken Airport

With the Riverfront Transit Center and the Montgomery Inn Boathouse locations apparently removed from contention, officials suggested a site along the Oasis Line east of Mount Lookout, roughly adjacent to Lunken Airport. While this location avoids the issues with the RTC and the Boathouse, it would still require the rehabilitation of many miles of the Oasis Line. Critics rightly argue that the money used to rehabilitate the Oasis Line for temporary 3C service would be better spent toward a more permanent solution to the capacity issues through the Mill Creek Valley toward Union Terminal. Located on the far east side of the city, the Lunken Airport site would also require a lengthy shuttle bus ride to downtown, and be very inconvenient to customers coming from the West Side and Northern Kentucky.

Bond Hill

Within the past few weeks, Cincinnati City Council passed a resolution naming Bond Hill as the city’s preferred location for a temporary 3C station. Like the Lunken Airport location, a 3C station in Bond Hill would also be located several miles from the Central Business District and require a coordinated shuttle bus connection to downtown. Unlike the Lunken Airport location and other proposed locations along the Oasis Line, however, a Bond Hill station would only require the rehabilitation of a significantly shorter distance of the Oasis Line, and offer reduced travel times compared to Lunken Airport or the Boathouse. Bond Hill is conveniently served by the Norwood Lateral Expressway which connects to I-71 and I-75, and is far more convenient to the city’s Western Hills neighborhoods.

The station facilities at Bond Hill need not be extravagant, given that it would be a temporary facility. Unlike the massive amount of construction needed to build Fiorello LaGuardia’s airport on the edge of Long Island Sound, a temporary 3C station at Bond Hill that provides passenger rail service to the city of Cincinnati would merely require a simple building to house a waiting room, restrooms, and ticket office, along with a train platform and parking lot. Once the Bond Hill station is built and in service, our attention can then shift to the larger task of improving rail capacity through the Mill Creek Valley. Is Bond Hill the perfect solution? No, but it’s by far the least problematic of several problematic solutions, and will serve as an important stepping stone toward the ultimate goal of bringing frequent passenger rail service back to its rightful place at Union Terminal. Perhaps there is another solution to Cincinnati’s 3C dilemma that has yet to be explored, but for now, the way for 3C passenger rail service to move forward is through Bond Hill.

Why You Never See a Cat Skeleton in a Tree

The setting: About 1:00 AM on a rainy night in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I was new to the city, having moved to New York from Philadelphia a couple months ago, with my head still spinning with the idea of being a New Yorker. A series of strong thunderstorms had just moved through the region, and it was still raining heavily. I was working at my computer when I heard the gut-wrenching cry of a kitten somewhere outside, near my apartment. As opposed to the sound of a garden-variety cat meow, the sound of this kitten’s howling indicated that he was in serious trouble somewhere. It’s the type of howl that says Help me, I’m dying. This went on for several minutes and became impossible to ignore. I went to the front window and did’t see anything, but it’s a neighborhood of densely-spaced brownstone apartment buildings, so the kitten could be anywhere, and my view was obstructed by the trees in front of the window.

The cries continued. Being a good animal lover, I decided to do something. I saved whatever I was working on, put on my shoes, grabbed my umbrella, and headed out onto the street. A passing neighbor had also stopped to find out where this kitten was. After some searching around, we discovered that the kitten was stuck on the third-floor ledge of the building across the street from mine. Hell if we knew how he got there. The windows on that floor were dark, so we assumed nobody was home in that apartment.

What to do, what to do….

A guy came out of the building, but he lived on the ground floor and had no access to the top floor apartment. We noticed a large extension ladder propped up against the building next door, but as soon as we planned a rescue operation, we realized the ladder was chained to the adjacent window grate with a large padlock. Remembering there were a couple long ladders in the basement of my own building, I ran downstairs only to find that they were gone. A lady came out from the building where the ladder was chained, but she did’t know whose ladder it was, nor who had the key to the lock.

What to do, what to do…

It had now been nearly an hour since I first heard the kitten crying, and I figured it was time for some outside help. I grabbed my cell phone and called the ASPCA, but their offices were closed, and the voice mailbox for the emergency line wouldn’t even let me leave a message because the inbox was full. I then called 311, which is the city’s non-emergency help line. The guy at the other end said the department in charge of cat rescues (there is such a thing?) wouldn’t open until 8 AM, and suggested calling 911.

With some hesitation I called 911, hoping somebody would send a fire truck down to the place to rescue this kitten as a courtesy. (In retrospect, it’s pretty incredible how naive I was during my first few months in New York.) It was still pouring rain, and the kitten was still howling, obviously scared out of his mind. The ledge he was on was barely four inches wide, and was about thirty feet above the ground. After a few rings, the 911 operator told me this was not an emergency, and curtly directed me to call 311 before hanging up on me.

The lady from the building next door suggested walking to the fire station up the street and seeing if they can perhaps perform a rescue. Good idea. I walked up to the nearest firehouse, which is only about a block or so away, and rang the doorbell. A guy ran down the stairs and answered the door, and I explained the situation to him. He went on the loudspeaker, notified the dispatcher, and next thing I knew, it was a scene from the movie Backdraft. Within seconds, about a half-dozen of New York’s Bravest came running down the stairs, got suited up, and boarded the fire truck. The garage door opened, and the truck took off with sirens wailing and lights flashing. I’m thinking: This fucking cat better still be there when these guys arrive.

I ran down the street after them in the downpour, and got to the scene just a few seconds after them. They had their high-power flashlights out, and had located the kitten. The fire chief turned to me and said, with a thick Brooklyn accent, “A kitten? I thought you said there was a kid stuck on a ledge.”

At this point I felt a sudden and intense desire to legally change my name and move to the west coast.

Well, the cat was still there and still howling, so now what? Neighbors tend to get curious when they see a fire truck outside their apartment building with its lights flashing, so a guy on the second floor of the building poked his head out to see what was going on. He let the firefighters inside, and they marched up to the third floor to see if they could get inside the apartment to let the cat in.

Meanwhile, I remained outside with the chief and a few other firefighters. With the aid of the flashlights, we could now see that the window behind the cat was actually open a few inches and had no screen. And the kitten, after sitting on the ledge and howling for an hour and causing so much drama in the neighborhood, calmly turned around and went back inside the apartment.

The fire chief turned to me again and said, “You know, there’s a reason you never see a cat skeleton in a tree.”

With that, Ladder Company 114 was called down from red alert, and the firefighters got back into their truck and returned to the station. I went back to my apartment soaking wet and with my tail between my legs.

Ten minutes later, the kitten was back out on the ledge, howling as before.