Monday, April 13, 2009

Streetcars, Bill Cunningham and a field trip to Over-The-Rhine.

This past Friday April 10, 2009 I was sitting at my desk listening to the "Bill Cunningham Show" on 700 WLW AM as I often do. I'm a fan of the show as well as many of the other programs on 700 WLW. I had never called into the show or spoken with Bill "Willie" Cunningham before, but the conversation I had with him on Friday would eventually lead to me winding up at the corner of 15th and Vine St. in the heart of Cincinnati's "Over-The-Rhine" neighborhood at the stroke of midnight.

Typically I see eye-to-eye with "Willie" on a lot of issues and understand his points, but there is one issue I very much disagree with Mr. Cunningham on: The Cincinnati Streetcar. On his radio show, Bill has been an outspoken critic of the idea to construct the starter phase of a modern streetcar line in Cincinnati. I would consider myself a supporter of the idea and personally believe the construction of a modern streetcar is a good way to spur economic progress and growth within the city and may eventually lead to expanding transit options benefiting the entire tri-state region.

On Friday afternoon, "Willie" had Jason Gloyd, a representative of the "Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending Taxes (C.O.A.S.T.)," as a guest on his show. COAST had become the most vocal group speaking out against the streetcar. I was taken so aback by Mr. Gloyd's comments during the show that I felt compelled to call in. Mr. Cunningham and his producer Jack Crumley were kind enough to grant me an opportunity to speak on behalf of the streetcar plan and eventually sent me on an eye opening field trip to the heart of "Over-The-Rhine," a Cincinnati neighborhood commonly believed to be a major hot bed of crime. I went on the air as "Ronny from Fairfield."

You can listen to an approximately 8 minute clip that consists of Mr. Gloyd's interview followed by my on-air discussion with Bill here (launches a streaming mp3 in a new window). The entire podcast of Friday's show can be found on 700 WLW's official site here.

Jason really makes some ignorant and blatantly wrong statements when it comes to the streetcar, in fact, he often flat out lies. Here's some golden quotes:

Jason says that streetcars are "Coal burning locomotives in disguise."
- Not true, the streetcars run on electric motors powered by overhead wires. While the tri-state area gets some of it's power from various nearby coal burning plants, there would not be any need for any of these plants to increase production or increase the size of the region's power grid just to accommodate the streetcar system.

According to Jason the streetcar would be an example of "Fixed rail systems that can't change when downtown demographics change."
- Wrong. Just because it's fixed rail doesn't mean the lines can't eventually be extended or improved upon. As downtown continues to grow and change the streetcar could vastly be altered to include more, farther reaching lines to other destinations and stops within the city.

"It's environmentally unstable, socially unstable and economically unstable."

- I'm wondering how it's environmentally unstable when the streetcars would add no serious strain to the power grid and run on clean, electric motors. Economically unstable? No Cincinnati resident is currently being taxed to build the line, the city's money has came from other sources such as the sale of the Blue Ash Airport and a large portion of the funds will be financed by private donations. Socially unstable? How so Jason, maybe you should have elaborated. I fail to see how a development like this promoting development along it's route is "Socially unstable."

Bill Cunningham: "You're gonna go from the slave museum, up through Over-The-Rhine then turn around...and then what...turn around and come back?"
Jason Gloyd: "Turn around and come back."
- While Bill is right, the first phase of the streetcar would pass by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, or as he dubbed it "The Slave Museum," and through Over-The-Rhine, it will also pass by numerous other downtown attractions that are both along the Riverfront, throughout Over-The-Rhine and the areas in between. A full list of destinations along the streetcar's route can be found on the "Cincy Streetcar" website. I'd like to point out that the proposed streetcar route would pass right by Fountain Square, a major public gathering place where Jason is holding one of his "tea party" rallies this week. however, he would have you believe though that you just go to "The Slave Museum," through "Over-The-Rhine" and back.

According to Jason: "The energy percentage per passenger is far more efficient on a bus than it is on these coal burning locomotives."
- I'll just point out again that the streetcars run on clean, electric motors powered overhead electric wires, not on coal.

Jason mentions: "The argument is that this will benefit all of us, not just the select few downtown."

- Jason, I'm not one of the "select few" who live downtown. I'm a 20 year old college student in the process of transferring schools, currently living with my parents in the suburb of Fairfield. Would the streetcar benefit me? Yes, it would. I could definitely see myself utilizing the streetcar during the numerous times I work as a freelance photographer downtown or even just during the times I want to go down to an event such as a Cyclones, Reds or Bengals game. Having the ability to ride the streetcar would allow me to be able to pay for parking once then I could go on to enjoy dinner or entertainment at Fountain Square before hoping on the streetcar to catch a hockey game, baseball game or any of the other numerous downtown activities and locales.

"Everyone wants to point to Portland and Portland and Portland."

- You're right Jason, they do, because Portland has had great success with their streetcar system. Economic development along the Portland line has numbered nearly $2.8 Billion since it's completion. They're not just talking about Portland Jason, they're talking about Tampa, Little Rock and Kenosha too. Source.

"One of their big arguments is...fixed rail lines, that's a sign that we're really gonna be here and you can plan your development around it. Well, if you talk to the folks that run METRO, the vast majority of the METRO routes have not changed in 50 years, so what's more permanent than that?"
- What's more permanent than that? A fixed rail system is! Where does he get this notion that the vast majority of the METRO routes haven't changed over the past five decades? A claim like that is absolutely absurd. The METRO routes have continued to expand out towards the suburbs and have changed immensely within downtown as projects like the new stadiums, Riverfront Transit Center and the Fountain Square renovation have been completed. A fixed rail system is appealing, because it does show that the route is unlikely to change for some time and it has been proven to attract economic development in cities like Portland, Tampa, Little Rock, Kenosha and Seattle as they have installed similar systems.

Jason Gloyd and his C.O.A.S.T. cronies continue to pull at the heart strings of the public suffering from the current economic recession by advocating tax opposition, but when it comes to the streetcar they get it wrong. Organizations like C.O.A.S.T. continue to keep promoting the same old, tired misconceptions and stereotypes. Jason's interview on Bill Cunningham's show clearly shows that not only are they against the progress a streetcar would help promote, but they don't have all the facts right.

As for Mr. Cunningham's on-air challenge for me to go to the corners of 15th and Vine St. in the heart of "Over-The-Rhine" at midnight, I made good on my word. I told him I would go there, take pictures and email them to him. I did...

...and somehow I survived.

- The clock tower of St. Francis Church down the street at midnight.

- A photo of my watch showing me there at midnight, just as Bill Cunningham asked me to do.

-  A quiet night looking down 15th St.

- Not a single person bothered me. Four college aged kids passed by me as they made their way to local bars and a few other friendly people said "hello" and "how are you" as they walked by. Other than that it was as quiet as could be in Over-The-Rhine at midnight.

Bill, if you're reading this, I understand your concerns about crime in "Over-The-Rhine." Last year I rode along with three separate Cincinnati Police Officers during their regular patrols through "District 1" which includes Over-The-Rhine. I documented those experiences into a photojournalism essay entitled "Civilian Observer."  I've seen firsthand the crime that can come out of that area. However, while there are legitimate concerns over crime in this part of town, it's often way over hyped. The streetcar would be used not only as a way to stimulate an economic revitalization of Over-The-Rhine and downtown Cincinnati, but as a way to help prevent and fight crime in the city. Streetcar operators would serve as an extra set of eyes on the streets with direct lines to police radio dispatch, similar to METRO drivers. This would be in addition to the Cincinnati Police Department's continued efforts to fight crime and help clean up Over-The-Rhine.

My "field trip" for Mr. Cunningham proves that Over-The-Rhine is not as dangerous as it's made out to be. Let's be real though, the area could definitely use some "cleaning up." However, with the continued support of the Cincinnati Police Department and the economic stimulus a modern streetcar would bring to the area, we can see real improvement not just in Over-The-Rhine, but within downtown Cincinnati in general. It's been proven time and time again in other cities: Streetcars impact communities both economically and socially in very positive ways! It would not only benefit the downtown residents, but also those of us who work, visit, play and enjoy downtown Cincinnati. This streetcar is a step in the right direction. Don't let the deceit and misconceptions of an organization like C.O.A.S.T. fool you. No one is currently being taxed to fund this line and it has not yet been made official as to whether or not federal stimulus dollars will be used in helping to fund it. Who knows, maybe this could be the start of something that is not only good for the city, but something that could be adapted to benefit the entire tri-state region in the future.

Updates | Sept. 26, 2017:
  • In the wake of this story, I tried to follow up with Bill Cunningham and Daryl Parks (who managed 700 WLW at the time). Neither one ever responded or acknowledged this story. Parks was eventually fired in 2014. Bill Cunningham is still on the radio, an apologist and propaganda minister for President Trump. 
  • These days, you'd be lucky to find a parking spot along Vine St. through this part of the neighborhood. Bars, restaurants, shops, etc, have taken over. Gentrification? Story for another day, but these photos from 2009 hardly seem recognizable. 
  • We did eventually get the streetcar
  • 700 WLW is a dying breed. Despite once being the "Nation's Station," it now ranks 2nd in the local market behind an oldies radio station. 


  1. You were lucky-that area of over the rhine looks better than the good areas of dayton.

    Please watch yourself-on another note, I love the archtecture of the houses in Cincy.

  2. I will never forgive you for making me listen to that.
    Is Gloyd about 16 ? I thought he was older.
    My main bus (17) used to go right through that intersection but it changed a couple years ago & goes up Main nowadays.
    What do you see in that area on warm summer nights ?
    A lotta people without air conditioning...

  3. I enjoyed taking in your thoughts in this post.

    I was in Seattle last Spring and can attestn to the immense amount of development placed in along the streetcar and light rail lines there... even though parts of those systems aren't even completed yet... development and new businesses were opening up along planned route line for those systems!

    I support the Cincy Streetcar system, but would prefer something grander in scope for a first phase. "Make a splash" so to speak. Perhaps run from NURFC through the heart of downtown through OTR to the Univeristy of Cincinnati, past the hospitals, to the edge of Westwood, to Mt Adams and back to NURFC. A higher cost, but it would show a greater commitment to the power of new public transit and spur development along ailing areas of town by including a few well sung parts of town on the list.

  4. Thank you so much for taking the time to call the show and follow through with the challenge. I love your blog and while I don't agree with you on Obama, I certainly agree with you on the streetcar. Also, thanks for the shout out to the Kenosha Streetcar. Kenosha built theirs between the Metra Station and ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!!! You should see it now. Condos, apartments, parks, essentially an entirely new neighborhood. Also, I thought that they've included the Uptown spur in Phase 1 of the Cincy Streetcar. If that's the case, there's one more counter point to the Gloyd interview.

    PS - You're the type of conservative that I can see eye to eye and level with. Following the GOP since the presidential election has been quite painful, as they seem to have lost their identity. They don't seem to have a clue as to the bullet points they stand for. As a registered member, I implore you to be the voice of the new, younger, more reasonable Republican Party.

  5. Let's say that everything you posted is correct, and the streetcare plan is as great as you say it is. If it's such a tremendous idea then why not let the people vote on it and decide for themselves? That's all the current petition effort pushed by Gloyd is doing. It doesn't ban streetcars, it just requires an affirmative vote from the voters.

  6. Good post Ronny. It shows another calm night in OTR, which is the case most of the time. There are a few groups of people that have no respect for anything or anyone that cause the trouble down there, and every new building put up, every new respectful resident that moves in will make them go elsewhere for their activity. Most of the crime in OTR is undoubtedly committed by outsiders, who simply take advantage of the blight to get away with their crimes.

    As for "Bris Chorts" post up above, I've read through the petition and I think it's far too specific to belong in a city charter. The people don't vote every time a new road is built, and those are generally more expensive than the streetcar would be.

    I'm a very conservative person, and I see a streetcar as being vital infrastructure, one of the few things the government should be providing. I can list off a million other places money shouldn't be going, but some form of mass transit is important in urban areas.

  7. I also have taken a similar Cunningham challenge. I walked the entire distance through OTR from Central Parkway up Vine all the way to the University of Cincinnati. Not once was I harassed or accosted as Willie claimed to be inevitable.

    It was last Wednesday around noon and the streets were crowded with people. Several individuals gave the typical head nod accompanied with a "hey," and others simply gave a little smile to acknowledge me passing them. Not a single fact the only part of the walk that was unenjoyable was walking up the Vine Street hill with a full backpack and the noise/debris from road construction work that was happening around Vine and McMicken.

  8. Great post. I agree with you and much of what's been said above. Thank you for taking the time to responsibly research this topic and come to an informed opinion. I think if everyone did their homework on this subject and really looked at the facts, the city as a whole would agree that the streetcar is a wise choice for our city's future.

    As to Bris Chortz's response, the reason we don't need to bring this matter to vote is two fold. First, the current charter amendment they are trying to pass is not just to bring this matter to vote, but its geared towards blocking any form of rail transit in the future. Its obvious from the COAST, NAACP and wedemandavote website that these guys are completely against seeing rail transit in Cincinnati. This would hinder progress here for years to come.
    Second, and more importantly, this is a matter that needs to be decided on by informed and educated individuals who actually understand the economic and financial implications of their decision. Unfortunately, if put to vote many people will vote against it simply because they were told to because they think they are protecting their own pocket books. They don't look at the facts and make a fair assesment like our elected officials should.
    As said above, this sort of project is the type of vital function a government should provide for its citizens. Not to mention all the proven benefits and economic gains our city will reap from this type of investment.
    I really feel our current Mayor and City Council have made a wise choice in pursuing this project and they have my full support in making it a reality. (along with MANY, MANY people I've spoken to not only in Cincinnati, but all over the country)

  9. @Kelli: Thanks for reading!

    @Quim: Sorry you had to suffer through Gloyd's on air comments, kind of sad isn't it? He claims not to oppose progress, just wants this measure on the ballot, but in his comments and on his website he and his organization obviously have no problem showing their true feelings of the streetcar. Not to mention, their website is almost more misleading and more immature than Gloyd's on air comments.

    @Chris: Thanks for reading, hopefully this will just be the start. I think an extension to Mt. Adams would be a great idea, but we have to start somewhere and the initial loop connects a lot of downtown hot spots.

    @Feoshia: Thanks!

    @Andrew: Thanks for reading and while we may disagree with how President Obama may be handling stimulus issues, that's another argument for another day. :) The streetcar issue is really a non-partisan issue and currently no one is being taxed for it and no federal stimulus money is currently set aside for it. Maybe C.O.A.S.T. should take some notes and stop trying to mislead people about the use of public money for the project.

    @Bris: I agree with letting the people vote, but C.O.A.S.T.'s campaign is so blatantly misleading and their ballot measure so harmful to any future project that if you actually read the ballot language it's pretty ludicrous. The planning of projects like this are what we elect our local politicians for. If C.O.A.S.T. is worried about public money being spent in poor decisions, why don't they fight for a ballot measure every time Hamilton County shells out and uses federal money for expensive highway projects?

    @Mark: Thanks for the comment, but the "alternative" you pointed out is just another way of dodging the real issue. The current streetcar plans IS environmentally friendly and the beacon's efforts to paint this streetcar as some coal burning vehicle are not only misleading but wrong. It's not creating a major further strain on coal or electric resources and the power to help fuel these "hybrid" trolleys you suggest would still come from the same electrical sources. The way you paint the current plan as environmentally unfriendly is pretty damn misleading. I really don't see how the author of that beacon article can sit there with a straight face.

    @Zach, Jason and Randy: Thank you very much for your responses. You all bring up very valid points.

  10. Jake (tubaman of KIC)April 28, 2009 at 9:51 PM

    Hey Ronny! That was a great post. I really hope your campaign for the rail system goes well. While I would never benefit from it (living 4 hours away and only ever driving past Cincy), I still think it is a great idea. I have seen how something kinda similar to this can really benefit an area (See the WVU PRT, built in the 70's but still used to this day). To me, it just seems like a win-win scenario for all involved. Especially since it draws no money from the stimulus, (I want to make sure that all the CEO's of failing companies are still able to take lovely summer vacations and that NAMBLA and ACORN gets a fair amount of money for doing their part.) Regardless, best of luck and as usual GREAT PICTURES!

  11. Wonderful call to Willie, and wonderful post. What gets me has been the unbridled road-building and sprawl that surrounds Cincinnati and other great American cities (pun intended?) - the opposition to this is has been relatively lacking. People claim it's all good because the free market supports it. But what people fail to realize is that with this growth comes the responsibility of maintaining the roads, providing water, power, and public safety services, and having to build more schools to support it all.

    The biggest folly in the argument against investing in transit (especially rail) is dwelling on the fact that "not everyone uses it," Well, is everybody going to use these new and widened roads out in the suburbs? I doubt it.

    It's about return on investment. We use tax dollars to finance education and libraries to invest in ourselves, to fund cops and firefighters to protect us and our property, and of course, roads to allow people to get to work. We also have been using such monies to fund bus services to allow people to have jobs, even if they don't have a car. And we've been using it to also to move many that do have cars, but don't feel like being having their lives bound by them.

    The streetcars will bring people who can get to work, home, education, and bring attention to an area that has been dismissed by too many for too long. More and more people in the US have realized that car-dependent lifestyles - especially the young professionals like me that cities like Cincinnati and throughout Ohio are pleading to keep.

    I wish we had politicians that supported good investments into our communities, while letting bloated failing big businesses and banks fail and let better ones fill the void. If Obama wanted real change, he'd tell the unions, especially the teachers' and ACORN to take a hike.