You’ve probably heard the name, but unless you’re American, you won’t really know where it is. It’s in Ohio, the Mid-West, but it spills out into Kentucky and Indiana. It’s where the Rust Belt meets the Bible Belt to the south, and the Prairies of the West. A city of two million sprawled over an area the size of London.
I lived there, for a year, nearly five years ago. While I was there, I wanted to find out what the city was like, to document it through photography. I didn’t set out to tell this specific story. I didn’t seek out these specific places. They mostly found me, and right from the start. Still jetlagged, we walked up our street, West Clifton Avenue. It was the second day of August, not long after 8am, the heatwave had already set in for the day, and the senses were largely overpowered by the uncollected garbage. Pausing for water at the Starbucks at the top of the hill, two men with shotguns held up the savings-and-loans opposite, before being chased by a pistol-wielding cop down our street. Down the path we had been walking five minutes earlier.
That was our neighbourhood, Clifton Heights. Somebody had put a lot of effort into it, once, laying out streets around the hillside, with parks on promontories overlooking the city. People had bought their own plots and filled them with huge three-story homes, each one unique, a mashup of American, German, and Italian architectural styles. That was a hundred years ago, though. Now the houses crumbled, the sidewalks cracked. People had paved over the gardens with parking lots, but now those were cracked and crumbling too, often pleasantly overgrown.
Nobody cared for the neighbourhood by now. Not the students, whose near futures they knew did not belong there; or their neighbours, whose crack-den might get picked on, packed up, and moved on next time the mayor or police chief was under pressure to look busy. Not the Mexicans in the corner shop, who just wanted to blend in and not be noticed. Not the crazy people, the shell-shocked and schizophrenic, who wandered the streets unsupervised, day and night, stealing from the Mexicans, and sleeping in the doorway of the Catholic church, where the wind raced down the empty rubble-strewn plots along Calhoun and McMillan. This was a third-world neighbourhood, now; a neighbourhood that people didn’t have time to care for, because it was already enough work just to survive. And everywhere there were third world neighbourhoods.
This was a third-world city, a city full of crime and poverty, dereliction and shanty towns, houses not fit for habitation. Streets that looked like the poorer parts of South America and industry that looked like the decline of the Soviet Union. And its most starkly third-world feature of all was its corrupt, dysfunctional, divided, and deeply racist police force. In 2001, Cincinnati Police shot and killed 19 year old Timothy Thomas, father of a one-year old. Sorry, Police shot one unarmed black male. Sparking what were, at the time that I was there, America’s most recent race riots.
Cincinnati was a town of casual conversational racism and deadly daily racism. Each morning the newspaper reported on what the black male was up to. The police department erected memorials to their fallen in the war with the black male. It was normal to talk that way.
And it was a third-world city where the minimum wage was $2.80. an hour.
There were signs of the developed world, though. Shining high-rise office blocks downtown and shining high-tech laboratories in the hills; expensive hospitals, and most of all, expensive cars.
Cincinnati is a third-world city because five great interstate freeways cut through its historic neighbourhoods to converge on the heart of the city, allowing its first-world residents to flee from any sign of poverty and decay out to shining white houses scattered in gated “communities” amongst the forests and farms and shopping malls, thirty miles from the bearded sixty-something black male who would shout and slur and stumble at them in the street, smashing bottles on the sidewalk; from the forty-something threadbare-suited black male who would stop them to beg for money, tell a half-plausible story claiming to be a pastor, a refugee from New Orleans; from the eighteen-year old black male who would punch them in the face for a dollar. The inhabitants of the first world don’t need to see the crumbling houses, cracked side-walks, or corrupt police; the scruffy cinderblock churches that take the little money that communities have, the silent ivy-covered factories, the guy with the hot shotgun and bag of cash, fleeing the cops through the children’s playground.
From nine to five, Cincinnati pretends to be a first-world city, paying first-world wages and providing first-world services with a first-world infrastructure. When there’s a ball-game on, the first-world rolls into downtown Cincinnati and hands over ten dollars a head. Downtown Cincinnati is an enclave of first-world skyscrapers and stadia, whose first-world workforce drive their trucks down first-world freeways, past the third-world neighbourhoods; third-world neighbourhoods that they can’t see, that aren’t their fault, aren’t their problem anymore.
The car gave middle-class Americans the freedom to travel, to go where they want, to live wherever they like. The freedom to organise themselves, to segregate themselves, to flee to the suburbs and forget the problems of the aging city.