A tale of cool cities
Some cities are hip. Others aren't. But 'unhip' cities are trying to change their image and attract young professionals.
Forbes magazine rates Cincinnati No. 39 on a list of the 40 best cities for singles. This hardly thrills Sid D'Souza, a native who opted to return home after graduating from Yale three years ago.
He knows the old joke that Cincinnati is the place you'd want to be when the world ends because everything happens 10 years later there. But despite the city's image problems, Mr. D'Souza believes that Cincinnati, like other cities in the same boat, is waking up to the need to attract and retain young residents.
They have to, experts say, because a younger population means a stronger economy.
But what does it take to be considered "cool" by 20- and 30-somethings? And is it likely that places like Cincinnati and 40th-ranked Pittsburgh are ever going to become as hip and desirable as, say, Austin, Texas, (No. 1), San Francisco (6), or New York City (8)?
Some cities have built-in advantages that would be hard to duplicate in Kansas City (36) or Cleveland (37). Austin's music and high-tech scenes, for instance, Boston's culture (which pushed it into third place), or New York's night life.
But other cities need major makeovers, because in today's mobile society, young people seem less tethered than ever to where they grew up. After college, many look as much at lifestyle as jobs in deciding where to locate.
Nothing is more important for singles than to meet and mingle with other singles, according to Forbes. Fun lures them to cities - and jobs keep them there.
Creative workers, such as artists, scientists, writers, and computer programmers, are the most sought-after group.
They hold the key to modern economic vitality, says author Richard Florida, a Carnegie Mellon University professor whose book on the subject, "The Rise of the Creative Class," is influential in urban-planning circles.
A central tenet of the book is that the sense of place and the existence of opportunity-rich job markets are leading factors to help members of the creative class decide where they will live.
Nick Spencer, a 20-something candidate for Cincinnati's City Council, agrees. Today, he says, college grads don't expect to spend an entire career with an established Fortune 500 company. "They think, 'I'm going to have five jobs during the next 10 years,' and because of that they're driven to cities where they know they're not going to have to move every time they change jobs."
Mr. Spencer, who grew up in Cincinnati and attended Xavier University there, believes the Queen City's future is worth fighting for. But he also knows that in the past Cincinnati has been almost the prototype of a city that doesn't excite young people. That's why Spencer founded Cincinnati Tomorrow, a group that supports efforts to make the city appealing to young adults.
There's a parochial quality to Cincinnati that can be a drawback for young singles new to the city, D'Souza says. If they don't quickly crack the social network, they may move away before ever discovering what the city has to offer.
He got a taste of this when he returned to the city after college and noticed that most alumni groups were geared toward older alums and their families. So D'Souza created the Greater Cincinnati Ivy League and Seven Sisters Alumni Club, known more casually as the Cincy Ivy Young Alumni Club. It welcomes graduates of a number of top-notch universities.
The popular group, whose membership is racially diverse, was strictly social at first, but has branched out into mentoring and other service projects.
It is also part of a larger network the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce has pulled together called Young Professionals of Cincinnati. These 34 groups include everything from the Young Republicans to black accountants and engineers, and a Jewish sports and social organization.
Not all cities are having to work so hard to attract young professionals.
During the 1990s, Indianapolis experienced a 24 percent jump. Columbus, Ohio, enjoyed a Gen-X bump then, too.
What's their secret?
They possess the Three T's that Richard Florida has identified as building blocks for youth-friendly cities: technology, talent, and tolerance.
Columbus benefits from having Ohio State University, one of the largest research universities in the country, and also from being at the heart of a college-rich region with 17 schools and 103,000 students. What's more, much new housing is being built downtown, and the city has trendy hockey and soccer franchises. It also has a growing reputation for social tolerance.
All of this has helped it become the third fastest-growing Midwestern city, behind Minneapolis and Indianapolis.
Cincinnati, in comparison, also has talent and several universities, but isn't known for the third T - tolerance. Instead, it has a reputation for strained race relations.
Yet as it turns out, the very area where racial tensions have erupted in riots is now seen as a linchpin in the city's possible regeneration. The low-income Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, with its numerous vacant properties, sits between the central business district and the University of Cincinnati. It includes the country's largest collection of 19th-century Italianate architecture, which represents the kind of funky, affordable housing that draws young adults who want to experience edgier urban living, with a near-campus flavor.
Terry Grundy, a professor at the University of Cincinnati and a founder of the Urbanists, a local redevelopment group, says the presence of gays is viewed as a good gauge of a city's attractiveness to younger residents.
Young professionals, Mr. Grundy says, like the liberal atmosphere and texture that bohemians and gays can bring to an urban neighborhood; besides, gays often are pioneers in reviving old neighborhoods.
Cincinnati's goals have been outlined in a 42-page Creative City Plan. The document advocates, among other things, establishing weekend, all-night buses that connect cultural institutions, night-life venues, and energetic neighborhoods.
It also recommends making extreme sports a priority in planning new parks and overhauling existing ones.
"We don't have mountains and oceans, but we've got great waterways," says Sherry Kelley Marshall of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, who believes young people increasingly care more about taking part in sports rather than just watching.
Other suggestions in the plan call for spotlighting local artists and musicians by filling vacant storefronts with art and replacing "elevator music" with local music in airports, office lobbies, and shopping complexes.
Showcasing local character over the homogenized mass culture plays very well with young people, who crave authenticity in their living environments.
But even though Cincinnati is finding new ways to feature its special flavor, can the city ever expect to make a quantum leap in the Forbes ratings of the best singles cities?
Davide Dukcevich, who compiles the Forbes ratings, acknowledges that significant change is really a long-term, glacial process. And even then there's sometimes an unpredictable quality to it, driven by unforeseen events. For example, he says the technology booms in Seattle and Austin grew out of the entrepreneurial genius of two individuals: Bill Gates of Microsoft (Seattle) and Michael Dell of Dell Computers (Austin).
Cities might not be able to intentionally replicate such success, but they can work at cultivating a more conducive climate for innovation, says Rod Frantz, president of the Richard Florida Creativity Group.
"Cities have to be embracing of their entire population, because you never know where the next Andy Warhol or Bill Gates or Georgia O'Keefe is going to come from," he observes.
Cleveland hopes to nurture cutting-edge thinkers through its new Civic Innovation Lab, which will fund and mentor individuals with innovative ideas.
Raleigh, N.C., which has been making waves with high ratings for everything from its rock-music scene to its livability, has benefited from visionary thinking and planning, as well as taking advantage of what it already has. The creation nearby of a forward-looking Research Triangle, conceived decades ago, is an example of the former; a mild climate, a 3-1/2-hour drive to the ocean, a university environment, and a college-basketball culture are examples of the latter.
As for Cincinnati, civic leaders are confident that there's a lot to interest young people in the city, including distinct neighborhoods tucked into the city's hills and valleys, as well as a strong, progressive arts community.
The opera company has branched out to perform contemporary works such as "Dead Man Walking," and the symphony orchestra holds three College Night concerts each year, in which, for $10, college students can hear the symphony and afterward attend a reception that features rock and pop bands.
Without such a shift in demographics, young people may not discover what D'Souza calls "the amazing work/life balance" in Cincinnati, which encourages people to enjoy life. His friends in New York work 80 to 90 hours a week and only occasionally take in Broadway shows, while he puts in 50 or 60 hours a week working for a venture-capital firm.
Not only is there time to go out for dinner, shows, and movies, even on weeknights, but young people are able to devote time to families and civic commitments.
"I don't think I could be as involved in a community anywhere else," he says.
1. Austin, Texas
6. San Francisco-Oakland
7. Los Angeles
8. New York
9. Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
10. Dallas-Fort Worth
13. San Diego
16. Minneapolis-St. Paul
19. St. Louis
20. Orlando, Fla.
21. Sacramento, Calif.
22. Salt Lake City
23. New Orleans
24. Nashville, Tenn.
26. Portland, Ore.
27. Tampa, Fla.
28. Columbus, Ohio
29. San Antonio
30. Las Vegas
31. Norfolk, Va.
33. Charlotte, N.C.
35. Providence, R.I.
36. Kansas City