Were the 2010s Cincinnati’s Golden Age?

A look at the past decade shows an explosion of growth for the Queen City. How will these years come to define us?

Illustration by Peter Gamlen

This is it. The end of an era—or the decade at least. The final month of the final year of the decade that saw the city of Cincinnati get a streetcar (barely), a world-class festival (that drew more than 1 million people downtown twice), and a Major League Soccer franchise (despite its abysmal first season). Spread over time, the achievements of the past decade may not seem like much, but the 2010s have arguably been the biggest period of growth for the tri-state’s urban core in the past century (or longer).

So how did we get here? A mix of ingenuity, planning, hard work, and some good ol’ fashioned Midwestern grit, perhaps. Who should we credit? It’s difficult to pin down exactly, but, as we outline below, a mix of placemaking, key players, and politics worked together over time to create an interconnected wave of forward progress that shows no sign of slowing down as we look ahead to the 2020s.

Lumenocity Lights Up Washington Park
Cincinnatians seemed ready for a reason to celebrate downtown. And it showed. More than 35,000 bodies packed the newly reopened Washington Park for music and projection mapping light shows onto Music Hall in 2013. The result was a series of events (Lumenocity grew into Blink) that would ultimately use art to draw millions to the city’s urban core.

The Cincinnati Bell Connector Gives Its First Ride
After 65 years without a streetcar, Cincinnatians welcomed the Connector and its 3.6-mile loop through downtown in Fall 2016. Getting there wasn’t easy. The streetcar certainly still has its flaws (slow speed, a route to nowhere, frequent breakdowns), but its creation signaled that the city was once again reinvesting in itself to ensure a better quality of life downtown.

The Over-the-Rhine Dining Scene Takes Root
“This neighborhood is going to change over the next 10 years,” said Daniel Wright just before opening his first Gateway Quarter restaurant, Senate, in February 2010. Jean-Robert de Cavel debuted his first independent restaurant, Jean-Robert’s Table, months later. While it was four blocks south, it was the first of his new empire, and, along with Wright’s Senate, on the leading edge of an explosion of independent eateries in the area.

Cincinnati Gets a Major League Soccer Club
FC Cincinnati got its start as a United Soccer League club in 2016 and, after winning seasons and record-breaking audience turnout, made it to MLS in 2019. Despite a bleak first year, the franchise is a sign of new life in the city’s sports scene—with a controversial West End stadium set to open in 2021.

Local Makers Unite
On a summer day in 2011, a group of 45 local makers gathered in a parking lot in Over-the-Rhine for an event called City Flea. The idea? Carve out a designated space and time for the marketing and sale of locally produced goods. Today, hundreds of independent vendors sell their products in seven almost-monthly City Fleas in Washington Park, marking a culture of “locally made” that seems here to stay.

Reinvestment in City Institutions
In 2014, Hamilton County voted to fund the majority of the cost to renovate Cincinnati’s Union Terminal. In 2016, the city, state, and private donors funded the renovation of our world-class Music Hall. Both projects illustrated the area’s commitment to preserving the historic and architecturally astounding public-facing institutions that put our city on the map.

A Brand New Riverfront
While the seeds were planted long before the 2010s for what has become The Banks, the physical reality of our new riverfront emerged this past decade. The first phase of The Banks (high-end apartments, bars, and restaurants) opened in 2011. What we know as Smale Riverfront Park (fountains, play areas, and pristinely kept grassy fields) came into being in 2013. The rest is well on its way.

Revival of Craft Beverages
When Molly Wellmann helped open Japp’s in 2011, her approach to handcrafted cocktails spread through the city like wildfire. Around the same time, dozens of craft breweries, including Rhinegeist, MadTree, and Fifty West, opened, once again making Cincinnati a powerhouse craft-brewing city. This renaissance brought the city known for its bars and brews back to its roots, redefining the way we come together over drinks.

Musically on the Map
MidPoint Music Festival (launched in 2001) and MusicNOW (in 2006) injected life into Cincinnati’s independent music scene, undoubtedly setting the stage for Bunbury Music Festival (2012) drawing 50,000 attendees annually, and plans for not just one but two new huge state-of-the-art music venues along the Ohio River.

Engineering a Start-up Hub
Making the Queen City start-up friendly has been in the city’s long game for some time, but this decade saw defining moments in turning that dream into reality. Union Hall opened its doors on OTR’s Vine Street in 2015, serving as a physical gathering space for the region’s start-up community in addition to the permanent home for start-up success agents Cintrifuse and The Brandery.

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