What makes a city a city? Is it the architecture? The roads and bridges? The hospitals, universities, factories, businesses, schools, and places of worship? The parks and hills and neighborhoods? All of these are components that make up the modern urban machine. But the thing that makes the machine go, the fuel, is people. Before the City of Cincinnati could exist at all—before it even existed as a vague idea in some 18th century pioneer’s brain—it had to have people. Without people, there’s no city.
Native Americans were the first to see the advantages of settling on the hills that surround what we now call the Ohio River. Next came the fur trappers, prospectors, and pioneers, looking to eke out an existence via trade and subsistence farms. Then came the surveyors, who carved up the land, along with the U.S. military, who built Ft. Washington, an outpost of “civilization” on the far edge of colonial America’s expansion into the interior.
The town that became Cincinnati was founded in 1788, but it took a while for that municipal dream to manifest itself as more than just a stockade on the muddy banks of a river surrounded by vast forests and understandably nonplussed Native Americans. It took more people—most of whom uprooted themselves from crappy situations in foreign countries to build the proverbial “better life” in a new land. Many of the Germans and Irish who made up the first wave of immigrants to settle here were fleeing internecine strife, religious persecution, and profound economic hardship. So too were the African-Americans who crossed the river to escape slavery in the South…and the second wave of Jews, Italians, and Greeks who followed later…and the Latinos, Indians, Asians, and Russians who have followed since.
Mayor Cranley’s recent declaration that we are a “sanctuary city” may strike some as a distinction without a difference, but it’s an important distinction. Cincinnati has from its very beginning been a place of sanctuary, a refuge for anyone seeking to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. And while we as citizens grapple with President Trump’s recent misbegotten attempts to temporarily halt the flow of immigrants and refugees from seven majority Muslim nations (and his subsequent threats against sanctuary cities), it’s even more important for us to remember where we came from. We came from an idea, and the idea doesn’t succeed without people.