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Historian examines subject
close to home: Clifton

Date: July 10, 2001
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photo By: Lisa Ventre
Archive: Research News

Cincinnati's 150-year-old neighborhood of Clifton has long boasted a reputation as a better-than-average place to live. If it wants to preserve that identity, its community leaders need to end the lethargy that seems to have taken hold, warns Zane L. Miller, UC professor emeritus of history, in a new book.

New book

Miller's "Visions of Place: The City, Neighborhoods, Suburbs and Cincinnati's Clifton, 1850-2000" examines Clifton as an example of something you can find in nearly every American city - a "silk-stocking suburb."

These neighborhoods, as well as the American cities that contain them, are in peril, Miller argues, because of a neighborhood-centered attitude that has prevailed since the 1950s. According to Miller, this attitude pits neighborhood against neighborhood instead of placing the priority on the common good of the entire metropolis.

Acknowledging that he has been criticized for sounding too "preachy," Miller ignored the critics. He suggests in his book that neighborhood leaders in Clifton and other American first-ring suburbs remember the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Nearly every major religion in the world shares this common idea, and Miller quotes each before concluding his treatise.

Zane Miller

Clifton was originally developed in the mid-1840s as a suburb three miles from Cincinnati's northern border. After incorporating as a village in 1850, Clifton was annexed by the city in 1896.

Clifton is a subject that particularly intrigues Miller, a long-time Clifton resident and Charles Phelps Taft Professor of History Emeritus, because it stands in a residential category that he contends historians have "virtually ignored." The urban history specialist calls these areas "outer-city neighborhoods."

"We know a great deal about inner-city and suburban neighborhoods and how they became what they are. But we know precious little about the thousands of outer-city neighborhoods that sit between the oldest districts at the center and the newer ones on the peripheries of American metropolitan areas," he writes.

Before U.S. cities can grapple with the long list of social problems facing us - from unemployment and urban decay to affordable housing and drugs - we must first tackle our interracial problems, Miller stresses. The persistence of the ghetto stands as the most pressing public interest challenge, not just in Cincinnati and Clifton, but also in cities across the nation, he argues.

"Our metropolitan pattern of virtual residential apartheid not only separates and estranges blacks and whites but also keeps alive a civil rights crossfire of accusation and counteraccusation that distracts attention from and deters action on a broad range of domestic issues and undermines our credibility in dealing with ethnic territorial conflicts overseas," he writes.

"Police-community relations, employment, black poverty, education -- all those things are important, but if we do all those things and leave the ghettoes stand, there is always going to be trouble," he said. "Race relations is the most important challenge facing us."

Miller sees Clifton and Cincinnati as an example of a national pattern. "There is a self-centered policy at work, an absence of concern for the welfare of other neighborhoods and the welfare of the city as a whole or for the metropolis as a whole," he said.

To remedy the situation, he calls for the development of a regional strategy formulated by a regional civic group that involves area business, religious, academic, sports and cultural leaders. He also advocates a regional conference to seek out solutions. Its participants must include groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Housing Opportunities Made Equal, CTM, the North Avondale Neighborhood Association, the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce, the Cincinnati Preservation Association, the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, the Cincinnati Business Committee and other civic organizations.

Miller's book was published by Ohio State University Press in its Urban Life and Landscape Series and is available through bookstores for $37.50 (hardcover). The volume started out as an illustrated booklet published in 1976 for the Clifton Town Meeting. Miller expanded it into book form, drawing on research by former students, as well as his own and colleague Henry D. Shapiro.

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