One (Or Maybe Two) Cheers for Cincinnati

MLewyn's picture

A recent article in New Geography points out that some of his friends who feel priced out of San Francisco have moved to Rust Belt cities like Cincinnati.  Given all the wonderful historic neighborhoods of Cincinnati or Kansas City or similar cities, why would anyone live in New York or San Francisco instead?

I cheerfully concede that for many people, Rust Belt cities are easier to live in, especially if you have the kind of job that can be performed anywhere and share the religious or cultural preferences of the average person.  Admittedly, many Rust Belt cities are more dangerous than New York; for example, Cincinnati had 15 murders per 100,000 people in 2012 (three times the murder rate of New York0.  But if you can take advantage of the low cost of Rust Belt housing to live in one of the city's better neighborhoods, this difference arguably need not concern you. 

But the more unusual your career or tastes are, the more you benefit from being in a bigger, more diverse city.

I wrill write about myself as an example.  Ideally, I would be in a place with A) some sort of traditional Jewish life (by which I mean, at the very minimum, an Orthodox or at least Conservative synagogue) B) in a non-car-dominated part of town so I won't have to drive to work (or better yet, won't have to own a car at all), and preferably C) with enough traditional Jewish life that I have a minimal pool of ideologically appropriate Jewish women to date. 

Rust Belt cities of Cincinnati's size rarely flunk element A (though smaller cities often do).  But the suburbanization of the middle class (and thus of the Jewish population) creates big problems on elements B and C.  In Kansas City, for example, the only relatively traditional Jewish congregation meets just once a month, and the suburban congregations are all in Overland Park and Leawood, Kansas, two suburbs where buses only run 9-5 (and not at all on weekends).  So Kansas City doesn't do well on element B.  (Cincinnati is a little better but not much: the only intown option is a Chabad House oriented towards University of Cincinnati students, which means that most of the city's neighborhoods aren't within walking distance of anything Jewish- kind of a big deal if you follow the Jewish tradition of walking to synagogue).  And in a Kansas City or a similar city, the Jewish dating pool will not only be very small but very suburban, so you had better plan to do a lot of driving to the suburbs.  So element C is problematic in Kansas City as well, and I suspect in other cities of comparable size. 

By contrast, in New York there are more Jews (and especially more single Jews) than anywhere else in the United States- so New York is the best possible place for A, B and C.  So for me personally, it might be worth giving up a few hundred square feet in order to live in New York.  (I note that some relatively affordable cities have much bigger and more urbanized Jewish communities than Cincinnati and Kansas City; for example, Pittsburgh's considerable Jewish community is centered in the intown Squirrel Hill neighborhood). 

Similarly, there are some occupations that don't exist in Cincinnati to the extent that they do in New York.  To take one exotic example, I went to and looked up furriers.  I found only half a dozen in Cincinnati, and over 200 in Manhattan alone (and of course more in the outer boroughs).  So if selling deceased animals is your line of work, Cincinnati is not for you.   I then looked up actors (which primarily seems to mean listings of acting coaches): I found only three or four within the city limits of Cincinnati, and over 100 in New York. 

On the other hand, if your professional and religious life is such that you can be equally happy anywhere (say, if you are a Methodist dentist) the advantages of New York are much wobblier.  But then again, so are the advantages of Cincinnati.  Why live in either New York or Cincinnati when you can live in a real small town, living as cheaply as in Cincinnati without having to worry about that city's urban ills?  The issue of small-town competition illustrates the real weakness of the claim that you should live in the most affordable place: there are so many affordable places that even if Rust Belt City X looks like a good deal next to San Francisco or New York, it may not look like such a bargain compared to the thousands of cheaper, safer small cities out there. 


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