Work continues on the Cincinnati streetcar, shown here on Elm Street in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Al Behrman/AP

Ryan Messer and his grassroots group Believe in Cincinnati never took no for an answer.

Before last fall's municipal election, Ryan Messer's engagement in local politics amounted to little more than a seat on the board of the Cincinnati Opera. A few months later he was taking a phone call from Peter Rogoff, who was then head of the Federal Transit Administration.

"He was calling to ask very specifically, 'What do the people of Cincinnati want?'" Messer recalls. "That was a very interesting moment."

What the people wanted, Messer told Rogoff, was for the city to continue building its 3.6-mile streetcar loop. Messer was speaking on behalf of the grassroots advocacy group he founded, Believe in Cincinnati, which after sprouting almost overnight had become a political force in the city.

The streetcar had been a contentious local issue since it was first proposed in 2007. After voting down two ballot initiatives designed to stop the project in 2009 and 2011, proponents of Cincinnati's first rail service in more than 60 years had been feeling optimistic.

Then city council member and outspoken streetcar opponent John Cranley won the city's November 6, 2013, mayoral election. With contracts signed and nearly half a mile of track already laid, Cranley stopped the project mid-construction. At $133 million, the streetcar was "reckless spending," he said.

Although the project manager presented an independent audit saying it would cost Cincinnati almost as much to halt streetcar construction as it would to finish it, Cranley read his election as a mandate to kill the project. He vowed to veto any attempt to revive it.

It was a blow to streetcar supporters like Messer, who had voted overwhelmingly for Cranley's opponent, Roxanne Qualls.

"It created quite a divide in the city," Messer says. "I think it was the catalyst that allowed us to form this progressive movement in Cincinnati."

Messer emailed friends, neighbors, and others who had supported the streetcar in its years lurching through legislative approval. Soon they were gathered around his coffee table, plotting what would become Believe in Cincinnati.

The group had just six weeks to sway City Hall to restart construction, before a funding deadline would pass, evaporating nearly $41 million in grant money from the federal government. They had to move fast. "We were building the plane while it was already on the runway," remembers Brad Hughes, another Believe member.

Messer, a native of nearby Rising Sun, Indiana, had no previous experience organizing. But his background as a sales executive for Johnson & Johnson taught him about branding and messaging. Believe in Cincinnati members flooded City Council chambers, marched along the streetcar's planned route carrying green balloons, and organized one of the fastest drives to mount a ballot initiative in the city's history.

They gathered more than 11,000 signatures in eight days, forcing a vote in which two council members who had campaigned against the project just months earlier voiced their support for it. It was a veto-proof, six-three vote.

Ryan Messer speaks to the media outside Cincinnati City Hall on December 9, 2013. (Al Behrman/AP)

Construction resumed earlier this year, and the route is expected to open in 2016, although the resurrected project still faces a funding gap. (Supporters say they'll be able to raise enough money through advertising and donations to make the project financially viable.)

And they have high hopes for the economic development potential of the streetcar, which will climb from Cincinnati's downtown riverfront through the booming neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine. A historic neighborhood that had become the city's epicenter of poverty and crime, Over-the-Rhine has undergone rapid redevelopment in the last 10 years.

The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, a nonprofit development group known as 3CDC, has built and rehabbed hundreds of apartment units and added hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial space, much of which is now trendy bars and restaurants.

Messer bought an abandoned Italianate four-flat in Over-the-Rhine a few years ago, and like many new owners in the neighborhood, says the streetcar was an important factor in his decision to move. He's now the president of the Over-the-Rhine Community Council and a Democratic precinct executive for the neighborhood, as well as an advocate for gay rights—he and his husband, who were legally married in New York, celebrated their union in Cincinnati's Washington Park last fallraising speculation about a possible run for higher office.

Not everyone is happy about how Over-the-Rhine is changing. Some community groups say in its whiplash transition from marginal area to yuppie haven, the neighborhood has sidelined affordable housing, and that 3CDC's reclaiming Over-the-Rhine merely pushed its problems somewhere else. They worry the streetcar will promote economic development at the expense of its most vulnerable residents.

"The streetcar can begin to connect neighborhoods," says Brad Hughes. "I think we need to make sure we have good development, that this is a rising tide that lifts all the boats." Messer has asked city officials to make sure 3CDC leaves room for smaller-scale developers (of which he is one) and called for more affordable housing.

Now that Believe in Cincinnati is no longer consumed with ensuring the streetcar's survival, members like Brad Hughes and his wife Karen, who moved into Over-the-Rhine in 2012, think it's time to expand the group's mission. Karen Hughes, a design professor at the University of Cincinnati, says the steering committee is convening soon to discuss that very question. “We're looking at things that are a little more long-term now,” she says, like extending the streetcar line beyond Over-the-Rhine and connecting it with a larger regional transit system.

Believe will continue to focus on transit. But Messer, in an op-ed he published this spring, laid out a broader vision of a cross-party, explicitly urbanist political platform that embraces both fiscal responsibility and social progressivism.

Will Cincinnati see the birth of an urbanist political movement? If Ryan Messer sticks around, it just might.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Passengers line up for a bullet train at a platform in Tokyo Station.
    Transportation

    The Amazing Psychology of Japanese Train Stations

    The nation’s famed mastery of rail travel has been aided by some subtle behavioral tricks.

  2. Life

    How Manhattan Became a Rich Ghost Town

    New York’s empty storefronts are a dark omen for the future of cities.

  3. vacant store fronts in mining town in Arizona
    Equity

    America’s Worsening Geographic Inequality

    The economic gap between have and have-not places continues to widen.

  4. Transportation

    Why Public Transportation Works Better Outside the U.S.

    The widespread failure of American mass transit is usually blamed on cheap gas and suburban sprawl. But the full story of why other countries succeed is more complicated.

  5. North Korean soldiers carry the Korean People's Army flag as they walk past residential buildings along Ryomyong Street in Pyongyang.
    Design

    What's Behind North Korea’s Building Boom?

    Kim Jong-un is transforming Pyongyang, the Hermit State’s capital city, into a high-rise-filled “socialist fairyland.”