Colerain Township, Ohio has a problem and it knows it. Here are two images that sum up both the problem and the attempted solution:

As perhaps the world’s most lapsed Catholic I still instantly recognized this rusty bit of iron for what it is. It’s a relic. A talisman. It’s a distant cousin three times removed from a splinter from the Cross or a tiny fragment from a Saint’s robe. It’s meant to have special healing powers that will bring health and prosperity to the town. It’s a shield to protect the innocent and vanquish evil. All you have to do is believe and its blessings will be revealed. I’ll get back to that in a moment. But first, there’s that other image…

If you drive up and down Colerain Avenue this is what you see. It’s a cavalcade of aging empty commercial properties. Tire shops, printers, steak houses, gas stations, burger joints, video rental stores, and real estate offices. They’re all toast.

Remember this photo? Did you notice the human in the center the first time? This is another troubling situation in Colerain Township. This poor bastard is an indicator species. And he’s not alone. There’s a significant and growing percentage of people in this community who can’t afford to own a car.

These are the young, the old, the infirm, and the poor. Here they are in an environment that was specifically designed to exclude them.

What are the options for the folks who find themselves standing on the side of Colerain Avenue? They can work part time at one of the fast food outlets. They can scrape by month to month with payday loans and pawn shop transactions. Or they can join the military which is by far the best career option, although it comes with certain risks.

Back in the 1950’s, Colerain Township was the recipient of a wave of respectable prosperous families who were crossing the municipal line out of Cincinnati. They drove through Mount Airy Forest and left behind high taxes, high crime, lower quality public services, old unfashionable buildings, and poor black people. If you couldn’t afford a brand new home and a car… you clearly didn’t belong.

The schools were new. The shopping centers and office parks were new. Tax revenue poured in. Police, teachers, and administrators were hired. Parks were created. Libraries opened. Life was very good.

Fast forward sixty five years. Everything that used to be shiny and new is now aging – not all of it well. There are now decades of accumulated salaries, pensions, and health care obligations for municipal workers, past and present. The roads, water pipes, lift stations, sewerage treatment plant, and public buildings are all in need of expensive maintenance. Tax revenue is in decline. This town like nearly every other town of its vintage is functionally insolvent.

There are now newer suburbs farther out where the homes are larger and the neighborhoods more exclusive. Mason and Beavercreek are where the prosperous families are migrating to these days. Young, educated people and wealthy empty-nesters are heading back to rapidly reviving inner city neighborhoods in Cincinnati. Colerain Township now has declining property values and is experiencing an influx of lower income residents. In the big scheme of things this post war suburb was disposable.

That takes us back to the talisman. It’s actually a piece of the World Trade Center from New York. It’s part of a larger memorial park dedicated to police, fire fighters, veterans, and to the ideals and values of the township.

This is a heartfelt and symbolic local monument. But it in no way even begins to address the problems afflicting this town. This poignant park is facing an intersection of arterials where the passing motorists are supposed to be impressed and think this town is every bit as prestigious as places like Mason and Beavercreek. But there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s wrong and how to fix it. This town isn’t struggling because of a lack of patriotism or sentimentality. And it isn’t a lack of flower beds, brick walkways, or flags either.

Images from Google Maps

Images from Google Maps

The town is broke because there’s a structural gap between revenue and expenses due to a suburban land use pattern that can never pay for its own obligations or maintenance. The memorial park is sitting in a sea of low-value surface parking lots, empty buildings, and buildings that are only occupied because they were bribed into existence with subsidies and tax abatements to keep up appearances. Meanwhile millions of dollars worth of public infrastructure sit underutilized.

Ultimately, Colerain has two options. It can reduce its physical infrastructure and default on its promises to municipal employees, which is the de facto path most post-war suburbs are on. Or it can add significant amounts of higher value private development to the existing public infrastructure chassis to generate more revenue. There are no other options.

I doubt the good people of Colerain are interested in transforming their old parking lots and dead strip malls into a thick Main Street downtown full of mixed-use buildings with shops on the ground floor and offices and apartments upstairs. I don’t think they’d even know how to build that sort of thing if they tried. They’re too obsessed with parking ratios and flower beds that look like the prosperous suburbs they no longer are. I’m not even sure there’s even a market for that kind of thing in this location. So I see continued decline and more desperate attempts at resurrection by pure faith. So be it.

(All photos by Johnny Sanphillippo)

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