Strong Citizens come in all forms. Some are just starting out, learning for the first time about the nuts and bolts of their local government and how they can become a bigger part of it. Others are professionals who deal with those nuts and bolts every day—and whose visions for what their own city ought to be doing might diverge dramatically from status quo attitudes. Many of these people—from the curious neighbor to the consummate professional—are members of the Strong Towns movement. But whatever your situation, they’re all working to find every opportunities they can to change the narrative about how we build strong places.
The member who sent us the following essay about their hometown of Lebanon, Ohio, wished to remain anonymous, but is hopeful that it will spark discussion in Lebanon about how the city sees itself and its future. We hope so too. The history of Lebanon related here is familiar: it echoes those of hundreds of other American towns and cities that have mortgaged their futures on unproductive patterns of growth... but that have a history and identity to be proud of, if they can embrace it anew. Is yours one of them? –Strong Towns staff.
My city is unlike any other.
Since long before the small village incorporated into a city in the 1970s, and even before it was legally considered a village, Lebanon, Ohio, was a destination. The town was laid out and land for future streets was dedicated by people with foresight, people with a vision. Lebanon was to be an urban oasis in the midst of an untamed and unforgiving countryside, a place that would welcome as much business and growth in its urban core as the area could support. The original road width on Broadway allowed stagecoaches from places like Cincinnati and Columbus to make a full 180 degree turn without having to leave town or the main road; the road was planned this way because Lebanon was often the last stop, the final destination. Upon tending to affairs here, traffic could continue on to other places, certainly. Often, however, Lebanon was the end of the line, and there was nothing left to do but turn around and return home.
As one of the oldest modern settlements in Ohio, Lebanon continued to grow from the roots established in 1803. Though Lebanon lacked the waterfront access of the now-larger cities in Ohio, rail and car traffic was welcomed into the city, and many successful businesses were founded. The Golden Lamb Inn—which also saw its beginnings in 1803—and the Lebanon Citizens National Bank—a product of the 1870s—are still in operation and running strong today. Many other industries have left their mark; whether they have since become defunct like the old shoe factory or have been repurposed like the power plant, their indelible ink has been written into the pages of Lebanon’s history. This was a place to build up and grow out.
But my city is just like any other.
Following World War II, the mass production and acceptance of personal vehicles took off, and with the Federal Highway Act of 1956, many changes began to take shape.
Over the years, as road traffic increased exponentially, the state took an increased notice in the streets of Lebanon. State routes had been established running through the heart of the city: 123 runs from Lebanon to Franklin, 48 from Dayton to Loveland and other southern areas, 63 from Hamilton and Monroe to old bridges over the Little Miami River, and state highway 42 funneled traffic from Cincinnati through Xenia to Columbus. Every one of these routes passed through the intersection of Broadway and Main Street.
The business was great, the patronage was frequent, and many more people began to experience the wonderful place that is Lebanon, Ohio. But one word caused the state to again take notice of little ol’ Lebanon: congestion. In the 1970s, with supposed improvements to safety and economic development as rallying points, the Department of Transportation began dumping millions of dollars into the design and construction of the 48 Bypass, a brand new limited-access route cut through the countryside on the fringe of Lebanon. Everyone hailed it a great victory when this new four-lane divided highway connected I-71 heading toward Cincinnati to areas around Lebanon and to the north. Traffic conditions were free-flow on the Bypass and calm downtown and everything was back to the coveted "small-town" feel.
Everything was not as it should have been, however. Instead of leaving the bypass to visit the Lebanon everyone knew and loved, travelers began skipping the downtown entirely. No longer were the local restaurants and one-of-a-kind shops the place to stop—shopping and dining were so much easier once the strip mall and drive-throughs were constructed immediately adjacent to the full-access interchange at Main Street’s far east end. With the growth of commerce along the fringes of town, even routes 63 and 123, which still run through downtown today, became a messy rush of commuters attempting to get from one side of Lebanon to the other as quickly as possible.
It was not long before home builders saw the opportunity and seized it: cheap, open land was available for subdivisions all along the new Bypass, and housing that was within a quick commute of the sprawling Cincinnati metro was in high demand. More than that, the city gave a full refund on city income tax to anyone who lived in Lebanon and worked elsewhere, aiming to become, both in practice and in policy, a bedroom community. Maybe the idea behind this huge influx of single-family homes was to stimulate demand for business in the city core again, but reality saw commuters bypassing downtown in the morning, hitting the drive-through in the evening, and bypassing downtown on the way back home. And since income tax is the city’s primary source of income, there was nothing left in the city to fund construction and maintenance in these new bedroom suburbs except the ailing downtown core. Tax dollars have been funneled away from our resilient but struggling downtown to these fragile suburbs for decades.
It is with excessive optimism that some might say we have learned from our mistakes. We should see the obvious signs of the errors of the past: the strip malls torn down to make way for car dealerships which eventually become used-car dealerships, the bustling gas stations that are slowly whittled down to grungy convenience stores, and schools constructed at the edge of town with little or no access for pedestrians or bikes (even though our kids walk and bike on the dangerous roads anyway).
Instead, we let the idea of high volumes of through traffic become our identity.
But my city is still unlike any other.
Lebanon is a strong and beautiful city. We hold an identity wholly apart from either nearby metro. This isn’t the kind of place where you travel between indistinguishable suburbs and forget what city you’re in. This place shows that it is different, from the unique Broadway streetscape to the fast pace of business on Mulberry, and from the vast attendance of the Carriage Parade to the humble but everlasting presence of our farmers' market. Lebanon was once a place, a destination for all kinds of people, and it can be so again.
Lebanon doesn’t need the through traffic. Lebanon doesn’t need the "through" mindset. We don’t need more bedrooms for commuters to spend ten hours of their days. We don’t need to draw tourists from Cincinnati and Dayton. We don’t need huge, silver-bullet developments like Union Village to increase downtown patronage. We already have the bones of a great downtown; we have since our forefathers started building it in 1803. What we need is bottom-up growth; more businesses that are uniquely Lebanon; more reasons to work here and spend our free time (and dollars) here. Fears of the loss of "small town feel" are misguided. Our downtown is an authentic expression of who we are.
We don’t need more endless bedrooms communities and chain retail to steamroll through our beautiful countryside. And we do not need one more development of detached single-family housing.
We need to be a city growing from the center outward, unafraid to grow taller and busier—busy with people going about their lives here, not passing through in their cars to somewhere else. We need more residents who are invested in the community and want to live and work in the heart of Lebanon.
My city is unlike any other. My city is not a thru street.
(Cover photo via Wikimedia Commons)