I have lived in Cincinnati for close to 13 years and I’ve never been on a Metro bus. For the last few months I’ve been thinking about this fact, and it bothers me because I’m not sure where the problem lies. Is it Cincinnati or me?
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m originally from Asheville, N.C., back when it was a far less enlightened destination. Thirty years ago, no one would have ever imagined the alternative global haven of today. But that’s where I learned my first set of lessons about public transportation.
My grandmother worked as a domestic, so at least three days a week, especially during the summers when I was too young to go traipsing off on my own, she woke me up early, made sure I was fed and properly dressed and took me to work with her. That meant waiting at the bus stop with other women, like my Nana, proud and pressed, eager to shake my hand and talk with her about their families and the coming day. I remember the ladies and gents, mostly black folks, who smiled and nodded at me as we stepped on the bus and searched for seats. I was a quiet kid, so it was natural to just sit back and study the other riders; it made the trip fly by.
We would arrive downtown and transfer to another bus that would take us away from the downtown park and business district, such as it was (a few local banks and old shopping favorites like Woolworth and JC Penney). There were more hands to shake, more faces, still largely black, and unspoken divisions. The few white folks never went out of their way to speak to my grandmother. They didn’t smile or reach out to shake my hand. I wouldn’t have said it this way at the time, but in hindsight I realize that I was invisible to them in exactly the way Ralph Ellison wrote about. This was a time before the explosion of urban violence, the rise of Hip Hop and baggy jeans, and this was a firmly Southern town.
The bus boycott was an episode no one would have mentioned.
Assassinations. Civil Rights. The Black Panthers. None of these topics mattered in the park or on these buses. Everybody just kept their heads down and went about their business, stuck to their own. Public transportation made all this possible in those not-quite post-Civil Rights days.
Buses hold a significant place in my memories, despite the fact that we also had a car, and as I got older I ended up hanging out with friends who either saved up to buy their own first cars or borrowed family cars for weekend excursions. Between those days with my grandmother and my teenage years, the bus granted me my first taste of freedom. The bus was about getting into the center of our little city, down to Malaprops, our first independent bookstore (which is still going strong, and in fact remains one of those hotspots for writers who hit the road for book tours), the public library, St. Lawrence Catholic Church (now a basilica), where I served as an altar boy until I left at 16 for prep school.
Now, during my trips back home, I no longer ride the bus. Of course, downtown Asheville has changed. The park and the business district have evolved. The buses no longer maintain the same open depot because downtown is a walking village, full of trendy green restaurants and globally focused markets and shops. Malaprops and St. Lawrence are still there, but the people, the black folks that used to congregate and wait for buses to take them to work, they aren’t there anymore.
It’s a complicated situation, public transportation, particularly in urban areas struggling with their urbanity. I’m intrigued by an op-ed I saw Feb. 11 in the New York Daily News by urbanist Richard Florida, who argues that if President Obama wants to create a meaningful legacy during his second term he should consider setting up a Department of Cities. Drawing from various established Cabinet-level departments (Housing and Urban Development, Energy, Education, Commerce, Interior and Transportation), the Cities position would allow for a sharper focus of discussion and implementation and should be spearheaded by a real visionary who has a proven record of changing urban landscapes. (Think Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell or New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.)
I’m already sold on the idea and not at all because of the names being bandied about or the wonky policy and data points that Florida outlined in his proposal (which sadly will probably never happen). No, for me, this is an idea that could re-establish and mobilize communities across the country. It could set the stage for a generation of American urban dwellers to emerge with their own stories/memories to hand down to those that follow them. I firmly believe that all the fears about the changing face and demographics of America are rooted in an unspoken concern about America’s shift back to cities, away from the rural heartland of Middle America.
We need to address the fears, plain and simple and right now. There’s no need to leave anyone behind. And it’s time for me to get my butt back on the bus again. Let’s ride.
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