It’s 10 O’Clock, Do You Know Who Your City Is?

(Photo: The blurry, official portraits painted by visitors sites ChooseChicago and CincinnatiUSA leave a lot to be desired.)

UPDATE (5:00 p.m.): And it’s an odd one.  Apparently, the same day this story appeared, the City of Chicago began promoting a redesigned “official” tourism website–and a nifty one at that, ExploreChicago, sponsored by the Chicago Office of Tourism, that tells the story of both city and citizens perfectly.  Kudos to City Hall for unveiling such a marvelous site.  The Chicago tourism website mentioned below, ChooseChicago, which also calls itself the city’s “official” tourism site, was created by the industry-funded Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. Unfortunately, it remains as limited in viewpoint as originally described.

Cities are the sum of the people who live there, that’s why each one is different. A recent article on popular city-watcher blog Urbanophile asked why so many Midwestern cities have trouble communicating this uniqueness to outsiders, usually opting instead to market themselves with similar, drab lists of hotels, restaurants, malls, and office parks that only serve to demonstrate their homogeneity.

As I commented there, I believe it’s a question of storytelling. Real uniqueness lies in the history of a place, and history is nothing more than the stories of people.  Regardless of lists of amenities, only by telling the stories of the people who came together–and continue to remain–in a given place can that place most deeply communicate to outsiders why they should visit, do business in, or move there.

It’s an emotionally moving appeal that many Midwestern cities forget to make, and it begins by answering the  question: “Who?”  Who founded the place and why? What great things did they accomplish there over the years? What did they invent? Who among them became famous–or infamous?

Who are they now? What races, ethnicities, and cultures do they represent? What are their neighborhoods like? And what are they doing to prepare their communities and their city for the future?

Some cities haven’t even begun to answer these questions, while others, for some reason, have stopped doing so. Yet, not knowing who peoples a place, that place becomes anonymous to outsiders. It begins to read like anywhere else on the planet, matched, peered, rivaled.  Ultimately, same.  And sameness is a bad way to try to fill hotel rooms and convention halls.

This week I took a look at the official visitors websites of my two favorites Midwestern cities: my adopted hometown of Chicago (ChooseChicago); and Ohio’s Queen City, Cincinnati (CincinnatiUSA). In doing so, I found that size is no predictor of marketing ability. Both visitors websites fall flat in the storytelling department, among a host of other faults.

I’ll put the worse first and say that although Cincinnati is one of the Midwest’s most underrated, vibrant, just plain cool medium-sized cities, you’d never know it from the almost aggressively mediocre CincinnatiUSA visitors site. Last August, after my first trip to the Queen City, upon my return I perused the site to learn more about the place for potential future visits.

What I found there surprised me so markedly–and not in a good way–that I fired off an email almost begging them to change the way they were presenting the bi-state region.  They never responded.  It now looks like they did take some of my suggestions to heart, but the site still has a long way to go.

Where it’s going–or more to the point, where you’re going if you visit Cincinnati–is a good question.  For some odd reason, the Queen City visitors site steadfastly refuses to use the words Ohio or Kentucky, the two states that Cincinnati’s metropolitan area straddles. Instead, throughout the site you read the made-up monicker, “CincinnatiUSA”, as if that were the name of an actual place.

It obviously isn’t. Last August, I asked why the visitors website didn’t want to name the states where people would actually be visiting.  Bi-state deal to not promote either state exclusively?  Fear that sophisticated big-city types would never deign to visit a state beginning with a ‘K’?  Whatever reason, avoiding placing your place in an actual place (get it?) instantly removes an enormous piece of any story you have to tell–and in this case is an affront to people who live in those states (in this case, Ohioans and Kentuckians), while you’re at it.

That fear of place probably explains why in in August as now there was no discussion on the visitors site at all about actual Cincinnatians, their cultures of background, or the places they live.  Not one word about the varied, vibrant, historic neighborhoods and diverse ethnic and cultural communities that together form the very fabric of the city.  The citizenry could be black, white, purple, or plaid and have come down from the moon or up from the depths of Atlantis.  They might as well be for all the information the website tells you about them, which remains nothing.

In fact, the only place on CincinnatiUSA’s front page to find an overall discussion of the city is by following a tiny link to a FAQ page hidden all they way in the footer. This FAQ bore the brunt of my criticism from last year.  Sadly, not much has changed. Here are three punishing passages from the page, followed by my take on the information presented.

Introduction
It’s been portrayed as a conservative Midwestern town with plenty of quirks (a foot race named for swine with wings?). But Cincinnati is filled with exciting events, attractions, and thousands of great restaurants!

Well, at least they don’t go all nine yards and say, “We’re not as exciting or dynamic as New York, Los Angeles, or other big cities,” like they used to in August, a phrase almost guaranteed to keep visitors looking for a vibrant place to go going elsewhere. But how about getting rid of that self-destructive first sentence and leading with what is true and exciting about the place, instead?

Should I rent a car?
Probably. Although bus service in and around the downtown area is easily accessible, many activities here take place in the suburbs which might not be on the bus routes…If you’re on a tight schedule…for the sake of convenience, a rental car is the way to go.

Last August, this passage actually told visitors that Cincinnati’s transit system was bad–so bad that they shouldn’t consider bothering to take it at all. At the time, it stunned me to witness one of Cincinnati’s public agencies throwing another under the bus so openly (not to mention literally), and I told them so in my email. Looks like they’ve adopted a more soft-shoed approach here, but the message remains the same: our bus system probably won’t get you where you’re going.  Way to support your city’s own public-transit and anti-congestion efforts, CincinnatiUSA.  (While we’re at it, considering that you’re the visitors bureau, you probably should make it a point to learn what suburban attractions are accessible by transit.)

Where’s a good place to shop?
One of the trendiest places is the new Rookwood Commons complex, the Norwood retail center which opened in August. The mall features 45 upscale merchants, including about a dozen or so (Zany Brainy, Z Gallery, Sur La Table, among others) that are new to Cincinnati.

August when?  And for that matter, Rookwood Commons where?  And for that matter, given that a Google search places Rookwood Commons in the suburbs, how about promoting a “good place to shop” in Cincinnati, itself? Perhaps an actual home-grown business instead of a chain? I can name a few stellar examples of those and I live in Chicago (High Street and Park + Vine, for starters). Have you actually been downtown in your own city, lately?

More comprehensive background information is actually to be found in the virtual pages of CincinnatiUSA if you know where to look. Hidden deep within pages and pages of those aforementioned, unexceptional attraction and amenity lists but nowhere accessible from the home page are two hard-to-find links: a welcome page (yes, a hidden welcome page) from CincinnatiUSA president Linda Antus; and an About the Region page. It took me ten minutes to find them.

Antus’ welcome page still refuses to use the words Ohio and Kentucky, so I guess that bone-headed omission started at the top and worked its pernicious way down.

But–Lo and behold!–that About the Region page does use them, for the first time telling you where Cincinnati is actually located. Even better, the page goes on to give you facts and figures about the metro area, links to useful resources like transit, weather, and business information, and even tells you why different kinds of visitors (e.g. “music lover”, “sports lover”, etc.) would enjoy a Queen City visit.

Admittedly, some of the links presented on the page are broken (and yes, that’s still bad show), but at least the information is here. So why the heck is it buried ten minutes into the visitors site instead of prominently displayed as a big, fat button on Page One? Your guess is as good as mine.

My lesson from browsing the CincinnatiUSA website? Apparently (if you go by the site), that the region’s location is worthy of disdain, the populace unworthy of description, the transit system inconvenient, and the best shopping not even in the city.  For its own visitors site to paint such a woefully misguided picture of the Queen City is not exactly being your own, best booster, folks. It’s more akin to telling potential visitors why they should stay home.

You just know someone in a position of power must think the CincinnatiUSA site is doing a stellar job for crap like this to remain on it. They’re wrong. My advice to them is to find another line of work, because they’re shooting their own city in the foot with this civically self-effacing website.

Surprisingly, my home city’s tourism website does no better a job in telling its own story. Certainly, the recently renovated ChooseChicago is sleeker than its Queen City counterpart, with longer lists of attractions and amenities to crow about. But another ten-minute browse here turned up the same key omission that the Cincinnati site suffers from: no answer to the question of “Who?”  Funny thing is, that question used to be answered on Chicago’s visitors wesbite.

One can argue that world cities like Chicago can rest on their many famous laurels, since millions of visitors will drop by anyway because of them.  That’s true: in this town we have a skyline; a lakefront; and a restaurant scene that are envied by many. Local icons like the Sears Tower, Second City improv, or Uno’s pizza need no introduction.

Still, in a city with the largest Polish population outside Poland, the deepest African-American cultural roots west of the Hudson, and the largest Mexican population east of the L.A. basin, our ethnic, racial, and cultural communities are attractions in themselves and a fundamental part of the story of our town.

Also fundamental to our civic message is our story for being: who first came here, when, and why; how our previous populations put us on the map–before and after we burned down; what our celebrated neighborhoods are like today; and why you should visit them (or at least visit further afield than Hyde Park and it’s 15 minutes of Presidential fame).

Until recently, all of these questions were answered on the ChooseChicago website.  They still are, for the most part, in the visitors bureau’s official printed guide. So why have such important pieces of Chicago’s story–the pieces about Chicagoans, themselves–been removed from the visitors website?

Along with the story of who we Chicagoans are, also recently gone missing from the site is an introduction to the city itself: where we’re located; how we’re laid out; and, yes, even what states our region is located in.  Worse, unlike on CincinnatiUSA, there is no lonely, hidden FAQ or About page on ChooseChicago where this information can be found.

I have no explanation for this seeming new trend of omission in the presentation of visitors information for key Midwestern cities.  I could understand if the problem was confined to the Cincinnati website, that burg with a lot of potential has an equal amount of conservative inertia to overcome.  But for Chicago’s website to dump such fertile pieces of its story off its visitor website is injurious to all Chicagoans, anywhere, who value their cultural backgrounds.

In the Windy City’s case, I have to wonder whether this is just one more misguided civic attempt to whitewash–here meant very literally–the public portrait of the city being displayed to the International Olympic Committee in order to win the 2016 Olympic Summer Games.  If we have to pretend to be something we’re not just to get the games, I for one don’t want them. [Ed. Note: Happily, this criticism doesn't apply to the city's new ExploreChicago site.]

I live in a vibrant, historic, multicultural, multi-racial city that presides over a region full of similarly described cities very much worth visiting (as most surely is Cincinnati).  Of my beloved city, fellow cities, and Midwest region, that is the story I want told. It’s the only one that has any hope of touching people’s hearts and helping outsiders see why we Midwesterners value our cities in the first place.

And it’s the only one that will help outsiders understand why they should value Midwestern cities, too.

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