On Sunday, July 12, Cincinnati City Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld announced what had been an open secret for any who follow city politics: he’s running to be Cincinnati’s next mayor. In his launch speech, Sittenfeld described Cincinnati’s story as a “tale of two cities,” where zip codes are still determining factors for the trajectory of one’s life.
Sittenfeld, unlike many young people who have long been leaving Cincinnati in search of other opportunities, always wanted to return to his hometown. In fact, he turned down a prestigious career at Google in order to return home and do non-profit work to improve the city’s school system.
“I like the idea of a city and the scale of a city where you—as one individual—can roll your sleeves up, get involved in something and, if you work hard, down the line, point to the fruit of your labor and say, ‘Hey, because of my effort, this thing changed with this organization in that neighborhood for the city as a whole,’” he said.
Sittenfeld’s life is what many would consider a Cincinnati success story, influenced by a family he described as one with a “sense of civic mindedness.” Having studied at Princeton University and then at Oxford University on a Marshall Scholarship, Sittenfeld decided to return to his hometown and serve the community he learned to love while growing up. Soon after his return, he won a seat on City Council and has served the city in this capacity since.
With the actual election over a year away, the long campaign’s platform is being framed by recent protests for racial justice and a pandemic that is certain to have dire and long-lasting effects. Indeed, Cincinnati’s many challenges are in part what inspire Sittenfeld to serve the city he’s called home for so long. Furthermore, it doesn’t take long into a conversation with Sittenfeld to realize how much pride he has for Cincinnati—a city that, despite all its issues that demand tough work, he views as having a very bright future.
“You could see the seeds of possibility. You can look at a city like Cincinnati with its history, with its business base, with things like its river and our topography and say, ‘This has so many of the ingredients to be an extraordinary city,’ and I want to help get us there,” he said about his decision to return to Cincinnati.
While Sittenfeld has much to say in praise of the Queen City, he also recognizes its challenges and opportunities for experimentation and vision-crafting. He views cities as “these grand experiments in the question of, how do we live together?” adding that “at their best, cities can be just these beautiful mosaics of our society.”
Achieving this version of a city, however, isn’t easy work. Cincinnati has one of the worst childhood poverty rates in the entire country, with more than 40%—over 26,000—of the city’s children living below the federal poverty level. And Cincinnati has also faced its own problems with racial justice, especially after former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing fatally shot Sam DuBose, a Black man, in 2015.
“A city is a forever-unfinished project that you’re always trying to improve and improve and improve,” he said. “I would like to look back 10 years from now and 25 years from now and say that Cincinnati, internally, people feel is an equitable, just place where everybody has a shot—no one gets left behind. And externally, I want people to look at Cincinnati and say, ‘They have restored themselves as a leading American city,’ because I think we belong in that top tier.”
Building an equitable city is solidly the core of Sittenfled’s campaign, and he returned to this idea throughout the interview:
“I don’t want us to be a great city for half the city. I want us to be a great city for everyone that calls this place home.”
A couple of days after his campaign announcement, I talked with Sittenfeld over the phone about his relationship with Cincinnati, why he chose to return and what he envisions for the future of the city. The following is the transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
José Pablo Fernández García: Could you share a bit of your life story…maybe some formative things that brought you to where you are now?
P.G. Sittenfeld: When I think about formative things, my parents came to Cincinnati 50 years ago. They didn’t know anyone here. They didn’t have money. You know, they were kind of coming to try and just begin their adult lives. And I feel like this city really sort of wrapped its arms around them early in a way that I think has just given an ongoing sense of civic mindedness: if a community wraps its arms around you, how can you love your community back? So I think that ethos has been formative.
I have three older sisters. I’m the youngest of four kids. All three of my sisters are pretty incredible people. They’ve been very successful in their careers. They’re great mothers. I feel like I had amazing role models from a pretty early age. My mom was my teacher at the relatively small school that I went to. She was actually my teacher in preschool. She was the librarian in middle school. She was my art history teacher for AP Art History in high school. I feel like there were- none of us chooses who our parents are, right? So there were certainly just some strokes of good fortune. I had supportive family around me—parents who were quick to put a book in my hands. Good- great role models in my older sisters.
My family growing up was not particularly political. They were more civic. So it was more likely that my parents would be involved at a local museum than in a campaign. But I do think there was this sort of just hovering, this interest in the life of the city, the life of the community around you. So I did an internship for a city councilman, who actually is now the chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, David Pepper—did that in high school. I think there were initial seeds of interest in public service and in politics.
As you know, [I] went off to Princeton—was very involved in both journalism, student government, was an English major. I’m kind of fast forwarding here. [I] won a Marshall scholarship—went over for two years of study. But really, I mean, most of the edification was outside the classroom: just constantly being around fascinating people and benefiting from their perspectives. And then, I think always, there were opportunities elsewhere, but I think I knew I always wanted to come back to Cincinnati.
And two things there. One, I like the idea of a city and the scale of a city where you—as one individual—can roll your sleeves up, get involved in something and, if you work hard, down the line, point to the fruit of your labor and say, “Hey, because of my effort, this thing changed with this organization in that neighborhood for the city as a whole.” So I was very attracted to the ability to make an impact in a city like Cincinnati. And I also was excited about its trajectory, which I guess I would say it has not reached its destination. We still haven’t reached our destination. There’s more work to do. But you could see the seeds of possibility. You can look at a city like Cincinnati with its history, with its business base, with things like its river and our topography and say, “This has so many of the ingredients to be an extraordinary city,” and I want to help get us there.
JPFG: How would you say your perspective on Cincinnati has evolved over the years, especially leaving for a handful of years and then coming back?
PGS: Yeah, I feel like often when you’re growing up someplace as a child, there are just less sort of coordinates on the map of your life—right? So there’s home. There’s school. Maybe there’s like a park nearby. Maybe there’s your friend’s house. Maybe there’s Skyline Chili. But I think a lot of young people, they don’t, I think fully—I mean, this is true for me—understand the totality of the city, both the scale that it’s like- A city is so much bigger than the five or ten places where you spend most of your time. A city’s so much more diverse than just your surrounding neighborhood. I mean, there are pockets and cultures within the city. So I think one of the ways in which it’s just understood is [that] one of the true pleasures of being an elected official for a place like Cincinnati is it’s your job to be everywhere, to know everyone, to kind of have your finger on the pulse of all pockets of the city.
So, like, I’m planning to go and get Thai food tonight in Sayler Park, which is as far west as you can go in the city of Cincinnati. It’s down along the river. It has a very different feel than you know where I live in East Walnut Hills. I, during the rallies, went to a march in Avondale—historic, predominantly African American neighborhood in the city of Cincinnati. So I just think it’s both fascinating, but I also think it’s very important to say, “What, how do all these pieces fit together? And what is the whole?” And I think your exposure becomes a lot greater as time goes on with the city.
I also mean, as personal as my relationship with the city felt, I’ve always almost felt like Cincinnati is like an extended family member. I mean, I know it’s a place, but it feels like it exists in my head almost as sort of like an animated place. So what I was going to say, even though it’s always felt sort of personal in that regard, I think, for me, my relationship to my hometown has gotten deeper and more personal because it’s now the place where I met my wife. It’s the place where we are raising our family. It’s a place that- I can’t separate my career from the geography of this place. So it’s the place where I’m pursuing my dreams—both my dreams for the city and my dreams personally.
And then the final way—and this is not unique to me, but the city is changing a lot, right? So our population is growing for the first time in decades and decades rather than contracting. There’s been a ton of exciting development in various neighborhoods where new restaurants and coffee shops and small businesses are popping up. Those are changes that are there for anyone to see who’s paying attention, but that sort of changes your sense of the place around you too.
JPFG: Going off of that…
PGS: There’s one other thing that I would say on that. Sorry to interrupt. I feel like cities are these grand experiments in the question of, how do we live together? How do we live together amongst people who are different than us? And, I think at their best, cities can be just these beautiful mosaics of our society. Obviously, at their worst, you can see frictions and fault lines and staggering and egregious disparities across race and income and whatnot. And then I also think, sort of because of this experiment, there’s also just a sense that a city is a forever unfinished project that you’re always trying to improve and improve and improve.
JPFG: Going off the idea that the city is changing so much now. I mean, I’ve seen it: the city I moved to when I was four years old is so different than what it is today. But what do you think of the narrative that’s been around for so long of the area as one in decline? The Rust Belt is named after that decline. Because at least for me, personally, it’s been casting a negative shadow on the area. And I think it does so on a national scale, especially for people who don’t know the Midwest. And now that Cincinnati is growing again, and there’s all this exciting development, how do you want to shift that narrative?
PGS: Yeah, so I think you kind of have to not be monolithic with your narratives. To talk about the Midwest is like talking about the United States. Like how different is San Francisco from the panhandle of Florida? Or how different is New York City from Southern Texas? So there are again, so many different microcosms and pockets within the Midwest. Obviously, like I’ve committed myself and my focus is on the city of Cincinnati, which I think kind of stands out as a positive story where we’re undergoing a renaissance.
I think that our biggest challenge is that as we have had something of a renaissance unfold, our city’s worked for some people, but not for all people. And we need to create a city where a rising tide truly lifts all boats. And that has not been the case. As I kind of referenced a minute ago, there’s been some incredible revitalization in certain neighborhoods. And yet, we’re still a city, where zip code dictates life expectancy. So there’s a real divergence.
So in terms of the broader narrative, I think the reason that narrative exists has a lot to do with the overall decline in, you know, manufacturing based in the United States. I think as a sort of a broader narrative, it’s one that I don’t like, I push back on. The Midwest—like any other region in the country—is a diverse place with some incredible assets, a lot of vibrancy, and like every other area of the country we also have our challenges. But I’m also bullish about the Midwest. I think there are cost of living, quality of life dynamics that tilt in our favor.
I think that as we as a country and as a globe don’t do nearly enough to address climate change, the Midwest is positioned more resiliently than other pockets of the country as we face some of the worst impacts of climate change. We have incredible history, academic institutions. So one, I don’t think that narrative really pertains accurately to a place like Cincinnati, and two, I’m just not a fan of the narrative in general.
I think we have made a lot of progress. And we have a lot of things going in our favor. But you know, I don’t want us to be a great city, for half the city. I want us to be a great city for everyone that calls this place home.
JPFG: I think there’s this interesting question out there right now of all the people in bigger cities like New York or in the Bay Area, who suddenly find themselves working at home. There’s been this question of, well, is it time for the interior of the country to take advantage of that? Have you given any thought to that?
PGS: Yeah I have, as a matter of fact. I think that there is certainly the potential. It’s not guaranteed that it will happen, but there is the potential that you will see what I like to call the geography of talent gets scrambled. Where, if you’re working in some elite industry—and perhaps that elite industry is concentrated on the coast, you know, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, D.C., New York—now, rather than having to go into the office at Google every day, you could work from anywhere you want because of how the pandemic has changed the nature of the workplace.
I think you’re gonna see a lot of people say, “Hey, my roots are in this other part of the country. There’s higher quality of life. There’s better cost of living. Maybe I have proximity to parents or to grandparents as I start a family.” I think you’re going to see a lot of folks say, “Hey, I’m still going to work this same high powered job that I was initially, but instead of doing it from these very expensive coastal cities, I want to do it from the city of Cincinnati from Indianapolis from Oklahoma City, etc.” I think that will unfold as a pattern, and I think cities like Cincinnati would be smart to kind of market ourselves and say, “Hey, come, come live a better life here.”
JPFG: Yeah, and I feel like there’s a lot that people like about cities like New York in terms of cultural offerings or the social atmosphere. So how do you think cities like Cincinnati can capture that?
PGS: This is specific to Cincinnati, so I’m not I’m not saying every city can boast what I’m about to say. But for folks who say, “I want cultural vibrancy.” Well, my response would be come to a city that has the first professional baseball team in the country, that has one of the oldest ballets and symphonies in the country, that has this sort of enchanting topography of seven hills and a historic river that was the dividing line between free free states and slave states, that is the newest city to become a Major League Soccer city, that has incredible institutions: civic institutions like our museum center and our globally renowned zoo and the Taft museum.
I just think there is more to do and to be stimulated by here than anyone has time for. So yeah, I would push back on anyone that’s like “oh, in order to get my fill of this or that I have to live in New York.” It’s just factually inaccurate. Now look, I think Cincinnati is lucky in that we maybe punch above our weight in terms of per capita civic and cultural institutions that are a draw.
JPFG: Going back a bit to why you decided to come back to Cincinnati, you mentioned that you always kind of knew you would, so you could go a bit more in depth into that?
PGS: The two sort of like big thematic reasons were, is my- Well, maybe three reasons. It was my hometown and a place I’ve always had just a lot of organic love for. That’s one. Two, I was excited about my sense of the possible trajectory of the city. I just thought this is a city that’s heading in an exciting direction. And then three, my own personal desire to help move that trajectory along and to be part of making an impact in Cincinnati.
More specifically, when I was in the second year of my Marshall scholarship over in England, I was back in Cincinnati for winter break, and I met a woman—her name is Darlene Kamine—who was doing extraordinary work with our public school system. And as I was thinking about different career opportunities, including in places outside of Cincinnati, I was so inspired by meeting her that I said, “I would love to come back and learn from you, work alongside you.” So we started an education nonprofit together when I left England.
JPFG: That aligns a lot with what Midstory’s founders saw. They saw the Midwest as a problem-rich area, and not in a negative way. Rather, as in a place of opportunities to have an impact.
PGS: Yeah, I agree with that. I agree with that.
JPFG: What are some of those big opportunities or challenges that you see are here to be solved and would really benefit from having more people invested in them?
PGS: Yeah, at City Hall, I chair the committee that oversees innovation for the city. So, I’ve really leaned into and been involved with our innovation ecosystem. And as one example, I think if you want to be a startup founder and be an entrepreneur, there are probably more per capita coders in Silicon Valley, but I think there are a lot of other advantages to a place like Cincinnati—especially to kind of have your community cheering you along and asking “how can we help?”
A buddy of mine here, a guy named Charlie Key, he’s the CEO of Losant. He’s an incredible entrepreneur—has already had great success. He could live and be anywhere. But he’s like, “Cincinnati is actually a more exciting arena for me to be doing what I’m doing.” So, I think being intentional about creating an environment where the jobs of the future can come to fruition, I think that’s really important. Yeah, I just think a lot of the things that someone could do elsewhere, they can also do in Cincinnati, but maybe potentially have a better life in the process. I mean, I just think that the challenges around cost of living and quality of life in some coastal cities is very real.
JPFG: In the past 20 years—I guess you could say my entire life—there’s been a series of failings. There was the Great Recession. There’s climate change, all the economic inequality and now a pandemic. So, what do you want to see for the next generation? Like the next twenty years, next forty years even for Cincinnati, especially now that our sense of normal is completely out the window.
PGS: Well look, I think because we are currently navigating three concurrent crises—a public health crisis, an economic crisis, a racial justice crisis—there’s no question that, you know, we’re going to need to rebuild our city. And for me, sort of the North Star is “Are we rebuilding in an equitable way?” Where no matter what neighborhood in the city of Cincinnati you’re born into it, no matter what circumstance you’re born into, this city can be a city of opportunity for you. And I think that’s kind of going to be my driving mission. And look, I would like to look back 10 years from now and 25 years from now and say that Cincinnati, internally, people feel is an equitable, just place where everybody has a shot, no one gets left behind. And externally, I want people to look at Cincinnati and say, “They have restored themselves as a leading American city,” because I think we belong in that top tier.