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Michelle Nix has lived in a lot of places: Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, Oakland, Calif. But when it came time to start a family, she went home to Cincinnati.

Smart move. The once-battered Midwest city is in the middle of a radical transformation – and it ranks 8th in our recent list of affordable U.S. cities.

“It’s a great Midwestern city. It has almost anything you could want,” Nix said.

Nix and husband Stephen spend only about a quarter of their income on mortgage payments for their three-story brick shotgun-style home on the city’s north side, where they are raising Theo, 2, and Fritz, who’s 6 months old.

“(Cincinnati) has some delicious restaurants, dive bars, fancy bars, breweries, beautiful parks, two decent sports teams, college basketball, great niche neighborhoods and really nice, good-hearted people,” Nix said.

Cincinnati’s strategic location on the Ohio River made it a boomtown in the 1800s, thanks to steamboats, which helped connect the frontier of the fledging U.S. with the Port of New Orleans and the rest of the world. Some historians say it’s the first major city formed after the American Revolution, making it the first distinctly American city, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the Cincinnati Reds were the first professional baseball team.

The city also borders Kentucky and the slave states of the South, which made it a crossroads for racial tension during the Civil War era.

michele nixLike most Rust Belt cities, it suffered mightily as manufacturing declined and well-off residents fled to the suburbs during the second half of the 20th century.

But the city is undergoing a major urban renewal, highlighted by an ambitious project known as The Banks – mixed-use housing and commercial development along the river, bookended by baseball and football stadiums.

The renewal has paid off. General Electric recently announced it was moving its Global Operations center to the city, creating nearly 2,000 jobs. A low cost of living for employees and a new streetcar transportation option helped the city win over GE. Cincinnati is also home to corporate headquarters for Kroger, Procter and Gamble, and Macy’s. And it enjoyed 2.5% growth last year, the highest in the Midwest and among the highest in the country.

While the city itself has a modest population of 300,000, down almost half from its heyday in the 1950s, the surrounding metropolitan area (including parts of Kentucky and Indiana) includes 2.2 million, making it a top 25 market in the nation.

Its central location helps make up for what some residents might be missing living in the Midwest, Nix said.

“I think Cincinnati doesn’t have the same cultural events and activities like some bigger cities. Also, the music scene and theater are here, but we miss some bigger names to other cities,” she said. “We’re a 2-hour-or-less drive from Indy, Louisville and Columbus.”

On the other hand, with a median home sales price of $133,000, and a median household income of $56,000, many Cincinnati residents can meet their financial goals and still afford a trip or two to catch a Broadway show. Or in Nix’s case, a trip to Brooklyn to visit friend and author Caroline Zancan, and to marvel at real estate prices in one of America’s most expensive cities.

“I don’t see how they afford it some time,” she said.

Cincinnati by the Numbers:

  • Affordable Cities Ranking: 8th
  • Housing Poor Residents: 30.4%
  • Median Home Sales Price: $132,500, per Trulia
  • Median household income: $55,729 per Fact Finder

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Image: iStock; Inset image courtesy of Michelle Nix

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