As nearly 200 people filed into the Ensemble Theatre to watch Mayor Mark Mallory deliver his eighth and final state of the city address, there was an odd scene on stage.

There was no lectern for the mayor to stand behind, neither were there any city, state or American flags customary for such occasions. Even the tension of a political speech seemed absent.

While the crowd waited for Mallory to appear, they soaked in a scene that was dressed as a living room, complete with a white sofa, hardwood floors, lamps and a dining room table. The set was the living room for Rapture, Blister, Burn—a 2013 Pulitzer finalist that shows how men and women can overcome disappointment. The play ended just a few days prior to the speech.

Instead of creating a more traditional setting, Mallory kept the stage untouched as a means to convey a message.

“I felt like I was home and Cincinnati is home,” Mallory told Cincy Magazine, during an interview in the cavernous mayor’s wing at City Hall. “But Rapture, Blister, Burn is kind of the way Cincinnati was seen before I became mayor.”

When Mallory strolls off into the Queen City sunset, he’ll leave a footprint as large as any leader before him. History will serve as the most apt judge of Mallory’s legacy, but his mark has already taken shape.

He took office in 2005 as Cincinnati’s first directly elected black Mayor, trying to wash away a stain of racial upheaval and a council chambers embroiled in acrimony. Eight years later, his “stronger” executive position allowed him to foster downtown rejuvenation, a controversial parking plan and a streetcar (now in jeopardy).

“I said I was going to change the direction of the city, and we did that,” says Mallory.

DOWNTOWN FOCUS

It’s no secret Mallory’s policies focused on a struggling downtown, looking to revitalize itself through investment and progressive initiatives.

“Mayor Mallory turned out to be somebody who got things done as much as he could,” says Dr. Gene Beaupre, director for government relations at Xavier University. Beaupre has observed Cincinnati politics for 35 years as an instructor who uses the city’s political landscape to teach. He also served as an aid and consultant for former mayors Dwight Tillery and Jerry Springer.

Beaupre says Mallory’s calm and collected demeanor differed from previous leaders’ brashness, but his promotion of the city rivaled others.

Most would see his 2007 Reds’ opening pitch debacle as a black eye, but like his approach to the city, he was able to turn a negative into a positive. Although his wild and awkward toss was hardly planned, Mallory was able to divert the fallout into a promotional campaign that included national television appearances endorsing the Queen City.

“I never set out to be visible. That is a default of being the mayor,” says Mallory. “That was part of my agenda to bring a different kind of national and international attention to the city.”

His marketing campaign brought national conventions, including the Urban League, the Masons, the NAACP and others to Cincinnati. His accomplishments included the 2012 World Choir Games, which drew 208,000 people to downtown. Not only did it draw thousands of participants from 64 countries, it also attracted suburbanites who saw the city in a new light.

“The word spread out to cities around the world, but also to suburbanites who hadn’t been downtown in 10 to 15 years,” says Dr. Jane Anderson, political science professor at the University of Cincinnati. “I heard them say ‘I had no idea the city had this, I hadn’t been here in so long and it’s looking really good.’ At that point we were beginning to see more people come from the suburbs and spend their money downtown.”

Like Beaupre, Anderson has a seasoned understanding of Cincinnati politics and uses her knowledge to instruct students. She also tried participating with two unsuccessful council bids in 1999 and 2001.

Instead of staging an exodus to larger cities such as Chicago, New York or Boston, Beaupre and Anderson have witnessed college graduates remain in Cincinnati and migrate to the Banks, Over-the-Rhine and other areas of downtown.

“That was unprecedented seven or eight years ago,” says Beaupre. “Many graduates feel like they can stay here and get jobs.”

It’s an overstatement to suggest downtown redevelopment is a product of Mallory’s administration. But while 3CDC and other private investors get much of the credit, Mallory greased the economic wheels without much public neck wringing or mud slinging.

“I don’t think it would have happened without him,” says Beaupre. “The fact of the matter is he got people in a room to agree with him. That stuff wasn’t making headlines and he didn’t want it to.”

STREETCAR LEGACY

Whether Mallory agrees with it or not, many will peg his two terms to the streetcar. Despite several obstacles, including funding and political opposition, he advertised the project as a vehicle for the city’s fledgling prosperity and did his best to deliver.

However, his hopes for a rail network that links employment sectors may be grinding to a halt. While construction crews lay tracks unabated in Over-the-Rhine, a new mayor—and a new anti-streetcar majority of council—looks to derail the project. Mallory says he doesn’t have plans to push back.

“As the new administration comes in, it will be up to the new mayor to set the course of things for the city,” says Mallory. “[Whether it’s] the outgoing mayor, the outgoing president, the outgoing governor, they fade into the background… that’s the way it’s meant to be, and this is the way it will be.”

The city has already spent $25 million for the $133-million project, which was funded in part by federal grants. If the streetcar is aborted, the real cost or savings for the city won’t be determined until the decision is made.

After years of fighting, Mallory doesn’t see any reason for regret.

“I don’t live in that world,” says Mallory. “We had the situation we had and faced the obstacles we faced, and we went out and got the resources that we got… I don’t know how that could have been done any differently.”

THE NEIGHBORHOODS

Speak with anyone in the anti-Mallory Camp and they will reference his trips to places like Saudi Arabia, China and Japan as wasteful and useless. His courting of businesses and corporations around the world has attracted criticism, but Mallory maintains it was an essential tool to keep the city competitive.

“You can’t garner resources by just sitting in this office,” he says. “You got to be there. It’s not rocket science. If you don’t go, you can’t get it.”

He cites new corporate headquarters such as Nielsen, Dunnhumby, Omnicare and others in Cincinnati as proof of his trips’ worth. All told, he says “hundreds of millions of dollars” were brought to the city.

Unfortunately, some haven’t experienced all the fruits.

Patricia Milton has served as the president of the Avondale Community Council and worked with Mallory on several community initiatives while he was still a state senator. As the mayor, Milton says Mallory’s administration supported Avondale, but it took a lot of lobbying and campaigning at City Hall to secure grants for neighborhood revitalization. Some of the other underprivileged communities that didn’t have the same resources were left out.

“The mayor’s legacy is downtown and it won’t be in the neighborhoods,” says Milton, who still believes that Mallory was a positive mayor for two terms. “I think he was very good to some, and good to most.”

The Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor at New Prospect Baptist Church in Over-the-Rhine and co-chairman for the Cincinnati Action Now commission that was formed to address racial equity following the 2001 riots, saw ostensible improvement in portions of his church’s neighborhood, but he didn’t see it spread evenly. Although Lynch acknowledges the advances under Mallory, he still sees disparity in the city.

“A lot of the progress happened, but it also caused some displacement of the poor, so it’s a double-edged sword,” says Lynch. “To be true progress, people at the bottom rungs of society have to progress as well, and I don’t see that happening.”

He hopes mayor-elect John Cranley can spread wealth and resources to the 50 other neighborhoods.

MOVING ON

Mallory holds his cards close to his chest when he talks about his future.

“I’m going to relax for awhile,” he says. “Other than that, I don’t know.”

Even the most ardent Mallory critic knows the former mayor has potential for higher office, but Mallory is not saying anything yet. Nonetheless, he’s not tongue-shy when speaking about his accomplishments as the city’s leader.

During his hour-long address at the Ensemble Theatre, Mallory crisscrossed the living room set in an impromptu fashion. Sitting cross-legged on the couch or at the edge of the coffee table, he spoke about his challenges and successes. He even took a seat at the dining room table. He did this with casual gestures for a politician leaving office with a confident sense of achievement.

“We have returned to our heritage: A can-do city. Making national headlines, making international headlines, now for the right reasons,” Mallory said at the end of the speech. “Cincinnati has returned to the column of great cities.”

It’s now up to the next mayor to keep it there.