(Photo: “I am Cincinnati; no flashbulbs, please.”–Leah Spurrier, co-founder of the Queen City’s fabulous High Street.)
(12/27/13) See also Cincinnati is Cool, Part 2: The Streetcar Edition.
(4/17/09) I never expected my Cincinnati trip report to generate such an overwhelming response. Welcome to new readers sent here from from CiN Weekly, Design Cincinnati, Cinplify, Building Cincinnati, the foodie site Get in Mah Belly, and many other fine Queen City blogs. I’m grateful to have your readership, and to have made a difference in the debate about Cincinnati–present and future. (Please see also It’s 10 O’Clock, Do You Know Who Your City Is? for a comparative look at the tourism websites of Cincinnati and Chicago.)
This is an epic post, so let me eat my words up front. Despite my pre-trip trepidation to travel to the land of the abandoned subway, as it turned out, Cincinnati is cool. And don’t you know, ex-New Yorker and current Downtown Chicagoan that I am, I half-expect to turn into a pillar of salt for saying so.
I had been jonesing for a break from blogging before the end of summer, so when Cincinnati Jamie asked if I wanted to ride shotgun on a weekend trip back home to check on his Queen City condo, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t expect more than a few quiet days in a quaint backwater, a plate of chili, and some gratuitous references (on my part) to WKRP.
I admit it. Cincinnati blew me away. (See trip photos in my Picasa web album.)
That came especially as a shock considering the trip it took to get there. I had only ridden Indiana highways once before, on the way into Chicago five years previous with my refugee New York possessions. I remember two things from that drive: boredom from passing through 150 miles of the middle of nowhere; and thinking that the radio announcers were pulling my leg every time they mentioned “Michiana”.
I longed for that kind of action on last month’s 300-mile lengthwise schlep through the Hoosier state, highlighted only by a construction detour through the environmental degradation of Gary and ironic graffiti on a men’s room wall in Crown Point that read, “NASCAR: The other white race”. We intended to stop in downtown Indianapolis for me to take a look at the place. However, once I got a look at the skyline from the I-465 ring road, even after the three-hour drive from Chicago, I felt humming the theme to One Day at a Time and simply passing through sufficed.
It would be another hour to get out of flatland followed by a meandering drive past the Ohio border through hills and ravines on snaky I-75 before the next cityscape of any significance. Descending through Cincinnati’s West Side, following the course of the massive railyards in the valley below, the skyline took me by surprise. I half-expected yet another bombed-out rust belt burb whose downtown had been whacked with the ugly stick of Post-Modernism.
(Photo: Cincinnati at dusk, from Covington, Kentucky.)
Yet, as we neared the Ohio River flats that house downtown, the pre-war Carew Tower and PNC Bank building took my breath away. Not just for their elegant, pre-war terra cotta beauty. But also because their still-prominent placement in the center of the skyline, neither upstaged nor blocked by taller, newer buildings, suggested in an instant a city respectful of the aesthetics of its built form.
From its history, that could follow or come as a complete surprise. Queen City of the West, Cincinnati was the first major inland American metropolis. Its early nineteenth-century commerce paved the way for the commercial giants of the latter 1800s, cities like Chicago and St. Louis. In the 1860s, the city gave freedom to thousands of slaves as a northern terminus of the Underground Railroad and, at the turn of the last century, cleanliness to millions of Americans as the birthplace of Ivory Soap.
Then again, Cincinnati’s brightest economic times happened in another millennium, and it also happens to be the only city in the nation to build an entire subway transit system, in the 1920s, only to brick it over for the next 80 years due to insufficient funds. So there’s a lot of unrealized potential and missed opportunity tied up in the civic psyche, too. Given all that, I was just happy the two towers were still standing.
We were heading for out first stop: Park & Vine, the hugely successful organic general store run by Chicagoland Bicycle Federation-escapee Dan-doesn’t-drive-either Korman. But first, Jamie gave me the nickel tour.
We exited I-75 at the riverfront and drove along the pedestrian-friendly deck hiding the now-sunken highway, past Paul Brown Stadium, the Great American Ball Park, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Roebling Bridge (little brother to my hometown bridge in Brooklyn). For a city of barely 330,000, I was pleasantly surprised at the effort made to liven the river’s edge here and link it back in to the rest of downtown.
(Photo: Looking north across Over-the-Rhine from condo deck of the American Building on Central Parkway.)
Dan’s store sits in Over-the-Rhine, the gentrifying–but not too much–neighborhood on the north end of downtown, nestled beneath the imposing hills that make up much of the rest of the city. Now civic leaders want to build a modern, Portland-style streetcar between downtown and the still-downtrodden neighborhood to try and jumpstart investment there. A lot of people think the streetcar plan will just go the way of the subway–i.e. to nowhere.
Jamie could see the trained-urban planner in me already salivating at the ped-friendly streets, so we meandered through downtown on our way to Over-the-Rhine, with him as tour guide.
“That’s the Aronoff Center for the Arts, but look on the other side, too, the new building is the Contemporary Arts Center. It’s a Zaha Hadid building.”
Readers are getting the benefit of the URLs I wished had access to while Jamie commented on.
“Don’t look know–and don’t sing, either. That’s Fountain Square and Tyler Davidson Fountain from WKRP in Cincinnati fame. They show movies there during the summer. Carew Tower is catty-corner, and the modernist building is Fifth Third Bank Headquarters.”
I marveled at the number of pedestrians. “Is downtown always this peopled so late in the day?” I asked.
“I think there’s a football game later, but for the past few years it’s been like Chicago,” said Jamie. “More and more people come down here to play after work. Maybe we’ll come back later for the movie on Fountain Square. Now get out, we’re there.”
(Photo: Over-the-Rhine’s Park & Vine general store.)
We hadn’t told Dan we were coming. Even after the bear hug that passed between him and Jamie, I could see him still beaming. The stress of the Bike Federation long gone, in the two years since his return to the Queen City, Dan Korman had finally become a happy man.
“Did you see the wallets made out of recycled bicycle tires?” He pulled one off a display shelf. “Look! Some of them still have the writing from the tire on them. That’s so cool!”
When he told me in 2006 he was ditching his Windy City communications career to open what I figured would be a glorified hemp shop in a marginal nabe of a secondary rust-belt town, I thought he had already begun smoking his product. As I purchased my recycled bicycle-tire wallet with the writing still on it from the happiest man on Vine Street, I knew Dan had made the right decision.
“Are you staying at the condo?” Dan asked Jamie.
“No, I have a renter in there. We’re staying in East Walnut Hills, in a rental condo that one of my client’s owns at the Edgecliff.”
“Did you guys go see Matt and Leah at High Street yet?”
“Not yet,” Jamie said. “But Michael will love it when we do. He seems to already be in love with Cincinnati.”
“Really!” said Dan. “Huh. It’s cool. Who knew, right?”
(Photo: Jamie with happy Dan Korman, owner of Park & Vine.)
Next stop: a strong black woman. A 20-year Cincinnati resident, Jamie needed to check on the condo he left behind when he moved to Chicago three months ago. He left it behind in the American Building, another handsome, pre-war former office tower built on the border between downtown and Over-the-Rhine to wait for the subway down Central Parkway that never came. That’s ok, Jamie’s ex-next-door neighbor and former flight attendant, the very tony Toni, seemed to get around well enough without one.
“Oh my, it is so good to see you, Jamie! Let me tell you, you are lucky to have caught me and I’ll tell you why. I shall probably be leaving in a few days to bring some shoes to be fixed in Seoul–that’s South Korea. I had previously asked my friend to take them on ahead but she said no and now it falls to me to carry them all that way and you know, don’t you, that Miss Toni is a bit put out because of it. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be monopolizing the conversation. What do you think of my new artwork?”
As Toni paused to inhale–as I would come to learn, a rare occasion worthy of remark–I started to see the attractive side of Jamie’s 350-mile move away from her side of the common wall.
“I really had to come back to fix a problem with my car title so I can get Illinois plates,” said Jamie.
“Problem? What problem? Tell Toni about your problems, honey!”
“Well, the bank forgot to tell the DMV that I paid off my car note years ago, so there’s still a lien on my title,” said Jamie. “Wells Fargo told me I had to come here in person to clear it up.”
“Are you kidding me?!”
Then again, it’s always nice to have a strong black woman in your corner.
“You know what I’d do?” said Toni. “I’d piss on ’em. No! I’d get a kid, a seven-year-old kid. Wouldn’t that be good? A kid of my own and I’d take him down to the bank with me and just when they stopped doing their job to give me grief I’d give the signal and my boy would whip it out. Just whip it out and piss all over them! Yes!”
From the look of the people I’d seen on the streets on the way through town, Toni was definitely not a stereotypical Cincinnatian. I had noted the uniformity of uniforms: flower-print blouses and black polyester trousers for women; dark, three-piece suits or slacks and tweed sport coats for men. (I figured the latter were county courthouse lawyers.)
I chalked up the Softer Side of Sears-ness of it all as the stylistic impact of the city’s main employers: the national headquarters or back offices of conservative banks (Fifth/Third Bank, U.S. Bank); conservative grocers (Kroeger); and conservative conglomerates (Macy’s, Proctor & Gamble). I couldn’t imagine any of these uniformed office drones ever whipping it out to give some unsuspecting clerk a bath.
Not for an instant would I put that past Toni.
“I’d even like to piss on some of the heifers that live further up in the neighborhood. Always with a hand out. Get a job, stop having babies, grow up! I had a career. I saw the world. I lived on Michigan Avenue. I hope that streetcar plan happens. We didn’t get a subway, but that streetcar will push ’em all like rats away from a flood. Then you’ll see how good this neighborhood will become.”
The haves lashing into the have-nots in the Black community is not a practice confined to southwestern Ohio. But my introduction to the social dichotomies of Cincinnati was just beginning.
Finally sneaking away from Toni during one particularly deep pause to inhale and sip a sparkling tonic, Jamie and I headed for the hills. For the next couple of hours until dusk, he drove us to every scenic outlook above downtown, then across the Roebling Bridge into Kentucky, to peer back at the city from the Covington shore.
(Photo: Daniel Carter Beard Bridge to Newport, Kentucky. Can you guess why locals call it Big Mac?)
The scenery felt familiar, like coming home, in a way. At each stop, as I gazed at the city, I remembered the half-hour I spent sitting atop steep Parque Eduardo VII and peering down across Lisbon, between the Bairro Alto and Alfama hills, towards the old downtown Baixa. The visible terrain and ineffable energy touched me then, and try as my Portuguese friend, José, might, I would not be moved away from the view.
I felt the same tug inside every time I looked back across Cincinnati. As if, although I wasn’t of the place, in some way, some part of me was consonant with it. I knew I was falling for the city.
That love would deepen in short order. At sundown, we headed for Ludlow Avenue, ground zero of the student-laden Clifton neighborhood, to sample an entirely different skyline. There’s no need to mince words here. In one meal, I became an official Skyline Chili crack whore. Give me the mild chocolate-cinnamon laced chili in a five-way (ladled over spaghetti with beans, onions, and cheddar cheese) or on a coney (a Cinncinati hot dog with mustard, chili, and onions), I don’t care. I wanted–and still want–more. Now please. Sooner if possible.
Honestly, I didn’t expect to like the chili any more than I thought I’d be taken by the city. But as the evening wore on, I started to rethink my raging bias against small Midwestern urbs. The black raspberry chip 1870 Tower sundae I inhaled down the street at Graeter’s French-churned ice cream helped a little bit, too. (And considering how much chili I had already eaten, I was in no way surprised by Jamie’s look of abject shock when I ordered it).
We would have headed back to the Edgecliff then, but Jamie remembered my earlier question about evening liveliness downtown. He let me answer my own question as we sat on Fountain Square with several hundred Cincinnatians and their children watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory projected onto the roof of Macy’s across Walnut Street until long past even our bedtimes.
(Photo: Love at first bite–Skyline Chili cheese coneys and a five-way.)
The next two days were a similar whirlwind of food, friends, and from-left-field observations about Cincinnati life. In the morning, we shared the best dim sum I’ve ever had in or out of Chicago at Clifton’s King Wok, with Jamie’s designer friend, Huong, and her young daughter, Hannah. While Huong explained the dating difficulties faced by a Vietnamese single-mom in southwestern Ohio, I was busy teaching her frantically energetic daughter how to walk like a giraffe-a-gator (“Stand on your tiptoes with your arm raised above your head, sneak up behind them, then CHOMPA-CHOMPA-CHOMPA!”).
Huong’s news was far less whimsical. “He was Anglo. We’d been talking online for awhile and he seemed like a nice guy. I think he’s about to ask me out, then he says ‘I have rice fever really bad tonight.’ What the fuck is that? Like he has no idea how insulting that is. Like he lives in a totally different world than I do.”
That’s exactly how I felt as Huong segued into a discourse about the Vietnamese practice of giving children dirty nicknames to ward off evil spirits. She whispered, “Hannah’s is ‘dirty black cock’. You guys should have one.”
I considered Jamie for a moment, then asked Huong, “How do you say ‘toothpaste poop’ in Vietnamese?”
Worlds would continue to miss colliding later that afternoon while Jamie and I visited the Museum Center inside the renovated historic Union Terminal. We lucked into a free tour of the building with a tour group comprised mostly of locals. I spent the whole time confused by an oddly handsome Kentucky bubba who apparently had no idea his bad-ass booted self was wearing women’s jeans. Yet when he opened his mouth to ask a question, the thick, south-shore drawl delivered a thoughtfully phrased query on the aesthetic merit of a restored mural.
“It’s always like that with the bubbas,” said Jamie. “Some cute construction worker with a day to kill, maybe an architecture hobbyist. But there’s always that touch of idiot savant about them that ends them up in the wrong department at Wal-Mart.”
(Photo: Fountains outside the Museum Center at Union Terminal.)
I thought that was a bit harsh. Then again, my New York friend, Tony “You’d have to kill me to make me go back there” Skaggs, never had a kind word to say about growing up in Cincinnati’s Kentucky suburbs, either. By now I was wondering whether some unknown organism in the city’s infamously toxic water had the side-effect of turning fellow citizens bitchy towards each other.
I continued to wonder that evening, while supping with a couple of Jamie’s local friends on mind-blowing steak tartare and calf’s liver and onions in downtown Cincinnati’s sublime Bistro JeanRo, as one of them began to opine on the streetcar plan so near and dear to tony Toni’s heart.
“It’ll never get built. Mark my words. Who is it going to serve? The ‘element’. Who’s going to ride it? The ‘element’. Do you want to ride next to the ‘element’? I don’t. Is it gonna go anywhere I want to go? No. Who’s supposed to pay for it? The rest of us. Is that fair?”
Embarrassed, I looked around the restaurant to see if anyone within earshot had managed to hear the openly racist comments that had just emerged from our table. How balkanizing the properties of a civic social contract must be to allow locals to feel free enough to share shitty thoughts like that in the company of strangers (like me). More upsetting, by evening’s end, I was pretty sure Jamie’s friend had no clue at all about the implications of the things he had said.
How to parse a city of aesthetic beauty, civic pride, high cultural amenities, and, at the most unexpected times, low social graces? I found myself pulling for the place, despite the intellectual box I was coming to see some locals gratuitously living in. I wanted to stay an extra day to figure the place out a little better.
That was fine with Jamie, who still hadn’t been able to work things out with Wells Fargo (I half expected him to fill Toni up on tonic water and drag her and her bladder down to their nearest office). We wouldn’t be remaining at the Edgecliff. Unbeknownst to us, the unit we were staying in had been sold, and our desired third night coincided exactly with closing day.
Not that we were attached to the Edgecliff. Although we didn’t want to have to scramble to look for new digs, we were pretty certain wherever we ended up would be more permissive. Jamie had no doubt when we left, I’d be taking the property’s asinine folder of dos and dont’s with me. The best missive was almost Marina City worthy:
Any toilet tissue except the quilted brands.
Not Acceptable in Commodes or Sinks:
Quilted toilet tissue.
Any type of wipe.
Construction debris of any type.
Or any other unsuitable liquid down the pipes.
It was thusly in good humor that we headed to High Street, according to Cincinnati magazine–and me once I got there–one of the coolest home design and lifestyle stores anywhere, to beg fabulous co-owner Matt Knotts for a place to crash for the night. The answer was yes, but Matt was in the middle of a meeting with partner Leah. So we waved our thanks through their office window and set out for another round of Queen City adventure.
(Photo: Best home design store in Cincinnati, High Street. Do I get that blue chair, now?)
What to do on a bonus afternoon in Cincinnati with a veritably still-chili-virgin in the car? Swing by Over-the-Rhine to pick up tony Toni and head out for more coneys. But tony Toni eats no coneys bought at Skyline.
“Honeys, don’t you know, now there is this Gold Star Chili I’ve seen underneath the I-75 Bridge in Covington, and now I think we’ve got to go, yes!”
And as everyone knows, there’s just no arguing with a strong black woman (not unless you want to end up with a wet pants leg), so half an hour later and there we were in Kentucky, munching down five-ways and coneys at the Gold Star where Covington bubbas go to pass around the communal tooth.
And a good thing they did, because I’d never have understood the wait staff if they hadn’t. Nonexistent teeth aside, this Gold Star did teach me two things: one, I’m definitely a Skyline man; and two, it’s probably time for me to stop avoiding the dentist.
(Photo: Strong black women Jamie and Toni.)
Later, with Toni no longer in tow, we headed back to the fabulosity of High Street, only to find that Matt had already split for the afternoon. However his partner, the unsinkable Leah Spurrier, had not.
“You guys want to hear about my book? One of them anyway, I have a lot of ideas rolling around, but this is the one I just took three weeks off to begin writing. It’s about my life as a northern Californian Jew raised in Tennessee by a genuine Haight-Ashbury mother. When I was little, I used to ask my grandma why mom always looked the way she did. And grandma would answer back, ‘Because she’s always stoned, dear.'”
Leah seemed a far cry from the collection of Cincinnati social misfits I had spent the previous three days variously being warned about or meeting. I asked her what people thought of her store in such a conservative city.
“You know, Cincinnati is cooler than you might think. Downtown has a lot going on, a lot of new businesses and residents in Over-the-Rhine. We’re actually starting a blog on High Street’s website to try and help the buzz along. It’s not Chicago, I love that city. But people know there’s potential here, if they’d just loosen up and listen. I think a lot of them are just waiting to be told how good we’ve got it here.”
It’s rare for the cool people to be pulling for the squares, even rarer for the squares to be hoping to come along for the ride. I wondered if maybe, just maybe, Matt and Leah might be on to something.
That night, Jamie and I luxuriated in Matt’s style-forward Liberty Hill townhouse. The papier-maché caricatures under glass on the coffee table entranced me for an hour as Jamie tried to teach Matt how to Twitter.
Over dinner, we were all entranced by the twittering of a female patron at Ludlow Avenue’s Ambar Indian, a real contender for the title of worst South Asian food in Ohio. If it hadn’t been for her outlandishly loud yammerings to an embarrassed boyfriend who asked at one point for her to write down her side of the conversation on a napkin, we might have been more miffed when, in mid-meal, the wait staff at this palace of putrid pulled out a glue gun and started performing repair work on a nearby wall.
We washed those troubles away with another trip to Graeter’s (I won’t bother telling you how many pounds the scale said I gained after I got back to Chicago–feel free to insert your own weight here: ___) and retired back to the manse of Matt-fabulous. There, he told us more about his plans for local Internet domination.
“We want to use the High Street blog as a jumping off point, to create community. But we’re also creating a separate blog for the city. We want it to have downtown news, happenings, events, design, food, to really hook people together. We’re calling it, ‘Cincinnati Is Cool’. The name’s not as wooden as it sounds. All these boring corporate types always say the city is cool, but they never follow it up with action. We want the name to be a blunt reminder that this city has a lot to offer.”
I looked Matt dead in the eye. “Have you ever heard of Gapers Block? There’s this guy, Andrew Huff, I definitely think you should know…”
(Photo: Angelic Matt and Jamie at Ludlow Avenue Graeter’s.)
The next morning, after making one last run towards the end-zone of teaching Matt to use Twitter, we rolled up the remains of our trip and packed them in the car to head home. We hugged Matt, headed to Park & Vine to say our good-byes to Dan, made one final (and finally successful) trip to the DMV for Jamie, and then it was time to roll out of town.
But not before one last stop (or so we thought) at a fabled Cincy eatery. As my plate of undercooked biscuits and gravy and over-singed fried eggs attested, Tucker’s, in deepest Over-the-Rhine, is not known for its food. But the family-run ramshackle joint, a seedy combination of half-hinged doors, swaying tables, and questionable sanitary practices, has been feeding all comers for 60 years. The morning of our visit, that included downtown office workers, local yuppies, and most interestingly, a steady stream of poor black kids and young men from the surrounding neighborhood.
The hustle the last group of diners put the white wait staff through, trying to enter without shirts and bargain down bills, didn’t go down with the same indignant fervor on both sides I would have expected from Chicago. These were downtrodden locals in a barely hanging-on corner eatery. The beleaguered nods and smiles that passed among all parties was perhaps my best clue into the soul of Cincinnati.
There was no artifice here. Nothing was prettified. Just basic communication passing among familiar faces. Unexpected, a bit shocking in its primal quality. But not out of place. It did make me wonder whether inside the average Queen Citizen beat the heart of a conformer. We may be down, but we’re down together, and as long as we lie low, things can’t get much worse, so let’s just leave well enough alone.
Was that the unrealized potential Matt and Leah were aiming to mobilize?
Getting lost in the West Side hills on the way out of town was a great excuse to stop thinking and driving in circles and make our real final food stop: Putz’s Creamy Whip. More old-school Cincinnati: roadside shack; cash-only; fabled Coneys; double-thick malteds. The menu didn’t exaggerate, I nursed my concrete-consistency malted until well into Indiana.
We finally did make that stop in Indy, too. Downtown there was certainly monumental, but small given the size of the surrounding city. I couldn’t help thinking of Milwaukee, another Midwestern burg with a downtown curiously unimpressive for a place of its size. (After several hundred more miles of boring Hoosier farmland, I also couldn’t help thinking God put Indiana on the map to make people appreciate Illinois and Ohio better).
(Photo: Tyler Davidson Fountain at night.)
Arriving home in the Windy City, the Loop felt positively enormous after three days in Cincinnati. Yet the Queen City still loomed large in my mind. It still does. Two weeks of wondering, and I think I’ve hit on why. Despite the unrealized potential of the place–including the potential for locals to realize how good they really have it (and in this, Chicago and Cincinnati share a similarly misplaced civic modesty)–unlike other, far more time- and budget-ravaged rust belt cities, in Cincinnati the potential is pungent and palpable, not limping on life support.
In the end, I think those upstart Internet impresarios Matt and Leah have a point. Change happens thanks to thoughtful souls brave enough to believe in the fortune cookie of potential. When these two finally smash it open, I have no doubt in their case the slip of paper within will read in big, block letters, “CINCINNATI IS COOL!”
And in small print on the flipside, “Who knew?”