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Cincinnati Is Cool


(Photo: This used to be a 2008 photo of Leah Spurrier, co-founder of Cincinnati home design store High Street. For an explanation of why the photo is no longer here, please see the update of 7/28/16, below.)


(7/28/16) Today, I received a request from Leah Spurrier’s “personal assistant” to replace my personal photo of Spurrier that had sat with her permission atop this blog post for nearly eight years with a new one. I received a similar request several months ago from Spurrier, herself, saying that she thought the old photo wasn’t professional enough for her current image. If there’s one thing I understand from my own past, it is misplaced shame of who and what and where you’ve been. 

However, Spurrier was fully aware the photo was published with the blog post. And in the months following its publication, the post was read by thousands of people across the country and was widely covered in Queen City online media–bringing quite a lot of favorable attention to High Street. So you can imagine how receiving a request like this makes me feel like a fool for promoting Spurrier’s business in the first place. The email request today offered a new photo to take the place of the one that was once–until today–atop this blog post. However, for the integrity of my blog, an image eight years later that has nothing to do with my 2008 trip to Cincinnati or my visit to High Street obviously does not belong here. 

So in place of the original photo atop this blog, all I can give you is this. As you read my words of years ago, below, know that I can no longer stand behind my then-favorable opinion of Spurrier and High Street. I have removed my 2008 photo of the store, itself, from the post, as well as all links to the business. And the next time I visit the Queen City, while Park + Vine would still be among my can’t-miss places, as far as High Street goes, I’ll take a pass. 

(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 CincinnatiCinplifyBuilding 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.

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.
Dental floss.
Sanitary napkins.
Any type of wipe.
Drywall mud.
Potting soil.
Kitty litter.
Construction debris of any type.

Drumroll please…

Or any other unsuitable liquid down the pipes.

It was thusly in good humor that we headed to High Street 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: This used to be a 2008 photo of the interior of Cincinnati home design store High Street. For an explanation of why the photo is no longer here, please see the update of 7/28/16, above.)

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?”

Categories: Adventure Best Of Chicago Carless Cincinnati

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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48 replies

  1. Nearly two years ago, I was “hating” on Cincinnati…six weeks from now, I’m packing my books after 29 years in NYC and heading “home”. The Great Recession has made NYC a real nightmare unless you have a trust fund — which I don’t. For very little money, I can live in my hometown Newport, draw and paint, enjoy the wonderful libraries, galleries, and museums in the area, go to Findlay Market, and I’ll be able to walk to two Krogers too. Yep, that streetcar project is still on paper only, the Creation Museum is a complete embarrassment, and I’ll have to deal with all those Teabaggers I went to high school with, one by one by one. But for a while at least, Cincinnati will be home again. You’re welcome any time to come visit Michael and we can have Dixie Chili on Monmouth St, a superior product to Skyline’s version 😉

  2. Well I am just reading this for the first time. I must say your writing style is top notch. I very much enjoyed reading this article. I think you hit Cincinnati right on the head. It’s the City that does the least with the most. Cincinnati has so much untapped potential it is sometimes disheartening, yet exciting all at once. Come back to Cincy when you can, and on your way, visit Indy. I am a former Cincinnatian/former Columbusite who just moved to Indianapolis. I am enjoying Indy but miss Ohio everyday, especially Cincinnati!

  3. Probably far too late to leave a comment here anyone would actually read, but here goes: I lived in Cincinnati for years having gone there for college and stuck around for a while after. I’ve since moved to Chicago after having visited several times and finding that in comparison I was pretty certain Cincinnati was going no where. I’d agree with the people above who pointed out that while the city makes moves they are half-hearted and either in the wrong direction or at cross purposes to each other. I’d also say the prevailing attitude of the town about light rail, street cars or even the bus system it already has is much the same as that exposed in the article by the nameless person at the bistro, and it always frustrated me to no end. I can however attest that being carless in downtown Cincinnati is possible if difficult, as that I did it for 3 years, the primary problem being no full size grocery store. Yes there is a Kroger on Vine St, but it’s 1/4 the size of any other Kroger you might have been in, and until a recent make over, was also so dirty as to be shameful especially since it was a few blocks away from the Kroger world HQ. Despite all that I won’t totally trash the city, I certainly did have some good times there and met great friends including my (now) wife. To sum up I’ll share the sentiment some of us ex-cincinnatians came up with ” it was the best time I never want to have again”

  4. I just got back from a place called the highlands in Clifton, as they call it.

    Cool place.

    I think the bar lunged me back into the cultural differences between Chicagoans and Cincinnatians.

    Chicagoans are, by nature, passive aggressive smart asses. The bars are packed and the scenes are usually off the hook– loud and obnoxious–i am guilty of these things. Maglomaniacs in the moderate to worst cases.

    Cincinnatians chill, always chill and sometimes chill to the disbelief of myself, a displaced Chicagoan.

    For example: my friend had her power turned off after she didn’t pay her electric bill for 5 months.

    Even the electric people chilled and it took them 5 months to shut the power off.

    She pays 270 for a one bedroom apartment.

    So how, on God’s earth, would this girl function in Chicago?–where a one bedroom is a good deal at $650 plus. And Daley himself would cut the power off as soon as possible when he found out money for his eletricity was not coming in.

    And weird shit like this is common place here, shit i don’t understand. It wasn’t a money issue.

    Now lets take the reverse–myself

    The Chicagoan in me doesn’t understand this: “just pay your fucking bill” is my chicagoan POV

    This is just one example i can think of tonight.

    Now back to the bar, the highlands…

    Quiet scene.

    What is the loud obnoxious Chicagoan going to do but take Irish coffees all night and smoke cigs?

    So while the Cincinnatian chills, the Chicagoan can not. Since the Chicagoan can not chill out, he becomes “bored”

    While I don’t miss Chicago and all the Daley fucking that goes on there, I am culturally different from a good amount of people in this city.

    I am used to traffic jams, dumb hispanics, blacks, inbred irish people, d-bag frat guys talking about the big ten, in their designated big ten chicago bar…

    My point is, the Chicagoan is so used to putting up with shit, that when things are SO chill…it becomes a parallel universe.

    I walk around in my giant house and did not realize i could live so well here on so little, but the bullshit makes a person i guess.

  5. And its named after a Roman General who bashed the shit out of nomadic tribes and went to live on a farm instead of being dictator for life.

    If thats too conservative, then maybe Chicago is your place.

    Personally, I think that is the most badass name for a city.

  6. I added you to my blog roll because of this post.

    I’m from the Chicago area and lived in Chicago. I am currently in Cincinnati to stay.

    I love how people hate on Cincinnati, this is what keeps the price down.

    Cincinnati is too laid back to accept the constant B.S. people put up with in Chicago.

    I can own a firearm here!

    I don’t need to be told how great Chicago is by everyone here.

    I have a whole house and I pay 300 dollars with my roomates; it isn’t shit either.

    Try doing that in Chicago.

    I realize this isn’t a Chicago versus Cincinnati argument, but for being the size of Naperville, Illinois there is more culture here than in the entire 6 million megaopolis of the Chicago suburbs.

    And if anyone says it’s boring, it’s only because its so laid back, that people aren’t drunk all the time like Chicago at bars etc…

    And when I get the boring complaint, I usually say the person is boring.

    But think what you may, don’t tell too many people about this town.

    All the prentious types can go to Chicago; Cincinnati is mine.

  7. Cincinnati has it’s charm. If you can come to terms with the deeply ingrained conservative foundation of the German-Irish-Baptist culture, you’ll love it here. Although the conservative overlay has weakened somewhat in the past 10 to 15 years. But artistic wise Cincinnati has most all of the organizations found in much larger places and they’re of first rank, including the art museums, Symphony, opera, ballet, theatre and collegiate activities. Combined with the river setting, the Roebling Suspension Bridge and some of the best art deco architecture in the U.S., the medium sized city of Cincinnati is pretty tough to beat.

  8. For 25 years I have been traveling the globe. As a 7 time returning resident of Cincinnati (NY NY, Dallas, Houston, SFran, Chicago..err Schaumburg, Amsterdam, Hong Kong) I wondered about this strange addiction to a mid-western US city. Today on a lark I posed the question to the Google Oracle- Is Cincinnati Cool. There were a scary number of responses and, to my greatest fear, the cat is out of the bag. Change may come glacially slow to this burg, but it’s the very reason many never leave and there has always been a quiet respect for the opinions of others in spite of the far right voting dollars that seem to flow during election season.

    Cincinnati has a history of cool quirk. Originally “the stop” on any trip east to west, Porkopolis (coined by none other than Longfellow) was a city that swelled with German immigrants. Religious persecution or some other dire reason for the original migration? Nope, it was beer. In 1860 there were 40 breweries in Cincinnati proper for 175,000ish residents. Seems the local weather and caves cut into the “Mounts” allowed the proper temprature for German pilsner beer brewing; Quirky in the 1800s. Architecturally Cincinnati surely has it’s quirks- The Carew Tower (and surrounding plaza) often refereed to as the best example of French Art Deco architecture in the world, was a practice run for the firm that built the Empire State Building; the Robeling Bridge the launching pad for the Brooklyn Bridge. Music? Cincinnati’s King records launched the careers of many R&B greats including the Godfather of Soul himself- James Brown. Quirky eras, quirky history, quirky Cincinnati.

    Today if you take the time to drive Cincinnati’s magnificent Columbia Parkway from the thriving, old tudor burgs of Mariemont and Terrace Park through painted lady Columbia Tusculum district and then the final winding cliffside river overlook into Cincinnati you realize that this small area was blessed with a variety of remarkable, visually stimulating topology that is normally saved for costal or inland mountain areas. Unique and quirky.

    While it can be a bastion of the right politically, I chock that up equally to the voting wealth of a specific segment and apathy on the part young and/or democratic voters. I sensed a wave of change during this past election- the center and left voted to change and that in itself indicates a seismic shift in the Cincinnati political landscape.

    Gaslight Ludlow, a gentrified but still edgy Over the Rhine, Northside, Mt Adams, the “Georgetown” in waiting affordable rowhouses of Covington, Newport and Bellvue, University of Cincinnati’s emergence as the nations top design and architecture school and it’s structrual re-birth as a great campus and finally a reverse surburban migration into Cincinnati lofts and restored historical buildings-this can’t possibly be the midwest.

    To the creidt of other posters (Pittsburgh and Columbus come to mind) while many other cities can lay claim to similar to similar improvements, they happen elsewhere across the sprawl of a spread out city. Cincinnati’s mounts and river serve to unite the metmorphasis into a limited area of accessability that harken back to the very roots of my admiration of Cincinnati as a European style city that is perhaps one of the best kep secrets in the United States today.

  9. I’ve been living in Cincy for 5 years now but have only recently begun to really know and love it. I’ve long agreed with many of the complaints others have made here – entrenched conservatism chief among them – but lately have found there is a more lively and diverse city just below the surface. I only wish I could’ve seen it as quickly as Mike! (BTW, I too have to disagree on your take on Ambar. But I definitely agree with your love of Skyline.) Thanks for this great post that helped my affection for this city grow.

  10. Man, the limited experience and preconceived notions about “bubbas” and the Kentucky side. As someone who grew up in Newport, moved to London, England, and has traveled the world, I can say that I for one would take that side of the river over the Ohio side any day, and for a lot of reasons. First of all, Covington’s Gold Star downtown? Yeah, I’m sure that’s disgusting, but there are plenty of others that are a lot cleaner and nicer (hit the Newport side). Mainstrasse has some of the best food and most eclectic, fun shopping and events happening, and ‘the Levee’ is amazing. There’s also a reason why a lot more bands are starting to ignore Bogarts for Southgate House and Mad Hatter’s, and while Northside has Club Bronx and the Dock, the Crazy Fox and Rosie’s can’t be beat for a drink in a comfortable, open-minded environment.

    It’s cheaper even than the Ohio side, and we have history of our own, just check out the Syndicate and Southgate House for starters.

  11. Now living in Chicago, but a Cincinnatian for 25 of my 28 years, I yearn to be back in the City of the Seven Hills.

    It’s easy to bag on the town for all sorts of reasons – it’s entrenched conservatism (but, yet, Hamilton Co. went blue in 2008); the pickup truck good-ol’-boys (but picking on Appalachia is easy, right?); and strange cuisine (Skyline, never Goldstar.)

    People like to think that Cincinnati is some great cesspool of Midwestern backwardness, and maybe I get defensive about the town that I love, but there exists few places where one can live on a meager budget, own a house for a pittance, and challenge the Republican heirarchy.

    If Steve Chabot can get voted out of office, then aye, change has come.

  12. Last time I was at the NKY Gold Star we were in line for half an hour because of all the cars in the drive through. Then a guy walks out of the bathroom bleeding from the nose with a swollen eye. Two others emerged from the restroom and said that they guy was drunk and called one of them the “B” word so they beat him up. They were in no hurry and stayed for another half hour, finishing their meal and chatting. No cops, no additional drama, they just went about their business.

    When we left my drunk friend ran his mouth ad got into a verbal argument with the worker cleaning up before close. He threatened to fight him and took off his apron. Got a little out of control then the cops drove by and we had to leave. Good thing I don’t drink.

    If anyone wants to learn more about the mindset in KY read the book “Outliers” by Gladwell. Has a great chapter in it about Appalachian people and the mindset.

  13. i grew up in cincinnati and busted out as soon as i got the chance. but as many cincinnatians have found, it’s hard to stay away, so after 10 years, i’ve come home…

    all i can say is THANK YOU for this post – you’ve set up a truly perfect itinerary for whenever i manage to get my NYC and London friends to visit me. in fact, this may be my sales pitch to actually convince them to come 🙂

  14. Mike,

    Thanks for the link!

    It seems like people who moved here or visit recognize the potential of this city much more than many of the people who were born and raised here.

    And that’s just sad. It takes a hearty soul to come here and face some of the “local flavor” and still want to love the city. The media, the suburban-moneyed, the idiocrats will want to beat you down. The people who want the City to be Mayberry and, God forbid, someone unlike them would actually deign to talk to them…..

    Ugh. Sorry. I spent the evening at a bar that’s been open since 1872. That kind of place couldn’t be built today. But I guarantee that everyone in that bar is working for the City to be a cosmopolitan place.

  15. As a transplant to Cincinnati, I read your observations with amusement. You’ve captured some of my own thoughts really well! Cincinnati contains tons of different “scenes” that may not be large but, in my experience, they are welcoming and relatively free of pretense. I’ve had great luck meeting like-minded people here, much more so than in cities with much hipper reputations. I’m not complaining.

    Per your interest in chili, I would suggest Price Hill Chili the next time you’re in town. I’ve also heard really good things about Pleasant Ridge Chili. Really, though Skyline certainly hits the spot, I think the old-school, independent chili parlors are where it’s at.

    [Also, I’m carless in Cincinnati and, seriously, people, it’s not rocket science!]

  16. i <3 the post. you totally get cincinnati. it is the land of unrealized potential. i moved here 2.5 years ago and was shocked by all the same things you were.

    re: high street blog, i have to check it out. tell your friends there is a really big and active community of cincinnati bloggers who would totally support the project (if they don’t already know).

  17. Mike… thanks for sharing your thoughts about our city that’s, yes, cool. And, Jamie and I used to work together! Tell him I said “hello”!

  18. Randy, I am jonesing for another visit, truly. While there, I did see Clifton (Ludlow Ave.), the North Side, Hyde Park, Liberty Hill (where Matt lives), Mount Auburn, OTR, East Walnut Hills (stayed there two nights), some of the West Side, Newport and a bit of Covington.

    But when you get right down to it, I want to come back for the food. And the groovy downtown. But really the food. By food I mean chili.

    By chili I mean Skyline 😉

  19. Cincinnati is great. If/when you come back be sure to check out some of the great neighborhood business districts that will surprise and impress you (similar to Ludlow Ave in Clifton).

    The momentum is certainly building, but the old money and influence isn’t going down without a fight. The thing is that at least the fight is going on. Young people, creative people, progressive people, and diverse people are starting to take hold and make this city their own. If we can do that the foundation is there for a truly amazing city.

    Great post, be sure to come back soon.

  20. I’ve just happened upon your blog after not reading it for about a year, and this certainly piqued my interest. Reading it actually gave me chills at some parts (especially the ones mentioning Skyline, lol). You missed out on Northside–by far our most ‘mo friendly neighborhood– and the Midwest’s best record store. Sometimes I love it, and I always know how much I miss it when I’m gone (usually to Chicago).

    That being said, it really is almost oppressive to live in Cincinnati unless you’ve drank the red kool-aid. Yeah, the Gaslight district is hip (although I respectfully question your assessment of Ambar). OTR is moving up, slowly. Downtown is getting cool. But there are some impediments that I feel will be in the way long after I’ve made my exit in a few years for graduate school.
    No one cares about transportation. SORTA is dreadfully underfunded and unreliable. If you’re not carless (car full?) it’s hardly worth using. A 10 minute drive to campus from my apartment takes 40 minutes by bus. When in Chicago, I find that navigating the CTA is very intuitive. Here there are no route maps at stops like CTA has, and it’s cumbersome to figure out. The common mentality is that riding the bus is not something to be proud of. In fact, it’s one of the reasons people didn’t support a recent development near my mom’s home in Green Township. The thinking is “Strip mall = bus lines = black people = bad.” Rumors of the local shopping center being razed for section 8 housing, even though they were dreadfully untrue, had people fuming.

    I feel like for every moderate dem or liberal there’s about 4 neo-cons. We don’t like to show our faces for fear of the hissing wrath of typical Cincinati republicans. They’re low information voters, they don’t know a lick about true conservatism, and they get off on complaining about welfare. Our disgustingly rich ex-urb, Indian Hill, donated the most money in the US by zip code to Bush’s 2004 campaign. Our only daily paper endorsed not only McCain but every single local R incumbent politician this year, even Jean Schmidt (the awful creature that called John Murtha a coward). We’ve got the Creation Museum to the south, Big Butter Jesus to the north (look him up), and rabid Catholic anti-abortion fiends all around.

    Most people who grow up here never leave. It’s surprising that no one asked you where you went to high school– that is the colloquial way to size someone up. If they haven’t heard of your school they probably don’t care to hear any more.

    It’s going to be a huge undertaking for me to make a move to another city but I’ve been ready since I was 14. I’ll miss the chili.

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  24. Chris, honey, I cringe at Republicans too (as per your Twitter-professed affiliation), but I’ll post your comment anyway. I defy you to visit that Covington Gold Star Chili and come away with any other observation about its ambience. And I use that word with trepidation, for fear of insulting the lexicon.

  25. I cringed at your comments about Bubba and the single tooth at the NKY Goldstar.

    Your shock at veiled racism by your dinner partner and your brazen unapologetic classism are a nice contradiction.

    Of course I might be sensitive because it is a failure that I have myself, although I am working on it.

    I think Cincinnati is working on it too.

  26. This was a wonderful assessment of an outsiders’ perspective of Cincinnati. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts so eloquently. As a Liberty Hill dweller, I love this city and it amazes me that it’s taken this long for most of the country to start realizing it. There are those of us who are striving for change and transformation, whether it be through the internet, storefronts, art or music. I think it’s at the point where people are tired of waiting for civic leaders to make the change and taking things into their own hands. The internet makes that easier for sure.

  27. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, Tony, Jamie, and Patrick. Obviously the experience of growing up in a place is always different than the experience of the place in the present.

    In Cincinnati a lot has changed, as Jamie can attest to. But Tony’s right, too. Much remains the same. My point in the blog post was that this is a time when greater transformation can happen in the city.

    Hopefully it does. But even if not, I’ll still go back for the chili.

  28. Cincinnati is like my hometown of Pittsburgh and many other old industrial towns….they’re in the midst of transitions that have been going on for decades.

    Cincy and Pittsburgh have become inexpensive places to live and have colonies of artists, creative types and LGBT people growing there. I think in the long run this will help those cities in their transitions.

    Towns that are tackling 2000-era problems with 1960s-era approaches (e.g., Buffalo) are probably NOT going to benefit.

  29. I can certainly understand your points for moving. The gay culture there is ONLY a person’s circle of friends compared to a city like New York or Chicago.

  30. I agree with you on several points wholeheartedly – the cost of housing is low (and you get something for your money — yay!), it is aesthetically a beautifully situated city with lots of great architecture, and for a city its size it offers the cultured, lots of culture. I left because I was not happy in the Greater C’s dominant environment of baseball, football, right-wing politics, and limited horizons. For me it was an excellent decision to leave. My brother lives there still, and although he gets frustrated as hell with the negatives of Cincinnati, he has a circle of good friends to transcend them and an excellent quality of life for next to nothing. As I get closer to retirement, I’ve got an eye on nearby Columbus. Not quite as pretty, but just as cheap, plenty of “kul-cha”, and a bit more liberal-minded.

  31. Tony: I think most people have a thing against the place they grew-up. While I agree with some of your points, ALL places have pros and cons. I moved to Cincinnati in 1985 and just moved to Chicago. I love it here, but most people I meet, who grew-up here of a certain age, want to move. I attribute this more to a veil of adolescent angst more than an unbiased appraisal.

    Cincinnati has its problems, but it has made major moves forward in the past five years (albeit slow). Downtown is now a 24 hour living community again, taxes and housing are relatively low, it’s esthetically beautiful, it is considered a world center for cultural institutions such as the Ballet, Symphony and CCM.

    I enjoyed my 23 years in Cincinnati, it was just time for a change. I will still defend it as a good place to live. Not the best, not the worst, but a nice place just the same.

  32. I guess my fortune cookie in back in 1976 must’ve read: “Life begins outside of Greater Cincinnati” 😉

    My own impressions from 18 years of growing up in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky led me to different conclusions about the place than your long weekend there. I would be extremely interested to know what you’d think if you found yourself relocated there for a year or so, particularly carless. It takes a very unusual kind of person with an extremely strong sense of self and self-reliance to do that. For me, it was far easier and rewarding to tackle the Big Apple, with its built-in transit infrastructure and mass acceptance of living daily life carfree.

    I keep up with events in Cincinnati, and what strikes me so much about the place is that the more it changes, the more it stays the same. The changes are superficial and often in the wrong direction. Newport on the Levee was built and became successful in the decade or so that Cincinnati dithered about rebuilding its inadequate public transit system – a debate that still continues. The beautiful skyline with the silhouette of the Carew Tower and former Central Trust building is about to be ruined, when an oversized kitschy tower is completed in a few years. It’s an homage to the worst of 1980s architecture and Princess Diana’s tiaras and they’ll be stuck with it for decades to come.

    For all its great options for a foodie and a short-term visitor, consider some of the real facts about life in Cincinnati that indicate what kind of place it really is:

    The Creation Museum (don’t blame it for being in northern Kentucky. So is the airport)

    Ladies and Gentlemen, a monument to the worst features of the Cincinnati mindset: Marge Schott.

    Riots are not cool.

    The Cincinnati Enquirer frames the debate locally and editorially is to the right of Sarah Palin.

    I do hope you get to Portland OR one of these days. It’s about the same size as Cincinnati, with a completely different attitude about itself and about urban possibilities. It’s the kind of place I think you’d never stop wondering at, although admittedly there is no Skyline chili.

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