The Contradictions of Over-the-Rhine
How one resident has accepted the solitude and space of this in-between time.
There have always been befores in Over-the-Rhine.
Before the German immigrants arrived and built their sturdy brick homes…Before white flight to the suburbs left block after block littered with vacant buildings…Before those who stayed held a community together with a public market, a symphony and social services.
Before the neighborhood became a destination for visitors from around the world, where music, art and food met with the contradictions of liveliness and staying alive.
It’s a very different neighborhood now.
In the morning. At night. And throughout the day. The sun beckons me. I scramble outdoors unable to contain my enthusiasm for seeing other people, only to find myself alone. Alone.
In the current before, tourists by the dozens traipsed around the neighborhood listening intently as guides detailed the history of homes, privies and beer cellars. The food tour operator occasionally stopped outside our house to read the historic plaque that barely captured the lineage of the home’s family tree. Now, without pedestrians, craters in the sidewalks are exposed and the only footsteps I hear are my own, plodding across 150-year-old planks.
Cars once created gridlock along Race Street on Friday and Saturday nights, angling to park before events at the Cincinnati Pops, Friday Flow, and whatever entertainment locals could dream up. Though early supporters, my husband and I bemoaned the nighttime pedal wagon rides. The noise caused us to run out of the house until the last carriages had departed for their Pendleton garage. The wagons of sloppy drinkers have disappeared, as if a relic from time gone by. The woo-hoos and screeching from bachelorette parties have been left to the mother squirrel in our courtyard when I approach her nest.
Chefs and restaurateurs of Please, Pleasantry and other restaurants, had been nominated for various James Beard awards and several businesses planned for expansions. Up the alley, Standard Beer opened the week before the quarantine. While many establishments have altered their business model, if this current economy was likened high school, I would vote the beer store most likely to succeed since alcohol sales have soared during the shutdown.
The opera was preparing for its 100th season and I bought a season subscription for the first time. Back in January, the symphony celebrated its 125th Anniversary concert with Rhapsody in Blue, selling out programs after a long few years of restoration to the beloved Music Hall. Occasionally, I would catch a glimpse of Louis Langrée and John Morris Russell, both nominated for Grammy awards, entering through the glass doors of Music Hall. There haven’t been celebrity or semi-famous sightings or movies preparing to film in weeks, and the opera productions will head elsewhere next year.
It was a rare day in the media when The New York Times or other national outlets did not recognize Over-the-Rhine for its revitalization or gentrification or both. Over-the-Rhine was looked upon as a blueprint for how to bring back a neighborhood from years of loss and neglect.
Over-the-Rhine was also maligned. Oftentimes, a new development corporation would crop up in another city neighborhood and proclaim, “We don’t want to be like Over-the-Rhine.” Honestly, everyone still wanted to be like Over-the-Rhine. The neighborhood had a storied history, iconic architecture, and infrastructure with room to grow. Yet we were not without a saturation of social services and plenty of debate.
Visitors came from as far away as Malaysia and from what felt far away — Mason, Ohio. Airbnb listings were in such demand, the locale was sussed out for the day — as if the neighborhood was a state park and one could buy a permit, walk around for eight hours to enjoy the scenery and leave.
Looking ahead toward the end of May, there are nearly one hundred available stays within the boundaries of Over-the-Rhine. Neighbors who used Airbnb to rent an open room in their home may not go back to that model. Their customer base included long-term rental agreements with local theatre companies who have moved to online programming until large crowds are considered safe again. One wonders what Shakespeare would make of this new stage where we are rehearsing for a play that might never open because of a plague.
Along Main Street, people stop into Allez Bakery. My friend brings her daughter who recites lines from Nanette’s Baguette with the owner. The rooftop bar at Pins is empty. No one is staring at the stars, and the bocce court, long converted over to storage space, is a black hole.
Evenings, Main Street thrums, emanating with cries of Ha! and Dang! from rolled dice games. My husband tells me those games can turn violent. We avoid anything that resembles betting on our life. Still, folks are simply milling around or spilling out of the few bodegas left in the neighborhood, customers distancing from one another, yelling to be heard.
Over on Vine Street, a musty smell of marijuana replaces that of fried chicken. The lone echo of a delivery truck door slamming is in contrast to the throngs of patrons that lined up at Bakersfield, Quan Hapa and the other must-eat-at restaurants along the way. Kaze — with my favorite hidden courtyard in the city — had shut down before the coronavirus kicked in. I walk past the restaurant and peer through the slats of the fencing. Red wire back chairs once invited me to relax with a glass of wine or consume large quantities of pork belly buns. They closed with a promise to return. Who’s to say what coming back means?
Up and down Vine, construction work continues on buildings whose renters will compete with current brick-and-mortar stores. Some clothing shops change out their mannequin displays. Others don’t. In the windows of Kismet, an army brown jumpsuit hangs on the mannequin. I’ve had my eye on the Meryl Streep in Out of Africa apparel since early March. The one-piece is still there, mocking me.
Butcher paper is taped to windows of multiple businesses as if the entire neighborhood has put blinders on and cannot stand to watch what is happening — the brownout a nod to brown bags for carryout and cardboard box deliveries. The delivery person is the most wanted and comforting sight right now. And the U.S. mail, if it arrives too early in the day, only serves as a disappointment. What else is there to look forward to?
Whether browned out or not, businesses post warnings about no whiskey, food or cash on premises. Each shop has its own version of the notices. Nothing in the cash register, everything stored in the hope chest instead.
Saturdays at Findlay Market, my husband and I would shop early and return later to socialize with neighbors and beers. There are no longer shouts of Prost! in the biergarten and vendors are required to wear masks. Customers queue up and wait their turn at Colonel De’s, Lukens and Eckerlin Meats — no lingering with the butcher allowed. Blue Oven’s lines have grown longer with social distancing tape and their newly installed oven competes with those who are hoarding flour and yeast for home-baked goods.
In the before of Washington Park, the city erected buildings and guided gondolas around the park’s perimeter for a World Exposition. Its benches accommodated the homeless and political rallies. And the oval held the tents for City Flea and Asian food fests. Along its boundary, busloads of seniors stumbled out of buses for the Mighty Wurlitzer organ programs at Music Hall. Where are those seniors now? Locked in lives where families can’t visit and they can’t leave?
Without the crowds and the commotion from chicken wing festivals, Washington Park is a wellspring of inspiration even without the spray fountain turned on. I detect the ghosts of the past mingling among the lone clementine-colored azalea that sits apart from the curve of purple ones. I see the broad strokes of the landscapers painting the beds to their liking and mine.
It’s returning to a quiet park. In the spaciousness of green, there is room to observe and imagine. Late afternoon, Music Hall’s silhouette alters with the changing light, making shadow puppets of two young men walking ahead. The hall’s largesse lurks, and beneath her weight I shrink. Alone, I cannot hold its splendor.
A little girl pedals a bike with training wheels. Her father pushes from behind and off they go on the sidewalk facing the hall. Beneath the bandstand shell, notes from a saxophone player take up the acoustic space, as does the dog owner letting his mind and dog wander.
People eat al fresco on the grass, after driving strollers, carrying stadium chairs, and juggling boxes from restaurants that stayed open, as if waiting to lock in the best seat for the concert that will only be heard in their ears — a sonata of chirps coupled with the occasional sweep of the maintenance crew brooms. Grass that magically appeared after sod was laid has been allowed to grow. Fins of grass get stuck between barefoot toes. No blade withers under the weight of the rolled kickball. Another father plays catch with his two sons. Fans of baseball and wearing Reds gear, they are bringing spring back to me.
Off to the park’s east side, “The Warehouse” — with a new format for worship — was scheduled to open in the former Nast Trinity Lutheran Church. The congregation has not been present to feed the homeless during their Saturday and Sunday morning sermon and eggs. To that end, the homeless are still present in nooks and crannies of doorways and stoops. A few regulars stake out their position on the benches of Washington Park. The county received funding to house many in hotels, giving them a foot in the door to another life. If we’re questioning what a return to normal looks like, what does a return to normal mean for them?
Around the park, there’s not one instance of commerce. The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company building shines blue in the evening for health care workers. Window panes give off the appearance of an aquarium. The phantoms of Pride and Prejudice actors from the company’s last extended run float around in the lobby like fish in a tank looking for a place to hide.
The School for Creative and Performing Arts sits empty. The little girls who waved excitedly through the fence at my dog are gone. The hum of a weed eater from the maintenance crew takes their place. However, irises grow assertively along the north wall, like its famous students who grew by taking a chance. The raised beds in the playground haven’t been tilled in what seems like years. Maybe I am noticing that which hasn’t grown over time.
As I walk, I’m becoming one of those critical neighbors. Once a week, I email the city, 3CDC or other neighborhood entity to point out little infractions of the rules we agreed to: take in the garbage cans, don’t break windows, and leave the lights on. A contact who lives in the neighborhood has become my fix-it man, a one-man operation keeping certain streets from becoming plastered over by litter for good.
The raised beds in our back alley’s community garden have gone to seed. I pass them and remember during the week of Easter, I found abandoned asparagus not yet harvested. When given the chance, I cut down the spears for a Good Friday meal. By Sunday, they were all stalk and seed.
At Losanti, the restaurant on the corner, a workman installs a wooden bar rail with a live edge along its patio wall. Someone, someday will set her wallet or phone down on it. The phone might be stolen as has happened in the past. In the interim, the owners operate out of another restaurant and wait out their time with their own addition — a new baby.
At 8:30 in the evening, we turn out of our alley and circle Washington Park counterclockwise. This is our passeggiatta, a practice begun after our first trip to Italy, now maintained in solidarity with that country. Skirting the park, we intersect with two husky gentlemen. The older one looks about 60 and is on a phone call. He pushes forward clockwise around the park block while the younger guy — about 35? — slogs from behind. Halfway around, a young man wearing red sunglasses sits with his back plastered to a bench. I greet him but he stares straight ahead. Maybe his sunglasses are a way to keep out the glare of life around him.
The people experiencing homelessness or asking for money are more the constancy here. We stop in front of an unkempt man who sits near A Tavola. I make eye contact with him and hear the words, weather and change. Yes, I could sure use a weather change, I say. No, I asked if you had any bad weather change. We are each other’s companions in the same way friends are because we’ve been in the same physical space. He asks for money. In turn, I ask his name. Paul.
Paul’s beard grows by the day, limited by a barbershop closing, the same excuse for my unwashed hair in a ponytail. His blue eyes shine against the foreground of his white beard like the blue-violet johnny jump ups gracing the stems of the cream tulips plotted in beds around the park. Later, in front of Graeter’s, he asks for cash again. The panhandlers have become belligerent, no longer willing to converse and I give in to the dichotomy of where I live.
Old man Earl is absent from his seat in the swale of the limestone stoop. He’s fine, he says when I call after my walk that night. After suffering from some medical episodes, his health is good. No hospitals? I ask. If I need one, I’ll call you, he tells me.
The next morning, before daylight, two construction crews greet me outside. One is building a million-dollar-plus home two doors down. Another crew around the corner is working on a $1.6 million dollar expansion for Over-the-Rhine Community Housing. Construction teams pound and saw while the rest of us sit at home because the governor declared events and bookstores closed. I am envious of workers who stand who stand together in line for takeout, or pore over details of an architectural drawing. They might be relations, I muse, given how close they stand to one another. But I welcome the jackhammering to fracture the silence.
Closer to home, I talk to any neighbor in sight, imagining a time when we relied on the goodness of one another, on seeing one another. Romantic notions of a neighborhood filled with familiar faces where one worked, stopped for a growler and went home haunt us now. Nightly, my neighbor reaches for his grabber and picks up litter along an alley where few pieces of garbage are dropped. He is better served to attend to the area north of Liberty Street, but that would require more than his paint pail can hold. For now, he is another set of eyes on the street.
A young woman with children lives behind me. I’ve only waved at her, until this morning when her boys are climbing around the front stoop of an abandoned home. We chat. She says quarantine is like any other day with two kids under two. Another couple in their 30s, living along the back alley, is moving back downtown. We have an entire conversation standing on centuries-old brick while their wine goes warm and their beer suds fall. They wished they were staying here.
Youth. I need to connect with youth — their ability to see the future as cheery-eyed and not bleary. In the afternoon, we meet friends who welcomed a baby boy. After dropping off dinner to them, we stroll once around the park. Despite the sunshine soaking into our bones, the idea of more laps is a burden. Afterward, I bump into another husband and wife with a son who is almost one, the father testing out a scruffy beard, the mother still not sleeping through the night. I wonders if it’s the nervousness we feel or the sense of motherhood sinking in.
My morning walks once were filled with curiosities and a meditation on who might leave a single shoe behind. I’ve turned my focus away from soles and odd, street finds. What I discover at my feet are cast-off masks, single rubber gloves, discarded Styrofoam food containers and the guy whose gut sticks out over his underwear, changing clothes beside the bench of the park. The presence of people, dogs and tents before would have obscured the fact the neighborhood was an outdoor dressing room for some. Nothing surprises and yet, everything still does.
Nearby, there have been reports of gunshots, and a car set on fire. It’s hard to imagine in these few blocks of blank spaces so much living goes on. Crime marches on, too, within streets of one another. Roads being paved curb some of the criminal element. The installation of cameras on other properties also help that along.
The sounds of sirens ebbs and flows. Twelve police cars fly through Liberty Street interchanges in response to a stolen van. Then silence. The number of overdoses must be down. The central library, a primary location for EMT runs, is shut down. Many addicts are getting more help because of our city’s concentration on outreach.
But we are fortunate. We don’t have mask police — though I’d like to hand a few masks to runners. And once darkness descends, unlike some cities in Europe or Asia, no paperwork is required for my non-essential presence on the streets or that of anyone else.
Viewing the horrific images of New York City hospitals, city residents thought our closeness might create similar problems. But we overestimated our density and underestimated our ability to stay put. Cincinnati can be an insular city. A city that likes its circles tight and its relationships neat. A city that tends to get in its own way, relying too much on its collection of before photos. When will we live up to our destiny? After what?
Over-the-Rhine has reverted to a version not envisioned by the media, the city or 3CDC. It’s an adaptation created by a pandemic.
It’s returned to a time when few cars rambled down the streets and residents struggled with money. They took risks to work in manufacturing and take care while shopping for perishable at the market. The days were highlighted by the occasional stroll around the Washington Park to watch sunbeams sail behind Music Hall — and to wave down the neighbor for a chat.
Some might claim it’s the best before version of itself.