Thursday, May 5, 2016

Does Cincinnati know how good it has it?

I didn’t really set out to spend time in Cincinnati, Ohio, and my colleagues were pretty confused as to why I’d asked for the time off to go there. An old friend of mine lives there. We’d previously lived together in Boston (where I still live), and she has since lived in Florida, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. My wife and I had visited her in all of those places, and had predictable responses to each (in order: vom; wow; cars-and-famous-people-are-everywhere). I’ve kicked around a lot of American cities over the years, and have consequently gotten pretty good at assessing places before I get to them. I had read up on blogs and Yelp, looked at maps, googled bars, cafes, and cultural institutions, and spied a Flcker account or two. I was not anticipating a particularly good time in the land of Johns Cranley & Kasich, and maybe those low expectations helped. But hot damn, if Cincinnati, Ohio isn’t one of the most promising places I’ve visited!

I should clarify: I spent almost all of my time in Over-the-Rhine (OTR), which, I suppose, most closely parallels Boston’s Back Bay/Downtown. This comparison is far from perfect. “What about the other neighborhoods?” you might ask. “The higher end part of town is all well and good, but what about where people are struggling?” This is a fair question, and one that people I spoke to in OTR were definitely talking about. But let’s talk about what “higher end” means in Cincinnati: the friend we were visiting lives between the 12th and 13th Streets, flanked by Main and Vine. She walks to work, can walk to baseball and football games, art galleries and museums, cafes, bars, clubs, theaters, parks, the river, and an array of (mostly local) stores offering everything from freshly made dog food to high end appliances. The big complaint is the absence of a good grocery store (though there is a pretty terrible Kroger’s nearby). While the lack of a grocery store is a big problem, it is also one that the residents of Downtown Boston suffered from until a Roche Bros. finally opened up in Downtown Crossing just over a year ago.

The above amenities make OTR a desirable location by most urban living measurements. It is also a location she pays less than $800 for. Sure, her apartment is technically a “studio” with an attic and it’s below market rate, but it also costs less than half of what I pay for a below market apartment seven miles outside of downtown Boston, and while I technically live in a one-bedroom with an office, her apartment was actually bigger than mine, and if it were in Boston, it would be advertised as “huge open floor plan with secret office space.” Comparable apartments are available in Over-the-Rhine for around a grand, which will get you a room with some roommates in Boston. While the clear drivers of Boston’s housing discrepancy with Cincinnati are colleges and jobs, it’s worth noting that Cincinnati’s unemployment rate (4.5%) isn’t much higher than Boston’s (3.7%). It is also lower than the national average (5%). Boston’s glut of students, compounded by higher paid hospital workers, is causing a housing crisis. Meanwhile, Cincinnati has a sea of vacant buildings begging to be filled.

But let’s skip the economics for a bit. Let’s assume that you’re young(ish), educated, and employable. In Cincinnati, you can afford to live in the middle of everything, and despite what you might think (and what I definitely thought), the middle of everything is actually a lot in Queen City.

Day-to-day stuff to do

Neon's Famous Unplugged. Dogs welcome.
(photo credit: Neon's)
First, nightlife: There is a dizzying number of good bars and restaurants in OTR. Places like Neon’s offers a huge patio that welcomes dogs and giant Jenga games. Instead of a regular menu, owners invite different local restaurants to use their food prep space. We chowed on some excellent tacos there and drank a few Nati-native beers among punks and parents of more races and ethnicities than any bar or restaurant I’ve been to north of NYC. Motr Pub handed us live brass bands, turn-of-the-century hardcore, and beat poetry within a 72 hour span, all for free. There were tasty bowls of ramen, weird Mexican food-concoctions called “turtles,” and better pizza than I’ve had in most of Boston. Almost everything was available at later hours than anywhere in my current neighborhood is open. It's like closing before 1AM wasn’t allowed in most of the town. I also saw groups of ladies in dance club uniforms, so I assume that kind of thing is available, if you are into that sort of thing.

A Whirlwind through Arts & Culture

But how’s the culture game? Well, it’s stellar, actually. Cincinnati is crawling with art galleries and studios, featuring some really great stuff. Places like the Contemporary Arts Center may not be able to keep up with the MOMA or Boston’s ICA, but they do a pretty damn solid service, and they’re right downtown. Plus CAC is free. You know what else is free? The Cincinnati Art Museum. This place is genuinely impressive. While it also doesn’t quite have the star power of a Boston Museum of Fine Arts, it does feature some minor works of major artists. It’s real glory is in its major works of minor artists. While CAMs Van Goghs and Picassos aren’t going to floor you, the 30 Americans exhibit, featuring works by people I’d previously never seen or heard of, is more than worth a look. The Cincinnati exhibit is also aces, highlighting the city’s dedication to the coexistence of arts with labor and the importance of philanthropy. While it could be said that Cincinnati’s mayor and governor could both use a refresher course on those ideas, the same is being said in some corners of the art community about Mayor Walsh of Boston and Governor Baker in Massachusetts. All of them might consider taking in the message of Clement Barnhorn's Industry Protecting Art and Music, which beautifully and concisely captures the relationship between art and labor viscerally.
Industry Protecting Art and Music,
Cincinnati Art Museum.
(Photo credit: Wikicommons)

The museums housed by the Cincinnati Museum Center may not have been quite so excellent, but even here there are praiseworthy moments, starting with the beautiful art deco building that houses them and including a reproduction of a city block of 19th century Cincinnati’s Main Street that literally lets you walk into a lost world. Where these museums fall flat (likely due to lack of funding for updates), the Cincinnati History Museum’s volunteers certainly step up. Both friendly and knowledgeable, they guide visitors to some easy-to-miss must-sees like a real shrunken-head or the operational 19th century printing presses operated by an equally ancient printer.

Bibliophiles will also find their havens throughout OTR. The Ohio Book Store is reminiscent of Boston's Brattle Bookstore, but in a much larger space, and lovers of the Atheneaum will find highbrow solace in the Mercantile Library, well hidden on the 11th floor of a business district building.

And can we talk about murals for a second? Being from Boston, I do not like them. Every once in a while we get a good one, but the conservative tastes of our City on a Hill have worked against interesting work with even a hint of perceived controversy (see examples here and here). Instead, Boston's walls are often left with neutral and often amateurish themes. While there is certainly a place for encouraging children to make art, that place might not always be on the walls of heavy traffic areas.

Cincinnati's murals do not suffer from these problems. Predominantly created by a group called Artworks, Cincinnati's murals touch on a variety of themes and figures, including one of local political semi-crank Jim Tarbell in a top hat. Having this figure on a main street seems, if I understand the local explanation of Mr. Tarbell correctly, would be similar to Boston putting up a monument of Maura Healey arm-in-arm with Vermin Supreme.

Cincinnati puts its fringe politicians and
championship boxers on buildings.
(Photo credit: Artworks Cincinnati)
These bright, well-executed works of art combine with colorful row houses to make virtually every street pop. Even on streets with multiple vacants, boards over windows and doors are painted to look as if they are occupied. It's a little thing, but it's the difference between feeling like you're in a post-apocalyptic city and one that is being lived in and improved upon.

The real win for Cincinnati

All of this stuff is great, but it’s also just a collection of the impressions of a tourist. The question I kept asking at these places was “can someone really live here.” That’s what I really wanted to know. It seems that the answer is “yes” for a certain kind of person: the I-want-to-do-something person.

From the coffee shops to the galleries to the stores, I found the same thing -- the owners were there and they were working. People in Cincinnati who want to do something seem to be able to do it pretty easily, or at least more easily than in Boston. With what seems like very little capital, people can start up shops and stops that may not be able to generate the revenue to be sustainable in the Brooklyns or Jamaica Plains of America. And whereas many cities don’t have the populations to support art galleries, specialty cafes, locally owned bookstores or letterpress shops in any form, Cincinnati appears to be in that sweet spot where people who want to do stuff can afford to and people who would enjoy that stuff are there in numbers large enough to support those makers-of-things. This is a rare and special special thing -- many cities never experience it and those that do can only do it for a few years. Cincinnati may be in that latter camp. Nothing gold can stay. But for now a good, hearty bronze crown is on the Queen City. It didn’t make me want to move there, but it certainly made me wonder why I was still here. When other cities could so illustratively offer so much more bang-for-buck, what's the incentive of the Bostonian to stay? Unless you're very rich, very connected, or have some kind of super-understanding I can't fathom, Boston seems to be pretty well shaped, its residents end up bystanders who pay top dollar for the privilege. In Cincinnati, a few bucks and a whole lot of hustle might just be enough to pursue your dreams, or at least your business. And that's worth quite a lot.

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