In celebration of my father’s birthday, I wish to introduce a guide book to Cincinnati that was published in A.D. 1943, Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors by the Ohio Federal Writers’ Project. You can read the book online with Google Book.
My favorite passage is the following from page 433, which caused quite a chuckle for my father who grew up in the said neighborhood:
A century ago Dayton Street was the “millionaires’ row” of Cincinnati. Here lived men who had amassed fortunes in the early pork-packing and beer-brewing industries; some of them moved on west with their businesses, to help found the great packing companies of Chicago and the breweries of Milwaukee and St. Louis. Many of their descendants stayed in the city but moved to the hill suburbs. Today the stone-front town houses, each with its rusting iron fence in front, still are in good condition, and the street has an anomalous and somewhat false air of well-being.
Well, that was my Dad’s ‘hood, which was rough even back then, as he tells me, when the area was still a white neighborhood. Ghettos come in all shades. My father grew up in a former carriage house, which would have belonged to one of the industry baronial families in earlier years.
The guide book is a fascinating read for any Cincinnatian—or for anyone interested in urban American history, for that matter. It gives you insights into the city’s history and its present circa A.D. 1943. I find the past backward looking perspective quite interesting; a local history book written today would cover different material—and do so differently. Moreover, I appreciate texts published before our nauseating cultural revolution as a welcome respite from current fads and quirks. Read, for example, the guide’s coverage of the tensions between the city’s abolitionists and the citizenry not so disposed: “The disorders of 1836 and repeated assaults upon local Negro colonies were reactions to the Islamic fury of abolitionism.” The passage on page 42 breaks so many contemporary rules, it verily warms my heart. I especially enjoy the phrase, “the Islamic fury of abolitionism.” Consider, also, how the guide treats (on pages 226-227) the beginning of Cincinnati’s white flight, which would have been rather recent for the book’s writers:
Lincoln Park signified peace and contentment to the crowded West End. No doubt it helped formulate the goal of many West Enders—a home on one of the cool hills. As the Negro population of the city expanded and the colored folk moved north, additional white families who had acquired the necessary capital took the momentous step of buying homes on some hill. The main participants of this mass migration of the 1920’s and 1930’s were the Jews who now live in Avondale, Walnut Hills, and Price Hill. Negroes and also white hill folk from Kentucky and West Virginia moved into the rapidly decaying and emptying houses, and in two decades the entire West End became homogeneous—rough, tough, and squalid.
I find its honestly and straightforwardness rather charming . . . “White hill folk,” or as we are supposed to say nowadays, “urban Appalachians.” The squalor of the West End remains, though the Jews have long since abandoned Avondale, Walnut Hills, and Price Hill for tonier environs like Amberly Village and Montgomery. When they left, the black American ghetto arrived. Strangely, I never knew that Price Hill had a significant Jewish population. To me, Price Hill is a West Side Catholic bastion, and only recently has it been affected by demographic shoving.
Anyway, enjoy the guide and, if you hail from the Queen City, learn a bit about your heritage. Did you know, for instance, that wineries existed along the Queen City Avenue artery in Fairmount, Westwood, and Price Hill, or that, during Prohibition, that area was known as “Death Valley”? Did you know that Cheviot’s Harvest Home Festival has occurred every year since A.D. 1860? I bet that you were not aware of a massive castle home at Werk Road and Harrison Avenue modeled on the chateau of Blois, France—which I visited as a boy. The soap making Werk family built the home at the end of the nineteenth century, but, unfortunately, it was razed just before the Second World War. In fact, the West Side used to have many fine sites, from botanical gardens to art museums. I suppose that the influx of the white West Enders and others from downtown guaranteed that the Western Hills would become the middle class, blue collar, German Catholic neighborhoods that we now know them to be. The moneyed folk moved to the outer East Side, such as Indian Hill.
If you are not familiar with Cincinnati, you can read my post, “The Queen City of the West,” or learn a bit about our town by reading Ed the Sports Fan’s somewhat unflattering “Cincinnati—As Nasty As It Wants To Be.” Naturally, I would not expect a foreigner such as Ed to understand us perfectly, but it is an amusing piece, nonetheless. I am reposting a fragment that includes my favorite part concerning the city’s East - West cultural divide [emphasis added]:
When it was founded in the 1700s on the northern banks of the Ohio River, Cincinnati quickly grew into what has been called America’s first inland boomtown. It rapidly became a gateway to the untamed West.
Today, nobody calls this a boomtown. The metro area population is around 2 million, placing it in the top 25 nationally, and there are many major corporations located here. But its residents admit that Cincinnati is as likely to think small as it is to think big: resistant to change, wary of the outside world and happy within its own cultural cocoon.
“From the day I got here [from New York], I was totally struck by how much better this place is than our own people give it credit for,” says nine-year Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski.
For comparison’s sake to other cities, Cincinnatians might need to get out more. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer says he has neighbors in his suburb whose idea of a vacation is to go downtown and stay in a hotel.
Not even the widespread passion for Ohio State football resonates much in Cincinnati—the Enquirer doesn’t have a Buckeyes beat writer.
And you can forget any kinship with the state’s largest city, Cleveland, well to the north.
“Cleveland is an East Coast city,” Daugherty says. “This is a Southern city. I’d say it has more in common with Louisville.
“I think Cincinnati is sort of an island unto itself, because it has nothing in common with the rest of the state.”
Which seems to be fine with the locals.
“I don’t really think of myself as an Ohioan,” says Cincy native Tori Meeker, a bartender at the Rock Bottom Brewery downtown. “Cincinnati is very self-contained.”
Cincinnati is almost its own nation-state, its life separated from Kentucky by the river and from the rest of Ohio by the I-275 beltway. Provincialism is fairly predictable.
“This is the only city in America where if they ask what school you went to, they don’t mean college,” says Cincinnati Bearcats basketball coach Mick Cronin, a Queen City native. “They mean high school.”
The city basically has two factions to it: the gritty, working-class West Side and the more affluent East Side. Cronin describes the difference in terms of youth sports.
“On the West Side, they play to win,” he says. “On the East Side, everyone gets to participate.”
Pete Rose is the ultimate West Sider—the hometown tough guy who made it big. You do that, and the headfirst slides count more with your constituency than the years of lying about betting on baseball. A recent reader poll in the weekly magazine CityBeat said Rose is still the favorite athlete in Cincinnati.
“We’re homers,” Cronin says, “which explains our affinity for Pete Rose. If the people in this town could vote for Pete to get into the Hall of Fame, he’d get in unanimously.”
Similar affection has been extended to another famed-but-flawed hard-ass, Huggins. Certainly, Huggins’ winning percentage dictated most of his popularity, but his unpretentious, combative style played well here, too.
“He was perceived as a blue-collar man of the people,” Dougherty says. “We love our white-bread, Chris Sabo, Cris Collinsworth, shut-up-and-play, dirty-shirt heroes.”
Don’t underestimate the “white-bread” part of that quote. Cincinnati has championed several minority sports heroes: Oscar Robertson, Anthony Munoz, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, among others. But it’s probably easier to be Carson Palmer in this town than T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
In terms of demographics and lifestyle, this is a long way from New York, Miami, San Francisco and even Atlanta.
There are a lot of adjectives tossed around about Cincinnati: family-friendly, affordable and safe, to name a few. But one word that comes out of every mouth, without fail:
First, I love the bit about youth sports! Simplified and generalized, but it captures the spirit of the difference.
Second, in no way are we a “Southern city.” Rather, Cincinnati is at the nexus of several American regional cultures. You can definitely tell that the world changes once you drive into Kentucky.
Third, and much to the chagrin of Andrew, Ed is absolutely correct in his perception of Cincinnatians’ self-understanding. His nation state, not part of Ohio analysis is right on. I was not aware of “Ohio pride” until Andrew explained the ways of our corn fed Buckeye kin to me. I just assumed that everyone self-identified with his hometown rather than the state. Per Tertullian, what has Cleveland to do with Cincinnati?
Fourth, I obviously do not agree with Ed’s racial assessments. His words betray the white “unilateral disarmament” mentality about which I have written elsewhere, as, for instance, in “‘Crazy Bastard’ Old Code Words for Black.”
Yet, this is not meant to be a political post. It is about my father and my city. However, in my mind, there is a strong connection between my father and Cincinnati. Perhaps, some of my love for the city has elements of filial devotion, literally. I never thought much about this, thinking that it was normal and natural for everyone, until I began to discover that many folks do not share such an intellectual and emotional connection between locality and family. Certainly, the ancient Greeks did so. Perhaps, the blood and soil (or Blut und Boden for those who like to paint us as fascists . . . and German sounds so much scarier) paleoconservative tendencies of the city’s population, which I largely share, are due to this simple cultural trait. It inoculates those who have it from the universalist tendencies of the Enlightenment that serves as the animating philosophical principle of the Left and of the “propositional nation” theory of American history and society. The more people feel grounded and belonging to a particular place, the more conservative they tend to be. Even in Leftist dominions like Vermont, you can detect strong conservative cultural currents. Their conservatism may not translate into the political language or policies of the American Right, but it is unmistakable in its value of that which is local and rooted. As Rod Dreher’s so-called “Crunchy Cons” are wont to point out, there are many traditional, conservative elements in the American Left where we can find common ground. The political axis moves considerably according to different issues.
Well, happy birthday, Dad! Thank you for siring me in such a special town and for raising me to love it.