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Colossus on the Ohio

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[Times photo: Jeff Greenberg
Soaring up from the Ohio River and leading away from the Suspension Bridge, Cincinnati boasts skyscrapers, a stadium and history.

By CHRIS SHERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


In the beginning was Cincinnati. Or so it seems. This enterprising city has presided over America's industrial growth and surges westward for so long that it has become a mighty cultural icon.

CINCINNATI -- For some years I have kept a miniature Cincinnati on my bedside table.

These painted wooden souvenirs are building blocks of my hometown, a forgotten Big City lost in the middle of America.

They include magnificent urban landmarks such as Music Hall, an 1879 palace of red brick as grandiose as any opera (one wit called it Sauerbraten Byzantine); the 1913 skyscraper where my Dad once had an office, and Union Terminal, the the grand Art Deco railroad station shaped like a huge Philco radio.

My miniature city also has copies of the smaller pleasures, too: the ice cream and cookie store where Mom hung out after school during the Depression and, of course, a chili parlor.

It is not enough. On my table you cannot smell the chocolate and cinnamon (from a chili five way as well as cookies), nor hear the symphony or the summer opera. You cannot examine the Rookwood pottery or Jim Dine art in the museums. And there's no room for the Ohio River.

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[Photo: Greater Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau]
The grandiose Music Hall is home to the second-oldest opera company in the United States.
You have to come here to see it flowing across a nation and its history and to experience the city the river shaped.

It starts when you disembark at the airport in northern Kentucky (Greater Cincinnati includes three states and is southern enough that its airport is in Kentucky).

You pick up your bags under huge mosaic murals, moved to the airport from the rotunda of the railroad station. There, the city elders had told Cincinnati's proud history in a 180-foot panorama across a dome. Pioneers, Indians and riverboatmen are there, as well as the heroes of a hard-working, pre-war economy: butchers, stevedores, chemists and die cutters. All were memorialized in bright, intricate tiles.

Leave the airport by coming down from the Kentucky hills, then round the bend of the Dixie Highway and there, beyond the 19th-century steeples of Covington's old German neighborhoods, is the Ohio River. Beyond it rises a massive skyline you may remember from the TV show WKRP. This skyline is the classic signature of a Big City.

At its heart downtown is the Carew Tower, a 49-story, Art Deco palace constructed by the builders of the Empire State Building. It fills an entire block and includes a hotel, offices, shopping concourses and a pioneering parking garage -- a complete city of its own that Rockefeller Center would emulate.

When I enter the Carew and its marble concourses of shops, I am a small child looking for the magic shop (it now sells novelties). When I have a drink in the towering Palm Court, now part of the Omni Netherland hotel, the oceanliner elegance of the place is overwhelming. The special touches are Cincinnati's own, finely crafted German silver and fountains and tiles from Rookwood pottery.

The city still lives

The conclusion is inescapable: This was and still is a city, that supposedly extinct form of human organization. Cincinnati is a very American city, founded in the Indian Wars just after the Revolution. It is a place where settlers, ex-slaves and immigrants prospered, grew, made fortunes from pigs and soap, machine tools and pianos, and threw up great buildings to announce that this place was the cultural and commercial center of a large hinterland.

A sense of surprise from visitors is understandable and forgiven. Cincinnatians are polite -- and are used to being undiscovered.

Still, many non-residents know that this Queen City of the Midwest was once the third-largest city of a young country, and that by 1876 it had more than 200,000 people, big enough to host the nation's first centennial exhibition and the Republican National Convention (the Democrats had already convened here, in 1856 and 1880).

It is also known that Cincinnati is one of those Midwestern cities that show up in travel plans by accident or when a convention, wedding or big game (a Reds October, please) brings people to town.

To spread the word, Cincinnati spends considerable time celebrating itself. There's a full calendar beginning with the winter seasons of symphony and ballet, through the May Festival of choral music (a saengerfest dating to 1849), on to an Oktoberfest and the illumination of the snow-covered zoo for Christmas -- and grander festivities.

Every four years, the city organizes Tall Stacks, a convocation of all the steamboats and paddlewheelers left on the nation's inland rivers (the next one is set for October 2003). This summer, inspired by Chicago's success with cows as street sculpture, Cincinnati is holding a Big Pig Gig: There will be hundreds of painted porker statues placed about town, recognizing the Porkopolis nickname it once shunned.

Not just history -- life

Cincinnati is also a great example of a city still urbane and livable, one that pioneered and still has the full range of urban amenities and pleasures of universities, parks, arts, music and sports. It has New York's skyline (complete with the prototype of the Brooklyn Bridge, plus a Coney Island down the river), Baltimore's market, Chicago's museums, Cleveland's music and, of course, our own chili, not New Mexico's or Texas'.

There is enough to engage the history buff or city lover for several days, especially anyone interested in architecture, American Jewish history, art pottery, German immigration, freed blacks and slaves.

Built first by paddlewheeler traffic, Cincinnati became a railroad center and then an engine of America's industrial and cultural growth, particularly in the 1880s and again in the 1920s and '30s. This is where those boring chapters between the wars in U.S. history books -- A Young Nation, Building a Country -- take place.

Cincinnati was a gateway to the west, a crossroads and the first city of size and sophistication beyond the Alleghenies. It was smack on the dividing line between North and South, bigger than Chicago.

It still has all the museums, orchestras, businesses and schools of that early prominence and affluence, and residents enjoy them in quiet pride in what is now called the Blue Chip City. The locals are somewhat smug that the rest of the country doesn't realize this greatness.

The city is in the midst of a construction boom, a mess of millennial proportions that cuts off downtown from the riverfront, where the city is rebuilding a major highway and in a fit of boosterism is erecting two stadiums. For more than a year of renovations, downtown's Fountain Square went fountainless; last month the 40-foot statue was back at the center of the city as it has been since 1871.

Serious culture, however, has its own dreams of grand edifices. A $90-million museum celebrating the Underground Railroad and the struggle to overcome the legacy of slavery is planned to open in late 2003, near the new riverfront sports complex. And the Contemporary Arts Center is building a downtown home designed by the Iraqi architect Zana Hadid. It is her first U.S. commission, a building both intimate and sweeping that may well be the American equivalent of the Bilbao museum, when completed.

Take a look around

The riverfront and downtown are a naturally easy starting place for a city tour, especially if you appreciate architecture or history.

Both the Ohio and Kentucky shorelines have enjoyable walkways that underscore the river's role in shaping the city.

The Cincinnati side includes a footpath through geologic time (with human history a mere sliver of stainless steel during the ten-minute walk), memorials to the fatal explosion of the riverboat Sultana (a disaster that killed more people than the Titanic sinking did) a whimsical sculpture that records floodtides and flies winged pigs from steamboat stacks.

Look up at the huge pilings of the Suspension Bridge and you can see the principles John Roebling later used in his Brooklyn Bridge. Watching barges and excursion riverboats, it is easy to recall the bustle that once centered on the Public Landing.

And remember that this river divided slave states from the free. Cross to the Kentucky side now and you walk beside houses of antebellum charm -- and the underground tunnels and hiding places for runaway slaves. From here, fugitives really did dash floe to floe across the freezing water they called the River Jordan.

The plight of women like Eliza Jones, who escaped with her children down river at Ripley, inspired Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (the Cincinnati home of her abolitionist father is a museum).

A plaque on the edge of Covington's Mainstrasse, a 19th-century immigrant neighborhood, honors Margaret Garner, who killed her child in 1856 rather than return to slavery. She became then a cause celebre and a century later, the model for Toni Morrison's Beloved.

You can trace Cincinnati's evolution in the downtown built by river commerce. On the west end, the civic glories of the 19th century are piled at the intersection of Ninth and Plum. City Hall, a castle of rugged sandstone and painterly stained glass, sits on one corner. On another two, the great gray cathedral of St. Peter in Chains faces the equally majestic Ninth Street Temple, where Isaac M. Wise established Reformed Judaism in America.

The glitter of the Roaring '20s can still be found on the Carew and other buildings in the city's center and at Union Terminal.

Art and brats

The most recent burst of urban design is evident in a skywalk system impervious to both traffic and winter; it connects 18 blocks of downtown. As a reminder of the city's fascination with urban wall paintings, a 60-foot trompe l'oeil at the end of Central Parkway makes drivers feel they are entering a classical piazza, with Cincinnatus in the middle.

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[Photo: Greater Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau]
Mount Adams, an old-time neighborhood that has never completely succumbed to gentrification, rises above the riverfront’s modern buildings.
Visual arts downtown range from Old Masters such as Rembrandt, Turner and Sargent in the Taft museum, a Palladian beauty set in Lytle Park, to the cutting edge at the Contemporary Arts Center. It achieved fame in 1990 when its director went to jail to defend a Mapplethorpe exhibit. While the publicity made it seem extreme, the Mapplethorpe exhibit was not unusually dramatic for the Center: This year it had experimental sculpture and a video and aural installation by David Byrne.

While a sad belt of poverty rings the immediate downtown, the old Findlay Market, dating to the 1850s, remains vital and is being restored. It was at the center of the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood (across the Ohio Canal, which immigrants called "the Rhine") that was home to half a dozen churches, at least three breweries and many singing societies.

In warm weather, local farmers still bring corn, pumpkins and honey to the Findlay, but Cincinnatians clog the hallways of the market building Wednesday, Friday and Saturday year-round for the prime steaks, hand-made brats, goetta, Amish cheeses and spaetzle noodles.

Further out, the hills ringing the city host its most distinctive neighborhoods. Closest is Mount Adams, a hilltop where early Cincinnatians installed the Midwest's first observatory, and Eden Park, the city's first park with a grand view of the river. Nicholas Longworth planted one of the nation's best vineyards; his feminist descendant Maria built Rookwood pottery.

The pottery's English Tudor cottage is now a restaurant, with tables in some of the huge kilns. You can find a good collection of Rookwood pieces in the city's private art galleries and at the Cincinnati Art Museum a few blocks into the park, as well as a world-class collection, from classical and medieval works to Alexander Calder.

Besides the appeal of the park's museums, playhouse and concert pavilions, many people come up Mount Adams for the neighborhood, a hilltop Greenwich Village that has never fully gentrified.

Find a place to park on the steep and narrow streets and you can explore bookstores and coffeeshops, catch a little jazz trio at the Promontory (even on a Wednesday night) or grab a hometown beer like Hudepohl and talk Reds and Bengals in Crowley's any night of the year.

While there are wet zones of clubs, bars and theme restaurants along the riverfront, downtown and on upper Main Street, Cincinnati's second ring of older neighborhoods outside the city is the most charming by day.

Clifton, which borders the giant University of Cincinnati (UC) and tiny Hebrew Union College, is the city's neighborhood of the mind.

Its eye will delight in the great modern architects UC has invited to perk up the tumble-jumble of a crowded urban campus. Frank Gehry has added a bulbous molecular laboratory, Michael Graves a postmodern high-rise engineering building, and Peter Eisnemann a cerebral home for the design school.

The ear will enjoy recitals and performances in Henry Cobb's dramatic renovation of the College-Conservatory of Music, a premier institution that dates to 1867 and counts graduates such as Kathleen Battle and James Levine.

On the campus of Hebrew Union, the Skirball Center has a massive library and archives for research and a museum that is a handsomely curated treasure of Judaica and Jewish Americana. Exhibits cover the Holocaust, Jewish immigration to the U.S. and a detailed look at the life, home and teaching of Rabbi Wise and other pioneering Jews in the Midwest.

Fan out five miles east or west from the center of the city, and you will still be among sturdy brick houses and big green parks built and laid out 100 years ago. Head out to streetcar suburbs and old neighborhoods such as Oakley and Hyde Park, and you will find the shopping "plazas" that predated malls by 50 years are still functional, even fashionable again.

Like many mid-sized cities, Cincinnati has added new attractions to draw tourists -- a massive new aquarium in Newport, Ky., and two casinos permanently moored downriver in Rising Sun and Lawrenceburg, Ind.

History buffs and city-lovers with a day to spare would be better off to head outside the suburbs to explore the region's earlier days. At Ripley, Ohio, and Madison, Ind., 19th-century townscapes have been restored and Underground Railroad heroes recognized. Maysville, Ky., is planning an outdoor drama on slave struggles for freedom. Chilicothe, Ohio, presents a summer pageant about Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who fought to save the Ohio Valley.

At Fort Ancient, outside Lebanon, 30 miles east of Cincinnati, you can go back the farthest: A 100-acre park and a museum preserve the great earthen mounds the Hopewell and other native cultures built about 2,000 years ago. They traded tools, seeds and precious materials, following routes that crossed much of the continent.

Long before Columbus reached America or Mike Fink's keelboats and the railroads reached here, those ancient peoples had built a city in the middle of what would be America.

If you go

GETTING THERE: From Tampa, Delta Air Lines has non-stop service.

EATING THERE: Cincinnati boasts that it has fine food from five-star restaurants to "five-way" chili; the most distinctive eating is in its chili and other everyday foods.

The signature chili -- soupy, spicy and a touch sweet -- is served on hot dogs or over spaghetti. Try it at outlets of the Skyline and Gold Star chains or at independent chili parlors throughout the area.

For sweets, head for the Graeter's chain of old-fashioned ice cream shops and the cinnamon buns at Busken Bakeries, throughout the area.

Other Cincinnati staples you may find on restaurant menus or in private homes are cottage ham, mock turtle soup and a variety of sausage products, from goetta to brats and mettwursts.

STAYING THERE: For distinctive independent lodging downtown, try the Cincinnatian, Sixth and Vine streets, (513) 381-3000; and Garfield Suites Hotel, 2 Garfield Place, (800) 367-2155.

Hyatt Regency, Regal, Holiday Inn and Westin all have large downtown hotels; the best views of the skyline and the Ohio River are from the Kentucky side. Holiday Inn, Radisson, Comfort Suites, Embassy Suites and Quality Hotel all have locations in Covington or Newport, Ky.

MUSEUM AND ATTRACTIONS WEB SITES: For information on the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, check http://www.cincymuseum.org; for art museum updates, look at http://www.spiral.org and http://www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org. To check on the planned Underground Railroad museum, check http://www.undergroundrailroad.com. FOR MORE INFORMATION: For information on symphony and concert schedules, theater and dance performances and other events, visit these Web sites: http://www.cincinnati.com or http://www.insiders.com/cincinnati. Or contact the Greater Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau, 300 W Sixth St., Cincinnati, OH 45202-2361; call (800) 246-2987; or see the Web site, http://www.cincyusa.com.

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