Dr. Know: Mysterious Pipes, Forgotten Innovations, and Cardboard Cutouts

The good doctor explores troubling issues, including the pipes venting our water system, a defunct fire alarm system, and the fate of those flat Reds fans.

On either side of the sidewalk approaching the Clifton Area Neighborhood Schools, two enormous green pipes rise out of the ground and then curve back down. They look like giant synchronized eels. Are they just wayward sewer pipes or the school’s art installation? I really can’t tell. —PIPE PUZZLED

Illustration by Lars Leetaru

The Doctor sympathizes. Kids these days, combined with modern art these days, combined with these days leave everyone confused. But relax: The green protuberances gracefully curving up and back down into the ground on Clifton Avenue are not eels. Nor are they the impassioned art project of a student majoring in Stormwater Management. (“I call this one Swans of the Sewer.”)

According to Robin Brandon, facilities director for Cincinnati Public Schools, the pipes belong to Greater Cincinnati Water Works. Anyone living near a massive city water or sewer project—it’s why your water bills are exploding—can assure you that artful aesthetics do not top their list of priorities.

Jonathan Peters at GCWW says the curved green pipes sit above an underground concrete vault, where a series of valves control water flow from the high point of Clifton down to the low point of Spring Grove Avenue. (No judging there, just topography.) The Doctor confesses that he couldn’t quite grasp the technical explanation of “air vent overtop” but assumes the entire neighborhood should be eminently grateful that it works.

Downtown’s old Skywalk had its latest demolition just as our old Brent Spence Bridge had its latest catastrophe. It made me wonder: What other pieces of major Cincinnati infrastructure were once hailed as brilliant innovations, then came to be costly nightmares, and are now forgotten? —LONG GONE WRONG

Your key word here is forgotten. Everybody’s heard of Cincinnati’s canals, which supported our river economy but eventually just stunk up the air around the time the city committed to railroads. Likewise we all know about Cincinnati’s subway, which burned up millions of dollars and continues to stink underground. So let’s recall an infrastructure that everyone loved at first and then began to stink, but has now almost disappeared from our collective memory.

Cincinnati’s street-corner fire alarm boxes began in the 1800s as miraculous savers of life and property. Originally a hand-cranked telegraph contraption, the system later became telephone-based and quite effective. It couldn’t really pinpoint the location of a fire, but with more than 2,000 boxes citywide the system worked well. Until it didn’t.

By the mid-20th century, every dwelling had a phone for making fire calls, and the later development of 911 made outside boxes even more unnecessary. They were hugely ex­pensive, the source of most false alarms, and occasionally were triggered by people who thought they were mailing a letter. The city slowly began to remove them, and in 1990 the boxes were all auctioned off. So get ready to place your best bid on the Brent Spence. But be prepared to take it home.

I didn’t buy a cardboard cutout of myself for this year’s Cincinnati Reds games, and I don’t know anyone who did. Now I’m curious: What’s happened to them? Did fans get to keep them? And were they really made of cardboard? Did the crew have to put them away when it rained? —TOUGH CROWD

“Cardboard cutout” is a good example of what the Doctor calls a zombie-nym, a word or phrase that refuses to die even though its literal meaning is long dead. Other examples of zombie-nyms: rewind, dial tone, sex tape. Despite the name, those smiling flat faces at this year’s Reds games were not made of cardboard. They were more like foamcore or PVC, and required no sudden evacuations in rainstorms.

Our beloved Reds had a decent season that ended in disappointing fashion, but the 4,563 rigid fans were a grand slam for the Reds Community Fund, the team’s nonprofit arm, which creates local programs for needy kids. Fans’ purchases raised more than $326,000 for the fund. And, yes, all cutouts were returned to those who covered the shipping cost. Fund Director Charley Frank says more than 90 percent have been reclaimed. YouTube is probably already showing someone’s homemade version of that now-famous Bud Light commercial.

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