We need a story about Cleveland,” my editor at a Hollywood-based magazine told me by phone in 2016. I was from there, right? “I’m from Cincinnati,” I said. “I’ve never even been to Cleveland.” I could almost hear her waving her hand. “Same thing, whatever. Can you file next week?”
In Los Angeles, my home from 1994 to 2014, I brushed off such ignorance about the Midwest. The dinner-party dismissal of “flyover country.” The characterizations of gun-toting Bible thumpers. I love Cincinnati, I would tell people. Admittedly, one of the reasons is because I left right after college.
Absence made my heart grow nostalgic for our skyline and our Skyline. It was easy to appreciate Cincinnati from my succession of apartments in New York, Paris, and London. In my jet-set years, I wore my down-home origins as an exotic feather, prompting quizzical looks when I dropped expressions like “pop” or “pony keg.” The differences between the locations could be stark: In L.A., I sometimes had trouble finding designer boutiques carrying non-actress sizes. Back here, a store clerk described my 10-medium frame as “scrawny.” No longer my home but forever my hometown, Cincinnati was where one day in the far future I would (maybe) ease into my sunset years.
But then in 2014, before gray hair set in, Cincinnati offered me something unexpected: excitement. I had come to buy a modest rental property as an investment. It was something I could never afford in L.A., and it would ensure I’d return often for family visits. The house needed work, so I stuck around for the summer, sleeping on a borrowed futon and ferrying paint to the contractors.
OTR blew my mind. Northside felt like hipster camp. Hometown hero Jim Obergefell was becoming the face of marriage equality. Cincinnati seemed, I don’t know, cool? One night I stayed out dancing so late with a friend—at the kind of dive that’s been gentrified out of so many coastal cities—that I crashed on his couch. I hadn’t done that in years. The city rejuvenated me; the impromptu nights out and slower-paced days, with less clock-watching, made me feel younger. It was like being in love.
I remember the moment I decided to commit. A college friend invited me to a concert. I had expected warmed-over rock but was bewitched by virtuoso Middle Eastern music. I had never been to such a show. “Lots of people from the poly community here,” my friend mused as we settled into the intimate venue. I cocked my head like a perplexed puppy. “Polyamorous,” she explained. “People who engage in shared open relationships.”
That, too, was new to me. As I pondered the concept, two men approached our table and started to chat us up. Unlike the hippie-ish, middle-aged poly posse, they were clean-cut and young, maybe still teenagers. Holy Porkopolis, I realized. They’re Amish on Rumspringa!
That was that. I was moving back to Cincinnati. The city was definitely stimulating and weird enough for me. To the surprise of my colleagues and friends, I flew back to L.A., packed up my old Volvo, and drove across the country. I’m not the only one who unexpectedly ricocheted.
“There’s more to do in Cincinnati now than there was when I left it,” says James Kok, a 41-year-old management executive who moved to Manhattan in 2001. He returned in 2015 after a telecommuting job opened the possibility of being on hand to help his parents run the Blue Gibbon restaurant in Paddock Hills. “Findlay Market reminds me a bit of New York,” he says. “And when I saw that a place downtown had hung lanterns for a Chinese New Year, I thought, Things have changed.”
As an Asian American, he was abundantly aware of being a minority in Cincinnati. Less so in New York, of course, and he brought a newfound self-assurance back home with him. “My three nephews here in Cincinnati are not teased for being Chinese the way I was in grade school,” he says. “I was called Fortune Cookie. They get love notes!”
Unlike Kok, another recent boomerang, Tom Reiber, 53, says he could not have returned during the ascending years of his career. “I was ashamed to be from Cincinnati,” he says, citing the Robert Mapplethorpe art show controversy of 1990 and other things that underscored the city’s puritanical reputation. As a lawyer and a Realtor, Reiber earned enough to live large in L.A., buying a house in the coveted West Hollywood neighborhood. “Los Angeles was my home,” he says. “Cincinnati was just where my parents lived.”
But the Queen City started to loosen up as Tinseltown was tightening. “As I got older, I wanted a change,” says Reiber. “The traffic started to drive me crazy. Cincinnati offered the opportunity to work less, travel more, and have a better quality of life without so much stress.” From his new home in Walnut Hills, he divides his time between working remotely, globetrotting, and volunteering.
Kok and Reiber are the new breed of urbanites ushering worldly sophistication into Cincinnati’s core neighborhoods. That tide, in turn, draws in like-minded people.
The area’s cost-of-living advantage is, as the kids say, redonk. In addition, the pandemic has shone new, positive light on second-tier cities where people, who are increasingly working from wherever, can inhabit larger living spaces in greener settings. Cincinnati’s population is stable, perhaps even growing, as more denizens seek work/life balance and start families here.
Of course, Cincinnati isn’t the only affordable hamlet in the country. There are myriad other reasons people are choosing it over, say, Nashville or Philadelphia. The appeal is not just tangible goodies like affordable symphony tickets, insanely lush parks, and our darling Fiona. It’s the cumulative je ne sais quoi, where geography meets ethnicity—a soft Southern-adjacent body with a sturdy Teutonic backbone.
“Cincinnati has great energy,” says Abby Allen, who runs the brand strategy and marketing agency Neon Butterfly. “Spiritual energy,” she adds, referencing Serpent Mound.
A self-described “New Yorker through and through” with an Ivy League degree, Allen would parachute in from the coasts for meetings with Procter & Gamble. Her colleagues would deride the destination as a backwater. “I remember wondering, Why is Cincinnati the butt of all these jokes?” she says.
Though the city felt “foreign” to her on business trips, she sensed something different in Cincinnati when she looked through the lens of possible residency—the respite she’d been seeking from the rat race and the opportunity to make a bigger impact in local and even national politics. (“As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.”) She worked on Kate Schroder’s campaign for Congress last year, while her fiancé, Ethan Perry, became president of the North Avondale Neighborhood Association.
Perry, a Southern California native who works in tech, was visually seduced by Cincinnati. “The juxtaposition of the old architecture with public art, like the murals, plus all the revitalization were signs that good things were happening.” Cincinnatians he met were almost suspiciously enthusiastic about the city. “There’s a stereotypical Midwest politeness that I was not used to.”
Allen and Perry are not without their reservations about Cincinnati, and neither am I. We all find it hard to make friends. Social circles seem less fluid here. The slower pace can be frustrating; Allen was pulled over by a cop after honking at a motorist camped at a green light.
Much more seriously, everyday racist remarks and microaggressions are horrifying and embarrassing. (Allen is mixed race, as are some members of my family.) She’s perplexed by the number of people she meets “who have no desire to experience anything beyond what they already know.” As for Perry, he feels that nostalgia for the past is keeping the city needlessly stuck there.
I have to admit guilt on his last point. I don’t like to see buildings razed, even when they’re beyond saving. I panicked when Hathaway’s Diner in the Pogue’s Arcade—I literally don’t know what that space is called now—was in peril of closing. I’ve gotten indignant when a store clerk doesn’t ask me, sincerely, how I’m doing.
Though Cincinnati needs to get a move-on in many areas, it isn’t trapped in amber. In the quarter-century I was gone, it modernized and plugged in more directly to the rest of the world. Concurrently, I myself was growing dizzy with too many options in a megalopolis. As another big-city transplant to the Queen City puts it, “Do I need 4,000 restaurants to choose from?”
My daily geographic imprint in Cincinnati is, in fact, larger than it was in L.A. or New York. I am not forced, for the sake of time and sanity, to patronize only businesses within a five-mile radius of my home, neurotically checking traffic status before any outing. I buy plants in White Oak and tires in Bridgetown, drop dry cleaning in Dillonvale, and ransack thrift shops in Bellevue, Crescent Springs, and Florence.
Beyond convenience, though, my change in patterns and my move back to Cincinnati overall stem from a shift in what’s meaningful to me: family, a feeling of connectedness, and beautiful surroundings inhabited by kind people. I am among the many folks contemplating what is “authentic” in our lives and mulling choices à la Marie Kondo: How much of everything do I really need?
Not for a minute in my seven years back have I regretted the decision to return. Like Kristen Bell’s character says in the pilot episode of the TV series The Good Place, “I should get to spend eternity in a medium place! Like Cincinnati.”