What’s Past is Prologue

From the early Germans to today’s diverse newcomers, Cincinnati has always been a city of immigrants.

For our November 2017 issue, we look at immigration in the city: Who we were, who we are, and who we’re becoming.

Every moment is a balancing act between the past and the future. Who we are right now is the culmination of previous decisions and happenstance; everything we do today determines who we’ll become in the future. In our lives—as with cities, countries, cultures, organizations, families—it’s tempting to judge the continuum from past to present to future as a smooth, unbroken line leading from one logical outcome to the next. Hindsight sands down life’s rough edges and blurs the messy details to produce a narrative that makes sense in the end.

Illustration by Justin Metz


For instance, it’s a given around here that German immigrants made Cincinnati into the city it is today. In thanks, we celebrate Oktoberfest, rehabilitate old breweries, and upgrade Music Hall, home to those immigrants’ beloved May Festival and symphony orchestra. The connections are true and meaningful, to be sure, but the story’s tidiness tiptoes around controversy.

Cincinnati’s population exploded in the mid 19th century, and with it the city’s profile—it became the sixth largest U.S. city for a time. Newcomers poured in from eastern states and directly from Europe; lots stayed and made Cincinnati their new home, especially the Germans. By the Civil War, a majority of the city’s population was German immigrants and their offspring. They concentrated in a new neighborhood just north of downtown on the other side of the Miami and Erie Canal (where Central Parkway is today); when people would travel on bridges over the canal into the German-speaking neighborhood, it was said to be like crossing over the Rhine River into the old homeland. The name Over-the-Rhine stuck.

Don Heinrich Tolzmann, retired director of the German-American Studies Program at the University of Cincinnati, says the city’s German roots are visible in just about every facet of modern life. “The impact of the German element can be readily seen in the material culture of the area, ranging from landmarks, monuments, sites, structures, parks, cemeteries, and architectural styles. Taken together with Cincinnati’s location on the banks of the Ohio River, they provide a distinctive German-style cityscape, or Stadtbild,” he writes in German Cincinnati, one of several books he’s authored on German-American history and culture.

Much of the economic success, political will, and physical landmarks that created the Cincinnati we know and love sprung from those early Germans’ hands and minds—everything from beer halls to our manufacturing prowess and “good government” crusades. “The growth and development of business, industry, crafts, and trades in the area reflect the German work ethic, the belief in hard work, persistence, and thrift,” Tolzmann says. “The belief in honest, clean, and business-like government derives also from this ethic, as well as from the ethical standards of the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faith communities. It made for a tradition of fiscal and political conservatism.”

It’s not a stretch to view our collective Cincinnati psyche as German-influenced as well. Natives often are described as serious, yet with a fun-loving streak; modest, if not self-deprecating; supportive of the arts; religious; and thrifty, if not cheap. How many of your grandparents, coworkers, and neighbors do those adjectives apply to?

Every immigrant who arrives in Cincinnati changes us a little. They come for school, for a job, for family, and for medical care, and sometimes they come out of desperation. They become our neighbor.

The transition from early German immigrants to today’s record-breaking Oktoberfest crowds, however, wasn’t always smooth. A wave of anti-immigrant and nationalistic fervor peaked in Cincinnati just before the Civil War, thanks to fear and ignorance of European Catholics’ and Jews’ foreign beliefs and networks. Another reactionary wave washed over Cincinnati during World War I, when German street names were changed and German language and symbols removed from public view.

But times change and attitudes modify, and German heritage and institutions have been back in favor in Cincinnati for quite a while. Yet history can repeat itself, too, as evidenced by anti-immigrant and nationalistic passion rearing its ugly head now across the U.S.

Once again it’s fashionable among certain parts of society to blame economic, crime, and education problems on “others” recently arrived. They look, speak, and dress differently. They participate in foreign religious customs. They’re not one of us. Can they be trusted? Do they want to assimilate into the American or Cincinnati mainstream, or do they want to change us? Could they destroy our way of life?

In fact, every immigrant who arrives in Cincinnati changes us a little. They come for school, for a job, for family, and for medical care, and sometimes they come out of desperation. They become our neighbor, our coworker, someone we pass in the grocery store aisle.

As the stories in this issue demonstrate, the current wave of immigration is more diverse than previously seen—today Cincinnati hosts growing Bhutanese, Iraqi, Indian, and Japanese communities, just to name a few. They often congregate in tight groups, surrounding themselves with familiar language, food, and customs.

Many who came before them—and didn’t we all come from somewhere else if you look through our family trees?—offer a helping hand to these new arrivals. Cincinnati can be a welcoming place, thanks to organizations like Heartfelt Tidbits, Peace Meals, and Destination Excellence.

But today’s political climate is feeding—and inflamed by—a very public backlash against immigrants. The federal government and the city of Cincinnati are at odds about undocumented immigrants, as the drama over “Dreamers” and sanctuary cities plays out. Families can be torn apart by prosecution and deportation; Maribel Trujillo Diaz discusses the heartbreak behind her forced separation from her husband and children in Fairfield and exile to Mexico.

The arc of American history bends toward inclusion and tolerance, at least in the long term, and so it is with immigration. This country is large enough to absorb the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” who arrive here every day, and we’re confident enough to appreciate their differences and learn from their unique experiences. So it was when Germans first arrived in Cincinnati—and almost 200 years later, through spasms of fear, resentment, and bigotry, we reflect the attitudes and attributes of those early immigrants.

Not everyone in Cincinnati has German roots, and not everyone cares for or about the German story. Some of us have our own immigrant story that hasn’t been acknowledged or deemed legitimate by the wider community—at least not to the extent that Cincinnati has embraced Oktoberfest and beer or made up for bad treatment by reinstating a few German street names. Some ethnic groups and immigrants still wait for their acceptance and apologies.

History tells us that a portion of those first Germans who settled in Cincinnati fled religious persecution in their homeland, looking to make a new life in a wild country where the rules were being made up on the fly. Once they arrived, they sent word home to come over. The Germans, and other ethnic groups, came in droves—and Cincinnati was changed forever.

Immigrants aren’t arriving in Cincinnati in droves these days, but they still come. And their motivations aren’t much different from those of the early Germans. They often are running from awful circumstances back home and see America and Cincinnati as an ideal place to make a new life. Once settled—even with the challenges and hardships of language, religious, and cultural isolation—they seek to bring others over to join them. And thus Cincinnati is changed forever, once more.

One hundred years from now, will a Cincinnati Magazine cover story describe how early 21st century immigrants influenced the present-day culture? How Cincinnati grew, changed, and benefitted from the diverse immigrants who made their marks during challenging times? Will their ultimate success seem like it was meant to be? History has a funny way of repeating itself.

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