A Look Back at Cincinnati’s Evolution – and Trying to Become a Native

I moved to Cincinnati in 1974. I almost have this place figured out.

I’m not from here. Cincinnati has been my home for many decades, but it is not my hometown. (That would be Philadelphia.) To some diehard natives, this means I should always carry a green card and get accustomed to occasional shouts of Get out of my country! from passersby. But most of you have come to accept me as one of your own, even though you can’t classify me based on where I went to high school. It’s been more than 40 years since I was a Cincinnati newbie. I’ve learned much in that time. This is my story.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

Figuring out the details and quirks of the Queen City was hard. You local lifers just don’t understand this, or appreciate what an awkward—and surprising—education a new town can be. Luckily, I did not arrive in total ignorance. I’d occasionally visited friends here, allowing me a small head start on a few local facts: Cincinnati has an east side and a west side, each of which is vastly superior to the other. The city features more than a dozen hills, any seven of which can be designated as the official ones. Opening Day is a religious holiday. To Kroger is an infinitive. The 23rd hour of the day is pronounced, “E-e-leven o’clock!”

That last one is gone now, along with a few other faded Cincinnati peculiarities of the 1970s. I think I can finally tell newcomers that I’ve forgotten more things about this town than they’ll ever know. That first Monday of my new Cincinnati job way back in 1974 happened to fall on a federal holiday, allowing me an enjoyably slow morning. And everything was fine until the moment when my television suddenly administered a severe shock. Right after The Today Show finished, I was introduced to my first locally produced Cincinnati daytime program. It was something called The Paul Dixon Show. For those who are unfamiliar with Mayor Dixon, let’s just say that nobody would confuse his program with Masterpiece Theatre. And I shall now endanger my relationship with every native-born Cincinnatian by honestly sharing what went through my head upon viewing 30 minutes of Paul Dixon: What have I done? What kind of city have I willingly relocated to? Please, let this be just a fluke. I looked at the TV magazine and found a show identified as Al and Wanda Lewis on a neighboring channel. Good, I thought, that’s probably a husband-and-wife talk show. Ah, yes, here it—what?

Uncle Al and Paul Dixon, I must confess, were an unsettling one-two punch. Sure, every city back then had a show with screaming children, childish antics, and a loud, childish host. I just hadn’t expected to also find companion shows for adults.

The next few weeks in my new town were mostly spent focusing on the new job, something you might assume was an escape from QCIA (Queen City Ignorance Anxiety). But no, the job definition required an instant familiarity with the city’s basic DNA. I’d been hired as a writer and producer of commercials on WEBN, and local clients would not be amused if they were to hear stuff like, “Stop by our new location on Bow-di-knot Avenue,” or “Let’s order up another round of Hoo-de-pohl,” or “Try our delicious homemade joh-etta. Mistakes like these did not make it to air, thanks to my diligent double-checking of said stuff. But seriously, how was I to know that Reading Road is supposed to sound like Redding and not Reeding? What are you doing right this second, redding or reeding? I rest my case. They should have told me.

I haven’t mentioned an important dimension to my experience as a new Cincinnati citizen: I didn’t arrive alone. My girlfriend and eventual wife, Carolyn, arrived with me. Our decision to relocate was, simultaneously, our decision to begin living together. The obvious fears that go along with this life choice were compounded by the fact that she had a cat. I love cats and was fine with the idea of living with one, but I felt quite certain that my dog would disapprove. Neither animal was consulted. We decided that they would have their first meeting inside my car, followed by an eight-hour drive from Penn State University (where we met) to Cincinnati. What could go wrong?

One thing I was unaware of, even after a few visits prior to moving here, was Cincinnati’s deep antipathy and resistance toward America’s sexual revolution. My job at WEBN distorted my perception.

We weren’t totally stupid. We got a veterinarian to prescribe heavy tranquilizers for both pets, along with a schedule for administering the drugs before and during the trip. And we took no chances: we doubled up the first dose. Then we carefully carried both limp and long-tongued bodies to our overpacked vehicle, placed them inside, and closed the doors. This gave each animal a slight jolt, whereupon they noticed one another. Instantly, the tranquilizers evaporated from their bloodstreams, or may have even suddenly transformed into amphetamines. The car’s interior became a double-speed episode of Animaniacs until the drugs did eventually reassert themselves, and the battles thankfully became more like a commercial for slo-mo on a GoPro. We arrived in Cincinnati in one piece, albeit covered in small tufts of fur.

Our first serious culture shock with mid-1970s Midwest happened on a Sunday morning, when we decided to get the most common Sunday brunch every East-Coast Jewish couple enjoys: fresh deli food. Being that the world had no Google or Yelp at the time, we looked up some delis in the Yellow Pages and went to check ’em out. After driving past the third one—which was, like the first two, closed—we gave up, utterly stunned. Jewish delis closed on Sunday mornings!? That’s like a movie theater closed on Friday nights, or Saturday mornings without cartoons on TV, or an Opening Day parade that happens four days after the first Reds game! Well, this year’s parade will indeed happen four days late, and broadcast television has indeed abandoned Saturday morning cartoons, but at least you can now find several good delis open on Sunday mornings in Cincinnati. Those first few years, though, were hard.

I suppose every city has various neighborhoods with names that wrinkle a newcomer’s brow, and Cincinnati’s seven-or-so hills did the job. For instance, it’s Mt. Adams and Mt. Healthy and Mt. Washington. So why, then, is it Price Hill? College Hill? Walnut Hills, plural? Kennedy Heights? Edge-cliff, one word? And what’s so damn special about Winton that it gets a Hills, a Terrace, and a Place? Why not a neighborhood named Mt. College? Healthy Place? Walnut Cliff? Do those sound funny to you? Ever wonder how “Mt. Healthy” hits an adult ear for the first time? Let’s not even start with what it’s like to drive past a sign for Fifth Third Bank.

Other local names like Shillito’s, Pogue’s, McAlpin’s, Steinberg’s, Swallen’s, King Kwik, and Elder-Beerman sounded odd then; now, they’re all pretty much gone. The names of celebrities who were born or raised in Cincinnati were cheerfully volunteered by everyone: Doris Day, Roy Rogers, Oscar Robertson, Andy Williams, etc. People like Steven Spielberg, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Jerry Springer didn’t make the list, because they weren’t famous enough yet. Nobody mentioned Charlie Manson.

One thing I was unaware of, even after a few visits prior to moving here, was Cincinnati’s deep antipathy and resistance toward America’s sexual revolution. This was a slow realization. I think my job at WEBN—a place that was mid-1970s ground zero for everything liberal and libertine—distorted my perception of Cincinnati’s general attitudes about…well, you know…I mean, hey…you know what I mean. There! See how much more of a Cincinnatian I am now? I guess I started waking up to this when they first dragged away Larry Flynt. Tried to shut down the road show of Oh! Calcutta! Prosecuted the Contemporary Arts Center. Relentlessly moved against my radio station. I get it now

And after all that—living here for about five years, establishing a family, a mortgage, and a much better understanding of all things Cincinnati—I decided to leave. Philadelphia, my actual hometown, offered me a good job, so I went. At that point, I never expected to return here, but in less than one year, I was back. Before discussing my tearful return, however, I must brag about one event from my brief sojourn in Philly. It left an enormous cultural impression upon all of America.

You may have heard of (or even own) a novelty record album called Chipmunk Punk. It was a collection of 1980s rock songs performed Alvin and the Chipmunks–style, and its success basically restarted Alvin and the gang as a viable commercial brand after several years of inactivity. I, Jay Gilbert, am personally responsible for this. It was entirely unintentional, and I never benefitted financially from it. At my Philadelphia radio station, I’d created a fake commercial for Chipmunk Punk as a joke. Local record stores, though, quickly started calling us, saying that people were asking for it. It became enough of a local craze that the owners of the Chipmunks property caught wind of it, rushed into a studio, and created the real thing. That caused enough of a stir to inspire an article in People magazine about the album’s popularity. If you have the October 20, 1980 issue collecting dust somewhere in your basement, you will find an article with my name in it. That immortality is my entire royalty for having single-handedly relaunched the career of the Chipmunks and the cultural residue they continue to emit. You’re welcome.

But enough about me; let’s get back to me. I decided that my return to Philadelphia had been a mistake, for many reasons. (I was related to most of them.) Luckily, I found a job back in Cincinnati and got re-established pretty quick. Most people I know don’t even realize there’s a one-year hole in my history of living here. Moving to Cincinnati the second time was not strange or surprising; it was wonderful. There were no double-takes seeing hyphenated names like Western-Southern and Post-Times-Star. I knew how to pronounce “goetta,” even if I’m still not sure what’s in it. I even admit to being somewhat delighted to learn that a huge fiasco I’d forgotten about in Mt. Adams—an emergency retaining wall that was being constructed when I’d first moved here—had become many times more dangerous and expensive, thanks to the very steps that had been taken to fix it in the first place. That’s the Cincinnati I knew!

Ever since, I’ve stayed. Through the sad decline of our downtown, the low point of riots, further decay, the many vacant lots waiting for government bickering to get around to making use of them, and finally, the slow gathering of better ideas and of acting upon them. I’m glad I came, I’m sorry I left, and I’ve never regretted coming back. Don’t get me wrong—there are things about Cincinnatians that continue to drive me crazy. You still don’t know how to maneuver a car in snow. You still don’t seem to grasp which month of the year should be, by definition, the time for Oktoberfest. Maybe I don’t have to struggle with spelling “Schottelkotte” anymore, but “Paolello” is still a challenge. Cincinnati, I haven’t completely figured you out yet, but I am getting closer. Sometimes I even laugh at old videos of Paul Dixon.

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