Festivus for the West of Us

Festivus for the West of Us

Illustration by Ryan Snook

It’s not yet 1 in the afternoon, and the temperature already oozes past 90, dragging with it nearly 100 percent humidity. Perfect weather, it seems to me, for Cheviot’s annual WestFest street festival. Though the event is in its eighth year, I’ve always been out of town and missed it. This year, I’m going. And I’m excited. Seriously.

A festival that is so self-consciously, even self-aggrandizingly, west side is a must-do for any self-respecting native. Because when it comes to festing, no one does it better. Years of training at countless parish festivals have made us masters of the art. Bring on your funnel cakes and fish ponds, your brat-grilling and Big Six wheel-spinning. We’ll show you how it’s done.  

The aptly-named WestFest kicks off at 1 p.m. on a late June Saturday, and I’m hustling to the opening ceremony. No doubt a Green Township trustee—or Cheviot’s mayor—will make a speech about glorious west side traditions. Then he or she will cut a cord or ribbon or something and raise a cheer. Or maybe not a cheer, but surely there will be some sort of pomp and circumstance befitting this majestic event. When I arrive, I see vendor booths lining both sides of Harrison Avenue, which is closed to traffic for at least six blocks of Cheviot proper. Smoke wafts from the grills and ovens, which combine to kick the heat a half-dozen degrees higher. The middle of the street, however, is nearly empty.   

Stages stand at either end of the festival area, and I’m not sure which one will host the opening ceremony. I rush toward the west end, which seems more fitting and more likely. By the time I get there, sweat pours down my face and my T-shirt clings to my back. Maybe 20 people sit in rows of white plastic chairs set up in front of the stage, which is empty. No testing of microphones, no awkward shuffling of dignitaries. I wait for a few minutes and check my watch: one on the dot. Nothing.

Behind the rows of chairs, a couple of sound engineers stand at a mixing board under a white tent.

“Will the opening ceremony be here?” I ask them. Both look confused, as if I posed the question in Neptunian.

“Or will it be on the other stage?” I point down Harrison Avenue toward the eastern end.

Blank stares.

To fill the silence I ask, “Or does it pretty much just start?” The guy closest to the mixing board says, “I think it pretty much just starts.”

And he’s right. Without a lick of fanfare—no cutting of anything—a line of maybe a dozen little girls from Judy Link’s School of Dance and Baton troops onto the stage, wearing black skirts and red leotards. Music erupts through the PA speakers, and the girls begin to dance to “I’m in the Money.”

Seated in the chairs, parents furiously snap photos.

WestFest has begun.

THE FESTIVAL IS run by the Cheviot-Westwood Community Association, a 74-year-old civic organization. Bonnie Perrino chairs this year’s event, along with Chris Baker and Peggy Sullivan. Perrino owns Angel Touch Nursing Care on Harrison Avenue; her office is the event’s command center. She is the only remaining member of the original group that created WestFest in 2002. From somewhat humble beginnings, WestFest has become one of Greater Cincinnati’s more popular summer fests; Perrino says they draw approximately 30,000 people each year. While most come from the western side of town, sojourners are known to come from as far away as Norwood, Northern Kentucky, and eastern Indiana. However, with age and reputation come the upstarts. While this year’s fest should be just as successful, it faces serious competition: Goettafest in Covington; Paddlefest at Coney Island and Sawyer Point; the Panegyri Greek Festival in Finneytown; and the Hyde Park Blast are all happening the same weekend. How much festing can one city do?

Perrino seems unperturbed and stresses the value of the event to the community. “Our goals when we started were to bring the community together for a party and to make some money to put back into the community,” she says. “And we’ve accomplished those goals. It’s done even more than we hoped.”

This is true. The profits fund holiday decorations in Cheviot and Westwood, including the nativity display, a local treasure. “The gambling booths fund the annual Young Citizen Banquet, which honors students who are community-minded,” Perrino adds.

The festival has grown steadily, and this year is the biggest yet in terms of vendors—44. I ask Bonnie how it compares to the west side’s other big occasion, the Harvest Home Fair. “The fair is a fair,” she says. “They have livestock and general exhibits. This is more of a festival. We’re partying right on the street. We’re right in the heart of our little town. It’s just a big community project.”

Feeling almost noble, I head out to find a beer booth, where I contribute to the civic-mindedness and artistic aspirations of our local youth.

BY EVENING, REVELERS pack the streets. A high-energy band from Mason called Flatrock covers a Pearl Jam song; the singer, Mike MaGee, does an impressive job. Sunset has brought some relief from the heat, but the mass of bodies and the busy grills keep us plenty warm. Floodlights and neon illuminate the festival, especially in the Kid Zone, the main entertainment area. At the game booths, people toss and shoot various things to win stuffed prizes. At the biggest booth, a large SpongeBob SquarePants hangs upside down in what looks like a bizarre effigy.

Most of the booths are run by local churches and civic groups—moms and dads and kids rather than flinty-eyed carnies. Though we are not more than a few miles from the heart of Cincinnati, it’s tough to ignore the feeling that we’re in some rural Midwestern town, on Main Street USA. A few blocks on either side of the main street, fields of corn and wheat and soybean should be growing. I think that’s a large part of WestFest’s appeal. It’s a big party with a small-town atmosphere—a unique place to be when you’re still inside the city limits.

The Harvest Home Fair projects much the same feeling, maybe even more. It features shows and competitions involving livestock, horses, and flowers—quite an aromatic event. Approximately 30,000 people attend each year, beginning with the parade on Thursday evening (the fair is held the weekend following Labor Day). All along the parade route—Harrison Avenue, then a left at North Bend Road, and on into Harvest Home Park—locals reserve their spots the day before by placing chairs on the sidewalk. It’s common for west-siders to see hundreds of empty chairs lined up ready to go, and I’ve never heard of any chairs being stolen.

This year Harvest Home Fair—the self-proclaimed “Biggest Little Fair in Ohio”—celebrates its 150th anniversary, and the event’s roots wind even deeper into local history. According to www.harvesthomefair.com, things got started in 1806, when Enoch and Ashsah Carson invited other farmers in the area to celebrate a bounteous harvest. It became an annual gathering and was made official by the formation of the Green Township Harvest Home Association, which took over proceedings in August 1860. The Kiwanis Club of Cheviot-Westwood assumed control in 1939, when ownership of the park was transferred to the city of Cheviot. Since that group took control of the event they have donated over $2 million to area organizations, according to Pete Minges, who is in his second year as the fair’s chairman.

“Anything that benefits the lives of children, that’s who we donate to,” says Minges, who runs Neidhard-Minges Funeral Home, along with his brother, Mark, and is a life-long west-sider. He cites the Boy and Girl Scouts and the Margaret B. Rost School for the disabled as recent beneficiaries. Approximately 400 volunteers work the fair, and Minges estimates they collectively put in 20,000 hours. He says it draws attendees mostly from the west side, though the 1K race, in its sixth year, and the 5K run/walk, in its seventh year, draw from throughout the city. “It’s known throughout the state,” he says.

Minges told me that this year the fair’s theme is the 200th birthday of Green Township, but otherwise the Harvest Home will be much the same as in past years. “It’s in a populated community, but we keep the old traditions alive,” he says. “The fair is like the west side. It’s very consistent. It doesn’t change easily. It reflects the community it’s in. ”

IN THE INTEREST of journalistic research, I  re-route my Sunday morning run to scamper through the WestFest area and survey the carnage from last night. I’m stunned to find it almost spotless. The streets, the sidewalks, even the narrow alleys between the booths are almost frighteningly free of litter. It’s as if a platoon of meth-fueled Boy Scouts descended during the night and wiped the place clean. Not so much as a single beer cup or hot dog wrapper or cigarette butt can be found. Fresh garbage bags line the waste containers on every corner, fluttering in the early breeze with what seems like arrogant efficiency. The combination of last night’s raucousness and this morning’s cleanliness strikes me as classically west side—we’ll have a lot of fun, and then we’ll clean up afterward.

Sunday offers a breeze and a few degrees less heat. Just off the main drag, on Glenmore Avenue, classic cars—mostly ’60s and ’70s muscle cars—roll into parking spots. By early afternoon, people are drifting back to the fest, though definitely a different demographic from last night—a mix of older folks and young families. The stroller-per-capita rate is sky high, and the Kid Zone boils with activity. But much like the night before, the focus seems to be on adventurous eating.

You’ll find deadly delights such as deep-fried Twinkies, Oreos, and Snickers. You’ll also find gyros and baklava, hot bacon slaw, jalapeño cheese stuffed pretzels, baby-back ribs, garlic mushrooms, and chicken and sausage gumbo. You can get sushi and crab rangoon at the Thai Taste booth. Wassler Meats offers a German or Italian sausage hoagie complete with grilled onions and peppers, or you can try their “Pop’s Homemade Goetta Sandwich.” To satisfy sweet teeth, WestFest offers chocolate-covered cheesecake on a stick or chocolate chip walnut pie from the west side’s supreme-o dessert dude, Gary Haas of Gary’s Cheesecakes and Fine Desserts. To wash it all down, several booths sell “Pop and Water.” (You’ve got to love the boldly unapologetic Midwesternness of a sign selling “Pop.”)  

Lacking a cultivated palette, I can’t judge with authority the quality of the food at WestFest. All I can tell you is that for two days there’s a whole lotta chewin’ goin’ on. But mastication zooms to a whole new level at the Maury’s Tiny Cove–sponsored pickle-eating contest.

At five o’clock on Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people gather at the west stage to watch the contest. The master of ceremonies is Rodger Kay, a disc jockey from radio station Oldies 1480 AM, which has been playing music at its booth throughout the festival. “Let’s make some noise!” Kay yells into the microphone. “Loud enough that the east-siders can hear you!”

The first round features six contestants—four men and two women—who sit at a long table spanning the front of the stage. Each is given a clear storage bag filled with a pre-determined number of garlic dill pickle slices. They have three minutes to down as many as possible.

During the three minutes they chomp ferociously, cheeks stuffed and mouths moving so fast they appear to be in pain. Before finishing one slice they stuff in another. After each round, the pickles remaining in the bags are counted, and the winner’s total is announced. Men tend to stand while chewing, sometimes hunched over, leaning an arm on the table, while the women tend to sit and chew one slice at a time. The giddy crowd cheers their favorites and Kay keeps up a steady palaver on the mic to stoke everyone’s interest.

The second round includes last year’s champion, Bob Ominob. With his thick black beard and black ball cap pulled low, he looks like he’s in disguise. He sets the high mark with 63 pickles, a tough score to beat. In fact, no one does. In the third round, a teenage girl puts forth a valiant effort before heading off the back of the stage, where she throws up. Though the competition is fierce, everyone cheers Bob when he retains his title. Afterward, we drift back down the street to find something else to see and eat and drink.

“WHAT’S UP, BEST side?” asks the lead singer in the group Busted as the band kicks off its set on the east stage. Busted plays mostly classic rock covers and plays them well, though the band at the west stage is playing pretty much the same stuff. Other than the egregious lack of an opening ceremony, my only complaint about WestFest is the sameness of the acts, which defeats the purpose of having two stages. We need to offer more variety of style and era. While it’s nice to see folks over 40 still kicking out the classic jams, it would be equally nice to hear more bands playing songs recorded after half the crowd was born. And if I felt that way at my age (definitely over 40), the teens and twenty- and thirtysomethings must feel close to nausea as yet another middle-aged bunch cranks through a set of oldies.

Or maybe I’m just getting crabby. The heat, the crowds, the noise, the food converge to say it’s time to go home. I trek back to my house but can’t resist sitting on my deck, where I can still hear snatches of music rolling over the neighborhood.

It’s Sunday evening in late June. The sun is fading. Shadows lengthen as the sky slowly turns a softer blue. A red balloon, having escaped the grip of a child at WestFest, floats high in the air—not much more than a dot in the deepening twilight, drifting far above the treetops. Tomorrow the work week begins and before we know it summer will end—though that change will be marked by the Harvest Home Fair, where long ago farmers celebrated the season’s bounty with a get-together whose theme could be summed up with “I’m in the Money.” Given the current economy, that sounds like a good song to sing.

Originally published in the September 2009 issue.

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