We live in fractious times. Endless war, economic stagnation, and political stalemate are the watchwords now. But no matter how frustrated, de-spondent, and angry all of this may make us, it is important to keep in mind that we are still a young country, that we’ve seen harder times and been through worse, and that our brainpower even more than our brawn is what has enabled us to leap over whatever hurdles history—or our own hubris—has set in our path.
You don’t have to look too far for evidence. Despite the moribund reputation that Cincinnati has acquired over the last couple of decades—and that a lot of smart, proactive people are working night and day to shake off—we are a city of notable and notably innovative American firsts. Where was the first concrete skyscraper built? Here—the Ingalls Building on Fourth Street. The first municipal university in the U.S. founded? Here—the University of Cincinnati. The first night baseball game played under electric lights? Here—Crosley Field, and apparently we beat the Phillies that night. (For a more extensive list of firsts, check out makecincinnatiweird.com, a curiously-named blog whose mission is to “document the quirky, offbeat, and…well…weird goodness of Cincinnati.” More good news: as local blogs go, it’s not alone.)
So: thoughtful, progressive, wildly creative innovation is built into our civic DNA. In this special issue, we decided to look back at some of the people, moments, and ideas that have shaped the character of this city—things that made us who we are today and point us toward a more hopeful future. Five stories serve as the anchor: Katie Laur’s wise remembrance of Mr. Spoons, the inspired, oddball king of local street performers; Jene Galvin’s evocation of the Beechmont Dragway and exploration of why cars meant so much to the Baby Boom generation; selected shots from three decades of Mel Grier’s stark, straightforward photojournalism; Jack Heffron’s oral history of the Golden Age of local TV, which captures the seat-of-the-pants brio of that era; and Paul Franz’s witty, poignant memoir of his family’s bar in Camp Washington. Sprinkled interstitially throughout are short pieces on the peculiar joys of growing up in Cincinnati (Curtis Sittenfeld on family dinners at Szechwan Wok! Gail Collins on mothers without cars!) alongside remembrances from a wide chorus of voices, from Pete Rose to Nikki Giovanni to Jerry Springer, on key character-building moments in their lives. Whether exemplars of high quirk, stolid industriousness, or brilliant originality, they represent the way we were—and the way we could be, again.