Flashback: It’s the late winter of 1990, an unseasonably balmy Friday evening. Fresh out of college but still living at home, I head downtown for dinner at Arnold’s with a few friends. We were all of us caught up in that cocoon of comfort between college and the soul-extracting realities of professional life. We had jobs but they weren’t jobs that challenged us or took up a lot of brain space. I suppose we were slackers, a term that was just coming into vogue then; we were getting by but not particularly concerned or worried with what the future held. At least that night.
I recall the dinner starting and ending at the bar. It felt good to be on our own, having a good time. Well-lit but needing air—bars were still smoky then, and once the hootenanny started in Arnold’s main room, the whole place heated up—we headed out the door and around the corner, straight up Main Street. For block after block, we had the city to ourselves, and we bounded along. It was Friday night! We were young and out of school! America was just waking up to the fact that it had won the Cold War! Everything seemed possible, nothing seemed critical.
We crossed Central Parkway. Being suburban kids, this was new territory for us. Nineteen years ago, Over-the-Rhine inhabited its own peculiar twilight zone, a wild mix of shabby decrepitude and dormant majesty. Cynics—and anyone with an ounce of honesty in this town will admit that Cincinnati grows the sourest, most gleefully retrograde cynics imaginable; only Russians rival the potency of our rich, homegrown bile, and they endured 70 years of totalitarian communism. What’s our excuse?—will say that nothing has changed. But the next time someone says that to you, ask them when’s the last time they were actually in Over-the-Rhine—and not cruising through in their car with the doors locked but walking the streets. As we made our way up Main Street that night, it was as if we’d come upon a parallel city rising from decades of slumber. The facades of the buildings alone were mind-blowing in their workmanship. Sculptures and carvings peeped out from walls and overhangs; inlaid tilework and stained glass signage from bygone days appeared above doorways and underneath huge plate glass display windows. Christmas lights festooned the fire escapes of artists’ lofts. And what was this? A bar tucked just off Main, it’s front covered in neon and a line out the door. I remember a lyric coming into my head from the Sonic Youth album Daydream Nation: “I’m just walkin’ around, the city is a wonder town…”
We left that night convinced we’d uncovered the next chapter in Cincinnati’s slow evolution; a historic neighborhood just begging to be rediscovered, revitalized, reawakened. Of course, a host of urban pioneers had had that same epiphany long before us, and they acted on it. While Main Street has had its ups and downs since then (as Kathy Y. Wilson’s poignant oral history in this issue shows), it seems that Over-the-Rhine is poised, at long last, on the verge of a serious comeback. The cynics may call it folly, or worse. But as Bill Baum of Urban Sites tells Wilson, “If Over-the-Rhine can’t make it, Cincinnati can’t make it.” And that’s the truth.