Cincinnati or Cincitucky? How about Nasty-Nati?
Clevelanders and northerners alike love to jab the Queen City by referencing the city’s geographic and political proximity to Kentucky. They (okay, we) say it as if Kentucky has yet to formally rejoin the Union, harboring a backasswards mentality across the Greater Cincinnati region. Sure, local politicians certainly feed that reputation (looking at you, Chabot), but that’s hardly enough reasoning to condemn the entire populace.
Fact is, Cincinnati is one of the most important cities in the history of American expansionism. There’s a reason it’s called the Queen of the Midwest. Its position along the Ohio River made the city an integral piece of American trade and expansion. Point is, those who crack Cincy jokes more than likely come from a far more insignificant city.
But what about now? Is Cincinnati still worthy of its throne, or have nearly two centuries of sour race relations and recent urban blight lowered its status to laughable jester?
A Neighborhood Reborn
I arrived by way of Greyhound on a cold, sunny December afternoon. The beaming sun all throughout the state during the ride down I-71 left me optimistic this would be more than an exceptional visit. My friend and Cincinnati-resident, Whitney, picked me up and we made our way to Whole Foods to pick up some eats and booze. Always a fan of supporting the local brew, I grabbed Christian Moerlein’s winter brew, Christkindl. Dark red body and brown sugar spiciness. Tasty.
Whitney and I knew each other from college, working together as fellow student-managers at Miami University’s King Café, tucked beneath King Library. Now she was living in the city’s Mount Auburn neighborhood, a member of the National Register of Historic Places. The neighborhood was a picturesque, hilly retreat with an idyllic view of the downtown skyline for many of the city’s social elite, including former President and Pillsbury Doughboy mascot, William Howard Taft.
Mount Adams borders Over-the-Rhine, a mile walk north of downtown and one of the city’s historically troubled neighborhoods. The 2001 Cincinnati Riots were centralized to the neighborhood following the shooting of a young-black male by a white officer. Crime continued to rise for the rest of the decade, culminating in 2005 with 606 violent crimes and 350 robberies — far above the average of 65 violent crimes in other Cincinnati neighborhoods.
Walk around there today and you’ll find a neighborhood reborn. World renowned Italianate architecture — the largest collection in the United States — is a shining testament to the power of the neighborhood’s grassroots efforts to reclaim their streets. Independent businesses, like Park and Vine have found the perfect home in a 19th Century surrounding. Not to mention bars — the kind that attract those young, creative types neighborhoods thrive off of — are beginning to fill the streets.
Neons Unplugged on East 12th off Main Street quickly became a Cincy favorite of mine. The two-story, dimly lit bar felt like two hole-in-the-wall watering holes stacked on top of each other with an adjacent beer garden. The energy was as electric as any bar in New York City without the clusterfuck annoyance of being in a New York City bar. The vibe was more Portland-hip than anything else.
Downtown, too, was overrun with life. Dinner at upscale Nada felt as I imagine an evening in Italy would. The large, modern (but not obnoxiously modern) space was filled to the brim with hungry customers. Luckily Whitney was able to score us a reservation and discounted meal on account of being a waitress at Nada.
Close by sits Fountain Square, the heart of Downtown Cincinnati. You’ll know you’re there thanks to the 43-foot tall bronze Tyler Davidson statue, erected in honor of a mid-19th Century Cincinnati businessman of the same name by his business partner and brother-in-law, Henry Probasco. Best. In-Law. Ever.
Fountain Square, surrounded by shops and restaurants, truly comes to life in the summer when the square hosts public concerts Thursday through Saturday, 7 to 10pm and a movie night on Sundays. You’ll forget Cincinnati is actually a mid-sized city when you drop by for Salsa night and hundreds converge for beer and dance on Thursdays.
Nasty-Nati No More
In all, Cincinnati is a historically important town filled with the kind of people you want in your city. People who are committed to their city for the long haul, and not just saving up for a move to Chicago or elsewhere. They’re the ones who are revitalizing neighborhoods, bringing new businesses and fighting for urban-friendly projects, like the Cincinnati Streetcar that will connect downtown with Findlay Market. Simply put, they’re reflections of the city’s early pioneers.
Times have changed. “Nasty-Nati” and “Cincitucky” are more tired tropes than accurate reflections of the city. In reality, it’s one of the best the United States has to offer. Here, there’s the sense of a community trying to move the city forward. The people may not always win, but rest assure they are winning.