A Poem for Tucker’s (Since 1946)

fullsizerender-47Since 1946

The old grease smell is gone
vanished in the fires
that soaked up the money
and the fat.

A new vent shines
reflecting in its hood
eggs scrambling to their fate
and goetta gone griddle flat.

You know, Mom
would still be here
back peelin’ the potatoes
if I let her, he tells us.

Joe is grill guy, owner,
holder together.

At 10 a.m.
we are the end
of the morning’s rush
soon the grill will turn to lunch
and so will customer’s pangs

but for now,
we wait and salivate.

You folks been here before? he asks.
Everyone knows the “before” story
no one need finish the line.

Made the biscuits myself, he goes on.
And they are light and fluffy
offering this side of Vine –
shaded by morning sun –
a buttery cloud in which to dream.

He wants to go on
but Carla is telling him
how many
pounds of potatoes
they peeled through yesterday.

A crowd of couriers
on bikes enters and interrupts
the slow flow of the moment

then one electric pole worker
plops on a stool
he’s from the neighborhood
we can tell
because Joe knows his name.
But Joe greets every customer
with the same welcoming call
and in truth,
based on his past,

he may never know
when one will be
a first-time customer
or his last.

AJW 10/12/16


(#MorningFind)ing My Way Through Cincinnati

img_5460I love your morning finds, a friend wrote, from Nashville where she had moved weeks ago. Over the past month, I had also been in three cities, in conversations with three people who commented the same. I love your morning finds.

But what exactly was a morning find, and when did the photos snapped while I was bleary-eyed become a wide-eyed representation of this city?

Morning finds (#morningfinds) are my social media photos shared via Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, when in early mornings, I sneak down dimly lit alleys (#alleynettie) sleuthing for  another place in time or discover countless sets of stairs leading to…..nowhere, but I take the steps anyhow while my husband might stand at the bottom and shake his head.

img_3168I seek out hidden mosaics or the faded old murals because the large-scale new ones like Rosemary and Neil get all the big media attention. Or I ponder placement of a mural or graffiti. The Artworks mural on Christ Church Cathedral, Education Not Violence, looks directly at the Queen City Tower, which for most, represents capitalism and privilege.fullsizerender-38

I have snapped photos of lost shoes (#cincylostsoles), too many to count, an obsession birthed in the boxes of Januzzi’s Shoes. I ask myself, “What did someone do last night that he or she went home without one shoe, or even two?” I have yet to try on any of them, but perhaps I will find answers when I do.

I would have research old social media postings to determine when random city shots became my “morning finds.” I had begun taking pictures around the city after our move two years ago, but only recently had the practice become ritual.

fullsizerender-41I approach the routine with a reverence for viewers, readers, and myself. I am not dependent on “likes”, the “tweets”, or the “hearts” for my self-esteem, but I am dependent on the framing of the pictures to nourish my curiosity, to fuel my creativity and to foster my connection – but to what?

On a recent Sunday morning after a monster walk around the city, my husband and I had stopped by Urbana Café for his cortado and my sparkling water (I had already had my one cup of caffeine limit). We had been frequenting Urbana Café for many months, especially in winter, following our lengthy treks to count the number of neighborhoods reachable by our aching feet.

fullsizerender-40Returning from the restroom, I overhead Elizabeth Walk, the baker, pose a question to Mark. “So what is it you like about Cincinnati?”

“To be honest,” Mark said, “I grew up here, but I like having access to the arts, its an easy city to get around….” His Shakespearean soliloquy took off from there.

“Why do you ask?” Mark questioned in return, as I made my way back to my stool.

“I’m reading this book This is Where You Belong. The Art and Science of Loving The Place You Live. One of the suggestions the author (Melody Warnick) makes is to ask people you know, what they like about the city and begin to model your own enthusiasm on their interests. That helps you appreciate the place as if you belong there.”

Customers began streaming in, anxious for his or her morning cortado or slow pour. Elizabeth’s question never made its way to me.

If so, I had my pat answer.

I came to love Cincinnati through a different set of eyes – and feet. A set originating in a small town in northern Ohio (Amherst) outside of Cleveland. While I lived in Cincinnati for a brief span in my twenties, I returned to the city also with a different heart, one still pining for the Pacific Northwest and the spirit I had left behind. I had to learn to love again, and not just another person, but in another city, in another way.

Every one has their lens. In particular, mine is loss. Thus, Cincinnati for me became a place I learned to admire through what had been forfeited, what had been obscured from my everyday view. I had to work through the river of fog to find it again.

fullsizerender-37When I moved into the city proper over two years ago, that too had been time of loss. I had relinquished a role that defined me for so long, a period of motherhood. My father had died two years prior. He had so desperately waited for us to finish this house so he too could live through us (The streetcar was also a great loss as it was something my father, the train aficionado, never saw to fruition). And of course, the complexity of the loss of my mother’s mind to dementia. Yet her condition became partially responsible for my reformulation of “finding the lost.”

At the lowest point of those losses was a sister who experienced a tragic accident which left her disabled. My big, beautiful sister, the original Queen City Queen, with whom I created many memories during my first stint as a Cincinnatian. Our sisterhood taught me the virtues of loving where you live. A part of me laced up sneakers in early mornings to find her and explore the city in a way she no longer can. I am always still trying to find her.

Everywhere. Loss.

I love all the pictures you post of OTR and the city. Reminds me of what is was like, what it could be like, another associate wrote.

I’m doing it for my own sanity, I respond.

The photos, the blogs are sticky notes with reminders to love everything directly in front of me. Based on my life experiences, morning finds could disappear downstream in the Ohio River tomorrow and wash away for good.

I would have shared all these statements with Elizabeth. I could have saved her the time and effort of reading the book. However, later, I too put my name on the library’s wait list for the book. I’m sure I’ll learn something intriguing about myself, about this city that I hadn’t intended to discover.

img_7696The morning finds are not just about things, or places. Morning finds are a pictorial representation of how I have plumbed the depths of joy, heartache and revelation. How I am still curating that part of myself, and the city, I don’t want to lose.



Author’s Note:

Beginning this Fall, I will be using this blog and other spaces to explore the 52 neighborhoods of Cincinnati, as Cincinnati prepares for its 2017 elections and what makes our neighborhoods lovable, walkable, the same and different.  I’ll be using the #52meandyou hashtag so, as Rosemary Clooney once sang, “C’mon along!”

A City Poised to Radiate

I have been at odds over how to best honor Friday’simg_7493 opening of Cincinnati’s streetcar line, the Cincinnati Bell Connector. I have been touched by the ghosts of those who rode the last line, conscious that someday, I will tell my children, I rode the line when it returned.

In the past few weeks, I have looked back on my writings, to when I testified before city council on what will forever be known as “the pause”, and found a wealth of words that could have only originated from a deep frustration and also, a profound love.

I discovered photos from the groundbreaking, held in 2012, when I had hustled down the highway to arrive in time to watch the removal of the first cobblestone in front of Memorial Hall.

These past months, I strolled alongside so many streetcars that I hardly noticed them whiz on by.

In all that time, the streetcar had, like the rest of the city, gotten under my skin, and I subconsciously crafted a poem, delivered whole and ready to roll.


The Rebirth of Connection

For months I have followed you
walked unsteady along your furrowed tracks
observed as you have taken your first ride
your wobbly first loop around one block
then the next
like watching my own learn to steer a bike.

I remember how I shuddered
when workers in green gave birth to you
how I railed against anyone
who railed against you.

Early morn, I heard you moan
then slowly I became tone-deaf knowing
that was the noise you were born to make.

At times, I have envied the attention
and the ever-changing hues
showered upon you,
always aware of those who tried to brand you
something you were not.

Now as days glide easily into night
and rays run out of dark bends in the alleys
there is new light.

You have set down a new trail
for the thinkers, the makers, and joiners
proving what once divided
no longer spills into our streets
and runs rough to our river.

Like the surprise of quintuplets
fertilizes the family tree
your five cars will forever
alter a city destined outwards.

AJW 9/7/2016

The Courtship of Writing

(With apologies to my readers, as this piece was written as a distraction from Mom’s current hospitalization, and really nothing to do with the city, other than I am not in it) Untitled me

First, you are met with a warm sensation as words wash down your arm, through your pen, then leak everywhere onto the page. Forget the runner’s high. There is a writer’s high that mimics the rush of dopamine, adrenaline and norepinephrine from falling for words. Writing from your insides spills out. You scribble furiously. You have finally found what your soul wants to say.

So, you write. At all hours. You eschew affordable housing workshops and Argentinian happy hours and sometimes, even your faithful, yet always pouting, Cavalier. You only want to be with your words. You have unleashed an ardor onto the page that no man or woman has ever before been known to capture. You cannot sleep because these words sprint instead of dance in your head. You rise, and inhale the morning’s first cup of burnt beans, rush to the door and gulp in the morning dew, energized despite so very little sleep. Your thoughts immediately turn to streams of sentences that must be imprisoned that very instant. Everything is RIGHT NOW.

The fever has you in its grips, infects every part of your being. You write about three dimes accumulated in the fountain you will collect in a mason jar, about your mother and how she clutches her rosary as if holding onto to heaven, about dahlias that dance in the northwest wind. There is not one part of your life that has not now been touched by the way you are in love with words.

All too soon comes the reckoning. You share your words, perhaps online or an opinion page. Your friend remarks, “I don’t get it. Why would you say that about an onion, stripping off years of the garden’s stink?” And you fight, ten rounds with your conscience. Doubts and regrets are suddenly keeping vigil with you at night. You wanted validation, not criticism. You wanted inspiration not condemnation. You wanted a soul mate.

You are in pain and thus perform an entire scan on your body of work. You look for bumps and bruises, or some internal bleeding. Anything that would have indicated writing had consumed all of you. You turn away from the Italian Ladies desk, the yellowed, torn page. You switch off the words that have been running like a spigot through your senses. Your synapses cease snapping. You stop receiving the long-distance appeals that originated from your desk. You will no longer be accepting those calls. You disconnect.

But there comes a time, when you are pulled back. The tug comes on a night when your friends are drinking margaritas with salt or listening to a Pulitzer Prize novelist read at an ancient library. You are entombed elsewhere. You cannot breathe. You can no longer say, “No.”

You return to your love, fall in and begin the long slow waltz with words again, more committed than ever. You begin to notice your writing has plunged into the deep end. You can mine a body for aches you didn’t know were there. You write about breaths last encountered and hearing by heart, not by ear. Finally, you are ready to accept that long-held belief.

You have secured something obligatory. This is the engagement you have been waiting to happen. The life you almost walked away from.

You are pronounced woman and writer.

But then, the anticipation grows greater, the commitment more difficult to endure. You are expected now to tend with compassion and craft with care. There are others involved now. You must think of them, and what they will think. You reflect on the days when you didn’t have to care what others thought. You knew, you just knew.

But this, this is the beacon you have followed, the elusive beam emanating from a lighthouse reachable only by rowboat or swim, neither of which you will attempt on a dark and stormy night as you once did when young. And yet, you gunnel and stroke, then paddle and butterfly.

And after ten years, your pace slowed, you find comfort in a bulging waistline rounded by poetry, prose, blogs and musings. You forget how thirsty you once were for words, forget how parched you once felt when you had gone days without words swirling round. Something else has satisfied a thirst once only quenched by words pulsing through veins.

In the long stretches of winter, you roll up in a cocoon of quilts, reach for your beloved, warmed by the routine rivulet of writing that is no longer frantic or frenetic. Words that no longer poke at you in the nighttime, but carry peace to you like a cup of lapsang souchong tea. Words that rock you to sleep.

I Can Swim, I Can Trust

IMG_6618I was five as I sat at the edge of the Y’s swimming pool, crying. My mother kept encouraging me, “Get in. Go to the teacher.” But I was utterly fearful of the water.

In my second earliest memory of water, my mother washed my hair over the sink in the stationary tubs and I cried, again with dread, “It’s getting in my eyes.”

At some point, I did conquer my anxiety through swim lessons at the indoor pool of the YMCA and the outdoor pool of Maude Neiding Park. As a matter of fact, I proceeded all the way through the lessons to earn my Red Cross Life Saver certification.

Fast forward 45 years, and now, I am trying to find water in the city of Cincinnati.

Not the Ohio River, nor the Genius of Water, nor the spray fountains of Washington Park. But real water I can dip my toes into on a breezy summer day, the last before our son comes home and I become a parent again.

Over the past two years, I have walked seemingly every inch of this neighborhood and a few more. I have spotted various city-operated swimming pools, but the pools were never in use during those early morning hours.

Last year, I walked past the Ziegler Park pool (now under reconstruction), and found it rather empty. I made a mental note that a fifty-year-old winter white woman would probably have some privacy there. I found also the play pool at the Hanna center, just north of Findlay Market, thinking I could certainly walk or ride my bike there.

Last summer must have been busy, for I never did attend any of the swim times there.

But today was different.

A previous jaunt around the West End had yielded a pleasant surprise. Once I strutted some of the back roads, I found myself behind the Lincoln CRC center. And there it was, a pool with fifty-meter lap lanes in all its shimmering chloride glory.

Of course, it was only 6:30 a.m. and still May, yet I registered its location in the back of mind, cataloguing it for the summer day when I would need it.

Today was that day.

One lesson I have learned, as a writer, is about self-care and self-reward. Both are important because I don’t hear “nice job” and very few times do I actually say, “I’m going to take a vacation today from my writing,” because my mind never does. I am busy absorbing and observing and noting and correcting what I note.

So, after submitting the final piece of a freelance work, and after sending off my manuscript to book coach for a read through and after visiting with Mom (her sun comes first), I was ready for some self-care and self-reward.

As if still an eight-year-old, I yanked on my swimsuit, rolled my towel in my backpack and headed for the Lincoln CRC pool on my bike. Only this time, I didn’t have to cross the four-lane highway of Route 58, with Mom watching in the background, and then ride on a narrow kid-made bike path to the city pool.

This time, I rode my city bike, on the city streets, one mile to the rec center.

FullSizeRender-22I was sweating as I completed the last yards of my mile and walked my bike to the window to pay for my time at the pool. When I asked about swimming laps, “Denise” told me this was her first year in the job. She handed me a book.

Wow, I thought. I only had take a swim test in the water in Amherst to swim, but here I was, on vacation from the writing, and I had reading to do.

I slipped the book in my bag, waltzed through the women’s bathroom and found a cozy spot near the corner of the long pool, where I could take in the entire scene.

I lounged in the sun for a while then finally rose up to get myself in the water. Oh wow, how cold. Then I imagined how frigid the water would feel at 6:30 am when the pool opened for laps. I took a deep breath, unsure I if I would follow through.

While water has always been a healer for me, and I had many reasons to seek it out today, what was more healing was the summer swim and camp programs for the young kids in the neighborhood. Most kids there were attending the pool through the generosity of grants and donors and city money.

Pools are hard to manage and maintain. Something always goes wrong with the plumbing. Think household toilet, times one hundred. Personal budgets are even more difficult. What I think of as pocket change is an extravagance for some of my neighbors. (Read more here about the burden of summer camps on low-income parents).

I closed my eyes and listened to the kids yelling and jumping and being yelled at for jumping, and my entire swimming journey came back to me.

How afraid I was. How my mother, lessons, and a few cute lifeguards helped me overcome my fears. How I used to watch my parents unable to swim, wade into the water, and push us deeper. How I had now gone swimming in the Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean, and South China Sea. I had kayaked, canoed and rafted. I had waterskied, snorkeled and paddle boarded.

Swimming for me, was about endurance, through setting a reasonable pace. Swimming equaled strength. Water offered buoyancy. But at the heart, swimming was always about trust. Trust in the water. Trust in my capabilities. I return to the water again and again, to learn to trust in the deep end of my soul.

I slipped in, while kids circled around me, some warning their friends, Swim around that woman, or don’t get her wet. But I wanted to be wet. I wanted to be those kids again. I was thankful they had the space to be just kids, yelling and screaming and jumping. And that none of them carried a fear of water, except the little one in the corner who, with his lifejacket on, every now and then, approached the water’s edge, then ran back between his father’s legs.

On occasion, I asked a few kids what part of town they lived in, did they come far (I’m sure they thought I was a weirdo) and few pointed in the direction towards low-income housing which abuts a highway, a site that’s had it share of police calls.

But they all could swim, including the young girl who stroked in my direction, and when asked, told me she had swam the entire length of the pool and, “I’m turning around and swimming the whole way back.”

I rode my bike home in a state of utter joy. I hadn’t changed anyone’s life through that brief time I was there, but I had the book Denise gave me and I was going to read it to find out what time I could swim laps and where I could send funds to help a few kids trust the water and conquer their biggest fear, trust of self.

I hope anyone reading this post, who remembers their fear of water and how they overcame that fear, will take a moment to read more about Cincinnati’s “I Can Swim” program. Or, if you have some pennies left over, to make a donation, so that all our children have the same opportunities our own children had. My check is in the mail.

Learn more about the “I Can Swim” program of CRC. 

Donations can also be directed to: Cincinnati Recreation Foundation, Attn: I CAN SWIM, 805 Central Ave, Suite 800, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

Our City’s Treasure Assays Our Own Worth

FullSizeRender-15In the two years I have called Over-the-Rhine home, I have also christened Music Hall my touchstone. As I wrote this piece, I sought out other synonyms for touchstone and learned the word’s first definition: a lack siliceous stone related to flint and formerly used to test the purity of gold and silver.

And now I know why.

Recently, the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall, and volunteers Clint and Carol in particular, opened the doors of the grand lady to let me have a look around before Music Hall closed down for renovations. The rest of the public had been welcome too, but on that day, no one else had yet to step inside.

I informed Clint that I knew the history of the building and could quote his quotes in no time, so he offered to just walk with me and answer any questions that I might have.  I didn’t want the company, wanting to soak up all of Her treble and base on my own, but I relented and Clint tagged along. We did after all, share a comon bond.

When I stepped behind the scenes, I was surprised to actually see the puckered carpet, the peeling paint, cracked FullSizeRender-18drywall, in essence Her crippled bones. The many times I had approached from the front of the house, so much space had covered by humans. When I stepped on stage, in the cavernous silence, I heard the many voices Music Hall had spawned and the many more She could birth.

I often call Music Hall She.  She has been like the Mother watching over the performers and guests, and all of those patrons of Washington Park. She has also been witness to rocketing stars and victims of pointless crimes, to people experiencing homelessness and those uniting through marriage.

She possesses a unique connection to every citizen of Cincinnati.

As Music Hall prepares to shut down, I too, must prepare for this temporary loss by reminding myself one must build with the imagination and integrity of the ancestors.  And one must hold strong to her deepest values like those who have been long-time residents of this odd-shape polygonal neighborhood.  And that one need only touch but a single person in this city of 300,000, as Music Hall has touched me, to find purity in the endeavor.



In darkness She pauses
takes in the weight
of what She has carried
for hundreds of years –

FullSizeRender-19how She has laid down
stiff arms of brick
for others to soar,
how holes in her mortar
have absorbed croons and strains
of Sinatra and Bach
how She has risen each dawn to sing
with a timbre only she can reach.

Throughout her decades
She has been Queen
existing only
in the upper range of good
amidst darkened clouds
of falling timber
and tumbling crowds.

Now I want to caress her face
as drills invade her space
and disrupt her resonance.
Men, and its mostly men
come to work,
do they know the burden of
hammers on her heart
the piercing
of nails upon her soul.

They traipse through dust and dirt
where centuries of crumbs
mingle with their daily bread.
When they remove their Wolverines
when they scrape off heels,
do they know those specks
were once the tears She rained
and arias of Odyseus.

Do they know She dwells
in each and all atoms
of our metropolis air
despite those who protest
She never touches them at all.

I hear the drills, feel her shrills
as they carve into her
slice through her mid and mortar
which has held a city together.
Her life will be buried
behind iron and steel
as if it were that simple
to imitate the Germans’ skill.

And behind the fence
imprisoned will be
the high notes and baritones,
the sweeper and the Turners
the sangerbunds and bellringer
the ice man and washerwoman
the opera singer and magic man
the one who costumes with plumes
and one who presses collars to the stars

one whose elbow creaks when windows crack
open for sales, and cuts a finger
along the ticket’s jagged edge.

and the one to whom
on winter nights
her sigh of lullabies skip
across the frosted rooftops
to warm a cold soul.

She is near hollow now,
while the window made of rose
flutters open then close
open, then mum.

The heart of her ghost
begins to mourn.

Erica Minton, Experience Junkie

Erica MintonLast month, I had the opportunity to interview this talented poet, marketer and Cincinnati lover for Movers and Makers (formerly Express Cincinnati). Erica plans to depart Cincinnati for Colorado, after she directs the effort of transitioning Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra subscribers from Music Hall to the Taft Theatre.

However much I enjoyed learning more about Erica, I was disappointed that she too is justifiably frustrated by the lack of progressive thinking for our city, in aspects related to transportation, urban renewal and how we reach our citizens.  Will she make it back to Cincinnati? Stay tuned.

You can read the full profile in Movers and Makers here.


The “C” Word in the City

FullSizeRender-8I stood at the intersection of Music Hall and Washington Park with headphones partially plugged into my ears. So I didn’t hear fully what the older African-American gentleman standing nearby had mumbled to me.

That was not my normal disposition. In fact, I NEVER wore my headphones in the city.

However, it was still early and I was returning from a workout at the Y in the West End. I had been listening to a podcast of Corporate Talk with Charlie and Eva. I had been their guest and the interview was now posted online. All during my workout, through squats and planks and sit-ups, I had been slowly digesting the words of this woman who sounded so wise in the interview.

During the live recording of the show, Charlie and Eva and I had laughed and shared and dug deeper into my writing work, deeper than I had for some time. Reaching back to the far beginnings in ninth grade to present day poetry inspired by living in the city.

Writers have a hard time branding themselves. We’re just writers, we say, despite what the world of publishing wants from us and what FB and Twitter and Linkedin demands.

Writers have a hard time pushing their words onto their followers, risking it all for the sake of one, “like.”

But in that moment, while I stood at the intersection, a smile had snuck across my face. I liked listening to the woman in the interview. I liked her voice. I liked many of things she had to say. I didn’t experience any cringe-worthy moments. No gaffes, no snafus. Just honest talk about comparisons to Captain Kirk and Netti Spaghetti and courage and loss.

While I stood smiling, and marching my feet in place, the older African-American gentleman tapped on at my sleeve, speaking to me again.

“I said, you’re like Jesus today.”

I tugged at the earphones ‘til they fell from my ears.

“What do you mean,” I asked.

“I mean, you’re like Jesus today, looking all blessed with your smile.”

“I am,” I asked and said in return, “the same back to you.”

Then the light changed.

“Courage,” Host Charlie Lobosco had referred to, during the interview. “What you do takes courage.”

And I felt like the lion in Wizard of Oz, with certain courage bestowed upon me, setting my foot onto the sidewalk of this city and marking out on my own trail.

Well ahead of my fellow pedestrian, I turned back for a quick moment. My dimple had dipped deeper, forming a place on my cheeks to catch an even broader smile.

Why We Save Old Buildings (Like the Dennison)

IMG_0046-1A lesson in what makes people stop and talk

The controversy over saving the Dennison Hotel has brought back a flood of memories to our own renovation project. Why would anyone want to save these old buildings?

Our 1870’s home on Race St in Over-the-Rhine had not been occupied in forty years. The house hardly appeared worth resuscitating. What would people say? That we were crazy?

However, in 2010, when we toured the home with John Hueber, Mark and I fell in love with a shell, a long shadow of what had once been grand and welcoming, and a footprint for the future.

That very night, I Googled 1419 Race Street. Other than the usual tax listings, only one other result appeared on the screen, based search results at that time.

I clicked the link that led a UC website for the DAAP program. Michael McLaughlin (M.A. Architecture) had written his thesis on Contemporary Preservation. The main subject of his thesis, penned in 2006, was 1419 Race Street.

At the time, Michael had accessed historical records that showed the home’s owners as Charles H. Mueller, a civil war veteran, and his family. Later, the home transitioned ownership to a few Italians (which made me more than proud). And sometime in the mid-90’s, the home was owned by a John Kalebain, bought from the city for a dollar, left empty for five years, then sold back to the city, for a presumed dollar. According to an anonymous blog post, someone was also shot in front of the home in the 90’s.

IMG_0647Mr. McLaughlin also documented with pictures, thankfully, because so much was lost in those four intervening years, from the time he researched 1419 to the time we bought.

I later found Michael the same way I found his thesis, through the Internet. I located him working at an architecture firm in Columbus. I told the the firm’s administrator, “I know this is weird, but tell him I bought the home that was the subject of his thesis.” The admin paused for a moment then transferred me.

When I revealed our story to Michael, he tried to sound interested. I asked him about accessing the home, “We really just pulled off some plywood, and had to make our way around a few drug addicts in the basement.”

He sounded less than impressed that we had purchased the home and renovated it. I asked him to visit sometime, but never heard from him since.

And therein lay the challenge. For Michael, and the likes of builders and developers, the home represented work or study. For us, this home was our life.

IMG_0083Long before the home’s completion, we made instant friends, inviting casual acquaintances to share in the restoration of our home. We welcomed mere strangers, I’m telling you, off the street, to tour the home.

Once renovated, we opened our home to Future Leaders for the first OTR Holiday Home tour, and were surprised to learn we didn’t welcome 200-300 guests over the weekend, but 700 tour participants who took a peek inside.

We used our home for fundraisers, meetings, and bourbon nights. All in the interest of getting to know our city, and introducing and connecting our contacts to one another and our neighborhood.

We save old buildings because old buildings have a story to tell. Because those stories lead to conversation which lead to connecting to one another on a deeper level which leads to healthy lives and healthier cities.

The story of 1419 began with Charles Mueller. He was like the Kevin Bacon in the six degrees of separation game.

Original Front DoorOur restoration led us to Anne Sennefeld of Digging Cincinnati, who filled us in on other owners of the home. The work also led us to preservationists and the Cincinnati Historical Society Library for research and locating photographs of the St Paulus German Evangelical Protestant Church (now Taft Ale House). The Muellers once owned an apothecary in 1868, where Nellie’s is now. We recently hosted the owners of the Taft Ale House, they too wanting a look inside and to know about the connection between our home and theirs.

Last summer, on a Segway ride through Spring Grove Cemetery (a must do for anyone who wants to learn how to ride a Segway and see more of Cincinnati history), we were passing through the backside of the cemetery, on a downhill glide when I spotted the Mueller gravesite.

FullSizeRender-6“Please can I go back,” I pleaded to the guide, who insisted we had to continue because dusk was setting in.

“Oh, OK,” I said and pouted the rest of the tour.

When I returned home, I searched the cemetery’s website and found the death certificates for a few of the Muellers.

Ironically, we had been in contact with Charles Mueller’s great grandchildren. One had visited the home, during our pre-construction house-warming. But she had also warned there were some dark secrets in the Mueller family and some preferred to stay away.

FullSizeRender-5While the parents died of more natural causes in 1915 and 1919, three of the children died of gunshot wounds, Oscar, age 69, died of homicide from a gunshot wound in 1938. The wound caused TB and he died at Christ Hospital, where Mark now works. Alma, age 55, died 1928, at her residence of suicide by gunshot, and Louis, age 73, in 1953, died by gunshot at the Metropole, now the 21C Hotel. Charles Herman Jr.’s cause death was also listed gunshot, at age 33, in 1911.

When people talk of the late 1990’s in Over-the-Rhine felt like the Wild West, they neglected to take into consideration these old facts.

The death certificate search results were not what I expected. But the family had perhaps been hit with mental health challenges, and depression or futility was pervasive. Luckily, the Italians as tailors and mechanics came along and lifted that burden, or so I believed.

We save old buildings for the same reason we tell stories. Because, at the core, we learn from them.

Today’s new buzzword in marketing and events is storytelling. Despite the word being co-opted, storytelling is a powerful medium. Humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time to remember, before writing them down became the norm.

Ancient Greeks and Romans distinguished between two types of memory: the ‘natural’ memory and the ‘artificial’ memory. The former is inborn, and is the one that everyone uses without thinking. The artificial memory, the art of memory or mnemonics, in contrast has to be developed through practicing of a variety of techniques.

Front Door FinishedWe don’t need buildings to become artificial memories, preserved only in bronze markers hung to a post or relegated to the annals and algorithms of the Internet.

Our buildings should represent our natural memory and our natural disposition to save what is innate, what is a part of us, what will survive long past us.

Our home’s appearance is much like any other Italianate style homes. But once a visitor steps across the threshold, and listens to my husband tell the story of 1419, they immediately fall in love with and connect to a certain place and time. They imagine the era, when an entire family plus 11 lodgers lived in a building now occupied by two, but occasionally seven. Guests use our home as placeholder, as proxy for the many buildings yet to be saved. We are humbled to be the caregivers for only the time that history allows.

I bring this up, as the demolition of the historic Dennison Hotel is scheduled for a hearing before the Historic Preservation Board. The Dennison is a piece of Cincinnati, of us, designed by Samuel Hannaford, one of Cincinnati’s most prominent architects (Music Hall, City Hall, The Phoenix). It was built in the 1892’s, in what was the industrial/warehouse district of downtown. The building’s last occupants were listed as SRO, single room only, with affordable housing rates, until it was closed (Photo credit below to Phil Armstrong).

Screen+Shot+2016-03-13+at+1.13.54+PMPlans and ownership of the hotel have shifted over time, but in 2011, “The Model Group and, with help from 3CDC and the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, said the building would get a renovation to 63 studio apartments, but continue to serve as low income housing. Entitled the Ironworks Apartments, Talbert House was to provide supportive services for the residents and a storefront cafe for a place for residents to gain job experience. (Cincinnati Business Courier).

However, those plans fell through and the CMHA application was pulled, leaving that piece of the puzzle suspect.

Then the building was transferred from 3CDC to a subsidiary then sold to the ownership of the Columbia Automobile group (the Joseph family), with plans for demolition.

There is controversy on whether the restoration of the building by its owner would cause economic hardship.

How should we define hardship? The average homeowner does not undertake the purchase of a historical building without some understanding of the financial outlay to renovate. Shouldn’t we expect the same from developers? Shouldn’t we deny the purchase of historical properties without confirmed intent to save the building? Shouldn’t our policies include the opportunity for other developers to say, let me have a crack at it, before we decide to tear it down.

(Read more here and decide for yourself –  Contribute to the legal fees or show up at the board meeting, April 18.)

You can stand on our stoop any  Saturday and count into the dozens the number of people who stop. Passersby snap photos for weddings, proms, and Instagram contests using our home and garden as backdrop.

FullSizeRender-5In the end, we found out what people would say. Because the simple fact is, people from the West Side, from Hyde Park, from Mason, from Germany, all stopped. They talked. To us, to one another, to others passing on the sidewalk. People conversed. The design, the historical interest of the old building caused mere strangers to slow down and actually speak to one another. They wanted to hear the story, they wanted to be close to the story. They wanted to be in the story.

How often does that happen in front of a parking lot or corporate headquarters that is only imagined?

Excavation as Metaphor at City Gospel Mission

IMG_5562I stopped and stared at the former site of City Gospel Mission. The chapel had been preserved but a large portion of the building that once housed participants in CGM’s programs had been excavated. The gaping hole reminded me of how a writing circle for the men had sprouted in the space of the new building on Dalton, and not the now-flattened soil of the old there on Elm.

“We can’t put writing in the title,” I had told the programming director at City Gospel Mission when discussing the class, to be held at the new center. “Too intimidating.”

“Use something with words, journey in words. Short, to the point.”

Thus, the foundation of a writing circle for men in transition at City Gospel Mission was constructed. But, before the circle was formed, the idea had sprung from a need, my need, to connect and understand. A need to fill that now gaping hole with meaning.

Would a Monday morning be incentive enough to rouse the men into a room where the format of poetry interpretation and a means of communication had been as intimidating as the word write? What would I use to inhabit that space and time?

I look back on the themes we have discussed, the simplicity of the format of the class, and see how much the circle, with intention and care, has grown. Not by my guidance, but by the willingness of the men to share with me their past and future paths. By their demonstrating an earnestness for conversation, a vulnerability to ask, “what does disdain mean,” showing compassion to other men, and at times, as humans in uncomfortable situations are want to do, to yuck it up.

They don’t have need for writing compositions or interpreting poetry for a grade. They are mostly here for a hot meal, a warm bed and support as they transition to a world which seems so moderately-paced for the rest of us, but a world that sped up and left them behind.

But for an hour, every Monday, they are remembered, known.

I have loved them all, in each their own way. And I miss them when they transition out. I miss the learning each one offered. “We are each other’s mirror,” one participant said, and it is no more true than when we look into the eyes of one another, black and white and Hispanic, old and young, former felons, painters, electricians and cooks.

We discuss our days same as any friends about my mother’s care home and their families or appointments for the day. How are you progressing? How is the bike working? See you at the library. Have you read James Baldwin, do you like Wendell Berry, how about Mary Oliver? How do we talk about our animal selves? For an hour, they have a choice to reflect on the centrifugal force of the washer they have spun in throughout their lives, or they can leave that washer and place themselves squarely in the poem, in William Stafford’s shoes, in Terrance Hayes’ place.

Each week, I have snuck a few more practices of community building into their lives. Eventually, they even passed the stone and said not only their names but also one word to bring them into the day. Some made references to Revelations from Bible Study. One said, 666. One said, Joy. A word for where their mind was that day.

After we discuss the poems, the poet’s meaning and our interpretation, the men are given time to write. I always write. It’s the best model I can offer and in the depth of our shared time, I have penned pieces that would not come from my ordinary experiences. After ten minutes, I look up and realize that the men are all done, though sometimes I am surprised to find that one man might still be writing.

There is a competition for those to read first. Each week, six or seven men share what they wrote. Others add via their speaking and not writing voice, embarrassed by their composition skills. And still others nod their head. Their silence too is a voice.

Lately, I began asking for their work. If they wanted to be “heard” by my reading their words, later, out of class. If they wanted a wider audience to read their words, through the communications of City Gospel Mission in brochures, in flyers. There was a rush to submit words that had never been digested, or sentiments that had never seen the light of day, other than the reflection off white page staring back at them.

The men and I don’t have all the answers to homelessness, mental health challenges, poverty and crime, but for an hour each week, these men are willing to ask the question, to tell their truths and engage in what they might not understand.

While some might mourn the passing of the purpose of that former CGM site, I don’t. I see the excavation as a metaphor for a change in how society views those experiencing homeless, an inclination to dig below the surface. And I see the new structure as representation for the men’s lives and their readiness to recreate themselves. Writing, a journey in words, is simply giving shape to that fresh form.