What Does It Mean to Believe in Cincinnati?

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My husband and I used to disappear on Monday nights, following a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. With our son, the lone high school holdout, able to stay at home by himself, we would leave the comfy confines of our Loveland home make the half hour trip to “Believe in Cincinnati.”

We didn’t know what that phrase meant at the time. My husband had mostly been texting and messaging with some city citizens who were organizing around the political dismantling of the streetcar project and we knew one thing. That would be the worst thing to happen to Cincinnati since Mark Twain’s unverified quote about everything coming here twenty years late.

As soon to be stakeholders in the city of Cincinnati, we asked ourselves many times, were we investing in the our property because of the streetcar. We honestly answered, No.

We invested in our property because we were investing in a city. We were investing what was becoming a burgeoning arts community. We were investing in the history of Over-the-Rhine and the promise that the community could transform itself to become as diverse as we have all hoped. Daily this transformation plays out, but like anything else, if it is not put into practice we lose the muscle and might to reach out.

We showed up at meetings in homes, churches, coffee shops, and city streets. We marched and testified before council. We posted on Facebook and blogs and emails and twitters. We abandoned our son that fall/winter for the sake of something larger than us and his schoolwork. Something that perhaps he, or his peers, won’t appreciate for quite some time.

Somewhere along the way, we made friends and acquaintances that shared the same vision for togetherness and adhering to a democratic process. It is wise and fair to say, we all came together for various reasons, and stayed for the people.

What strikes me now, two years later, is how those we met put their beliefs into action. Some have invested in vacant property further north of Liberty. Some have founded non-profits for the youth of OTR to become future leaders. Some have gone to open coffee houses, branding agencies.

Others have become spokespersons for all of Ohio to transition to a light-rail based transportation system., while coaching and fundraising for the inner city’s last little league team.

Some have continued their quirky blogs and photo posts to document what works and doesn’t work in the Legoland we call a city. Some are leading our most treasured assets like the Mercantile Library. Some organized trips to Portland to find out what works, what doesn’t and came home to apply those same principles. Some moved further into their work in tying the positive impact of arts to the health of any community.

Some employed dozens upon dozens of contractors who worked through the cold and thaw. While their names won’t be on the streetcar, they will point to that project as their legacy.

Some acted as city councilpersons, others took a role in the OTR council. Some work to tutor neighborhood students, and discuss the Bengals only AFTER the homework is complete.

Some just hang out on the corners to get to know their neighbors, organize Halloween trick-or-treat events for the children, or are genuinely trying to understand the long-term effects of poverty and why affordable housing matters. Some will be eating Thanksgiving dinner with neighbors they could not have imagined a year ago.

And some came to believe just how much one voice matters.

The media and attention from the mayor’s proclamation to shut down the streetcar worked in the favor of those who believe. The mayor’s controversial statements served to galvanize ordinary citizens who imagined a future that perhaps that mayor could not see.

The stories are endless of what it means to Believe in Cincinnati. But wasn’t just about the streetcar. Anyone paying attention knew this. It wasn’t about investment dollars or politics or procedures. It was about people who saw an opportunity for Cincinnati to be ‘greater than.’ Those are my kind of people to believe in.

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Acceptance as a Form of Art

FullSizeRender copy 20Attracting and Retaining the New – Part I

I entered the almost empty courtyard of Arnold’s, vacant except for a group of nine patrons seated in one of the more cozy corners. The heaters were blowing and lights twinkling. A night of perfection for poetry.

Once a month, Women Writing for (a) Change hosts a poetry reading for which I am a co-creator. The event, our seventh, brings four women to the stage to read original works –  voices on the verge I call them, as if I’m going to push them off a cliff and watch their words soar. Along with four women, we routinely host 50-60 guests for dinner or cocktails.

I was a little nervous about the boisterous table of strangers, unsure of where our poetry guests might sit if the room was overbooked. But we welcomed all, one of the tenets held dear. The lead server approached me. “Hey, we got a group from (insert large downtown employer with two initials), but when we took the reservation, we let them know they had to be out by 7 p.m.”

I agreed and turned to setting the stage and tables with flyers and placemats. While I busied myself, I overheard the server again remind the patrons. “Hey, we’ve got this group doing a women’s poetry reading tonight, so if you want more to eat or drink, just remember you have to be gone by seven. Or, you can stay and listen.”

As soon as the server walked away, a few of the khaki pants’ males chuckled. I cringed. Sadly, I also observed the lone female in the group, the lone female who probably worked extra hard to rise above the males or to at least be considered on their level, laugh and snap her fingers, as if at a poetry reading in the 70’s.

This is the year 2015. We cheer, clap, cry, and in some cases, and in some cases call out, new shit. While the co-workers might have been stuck in the 70’s, the art of poetry was not.

Wanting them to feel comfortable, I made my way to their table, offering the same information I would place on the all the tables, “Nothing is Too Small Not to be Wondered About” by Mary Oliver and a flyer about our center.

“Here, in case you want to stay, we love having extra guests. You never know what you might hear that you like.” I stared long at the faces but many put their mugs back in their beers. When I turned away, more chuckles echoed off the walls of brick.

By 7 p.m., the group of mostly white, middle-aged males and one female had vacated their tables, freeing up room for interested guests. A part of me felt disappointed, wanting them to experience the evening for themselves.

That night, the audience heard a young women read a poem about Smarts:

“You know you don’t have to go so try-hard on every test, right?”
Words uttered to me, darting between the crumbling tables of the biology classroom. Words that would have pinched or stung my ears had it not been about the fortieth time they’d confronted me.
Words spoken, if you can believe it, by a boy, a snap-back wearing D-average earning, condescending boy, who was obviously very interested by my test scores.
Words that mock and chastise me because this is not who I am supposed to be, not how I am taught to perform. – M. Basil.

They heard a poet read about Ripley, Ohio where the slaves crossed the river, asking, “Aren’t we all still crossing?” Guests laughed at whether a real poem can utilize “Google” twice in its text.

Had the guests attended the previous month’s event, they would have heard a young millennial come to acceptance with her sexuality and would have felt as one guest later described:

“However, what I completely skipped over in describing was the soul saving feeling of being among a… A womb maybe, kind of a weird but apropos descriptor. I was a stranger and was embraced. The two women you’d introduced me to, pushed the table over and welcomed me without question. 

The work that I do is in turns very rewarding and incredibly emotionally draining. Being a mother is equally difficult and awesome. I am a poet and I feel like I lose language everyday. I walked in to Arnold’s that night a lonely woman with a dormant soul. I came seeking entertainment. I left with so much more.”

As a region, we talk about attracting and retaining Millennials, making outsiders feel welcome. Ironically, the poetry reading occurred in the same week Artswave hosted Jamie Bennett, director of ArtsPlace and Tedtalk presenter, who advocates that arts should be positioned as a key economic sector, similar to transportation. Also, he described the importance of arts in creating a greater sense of connection. “The arts are what root us to a place and make us call it home,” Bennett said.

“Artists are the one asset that exists in every community,” Bennett said. “The asset is there and waiting to be activated.”

The Artswave event was attended by many employers, who, as individuals, actively support community arts. But I wonder, are those same values reflected in their own work environments? As a city, most outsiders know Cincinnati by some of its largest employers, P&G, Western Southern and Great American. Are those employers emphasizing the importance of arts in their own cultures? Are the perspectives of those same restaurant patrons the reasons why millenials are reluctant to root themselves here?

Those of us who work in the arts do what we do to provide for voices that have been intimidated or silenced by the behavior of groups or individuals like on that night. We do what we do to overcome the “louder than” voice in the room. We do what we do to break the hold of isolation and connect in community. We do what we do because that lone woman may return to her desk and secretly pull out a stash of old poems written when she too was struggling to find her voice, her path, when she too was challenged in proving she was as smart at the boys.

 

We will do what we do, until acceptance has been elevated to its own art form.

Breaking Up After 50 Years

FullSizeRender copy 18Dear Cleveland Browns,

From my earliest years, I would visit my Uncle Tony and learn a plethora of Italian cuss words whenever he spoke about Art Modell. Yet faithfully, he bought his season tickets on the fifty-yard line every year. I listened to my father tell stories of taking the train into Cleveland for the games. And I cringed when my mother yelled while watching the Browns play football on TV. Her consistent refrain was, “Why do they always run up the middle?” I have now taken on her reproach.

I doodled Brian Sipe’s name across my Mead spiral notebooks in Mrs. Garfield’s eighth-grade English class and dutifully camped out in the cold for playoff tickets, oh so long ago. And, who didn’t want to grow up and marry Bernie Kosar (but who is thankful now?).

Several times, I drove north to indoctrinate a boyfriend or two into the Cleveland Browns culture, which meant buying extra fleece blankets and freezing our a— off in the sleeting cold, only to watch the team lose. I was there for The Drive, remember? The 98-yard drive by John Elway, who now manages a team with Peyton Manning as quarterback. Oh, what could have been.

Living in Cincinnati, I endured the taunts with an older sister, while she and I stood amidst crowds of Bengals fans at Riverfront stadium and cheered on our team. With devotion, she and I watched Browns’ games in bars, as guests in houses of Bengals’ fans or listened in the radio on long drives home from the north, when we had to depart before the game would start. If the Browns lost, then we were lost too, in a maze of Bengals fans, mocked for everything wrong with Cleveland.

When Art took the team away, well, that broke the both of us. We wrote long, heartfelt, sappy poems about why he shouldn’t have done so and why Cleveland needed a football team the way Cleveland fans need their beer.

Lo though I tried, my son never became a Browns fan. He became a sports fan, which precluded him from cheering for a team who brought nothing but misery onto the field and to its fan.

FullSizeRender copy 16Now, I have a chance to break up with you. Maybe its just me. Maybe we just need some time apart. Maybe next year looks more promising, or we can try to work things out during the off-season. Maybe I want to be a part of history, to say I was there when…I had lots of opportunities to say that about the Browns, but unfortunately, the moments never turned out in Cleveland’s favor.

You will always be my first lesson in putting your heart into something you will lose or will lose for you. I can no longer sit back and watch you implode. I hope in the future you make more mature decisions for yourself and not knee-jerk reactions to media attention. I hope your choices take into consideration the many fans and veterans and former players who worked hard to build up the team that now seems to be swaying on stilts, across the sands of Lake Erie.

I know Uncle Tony will come back to haunt me. His voice will never leave my head. ‘God damn, Modell,” he would say. He was right then, he was right when Modell took the team, and the Browns fortunes have never been the same.

Its time the Browns move past the Modell Effect. I need to as well. I will still cheer for the team when good things happen, the way one hopes for the best for someone they once loved. I will always love you for demonstrating the meaning of grit, as in the many times I gritted my teeth while living in Cincinnati cheering for the Browns, or while shivering in below-zero temperatures watching my beloved team lose.

With all my love and gratitude for our (almost) fifty years together,

Annette Januzzi Wick