I was three-quarters into my route through Bond Hill. Amidst the cold, blurry feeling inside of me, a particular sign warmed my heart.
For citizens in and outside of the city, Graeter’s Ice Cream stood for more than just delectable ice cream and chocolate chips. Graeter’s also meant family, home. Whenever our kids were shopping in other state’s stores, they always looked for Graeter’s.
Until spotting the $11 million production plant of Graeter’s, my walk through Bond Hill had been filled with trepidation. I was strolling through a neighborhood I didn’t know, one I had only driven through twice. Once for a wedding at Maketewah Country Club, and once as a facilitator at Woodward High School for WWfaC’s after school writing program.
“Maketewah was the original Native American name for the Mill Creek prior to the 1790’s. The word is actually a corruption of the Shawnee word “Mkateewa” and meant “it is black” because of the dark rich soil that made up the bed of the creek that at the time was rich in wildlife.”
I had driven north on the freeway and exited at Reading Road and the Norwood Lateral, where Norwood Cinemas used to be. Cavalier in my directions, I parked on Bella Vista, a side street near Maketewah.
Leaving my car, I looked up stunned. The street was filled with an entertaining variety of Tudor-styles homes. Later, I would learn about each of the homes’ occupants.
I locked the car door and turned north on Reading Road, surprised by the cold. The wind had picked up early afternoon. I was underdressed. And, my phone was dying in the frigid temperatures. I had mentally mapped out my route, but with battery power waning, and the sun (was it even out?) dissipating in the wind, I was a bit concerned I would have no GPS backup. I had left no note at home. My only crumb trail was a quick search on my laptop to confirm I knew where Bond Hill was, exactly.
The Hamilton County Community Action Agency was my first snap. The HCCAA is a conglomerate of city, county, federal services, United Way and, surprise, a Starbucks. Citizens can apply for jobs, head start programs, and a wide variety of housing services all within the HCCAA.
I retrieved my iPhone from a warm pocket. The battery had already started to fizzle. Intrepid, I pushed on and chugged up the hill where I spotted Woodward Career Technical high School in the distance. The original high school was founded in OTR in 1828 as one Cincinnati’s first public schools by William Woodward and his wife Abigail Cutter. They provided free education for poor children who could not afford private schooling. The high school moved in 1953, where it boasted of many illustrious alumni including NFL players. But the writer in me wanted to give a shout out to Karen Mindy Ackerman, a children’s book award winner.
I continued along Section Road and turned south down Paddock, with the interstate in my distant view. My head was on swivel, per usual on my walks, looking for the unusual. And that’s when I spotted the Graeter’s sign. I was no longer lost.
Except, I had 10 % battery power left.
Continuing down Paddock, I turned up Elm Park Place and found a second collection of smaller Tudor-style homes. Sadly, each street in the subdivision ended at the interstate. Listening to the buzz of traffic, I sighed at how a concrete form of connectivity had subjugated a human form.
Battery power was now down to 5 %. I wasn’t exactly sure which road would lead me back to Reading – and my car. Keeping Maketewah in sight, I spied a familiar road sign, or at least name. Oberlin. Oberlin College. Oberlin High School that used to always beat my high school’s teams in, well, everything. I took that as a sign, and followed Oberlin. Much to my delight, I discovered a third neighborhood of Tudor homes, some much more colorful than the others.
Finally, Bella Vista was back in my sight. I was on the opposite site of the street from my car when I crossed paths with Jeff.
Jeff had exited one of the Tudor homes and rolled his garbage cans down the driveway in front of me.
Short in stature, he looked up, confused and pulled his hood up over his head.
I had startled him. “Love your neighborhood. Do you live here?” I stuttered and continued. “I’m walking all 52 neighborhoods of Cincinnati, haven’t been here yet.”
“You’d better be careful young lady (I loved this man already).” I assured him I had stuck close to circling the course.
He leaned over top of his garbage can. “But yep, this has been my home, since I was 13. Got it after my mom died from my brother.”
The Tudor home was trimmed in mossy green. “Who painted the green?” I asked.
“She did, and afterwards, she called me and said, I really f— up. My mother was kind of a bear. When she wanted something done, she just did it without asking for anybody else’s input.” Hmmm…
By way of nodding his head, Jeff introduced me to the rest of his neighbors. A retired nurse. The dentist (I still call him “Doc”). One older couple lived there ever since he had. Across the street, a young couple, though he wasn’t sure about the blue (trim on the Tudor).
“Me and my family were one of the only non-Jews at the time we moved into Bond Hill. Played as QB on a championship team,” he proudly shared.
“But now, we got a mix. But it’s a good place. Its good people.” He stopped to consider me again. “So you say you’re just out walking?”
My walk had been welcomed with curiosity and warnings. He wanted me to know about where he lived, but he also didn’t want me to know. “You just gotta be safe. Don’t go down California,” he warned. Later, I would.
Bond Hill has a fascinating history in Bond Hill: The Origin and Transformation of A 19th Century Cincinnati Suburb. How five men plotted out lands, with the intent to create a temperance community with communalism as its core value. Bond Hill grew beyond that hope. And in the 1950’s, the neighborhood fell to the fate of redlining and white flight. Last check on Zillow produced vacant homes in the multiples that were up for auction.
But where Jeff saw and warned of danger, I saw potential. Purples and oranges. School and children. Tudors and more tudors.
I trekked back down Reading near the Lateral. A former orphanage. St Aloysius, now operated as a center for social and educational services in the community. The chapel was used for weddings and events. I walked the perimeter of the grounds, looking out over the hills children used to farm. There were so many hills I had climbed and descended. Bond Hill itself was probably once a hill that folks walked to get to Bond’s Mill, but there’s controversy about the name’s origins anyhow.
Heading to the car once more, I passed the original 5-mile stop at Avonlea and Reading, where a long ago resident once noted it was a 30-minute commute by horse to the city. When I-75 is stopped up, the commute is still the same.
One final note was of Bond Hill’s connection to Cincinnati’s fine arts in the 1870’s.
Henry Watkins, a founder of Bond Hill, married Laura Ann Fry. She was the daughter of Henry Fry who would go on to establish Cincinnati Woodcarving Arts movement. Henry Watkins owned a commercial printing shop and bookstore on Richmond Street and later on Walnut St. Laura Ann Fry was also an accomplished wood carver and teacher of that art. Much about their life was documented thanks to another well-known Cincinnati writer. Lafcadio Hearn wrote extensively on Watkins and also on Japanese culture. Ironically, our art museum carries over 3000 pieces of Japanese art, some collected as early at 1800’s when Cincinnati had a thriving relationship with Japan. My research had fast become six degrees of separation from Bond Hill.
I returned home to thaw out.
After stumbling upon Jeff (or he stumbling upon me), I am now mentally drawing a picture of each person I chatted with on my route to “52”. I had once considered taking photographs, but didn’t want to impose on anyone’s privacy.
In rereading the history of Bond Hill, one particular segment stood out:
In the basin of the city, an eight-mile journey by train down the Mill Creek Valley to the southwest, thousands of working families lived in overcrowded and unsanitary tenements, exposed to alcoholism, and other seemingly intractable social ills. For “men of moderate means,” the cooperative aimed to provide a new beginning – an affordable home in a temperance community in the undeveloped countryside, just a 30-minute commute to the city’s center. Bond Hill was intended to “establish a species of brotherhood, that is like advantageous in developing the finer feelings of humanity. (R. Nelson, 1874, 25).
The finer feelings of humanity. Feeling lost – and found by a neighbor rolling out his garbage cans. No one knows if Bond Hill was named after a farmer or not. But one could also argue the premise upon which the neighborhood was actually founded – a cooperative aimed to provide a new beginning – might have also played a role. Certainly, we only bond through cultivating our finer feelings of humanity and trusting in unfamiliar paths.