Huffing Up the Bluffs – Gettin’ My 52 On with the CUF

fullsizerender_1I love old steps.

Long before my move downtown, I was charmed or tripped up by steps in the ancient cittadinas of Italy. Stairs that crumbled with every tread, spilled over into the hillsides, yet had stood solid for hundreds of years.

Since that time, the steps of Cincinnati have held my imagination captive and my lungs in check. One can read the most comprehensive guide to Cincinnati’s steps here. But nothing compares to toes tapping on the limestone and your feet feeling the foundation of the ancestors – the market shoppers, the brewers, the laborers and those seeking refuge from the basin and its “balmy” temperatures in summer – experiencing the sensation of stealing away into another world.

I had wanted to walk before the chaos of Christmas descended on the household. To be clear, the chaos had already arrived. The day was crisp, though the skies not blue. I cheated once more, and chose a neighborhood close to me, again within walking distance of my own. I promised to venture further to complete my “52” quest when the weather warmed or my days were less busy running a holiday B&B.

cuf-jpegThat morning, I turned out my front door and walked north on Race Street. When I arrived at the Ohio Street steps, I knew I would walk the CUF.

What is the CUF? The communities of Clifton Heights, University Heights and Fairview.  I like calling this neighborhood the CUF. Not only do I love acronyms but the neighborhood also encircles a portion of University of Cincinnati, as with a cuff.

The Ohio Street steps at Race’s end.

Where Race Street ends, past the roundhouse of the Cincinnati Bell Connector, a passageway of steps rises to Ohio Street, a street with a few interruptions in the lower basin and plentiful Victorians in the direction of the University.

A meanderer, I had never made my way across Clifton Avenue to walk the shortened version of Ohio Street. I pushed my way up the hill, past what appeared to be campsite, and was granted access to another set of steps. This one joined with one from Vine located along Charlie’s ¾ House. Finally, I was up the bluffs of the CUF.

Most of this combined neighborhood is residential, and boasts of more students and food for students than anything else, other than the views from Bellevue Park, site of a former incline. (Note: Fairview Park runs along the western edge of the neighborhood, where the view is painted with a broad brush of industrial complexes and railroad tracks.)

The view from Fairview Park

The views are stunning, and often provide insight into the landscape that one cannot see from ground level in the basin of the city.

From up here, I catch my breath. I love what the steps represent. The passage of a simple, ordinary time. The original inhabitants were seeking fresh air, better housing and access to work or the University.

img_8688Several homes in each pocket of the neighborhood’s fabric are stunning and qualify as B&B’s (see Elysian Place).  I happened upon John, a resident who was so excited to move back into the city from Oakley (no lie, this is what he told me). He greeted me, anxious to connect with people that might be neighbors. At first, I corrected him. “Well, I live in OTR, so technically, we’re not neighbors.” But the longer we talked and I explained to him my quest, I remembered that’s why I was walking. So I agreed, “Yep. You’re right. We’re all neighbors.”

“Well then, I’ll see you again,” he promised, and I’d bet he will.

Cincinnati Police Patrol Station #7. 1895. S. Hannaford.

I continued my walk up the other portion of Ohio Street, the more thriving portion which connects to campus, then turned down McMillan, reminded of the many times I had rambled through the CUF neighborhood during FC Cincinnati games. The summer brought out many fans, during a time in the neighborhood when traffic was probably light or non-existent. I hope more people on the streets added to a greater sense of safety for all. Oftentimes, despite the heat and dark, we tramped back down Clifton Ave, along a somewhat suspect road most people might have driven once and decided never to again.

As part of a biweekly writing group at Roh’s Café, in some sense, this was my neighborhood too. And I felt some ownership for Fortune Noodles where I could watch the chef pull the noodles and pan fry them for me.

fullsizerender_5Instead of continuing back down, I wove my way around University Heights along Straight Street, though I needed to get home at a reasonable hour, meaning before the coffee ran out.

Climbing back up Straight Street, I closed in on Riddle Road in Clifton Heights (so many heights). I once couch surfed at my older sister’s apartment at Mont Michel during my first year in Cincinnati, before couch surfing was cool. Laura and I spent many lazy days poolside on the weekends, before my apartment was vacated and I could move in. The road remains a riddle to me because of the relationship it still represents. The woman who brought me here still beguiles me with her remembered charm.

By now, I bounded down the Fairview steps, walked along McMicken and passed the Charles Dickens Cooperative. I’d read that Dickens had visited Cincinnati in 1840’s but I had no idea why this house was so named, and neither did the Internet (if anyone knows, please inform me). For the record, it’s easy to confuse McMicken and McMillan as they cross each other. I’m not sure whose idea it was to give those streets such similar names, but in my “younger” days, that was where I often got lost.

According to a 2014 CUF neighborhood newsletter, Loss of public stairways in CUF has persisted since the 1980s, when the steps leading from Fairview Park to the top of Warner at Fairview were closed and removed. Other stairway removals include Klotter Avenue (1996), Devotie Avenue (2003), Coon Street (unknown year), and Hopple Street [2] (2014). The CUF community once had 24 public stairways paths within its boundaries. From that total, 9 stairways have been either closed, removed, or abandoned. Several other stairways may resemble conditions of abandonment but remain open. Causes for closure or abandonment have ranged from community petition from residents to unsafe structural conditions.

I’m not sure I tread on or had eyed with envy all 24. Some stairways reminded me of climbing a mountain in Malaysia, some reminded me of my youth, and the fact that I was waaay past prime and had to huff and puff my way to the top.

Heading home down the Fairview Park steps.

Perhaps the steps are simply a metaphor for anyone living in the city. Never let a stairway, falling down or broken, stop you from the progress to be made towards a better view. Or returning to what might be dreaded, in this case, an absence of coffee, at the base.

This is the third in a series of #GettinMy52on. I plan to visit all of Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods during the year leading up to Cincinnati’s 2017 election, in search of what makes Cincinnati relevant to me.



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.