Sunday, July 16, 2000

A great city

Learning to love Cincinnati

        When I fell off a turnip truck in Cincinnati eight years ago, I felt like I was a prisoner in a chain gang: another Cool Hand Luke who failed to outwit the bloodhounds, dragged back to the Midwest for an extended sentence.

        After nine years in the laid-back, loose and casual wild West, life here pinched like a tight collar on a vacation sunburn.

        Everything in Cincinnati seemed buttoned down or buttoned up. I half expected to see the bears at the zoo wearing Brooks Brothers suits, tie-clips and wingtips.

        I felt like a coyote at the Westminster Kennel Club.

        When people asked me how I liked Cincinnati — two or three times a week — I winced and joked that I was looking forward to becoming eligible for temporary citizenship in 30 years or so. And when I got lost — two or three times a week — I suspected that the street signs were deliberately removed from intersections to remind me I was not born here.

        “Everybody's business is everybody's business in Cincinnati,” I griped.

        Now I like it here. No, strike that. I love it here.

It grows on you
        Something happened. I don't know exactly when, but one day I woke up and discovered that my transplanted family had tunneled deep roots into the soil of Cincinnati. Maybe it was Reds games and museums, watching my kids thrive in a safe, exciting city, afternoons reading on the deck, listening to children playing in leafy backyards so green they make a desert dweller's eyes water.

        Maybe it had something to do with the friendships that grow here, strong and sturdy, built to last by people who have their priorities in order: faith, family, friends and work as necessary. The Midwest is the glue that holds our country together, as different from the drifting West as tumbleweeds and oaks.

        Maybe it was the thrill of coming into downtown each morning, descending from the suburban hills with the skyline rising out of the Ohio River valley like the city of Oz without the flying monkeys.

        I have found mysteries and histories in those downtown streets. Red-brick relics from another time stand next to modern marvels of glass and steel, like square-rigged wooden clippers and frigates bobbing in a fleet of sleek cruise ships and aircraft carriers.

Summer in the city
        And on the sidewalks, the people smile. Some cities are bitter and cold. Some carry a grudge with both hands, or just don't care anymore. Some can't wait to bury their dead past.

        Not Cincinnati. This town is laughing in the streets this summer at an elaborate practical joke on itself, mocking its own sober image with a tipsy litter of plastic pigs dressed like ballerinas, superheros, cartoons and porky swells in tuxedos.

        The other day, Mrs. Helen Gripkey sent me a copy of an Enquirer section published on Cincinnati's sequicentennial, Oct. 12, 1938. The pages were sepia-brown, the color of memories, decomposed to a state somewhere between confetti and mulch, with a faint perfume of musty libraries and dusty antiques.

        It was great. I don't remember Brucks beer, the Pike's Opera House fire, the courthouse riots, Ivorydale soap kettles the size of swimming pools, the Hotel Alms, Albers supermarkets, Beau Brummel Ties or Shillito's. I wasn't born yet, and I wasn't born here.

        But sometimes when I walk around downtown, exploring old churches, museums and office buildings that could be both, I wish those were my memories too.

        I can't think of a better compliment to a city.

Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.