Will we learn steamboat's history lesson?

Sunday, May 3, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Delta Queen steamed back into town just when we needed her.

As is her custom, she made her way up the Ohio with deliberation, slipping quietly past Little Huckleberry Creek and Big Dusty Gut and Hog Trough Creek. She docked Friday at the Public Landing, behind the Showboat Majestic, under the blank expression of the renovated but still exceedingly ugly Crown.

Just in case we are in danger of forgetting, this boat is our reminder of who we are. We are not a football town. We are not even a baseball town. We are a river town. This is what we have that Kenwood Towne Centre or Beechmont Mall does not. It's what makes us different from Cleveland and Indianapolis.

Let's not blow it.

Down to her skivvies

We are officially under construction. Everywhere you look, trucks carrying -- to me -- mysterious equipment. We are awash in orange -- cones, barrels, barricades. Last weekend, the earth was gouged for a new football stadium. And there's talk of an entertainment district and retail and parks. Did I say talk? I meant babble.

Let's learn from this steamboat that comes home to us every year at this time. A paddle wheeler, built in 1927 with stained glass windows, brass fittings, metal filigree and rare ironwood flooring, she never pretended to be a floating motel.

You want HBO in your room? Try a Holiday Inn. The Delta Queen's lounge has the latest in jigsaw puzzles. Nameplates on stateroom doors commemorate previous tenants: Lady Bird Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Helen Hayes, Princess Margaret, Roberta Peters.

This boat has carried thousands of World War II soldiers, three U.S. presidents and more than half a million vacation passengers during her 71 years.

She looks better than ever. This winter, at a cost of $3.3 million she was stripped right down to her skivvies. Layers of paint -- white at first, then Navy gray from the boat's war years, then more white and finally yellow -- were stripped from inside walls.

Keeping the good stuff

"After all these years and all the coats of paint, the smell of the oak was amazing, like the wood had just been cut," said one of the crew. "And the grain is straight and true and perfect." So, naturally, they did not cover it up with mauve semi-gloss paint.

They noticed what was fine and historic. And preserved it. Even while they put in some new showers, computers and a television behind polished wood doors. In short, the company preserved the Delta Queen's character. I'm guessing that was a business decision. She's an asset, one of a kind. The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. was smart enough not to tart her up or throw her away. They enhanced her natural assets and modernized where necessary. I'm sure they worked from a plan.

"Holding on to the past, moving up to the future," is the way their president, Scott Young, described it.

"Making an investment, taking a risk," is how Hamilton County Commission President Tom Neyer Jr. described it.

So right now, our riverfront is about to be stripped down to its skivvies. And we don't have a real plan for what comes next. I hope we mind the lesson of the Delta Queen.

The part of the riverfront that hasn't been committed to the Bengals is still up for grabs. Let's not pave it. Or mall it. Or cover it with parking lots.

People are drawn to the water. They always have been. Let's make sure we don't make it impossible for them to get close to it. Let's insist that it be open to the public. Let's not allow anything on our riverfront that people can find in Madeira or West Chester or Fairfield. Let's refuse to give space to anything we'll want to tear down in 20 years.

Let's give it our best.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com