Magic took me for the first time through Over-the-Rhine as it should be seen. He's my horse, pressed into service for the BockFest '99 Parade when my official title was Grand High Magistrate of Sausages. (My friends just called me Your Porkiness.)
As the parade moved slowly, but not sedately, through the heart of this debated, celebrated, neglected and subsidized neighborhood, I saw architectural flourishes I'd missed as a pedestrian and motorist. Built to be seen from the back of a horse or the high seat of a carriage, these buildings have waited patiently for us to appreciate their lovely narrow faces, many of them now with empty eyes.
More than 100,000 people once lived here. Now it's about 5,000 people and 500 vacant buildings.
BockFest is just right for this place, a celebration of Cincinnati's historic debt to pork sausage, beer and Germans. Bock is German for goat, a man dressed in brown monk's robes told me. Beer brewed by monks during the Middle Ages was called that, he said, because of the kick. That explained the goat hauling a cart. All in all, it was a friendly riot of disparate cultures, from the Bucket Boys' drumming to the bagpipes' skirling.
Two years later came actual rioting, another setback for a community that already had more than its share. In March of 2002, Tom Besanceney left his Fourth Street public relations firm to head up the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce, just to see what he could do.
"The organization was clinically dead," he says. OTR Chamber headquarters is at 222 E. 14th, a street that doglegs blithely up and down Central, Race, Vine, Walnut, Main and Sycamore, halting before a handsome Federal mansion on Broadway. From neglect to prosperity in a dozen historic blocks. The owners of his building, Wade and Debbie Dent, whose Willow Creative Group is on the third floor, poked through the ceilings to find enormous hand-hewn pine beams and lots more space.
"It smelled like new lumber," Tom says. "It hadn't seen the light of day for 130 years." They used 100-year-old barn wood for steps. Everything else is sleek Herman Miller furniture, contemporary art, Feng Shui gongs and commerce. Pamphlets at the door trumpet business opportunities and events, such as one recently when Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis spent the evening, autographing footballs for a benefit.
"Old Vine Street sparkled like a huge Brazilian yellow diamond by night," wrote Cincinnati Times-Star reporter Frank Grayson in 1924. "Sumptuous beer gardens were as plentiful as freckles on a small boy's face. There would be congenial and cheery companionship everywhere about you."
And now the self-consciously trendy Club Clau shares the neighborhood with 150-year-old Findlay Market. Our splendid old Music Hall will snuggle up with a brand new School for Creative and Performing Arts. With its opera and bars and food and art and homes and space and history and black and white and Feng Shui, Over-the-Rhine has made powerful friends at City Hall and in boardrooms. We're finally noticing this is a place like none other.
Magic, really. With a kick.
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