April 14, 2001
Old Wounds in Cincinnati
By ARTHUR ALLEN
WASHINGTON - This week's riots give Cincinnati expatriates of a certain age
an eerie feeling. In 1968 I was 9 years old and heard on the radio that
someone named Martin Luther King had been shot. I remember yelling the news
to my mother upstairs, and hearing her groan with sadness. We lived my
parents still live in North Avondale, a liberal paradise, as I've come to
realize. It was lower- to upper-middle-class and black and white, with
subtle boundaries, to be sure but we all went together to elementary
school and played in each other's backyards and basements. When the riots
started, some of my playmates offered to put a "Soul Brother" sign on the
lawn below our house so the mob, like the angel of death, would pass this
Jewish family by.
On the worst night, after a white doctor we knew almost died smashed with
a brick on his way to the hospital the co-leader (with my mother) of the
local Girl Scout troop, a black woman named Betty, offered to pick up my
older brother. He was stranded with a date in a movie theater on a bad
corner. Betty also said her husband was armed and ready for any strangers
nearing our cul-de-sac.
Then as now, Cincinnati's West Side was German Catholic, the East Side
vaguely WASP, with plenty of blacks and Jews in the middle. We didn't know
from the West Side, and vice versa. I often think that Marge Schott, who
shocked everyone with her pro-Hitler remarks a few years back when she
still owned the Cincinnati Reds, most likely came by her ideas innocently
in a community so sealed off that the views of the 1930's German Bund went
Traditions lazily persist in Cincinnati, some for the better, some for the
worse. Mayor Charlie Luken's dad, Tom Luken, was on the City Council in
1968 and was elected mayor in 1971. Charlie himself served earlier terms as
mayor from 1984 to 1990, later becoming a TV journalist and then returning
Over-the-Rhine, where officer Steve Roach shot 19-year-old Timothy Thomas
and provoked this Easter recess free-for-all, stretched from the university
to downtown, a couple of miles of tenements with doors and windows on a
strangely tiny scale. John Sayles chose Cincinnati to film "Eight Men Out,"
set in 1919, because his backdrops were ready-made.
In my Cincinnati, power is pure. The politicians and judges and prosecutors
tend to get big campaign contributions from the same wealthy guys who've
run things for decades. The famously prudish Simon Leis, who was county
sheriff in the 1960's when he busted my teenage brother for pot, is
prosecutor now. If he doesn't like your art gallery's exhibit, he'll bust
you. His inflexibility helps make Cincinnati the ideal launching pad for a
career of notoriety. Shock the bourgeoisie in my hometown and the rebound
might land you in the big time. Think of Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler,
who made his name fighting Mr. Leis; or Dennis Barrie, director of the Rock
and Roll Hall of Fame, who tried to show Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs
at a small Cincinnati gallery; or Jerry Springer, who lost his job as mayor
after writing a check to a Kentucky prostitute and then found fame on TV.
The gadflies prosper, and the power structure remains the same. Where but
Cincinnati would a newspaper pay $10 million, as the Cincinnati Enquirer
did a few years ago, to a billionaire businessman (Carl Lindner) and pull a
long investigative series about his banana company without so much as an
explanation of what, if anything, was untruthful in the story? Around that
time Mr. Lindner defeated a grass- roots effort to build a new baseball
stadium in Over-the-Rhine, where residents hoped it could spark a community
revival. Now the whole area is boarded up and littered with broken glass.
After the riots in 1968, the two synagogues in our neighborhood packed up
and resettled in the pale suburbs. The city ignored a commission's
recommendations that it look into charges of police brutality. The
neighborhood's commercial strip was trashed and never really
recovered Newark or Detroit in miniature. But our scout dens continued to
meet, and our school stayed integrated.
When I visit my parents today, I see that not much has really changed in
the neighborhood. Downtown Cincinnati has had its troubles, but it never
became a ghost town. The department stores closed, but hotels and a
convention center and a lovely addition to the public library were built.
The fountain on landmark Fountain Square was refurbished. The city's past
as a pork shipment center has been put to use in creating a tacky, but
memorable, city "brand." There are flying pigs at the entrance to the
riverfront park. Pig sculptures were all over the sidewalks last time I was
"We were just getting people to come downtown at night and now this," says
Nat Comisar, the owner of La Maisonette, a venerable French joint. The
riots complicate the Chamber of Commerce's ever- delicate task of
convincing suburbanites to patronize a city rich with history and beauty
and stirring topography. I hope they succeed. I hope certain cops learn to
recognize black people as human beings. I hope the pigs keep flying.
Arthur Allen is a freelance writer.
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