Cincinnati Chill

April's great read selected by our editors

From the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler

The subterranean dank, which no sun has ever warmed, smells like yeast. Its chilly air pinches my neck. A weak light coming from the opening above makes a pool around the ladder I’ve climbed down, but beyond is pitch black. I tap a flashlight app on my phone, and a vaulted ceiling flickers into view. Is it a Maya temple? An Egyptian tomb? No. I’m in a 19th-century lagering tunnel 45 feet beneath the sidewalks of Cincinnati, Ohio. Victorian breweries fermented and cooled beer in this catacomb. Located in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, the chambers were reopened by American Legacy Tours, a bunch of local guys who like nothing better than to poke into the city’s dusty history. And talk beer.

“We had more than 36 breweries in Cincinnati at one time,” my guide, Brad Hill, tells me. “A hatchet-toting Carry Nation barreled into town [in 1901] to stop the depravity. She took one look at the tippling—more than 140 saloons on Vine Street—and turned tail and fled,” he says. “Prohibition closed them, and the tunnels were forgotten.” I feel like Harrison Ford discovering the Lost Temple of Suds.

Indy meets Cincy. Actually, here it’s all about “the indies.” As much of America decamped for the suburbs or the coasts, artists, craftspeople, and entrepreneurs rebuilt entire Cincinnati neighborhoods alongside impassioned longtimers. When I began hearing about it down in my own adopted renaissance town, New Orleans, I had to see the transformation for myself.

AS I SIP BOURBON with a few such pioneers at Japp’s, a former wig store on Main Street, the discussion ranges from the whereabouts of Pappy Van Winkle, the famously elusive bourbon from neighboring Kentucky, to the details of the incongruous bar in front of us, made from cabinets that once housed hair destined to crown the heads of robber baron heiresses.

“What’s changed? Why Cincy now?” I ask.

“A shift in consciousness,” suggests Peggy Shannon, a former New Yorker. Her start-up, Queen City Cookies, provides a coveted treat for locals as well as a taste of the city’s new prospects. “I’ve lived in a lot of high-energy places, and here the excitement’s beginning to percolate.”

I watch her spout enthusiasm for her new home, and Cincinnati strikes me as a drum major for a parade of heartland towns—from Milwaukee to Indianapolis—now marching to a different beat. Their heritage (rich) and their living costs (relatively cheap) have attracted interest, especially from millennials saddled with job expectations (lower) and college debt (higher). But Cincinnati stands out. Shannon thinks she knows why.

“We offer world-class art, extraordinary architecture, and a get-things-done attitude,” she says. “Cincinnati’s reputation has gone from musty to must-see.”

Certainly, one addition not to miss is 21c Museum Hotel, a ten-story hostelry on Walnut Street. A landmark building that nuzzles Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center, 21c is packed with so much modern art guests could be forgiven for thinking they were sleeping in the museum itself.

“We are a museum first and a hotel second,” says collection manager Eli Meiners, who tours me around the first two floors, open 24/7 for anyone off the street who wants to look at artists such as Do-Ho Suh and Astrid Krogh. Installations, many by Cincinnatians, occupy every guest floor and change regularly. On mine, the elevator opens upon a life-size sculpture of the singer Madonna heeling her go-go boot through a Picasso. My room is sleek—all lines—except for a four-foot-tall polyurethane penguin as yellow as French’s mustard. In the bathroom, hotel designers commissioned local Rookwood Pottery to create a witty series of white tiles brandishing body parts—lips, noses, breasts, belly buttons. I feel a little as if I’m part of the spectacle.

ON A STROLL ABOUT TOWN, Cincinnati shows more tricks up its sleeve. Downtown proves dense, walkable, and handsome—filled with skyscrapers of many eras, from the marble and terra-cotta PNC building, opened in 1913, to the postmodern assemblages of the Procter & Gamble headquarters. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is here, a testament to the city’s crucial role in the Civil War era. And then there’s the dazzling art deco Union Terminal, shaped like a band shell, that was the city’s train station when it opened in 1933. It now acts as a cultural roundhouse, with six institutions including the Museum of Natural History & Science, the Cincinnati History Museum, and the Duke Energy Children’s Museum.

Stacked like library books on an arc of hills, 19th-century town houses form neighborhoods such as Mount Adams, Mount Auburn, and Over-the-Rhine. Walking down to the Ohio River, I find myself at the city’s newest attraction: 45-acre Smale Riverfront Park, squeezed between the Reds and Bengals stadiums. It’s part of the gazillion-dollar effort, called “the Banks,” to reinvent Cincy’s neglected waterfront.

Nick Dewald is waiting for me at Moerlein Lager House, a modern beer hall and garden across the street from the park. In their free time Nick and his wife, Lindsay, head up City Flea, a curated market that functions as an analog Etsy—bringing a hundred of the city’s makers together with buyers every month. After lunch we go to the park, admiring the fountains and fresh plantings. We rock on metal swings as big as park benches, facing the river and the blue Roebling suspension bridge, the proof of concept for its more famous progeny, the Brooklyn Bridge. I’m sitting on Ohio’s front porch.

“Our historic industries were about making things, and that’s returning,” Dewald explains, citing Losantiville, a group of industrial and furniture designers taking inspiration from Cincinnati’s old traditions of wood carving and manufacturing. “And there’s beer!” he adds.

In addition to the rebirth of craft beer like that of Bavarian brewmaster Christian Moerlein, Dewald tells me, there’s a host of new labels—Mt. Carmel, Rivertown, and Rhinegeist, an upstart in the brewery district north of downtown.

“You have to check it out,” he says. So I do.

Like so much of this industrial town, the brewery district is filled with mechanical trappings from an earlier time. Pulleys and joists. Brick warehouses. Wood beams. Glazed tile. In Cincy, things whir, creak, and trundle. They don’t swoosh or ping. As workmen jackhammer some concrete, Rhinegeist owner Bryant Goulding greets me. He shows me where the tasting room is being readied in a cavernous space with skylights.

“There’s no way this could happen in California—it’s too expensive,” says the former San Franciscan, who moved here to open Rhinegeist. “But Cincinnati makes dreams come true.”

I wish him luck and return downtown, trading industry for glamour—the Netherland Plaza hotel, now a Hilton, in the 49-story Carew Tower. Wandering across the slick marble of the lobby, I nearly break my neck taking in the French art deco: foliated bronze light fixtures, a ram’s head fountain, and gilded ceiling murals of leaping gazelles and bow-lipped shepherdesses. It’s a concrete sonnet to the jazz age and the best inspiration for a gin martini since Jay Gatsby.

Later I join throngs of people gathered at Fountain Square in front of the “Genius of Water,” a nine-foot-tall goddess who crowns the 1871 Tyler Davidson fountain. As night falls she becomes the muse to a rock band in the plaza, electric guitars drowning out the plash of falling water. Everyone lingers as if not wanting the music to end.

“Used to be downtown closed at 8 p.m.,” says the Rev. Herschel Willis, a few blocks away at Piatt Park. The smoker at his Fins, Feathers and Bar-B-Q restaurant is sending plumes of tangy woodsmoke curling past the bronzed pate of Ohio son President James A. Garfield. “Now that’s the time the movers and shakers come out.”

Nowhere is the clamber upward more evident than in Over-the-Rhine, a formerly down-on-its-luck neighborhood about the size of New Orleans’ French Quarter, believed to contain the country’s largest collection of 19th-century Italianate buildings—943.

“Over-the-Rhine was home to thousands of German immigrants who came to the boomtown of Cincinnati in the early 19th century,” explains real estate agent Seth Maney, who writes a blog called OTR Matters. I’m munching on a rather un-Teutonic meal of pork buns and octopus salad with Maney and others at Kaze, a Japanese restaurant on Vine Street. Nearby are intriguing shops like Switch, a lighting store, and Article, a men’s shop that hawks small-batch Noble Denim jeans made in Cincinnati.

“They brought their taste for hard work, architecture, and craftsmanship,” Maney continues, “but somehow we forgot OTR and its lessons. Its name tarnished.”

Perhaps tenacity saved Over-the-Rhine. Even as scars from race riots in 2001 were slow to heal, some residents stayed put. The old German community refused to abandon its heritage—in fact, priests still conduct a weekly Mass in German at Old St. Mary’s Catholic Church. And now, finally, residents and newcomers like Maney and his friends seem to be staging a revival.

I HAD HEARD SIMILAR optimism expressed earlier at Senate, another OTR restaurant. “Two and a half years ago it was scary to come down Vine Street,” Patrick Stroupe had told me over the rattle of his cocktail shaker mixing a drink. “Now it’s an amazing assortment of restaurants and stores, with more on the way. This is a town full of good ideas.”

Many of those come from the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, known locally as 3CDC and the source of some $300 million of public and private investments in the neighborhood. The favorite project so far, most everyone agrees, is the remake of Washington Park, an eight-acre green space. The morning I visit, retirees Robert and Glenise Maxwell are basking in the sun on a bench facing the redone tile-roofed bandstand where German oompah bands used to play and, more recently, heroin deals went down.

“That’s over now,” says Robert as he pushes back his red baseball cap to scratch his gray hair. The couple, married for 48 years, are longtime residents who have seen their neighborhood down and now see it up. Children run past, screaming with delight as hidden jets of water spurt to life beneath their feet.

The Music Hall, a vast castle of bricks and turrets, fronts its northwest side like a curtain waiting to rise on the community’s second act. “It was built with nearly four million bricks,” says architect Haviland Argo, as we eat alfresco at the Anchor, on the park’s periphery. “Inside, the Springer Auditorium has some of the world’s best acoustics for a musical setting, though maybe the most interesting noises come from the ghosts purported to haunt the place. The land it stands on was once a cemetery.”

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I’m pleased to devour the gossip—and my trout. This city has always enjoyed its food: Famous for their chili (beans optional), Cincinnatians spoon down two million pounds of it annually, including 850,000 pounds of shredded cheese. Downtown, a beehive-topped waitress at Hathaway’s Diner sets me up with an order of eggs and goetta (a kind of scrapple). At top-rated restaurants such as Boca, Abigail Street, and Local 127 on Vine, chefs draw on deep traditions while kicking things up a notch. Local 127 pays tribute to the city’s 19th-century reign as a pork-packing center: The “Porkopolis” plate heaps with ribs and sausage, an ode to the whole hog as well as an old city nickname.

THIS TOWN GAVE America iconic brands such as Tide and Ivory soap, so it seems a fitting home for the American Sign Museum, a 1907 factory building in Camp Washington with 600-plus signs.

A 20-foot-tall genie straddles the entrance. Inside, it’s a flashing, buzzing, amping display of lettering exploding in neon and wattage. A McDonald’s sign blinks from the era of 15-cent burgers. A revolving satellite from Anaheim, California, orbits yellow neon Howard Johnson’s and a glowing roster of other motel names. The museum even has its own “Mona Lisa”—a wall-size housewife pushing Bubble Up soda—as well as a time line of the history of 3-D lettering.

I find another sign of the times when I turn a corner. In front of a wall of barn timber advertising Mail Pouch Tobacco, men and women sit in pairs as if speed dating. Small-shop owners from the Northside neighborhood are networking with graphic designers and sign fabricators. They’re looking to create public faces for their enterprises that will be colorful and practical while reflecting the free-spirited community, from Take the Cake bakery to Shake It Records.

“We want to train the next generation of sign makers,” says museum founder Tod Swormstedt. “And help [the Northside] in the process.”

LATE THAT EVENING, I’m back in Over-the-Rhine when I encounter a knot of people in a parking lot. There’s a sudden puff of flame. Startled, I draw back. Is it the circus? “Night Owl Market, bro,” says a happy, if overly lubricated, young man.

Twentysomething friends Sally Yoon and Nadia Laabs started this conglomeration of food trucks and artisan booths on Main Street. Not far from Findlay Market, Ohio’s oldest-running produce hall (it opened in 1855), the event is held monthly from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. and harnesses the energy of a rising downtown. Merrymakers come on foot and bike.

Tonight a cluster of revelers are dancing to a merengue band, while others are trying to swivel hoops around their hips.

After the past few days of having my assumptions confounded, midnight hula-hoopers and fire twirlers scarcely faze me. As I watch the mirthful crowd, anything seems possible. A microbrewery. An art hotel. A restored neighborhood. For now, I think I’ll give the hula hoop a whirl.

Contributing editor Andrew Nelson often writes about cities, from Detroit to San Francisco. Photographer Melissa Farlow shot Quebec for the February/March 2013 Traveler.

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