Saturday, January 16, 2010

Is Cincinnati Really Vanishing?

Yesterday, there was lots of excitement over the essay Cincinnati Enquirer Editor Tom Callinan wrote about the fate of Over the Rhine. OTR is arguably the city's most culturally rich yet often least cherished communities. Like many, I was excited to see Callinan step up to call for saving of OTR's history, now, not later.

I was particularly impressed to see his willingness to accept the media's responsibility and promise to resist further perpetuating the negative perceptions of OTR. The essay is an introduction to steps towards erasing misconceptions on which much media reporting rests. The Enquirer has invited six civic and business leaders to begin discussing the preservation of Over the Rhine.

While it is certainly a good idea to begin and continue a discussion to help ensure the city's historical treatures, I was most troubled by the naming of this conversation, "Vanishing Cincinnati." Because the Enquirer is taking up the task of coordinating this important discussion, presumably, it will lead to a series of stories. If I am correct, we are looking at a year of our city disappearing. I'm not sure how words like "vanishing" or any threats of disappearing helps fight the negative perceptions of Cincinnati. These are negative terms. But most important, they do not accurately present the positive living that is happening in OTR.

Of course I understand and appreciate Callinan's concern. If we do not act now, there is a threat our cultural history will disappear with the destruction of these buildings. Callinan notes in his essay a problem that infects many cities throughout the country, absentee ownership. I've emailed Callinan asking to name the 6 leaders invited to participate in "Vanishing Cincinnati," but have not yet heard back. I hope all or at least most live in OTR. There are many living in OTR who honestly treasure these buildings as historical markers as well as elements of their backyard.

As an art historian, I see images as wonderful tools for telling history. The slide show that accompanies Callinan's essay is a nice celebration of the historical sites of OTR. It reminded me of the many slide shows that OTR graphic designer, Maya Drozdz of Visualingual presents on her blog. Following her blog will provide a growing album of the beautiful details of these historic OTR buildings Callinan seeks to help save. These buildings and the movement through the city streets are the inspiration of many artists like Cedric Cox. His geometric paintings are filled with the architectural elements he sees surrounding his studio in OTR. These are just two of so many examples proving that Cincinnati is not vanishing.

From the essay, it seems as though Callinan was also inspired by recent (not historic) photographs of Over the Rhine presented by Ken Jones of the Over the Rhine Conservation Board. Considering the visual as inspiration to the current conversation, perhaps instead of "Vanishing Cincinnati," a more positive and active title would be "Reframing Cincinnati."