Belt is very proud to share an excerpt from The Cincinnati Anthology, published in May. You can get more wonderful essays, photos, cartoons, and love letters to the Queen City of the Ohio direct from our store or at local bookstores and events.
By Jenny Ustick
Heat. We generate it when we are well-nourished and when we move and work, hold onto it when well-insulated, and we feel it in response to passion, pressure, and change. It’s been on my mind lately becausef as I write this, Cincinnati is in the midst of one of a string of snow and ice events—actual polar vortices—that have come infrequently enough in recent memory to warrant a monopoly of news coverage for days before and after the first flake falls. At least it seems that events like these just don’t occur as often or as intensely as they did when I was a kid. My first winter on earth was the last time the Ohio River froze at Cincinnati, and there hasn’t been a winter as cold here since. I thought the reliably snowy winters of my childhood—those in which I learned to make angels and build men, and hurled myself downhill on a smooth disc as fast and as far as possible—were a thing of the past. In the late ‘80s, though, we returned to our “normal,” and here we are.
I fancy myself a type of hipster homesteader, but I’m only in the beginning stages. I know the techniques and own the equipment, but I am at peace with modern conveniences and ingrained habits. My husband and I grow an impressive garden (now in its third year), but we don’t yet go as far as keeping chickens. I love buying local food, but still enjoy my organic bananas and coffee. Out of penance and aspirational righteousness, we conserve more and consume less whenever and wherever we can. We compost, recycle just about everything, and generate very little actual trash. Almost all of our light bulbs are compact fluorescents or LEDs. And because of the recent cold snap and our insistence on a thermostat set at 62 degrees, some nights we build a fire—a real wood fire—in the fireplace. Not long ago, I tried assembling one of those tea light flowerpot heaters blowing up the Internet (and unfortunately some homes) at the moment, and decided that pulling on another layer of clothing was just as effective.
One reason energy consumption is a concern in my household is to offset the twenty-mile drive between my job teaching at the University of Cincinnati and our house in the eastern suburbs of Cincinnati. At most times of day or night, the trip can take between 15 and 20 minutes. During rush hour, however, I can count on doubling that.
[blocktext align=”left”]I know what it means to exist in the margins while playing an active role in shaping the city’s identity.[/blocktext]On a recent drive home, as warmth from my car’s engine was finally reaching my toes and I was putting distance between myself and the city, I realized that there is something similar about us commuters and the way the heat in my car works: convection. We move fluidly (and sometimes not so fluidly) in and out of the city limits, from neighborhood to neighborhood, through cuts in the rolling hills and in all the cardinal directions. It is a cycle, an exchange of capital, of information, and ideas. We leave our contributions, and we get things in return. And it’s not just true of me and my job and my automobile, but the history of the city and the people who have built its character.
These days, many people assume (understandably) that I live closer to the urban core (and those who know me but have never visited my home have the idea that I live “way far out”). I am often seen “in town”, have a lot of business there, and care a great deal about its goings on. Alas, I am an outsider. I know well what it means to exist in the physical and social margins while playing an active role in shaping this city’s identity.
The young people who would become my great-grandparents came to Cincinnati around the early 1920s. They came from as near as Northern Kentucky, and as far as Nürnberg, Germany. The Germans, Georg and Kunigunde, opened a bakery on Liberty Street in Over-the-Rhine. They spent time at Grammer’s restaurant, which hosted the German Singing Baker’s society. But at that time, anti-German sentiment and the ravages of prohibition must have so disillusioned them that they eventually left the basin. They moved outward down the Mill Creek Valley and opened another bakery in Elmwood Place. Georg’s uncle Albert, who had settled in Reading years before and sponsored Georg’s immigration, was likely a draw in that direction. They did well there, becoming a fixture of the community, and raising a son, Herman, my grandfather, who learned the family trade. Herman would eventually begin working at Procter & Gamble’s Ivorydale Plant and stay there until he retired.
[blocktext align=”right”]My grandparents put in an above-ground pool. They had hit the big time.[/blocktext]Perched high up on a Mt. Auburn hillside, in a neighborhood called Little Bethlehem (nestled in the shadow of Christ Hospital), were the homes where a few generations of my mother’s family lived. They hailed from places like Corbin, Irvine, and Ravenna, Kentucky. I like to romanticize their story as part of the Appalachian migration, imagining that they were one-tankers (as opposed to two-tankers, who could afford that second tank of gas to make it to Detroit, Cleveland, or Chicago). But the truth is, there was a conscious choice to settle here—and stay here. There was movement, an exchange of energy and human resources, back and forth between coal country, Dayton’s industry, and Cincinnati. My relatives worked the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, contributed to WPA projects, and owned or worked for small businesses repairing the city’s diverse, aging architecture. Then in 1962, my mother’s family had scraped together enough to build a small brick and frame house near the border of Mt. Washington in Anderson Township. Mt. Auburn, which had been described as a suburb a century earlier, was now part of a crowded city they found difficult to navigate with three children in their early teens in one small second-floor apartment. My grandparents had spent much of their own youth in houses within a small radius, in that same neighborhood on a steep hill. With hard work, they had managed to buy a little bit of space on a perfectly flat lot, not far from my Pappaw’s father, Wilson. Eventually, there would be five children. They put in an above-ground pool. They had hit the big time.
Going back generations, my family has been on the outside (of something) looking in, while somehow embodying a few places on a list of defining characteristics of Cincinnati. Whether it’s being a German immigrant in America between two World Wars, coming to the big city from small town Appalachia, or moving from the inner city to a suburb where your style and personality don’t always mesh with the prevailing attitude or behavior (picture me as a toddler being pulled by my Gran down Salem Avenue in a little red wagon and leaning up against a case of Bürger Beer), there has always been an awareness of our dissimilarity to our neighbors. I have to believe that a good many Cincinnatians—most of us coming from working class families—may know this feeling.
[blocktext align=”left”]There has always been an awareness of our dissimilarity to our neighbors. A good many Cincinnatians may know this feeling.[/blocktext]It isn’t just about money. Neighborhoods in this city were established by people coming from villages tucked into hillsides (elsewhere in the United States and overseas), and their residents were often suspicious of outsiders. They were accustomed to turning inward and relying on their neighbors—people of the same cultural type—for their social and practical needs. It’s the reason why today, even with ever-changing demographics, Cincinnatians, when meeting someone, ask their new acquaintance where they attended high school. It serves as shorthand for a great deal of information, and cuts down on the volume of small talk. Even if the assumptions are completely wrong, in the mind of the person who asked, it answers these questions:
“What kind of person am I dealing with? What are her/his values? What is her/his socioeconomic class? What, if any, cultural touchstones do we share?”
While I’m certain the need to know one’s alma mater still exists in some circles, in the ones I travel it has been pared down to a simple question of where one lays their head. What is your neighborhood?
A couple of years ago I was invited to a lovely courtyard gathering of a friend living in Over-the-Rhine. The friend is a transplant from another state, and I did not know any of the other guests at the party. I was making small talk with a man who sold real estate, and the conversation inevitably turned to my dwelling place. When I told him where I live (which for youngins, West-siders, transplants, and even lifelong city dwellers requires a geography lesson), I watched his face change from an inquisitive gaze to one of disdain. I tried to recount my own adventures in real estate with him, but he wasn’t interested in hearing how it was I came to own a house out there. I was being openly judged because of my zip code.
[blocktext align=”right”]I was being openly judged because of my zip code.[/blocktext]The courtyard incident stands out to me because the exchange was almost comically stylized. Most often, when explaining where I live, the reaction is one of confusion—about geography and about me: in their minds, I don’t fit the profile. Often there are questions about driving routes or whether I live in the country or not. But that’s as far as it goes. This man clearly felt comfortable casting negative judgment as though I were incapable of relating to him about anything at all. He didn’t know me, but began making assumptions as soon as he heard the word “suburb”—after which he heard nothing. He may have wondered, “what’s this conservative stay-at-home soccer mom with 2.5 children doing at this party after dark in Over-the-Rhine? Doesn’t she have oranges to slice?”
There I was, a guest in the courtyard of my new friend, literally in the inner circle of his home, and feeling again like an outsider. Just as the real estate agent proudly described bringing new residents to his neighborhood, I had hoped to talk about my work and connection to the city, about how I contribute despite my address. I would have loved to tell him the story of my family and how I am both woven into and wrapped in this odd, old tapestry of a town.
We do ourselves a disservice by tying assumptions about one’s philosophy, allegiance, or usefulness to proximity. I don’t have to live in the city proper, or want to, in order to do good work in the city. You don’t have to live in the suburbs. You don’t have to want to live in the suburbs. Neither of us should hold that against one another. In fact, you might be surprised at how much we have in common.
[blocktext align=”left”]You might be surprised at how much we have in common.[/blocktext]Just as natives often return to Cincinnati after having lived in another city, neighborhoods can have the same boomerang effect. After my mother’s family made their move east, the area has remained our collective home base, even after spells in other places. First it was my parents moving back across Beechmont Levee to Anderson Township (near my grandparents) when I was a toddler, after living in Mt. Lookout. Then my brother and I made our own circles, living in places like the Brewery District (well before it was a hot spot), Oakley, Newport, and Covington before going back home. We returned at various times and different reasons. He now lives in our late grandparents’ house on that flat corner lot.
In 2002, as newlyweds, my husband and I bought a house in Union Township (an adjacent suburb to Anderson Township) near where Beechmont Avenue and Interstate 275 cross. After searching for properties in many neighborhoods we settled on our house because of its large yard, mature trees, and yes, an aboveground pool. We got a lot for the money. This was a year before I would complete my first project with ArtWorks and begin graduate school. I had no idea what changes those choices would bring. I was just proud to be a homeowner with plenty of friends and my folks nearby.
After getting my MFA I began working as an adjunct at a handful of universities, and had insane commutes. In the beginning, there were two days a week I had an 88-mile commute to Hamilton and back. Two other days, I taught at two locations and drove a grand total of 162 miles per day. Thankfully my situation improved.
[blocktext align=”right”]Despite our attempts to immerse ourselves in our new town, there were developments tightening ties to home.[/blocktext]In 2008 I accepted a visiting faculty position in Michigan, and we were faced with the decision of what to do with our house. Not wanting to sell because the economy was tanking, we decided to become landlords and rent it out while we were gone, knowing that we would likely return. In 2011 we did just that and have been here ever since.
We enjoyed our time in Michigan tremendously. I was given a wonderful professional opportunity, and we had a chance to get to know another place. Instead of renting an apartment in Heritage Hill or somewhere near the zoo in the heart of Grand Rapids, we opted for renting a house a half a mile from the beach in the town of Grand Haven on Lake Michigan.
It was no coincidence that, like our house in Cincinnati, the house was miles away from my job. Why? It comes down to priorities of ample green space, peace and quiet, a fenced-in yard, a slower pace of life, proximity to state parks, and the grandeur of living next to one of the Great Lakes. Aside from the large inland sea in our backyard, one major difference between here and there was that in Grand Haven we lived in a walkable community and took advantage of that. We would come to miss that quite a bit.
Despite our attempts to immerse ourselves in our new town, there were two developments tightening ties to my hometown while we were away. Just before moving north in 2008, I completed my first of six murals in Cincinnati with ArtWorks, on the Joseph House near the intersection of Vine and Liberty streets. It was called Over-the-Rhine: Into its Renaissance; this title proved to be accurate. The next two summers, we opted to leave the gorgeous singing sands of the beach behind to return to Cincinnati so I could work on two more murals in Clifton Heights and North Fairmount. In the nine months between mural projects, and until moving back, I kept close tabs on developments in Cincinnati, particularly in Over-the-Rhine. During our three years away, the Streetcar went from an idea to a plan, and was bolstered by the defeat of a referendum.
The second development, riding the social media wave and joining Facebook, allowed me to keep up with the chatter. I saw how people felt about what was happening in Cincinnati, and how this medium emboldened people to make public the opinions previously discussed in private company. It was ugly what people were saying. A vocal opposition had united in the form of groups like COAST (Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes), and no wonder Streetcar supporters felt like they were at war. The Streetcar was polarizing subject, and I watched the debate unfold from 400 miles away.
So here we are again. It’s been an eventful winter. It is during this time of year when commuting has the added challenge of snow-covered streets and highways, and makes me acutely aware of the drawbacks of being car-dependent. The Streetcar’s future was once again uncertain. But, thanks to a new round of petitions prompting a vote on a charter amendment, it’s moving forward. And like last time, I didn’t sign the petition. Not because of my opinion on the project, but because I don’t live in the city. I don’t even live in Hamilton County, though I do have a Cincinnati mailing address.
I bought a house where I did because it pleased me. But there’s a little bit of habit and inheritance in there, too. My father commuted from Anderson to Elmwood Place—his stomping ground—for decades before his company moved to Sharonville. My mother attended UC, and worked downtown at places like Pogue’s and Baylis Brothers while living on the east side. It has never seemed outrageous.
[blocktext align=”left”]I bought a house where I did because it pleased me. But there’s a little bit of habit and inheritance in there, too.[/blocktext]While I don’t consider my commute outrageous when compared to what someone in Liberty Township or Mason might face (or worse, what I used to drive in my early days as an adjunct), I’d like to drive less. I think often of moving closer to the city, but not into the center. Even if my husband and I were in a position to move (which we’re not), it would be a tall order to find something that checks all the boxes. I do want to live in a walkable community, but I don’t want to share walls with anyone. I want an unpolluted, sunny patch of dirt to grow food, and space for my dogs to run. Oh, and it would be nice to have a pool, and to find a deal that competes with our $407 mortgage payments.
We have no real connection with our neighbors in part because there are no sidewalks to connect us. We have no children but live in a community designed to nurture them. We belong to no religion. Our social center is elsewhere, and that’s OK. I have a lot of friends who want to live, work, and socialize within a four-mile radius and do so, and I’m happy for them. But when I am home, I like to be home. I like having space between myself and the other functions of my life. Space to recharge my batteries.
[blocktext align=”right”]I like having space between myself and the other functions of my life.[/blocktext]I would be happy to share my story with the real estate agent I met in the courtyard. He wasn’t necessarily being rude. He is just clearly energized by constant contact with others, and might not extensively consider the world outside his own. Plus, people moving downtown is good for his bottom line. I get it. In our conversation, I might learn that he wasn’t born in Cincinnati, and isn’t pulled in multiple directions by history, employment, and family; he might be content meeting all of his needs in one neighborhood. And he would learn that I move in different ways, and over different paths than he.
[blocktext align=”left”]I have noticed that people who are “from away” have some of the loudest voices on local issues.[/blocktext]For me it is about energy. I make public art in the city, and I teach students at an urban university and apprentices from all over this region about pursuing art as a career. I value the core, and have from a young age thanks to parents who demonstrated its importance and made sure I was familiar with its bones. I am part of a dynamic, inclusive, expansive network of creative individuals who direct their energy toward the community and make it an attractive place to be. I have friends and acquaintances from places like Washington State, Oklahoma, Michigan, Connecticut, New Jersey, Montana, Colorado, North Carolina, New York, Nebraska, and Virginia who have chosen to make their homes here and have brought ideas and energy with them. They are invited to get involved on many levels, and they do.
Not surprisingly, I have noticed that people who are “from away” have some of the loudest voices on local issues—some more serious than others. Some complain in one breath about suburbanites who are disconnected from the city and reluctant to spend time downtown, then in the next breath, complain about the suburbanites who come downtown and get in the way of their urban utopia. Still, I appreciate some of the tremendously thoughtful pieces written by transplants about redevelopment and progress in the city, particularly regarding the Streetcar; these are people who are truly advancing the conversation. I’m glad they have chosen to call my city home. It is always refreshing to hear from someone who isn’t mired in the inherited suspicion of neighborhood xenophobia because they weren’t born and raised here.
[blocktext align=”right”]It is refreshing to hear from someone who isn’t mired in the inherited suspicion of neighborhood xenophobia because they weren’t born and raised here.[/blocktext]That said, there is sometimes a bias against the suburbs that is likely just fear or lack of interest in the unknown (“you live where?”), and it conveniently fits with a progressive stance on urbanism. The sentiment is that this region and its growth are dependent on a vibrant urban core—to neglect progress in the core will have a negative impact on everyone. I agree wholeheartedly. But (and maybe it goes without saying), the core cannot survive without everyone. In other words, the core needs all 52 neighborhoods, the suburbs and (like it or not), even the entities that originally stimulated or grew along with the sprawl, too.
Small farms, distribution companies, manufacturers, educational institutions, social services, shipping, and construction are some of the things that exist in greater Cincinnati that make a comfortable, functional, and enjoyable life possible. We are intertwined by the production and consumption of goods and services, and by the ways in which we share and exchange them.
[blocktext align=”left”]We are intertwined by production and consumption, and by the ways in which we share them.[/blocktext]I completely understand why many transplants gravitate toward the basin. It is, after all, places like Over-the-Rhine that make attractive national news—now because of gourmet hot dogs and artisan cocktails, not race riots like in 2001. Anyone who decides to settle there should feel proud knowing that they are carrying on a tradition of the neighborhood being a landing spot for generations of people looking for opportunity. That story is true on both sides of my family. But my family benefitted from those opportunities, and decided to move outward into the growing region. That was the nature of things in their time. Nowadays, it seems that young people are as likely to relocate to another city as they are to retire here (or both, as many know, because it’s hard to stay away from Cincinnati for too long). But more interestingly, we are seeing a movement of people from the suburbs back toward the center. Frequently, instead of people moving out of the city because they’ve improved their station in life, they’re moving back. And some longtime city residents are being priced out of the market. They are moving to the suburbs to save money, not necessarily because they want to leave the city behind.
I started venturing off on my own downtown shortly after Little Man Tate was filmed (not to suggest cause and effect, just timing). My friends and I would go to Kaldi’s (now Park + Vine) and try and absorb the city by osmosis. Then it was going dancing at the Warehouse. Then it was working downtown, and now it’s working on public art projects and other improvements—really working, if only in small ways, to invest my energy. I am drawn to the city and I always have been. But I always return to my little hidey-hole in the outer limits. From a short distance, and throughout childhood, I’ve watched the skyline change, businesses come and go and change names, and neighborhoods transform through demolition and gentrification.
[blocktext align=”right”]I have watched parts of Over-the-Rhine transform to an almost unrecognizable state.[/blocktext]I took personal interest in the story of a classmate of my mother’s at Anderson High School, Buddy Gray, who was born in my neighborhood and was drawn to the city in a different way, moving to Over-the-Rhine and fighting for the rights of the homeless and disenfranchised. I awkwardly understand his fight against the district’s addition to the National Register of Historic Places, but am admittedly giddy at seeing vacant nineteenth-century buildings breathe new life. Since beginning work on my first mural on Vine Street at Liberty, I have watched the neighborhood in the blocks to the south transform to an almost unrecognizable state. I wonder what Buddy would say about the neighborhood now, and about the Drop Inn Center partnering with 3CDC and preparing to move out of Over-the-Rhine.
But let’s face it—it’s easy for me to be wishy-washy on the gentrification issue because I’m not a resident of the neighborhood. I see both sides of the argument. The same is true of the Streetcar. I understand why some residents and organizations—many who are concerned with the Streetcar’s impact on poor residents—oppose the project. I understand why some people would rather see resources distributed differently or in other neighborhoods. Yet, I support the project. Though it won’t impact my daily life as far as I can foresee, I do see it as a positive step toward something I have wanted to see for a long time—light rail in Cincinnati. I do have a vote at the county and state levels, and will support rail components of the Eastern Corridor project. At a celebration of the December charter amendment victory where people were shedding tears of joy, I felt like a bit of an interloper. You see, I wasn’t riding the same kind of buzz they were. I’m excited to see the Streetcar be built—really. But as infrastructure goes, I’d sooner benefit from the dreaded MLK Interchange on my commute to UC as a visiting assistant professor than from Phase I of the Streetcar itself. But bring it on, and let’s see where it leads.
[blocktext align=”left”]For some people, politics are like sports.[/blocktext]Not surprisingly, the extreme cold that has befallen us actually started freezing the Ohio River again. Also unsurprising was the on-schedule denial of climate change by people who don’t understand that weather and climate are not the same thing. Despite many hopes and prayers (really?) and waxing poetic about ’81 and ’88, on the Sunday the polar vortex arrived the Bengals would again go one-and-done in the playoffs against the San Diego Chargers, despite a “sold out” crowd and fans who could suspend their disbelief long enough to think that their team could pull out a victory. Until they didn’t, and talk inevitably turned to what a perennial letdown the Bengals are, and to how everyone knew exactly on whom or what to pin the blame.
[blocktext align=”right”]I believe we are at a critical point in how we shape ourselves going forward.[/blocktext]For some people, politics are like sports. They’ve chosen a side, and they stick with it in good times and in bad, often exercising willful ignorance about anyone who thinks differently than they do. There is often no dialogue, no give-and-take. The other team is the enemy, and because we want something to happen badly enough (or because we want to be right), we believe it can happen.
I believe everyone agrees that growth for Cincinnati is what’s wanted, but disagree about how that should look. It’s undeniable that expansion is occurring. I believe we are at a critical point in how we shape ourselves going forward. Are we becoming a bigger city? If we are, we need to consider where everyone is coming from and where they are going—physically and philosophically.
[blocktext align=”left”]Our hope is that professionally Cincinnati can nurture us, and we will contribute in return.[/blocktext]While there are people who don’t believe that humans are the cause of climate change, there are people who don’t believe Cincinnati can, should, or will change either. There are casual doubters, and there are agents of stasis on one side; there are cheerleaders, and there are activists on the other. It’s hard to deny that Cincinnati is changing, and (with the exception of those few extra degrees every August) I like what I see. I like that I can be a part of it, even from what some would consider afar, even from the outside.
If my husband and I are to stay here (that’s the hope—that professionally Cincinnati can nurture us, and we will contribute in return) we would most likely move to one of the inner-ring suburbs—the first wave, maybe the one where I was born—for the sidewalks, the trees, and the shorter commute. Who knows—maybe there’ll be a rail line there one day. That means I am thinking about my future in Cincinnati. And isn’t that really the point? I’m looking forward to the work I have to do here, and there’s a lot of it. Even if we go, don’t worry—we’ll be back, no doubt receiving a warm welcome and bringing plenty of ideas. That’s how the transfer of energy works.
Jenny Ustick is a born-and-raised Cincinnatian. She creates public murals with ArtWorks, and her work (solo and collaborative) has been exhibited regionally, nationally, and internationally. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati DAAP School of Art, and currently lives on the East Side with her husband, two mutts and a cat.
Photo by Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock