by Mike Sarason
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a Cincinnatian. Depending on who I’m with, it may mean different things. No matter if I’m in another city describing Cincinnati to others, or if I’m here in my hometown rapping about it with other Queen city residents, I always try to bring forth my pride in this city. But beyond my own upbringing and experiences here, what do I know about the actual history of this place? I’ll be honest; I can’t say I know too much about it. This isn’t something I had stopped to consider really until a few weeks ago.
On December 8th, I went with a friend to a book signing/discussion at Joseph Beth in Rookwood. The signing was for a book called, “Over-the-Rhine: When Beer Was King,” by author Michael D. Morgan. While Morgan is an avid beer enthusiast and certainly made mention of this a few times throughout the discussion, to say this is just a book about beer would be narrow-minded and unfair. It is about the cultural rise and fall of a neighborhood, the development of Cincinnati and about a place where building owners can stumble upon huge caverns underneath a basement floor and tunnels that travel far below the city streets.
I haven’t quite finished the book yet, so I don’t think I can give a fair review. But this isn’t intended to be a review of the book. It’s more about the line of thinking that the book and the discussion have put me on. I started to think about how we, as a Jewish community, put so much stock in knowing our own history as a people, be it through Jewish day schools, Holocaust education programs, Israel programs like Birthright or otherwise. And don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely grateful for all of the knowledge that the community has given me in that respect; I am proud to be a Jew and I feel that I have a firm grasp on what that means and the history behind it.
But I don’t think that I, or most of the people I know for that matter, have a firm grasp on what shaped Cincinnati into the city we know it as today, what types of historical treasures we still have in our city and why these pieces of history are worth saving. This realization was made clear to me when I went to hear Morgan speak. He talked about how some of the most desirable cities in the country to live and visit are ones that have embraced their history and capitalized on it, citing places like New Orleans and Charleston as examples. In both places, they have taken great care to preserve their historic districts and play up the unique atmosphere that these neighborhoods have.
Think about the French Quarter, an area so famous that its reputation precedes it. Even if you’ve never been there, you probably have an idea of what it’s like, simply because of its history and notoriety. In a place like Charleston, its historic district has been carefully watched over and upheld as a prime tourist destination, one of the prime reasons why Charleston has consistently been selected as one of the best cities to visit.
With this in mind, try to refocus on just one of our city’s own unique neighborhoods, Over-the-Rhine, a gem in its own right. Morgan pointed out that in reality, Over-the-Rhine has buildings dating from the same time period and of the same style of architecture as Charleston’s historic district, only it actually has a far greater number of these buildings. But whereas Charleston has cherished this history and made a conscious effort to keep it intact, Cincinnati has, at best, paid little to no mind and, at worst, sought to actively destroy our historic treasures.
If you have been down to Over-the-Rhine at all recently, you will notice that it is finally receiving some much needed attention. Dozens of boutiques, bars, restaurants and new condos/apartments have sprung up. However, even as this happens, many historic properties are being leveled in favor of new developments.
After hearing about this from Morgan, I began to think about the issue from a Jewish communal standpoint. Would we, as a people, ever let our history and our important historical sites just slip away or be readily demolished? I know for a fact that there would be tremendous outcry if something like this were to even arise as a possibility. Just look at the Hebrew Union College in Clifton as an example, a cornerstone of American Jewish history AND of Cincinnati’s history as a city.
When the fate of the Cincinnati campus was in dire jeopardy about a year and a half ago, supporters of this historic institution came together from all across the Cincinnati community, Jewish and non-Jewish. Even though HUC still faces many challenges across the board today, this instance of the community banding together was effective in helping preserve an institution that ultimately helps define our city.
And now the challenge is upon us again. I feel like it is our responsibility, as Jewish Cincinnatians, to help our city at large and help save another part of what gives our city its definition, the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. In short, we can’t let the past slip away. I implore you to learn more about the history there, to take one of the brewery tours (which are fantastic - http://www.otrbrewerydistrict.org/) or even just take a stroll down one of its enchanting streets. I think you will begin to see why what we have there is worth saving.
I’ve never been big on New Year’s resolutions, but if I’ve got one this year, it is to be a better Cincinnatian.