I came across a quote the other day, from author Lafcadio Hearn, who wrote of New Orleans in the 1870s, “Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under a lava flood of taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become only a study for archaeologists. Its condition is so bad that when I write about it, as I intend to do soon, nobody will believe I am telling the truth. But it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.” Well, I have been to New Orleans. And I would rather live in Cincinnati.
I remember vividly the first time I saw this city, daintily balanced on hilltops and divided into seemingly endless neighborhoods that felt like tiny self-contained municipalities. It wasn’t the first time I was struck with the realization that America is full of wonders unimagined by those who never leave its largest metropolises. But it was one of the most enjoyable. I walked along the riverfront, downtown office buildings gleaming to one side, Kentucky lazing on the other. I drove past downtown’s desolate sparse edges, and further into the city’s patchwork quilt of communities. It was hard to believe they were all Cincinnati, as were the vast green parks that I feared I’d get lost in, and the wide avenues that turned at steep angles and led to warrens of cozy streets lined with houses, no two the same.
I write as if I remember all of this clearly, but my strongest memory is of a place I’m not sure was real. I can conjure up the image: a short section of a street visible from a high ridge, tightly packed with little storefronts and apartment doors, small-scale and fanciful as an ancient European village. Part of me wants to track that street down, but another part doesn’t. What if it wasn’t all that magical after all, and what if I waste a day without finding it, and what if it never really existed the way I recall it? I don’t know if I am thinking of a city or a dream.
But I go back to Cincinnati, not sure what I’ll do or see or look for, but sure I’ll find something, because of all the places I am drawn to in Ohio, Cincinnati’s pull is strongest.
As I navigate a knot of highway suspended above the central business district, I make a snap decision to skip downtown this time. Instead, I follow twists and hairpin turns to Mount Adams, sedate and hilly, an enclave where a stone tower might come into view at any turn and a visitor feels like a trespasser in a perfectly manicured private estate.
Overlooking it all is Eden Park, where I wander beside a glassy manmade lake as the Star-Spangled Banner, played on some sort of invisible chimes, drifts past me in the air. It feels like part protest, part nostalgia: this was our nation; this could be our nation still. A dizzy bumblebee flies straight into my head, making a soft little “bonk” noise inside my skull.
I set out on a similarly patternless route, trying to take in as many other parts of the city as I can fit into the time I have here. I record them in notes that lose their order, memories that blend into a collage of shaded sidewalks, lush public spaces, tempting shops, and window boxes overflowing with flowers.
In Mount Lookout, around an old-fashioned oblong of a town square, winding roads climb towards pastel houses with Victorian details that look a touch too clean to be as old as their style suggests. Whether they are a reminder of history or an homage to it, I don’t know, but they are some kind of local icons; I later spot them painted into a mural on a nearby wall. On one such residential road, three small girls staff a lemonade stand. They spill into the street happily, seemingly unafraid of strangers, speeding cars, or anything else.
I find another of the city’s exquisite outdoor playgrounds, Alms Park, where Mount Lookout blends into Columbia-Tusculum. (Many of Cincinnati’s neighborhoods have similarly intriguing names: California, Carthage, Paddock Hills, English Woods.) In the park, I stop to sit by a pergola and look out over the muddy Ohio River. As I do whenever I encounter it, I think about how underappreciated it is. The Missouri and the Mississippi get the glory, but there are just as many stories of traveling across America lurking under the languid waters of the Ohio. A tiny lizard, delicate enough to be displayed in a gilded cage, flits across the stone floor and disappears, free.
In Over-the-Rhine, inhabited and named by mid-19th century German immigrants, Cincinnati explodes into color, and everything is bright: art is everywhere, walls are painted in improbable hues that end up working perfectly, and eye-catching little signs hang outside boutiques. It’s part shabby and part hipster-minimal, part sweetly old-fashioned and part modern city, full of potential and problems. I have walked too much already, but I want to walk every block of this visually overwhelming area, which is sometimes described as the largest urban historic district in America. I want to take pictures of all of it, from the pink pig sculptures in front of a matching pink façade, to the bold Cincinnati Reds mural covering the side of a restaurant.
In Hyde Park, crowds flock to a farmers’ market that blocks off the streets around the elongated central green. Everything looks just so, and all the people look thoroughly content to live here, like they’d never leave, perhaps not even for another perfect Cincinnati neighborhood just down the road.
In O’Bryonville, a sturdy and settled-looking little place, I think: this would count as a city in New England, or a complete small town in the more spread out reaches of the Midwest. And then I look it up and realize it’s not even a full neighborhood but a business district of another neighborhood, called Evanston.
In Clifton, the buildings are lower, less grand, and old gaslights punctuate the sidewalks. They are almost invisible in the colorful jumble of ethnic restaurants, small shops, and people. The people are mostly young, and the main road through the area has the familiar and slightly unsettling pace of college towns everywhere: slow and relaxed on the surface, with a buzzing undercurrent.
In East Walnut Hills, the main street curves invitingly away from the busy road I am driving on and then unfolds into a tiny grid of streets lined with old brick buildings, each with its own individual flair: a turret, a graceful cornice, a bay window.
There are more places, but I stop scribbling notes at one point. It feels absurd to try to take in and comprehend it all, to do in one short visit what a lifetime of urban exploration couldn’t accomplish.
Out beyond the Ohio, on the other side of Cincinnati’s hills, the whole nation seems to be crumbling into ashes, devolving into a hellscape no one can quite believe, as in Hearn’s lament for his beloved New Orleans. But you’d hardly know it here; I only remember we are living in a waking nightmare when I periodically stop to glance at my phone.
That’s not to say I ever find the quasi-mythical Cincinnati from my first visit, the one I might have dreamed. This time, I find a realer side to what is, after all, a real city. I see the listless teenagers, homeless or high, slumped on sidewalks and benches. I notice the grim blocks behind the vibrant ones, and recognize the heavy concrete footprints of the highway ramps that split this city, like so many others, into awkward disjointed sections.
But I also spot sets of narrow stone steps, leading into leafy parkland, beckoning walkers up and down the hills. I feel the energy of the summer sun beating down on brick walled neighborhoods and sprawling expanses of green space. I sense the shadows of the time when Cincinnati was one of America’s largest and most spectacular cities, and they are not sad ghostly shadows, but dappled light, showing how a place can fade, but stay remarkable, remaining a gift for anyone who feels the pull of an underrated city on an underrated river and stops to look.