Before my visit to Cincinnati, I knew this city was in the state of Ohio, near Kentucky, but not much else. Unfortunately, too many of us are American history illiterates. Even though I consider myself well-read, there was little I knew about the mark Cincinnati had in our nation, and the role of history on this major city.
Once called Losantiville, it was later known as the Queen City because it was the cultural capital of the New America. This was also the site where Annie Oakley met Buffalo Bill, even though they were pegged as gun slingers of the Wild West. Along with the notoriety of sharp shooters, gangsters and gamblers prevailed across the river in Newport, Kentucky, once upon a time.
Bets are on that only major sports enthusiasts will know that Cincy was where the World Series was invented by the owner of the Cincinnati Reds.
Of course I didn’t miss those lessons dozing off in school. Every American learns about the struggles 150 years ago during the Civil War. But how much can most of us recall about The Underground Railroad? This was a path to freedom for an estimated 100,000 slaves and servants. They travelled from the southern states all the way north to Canada which was a safe haven since slavery was illegal there. Others travelled south to Mexico. Along the way, Cincinnati and the Ohio River were important stops, and referred to as “the River Jordan.”
Harriet Tubman is a well known name. She, like so many others in the South, was faced with selling her children. There are poignant quotes from Tubman and others that grace the walls of the Freedom Center, a place well worth visiting in downtown Cincinnati. This is an ultra modern museum that gives visitors an excellent crash course in American history and the Underground Railroad. Located right by a familiar looking bridge that connects the city with Kentucky, it turns out the Ohio River crossing was the prototype for the Brooklyn Bridge.
Beyond the history of the blacks escaping the south, another part of the city’s history that I found fascinating and relevant today was its cultural makeup. Cincinnati was, and is, a city of immigrants. Each wave faced different prejudices and challenges. The first settlers were primarily Protestants from England and Scotland.
When a large wave of German Catholics arrived in the mid 1800s, they faced many setbacks. “Over-the-Rhine” became their enclave. So densely populated, within a three-square-mile area, it was estimated that ten people lived in every two rooms. With 75 percent of the population in this part of the town being German, English was not the dominant language spoken here. The Germans brought not only their language but their culture. At one time, there were more than 130 beer gardens and saloons in the German ghetto. Beer was popular, in part, because it was safer to drink than the water.
Visitors that take a tour of “Over-the-Rhine” can get a peek inside the last remaining intact German beer hall, where the film “Rage in Harlem” was filmed with Danny Glover and Forrest Whitaker. They can also enter an underground beer factory that was designed to brew lager in cave like cool temperatures.
Beyond the beer gardens, the Germans were theatre goers. One corner had three venues, one of which had seating for 1,200. Nearby was a theatre that boasted the first valet parking service, and one of the first fire-proof buildings.
Almost simultaneous to the German wave of immigrants, was the influx of Irish caused by the Great Potato Famine. Cincinnati was a major destination for these White Christians who along with the Germans faced extreme prejudice from the White Christian native born Ohioans. In fact, the two groups were feared by the locals. While the United States may now be experiencing waves of racial profiling, hate crimes and anti-immigrant bigotry, it was so common in 19th and 20th century Cincy that signs such as “no Irish need apply” and “For service, speak English,” were commonplace.
Today, cultural diversity is embraced and enjoyed at the city’s main plaza, known as Fountain Square. A good variety of free entertainment from Reggae to Salsa is offered, especially during the summer months. Special events at Fountain Square that reflect the heritage of the city include a Celtic Festival and Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
For vegetarians, Cincinnati is known as “porkopolis,” but there is a great vegan friendly restaurant, Myra’s, a ten minute bus or cab ride north of downtown, near the university. This looks like the type of place frequented and run by university students. It’s very small but inviting. Myra’s offers loads of desserts, freshly made soups, salads, rice dishes, entrees and sandwiches. The teeny kitchen also has an ample variety of teas, hot and cold, caffeinated and caffeine-free. Items that are vegan are clearly marked, and the entire menu is vegetarian. This is clearly a health-food-style venue, but they don’t scratch wine off the menu. Maybe because it pairs so well with a few of Myra’s Italian selections.
Additionally, a number of restaurants with international flavors are close to the Square. Just north of the Fountain on Sixth Street is Akash, an Indian restaurant. Special orders can be placed to meet dietary needs. Wasabi lovers can find plenty of vegan or fish-free plates across the street from Akash at Mr. Sushi. Walk another two blocks north to Eight Street to find a small Middle Eastern shop that boasts healthy foods. With two tables outside and no more than half a dozen on the inside, Al Amir offers plenty of tasty dishes at modest prices. Be sure to request no feta on the salads if you are a vegan.
For a mammoth taste of the multiculturalism, imagine the World Choir Games taking place over 11 music filled days and nights next July. This is the largest event of its kind. Thousands of choir members from more than 70 countries, dressed in traditional attire, will perform in what’s considered the Olympics of choral music. This is a great way for Cincinnatians to welcome people from all over the world.