OTRview I: Casey Coston
Casey Coston graciously agreed to sit for the first “OTRview” conducted by this blog. The OTRview is like any old interview except it is about OTR as it is seen and experienced by those who are most fond of the historic neighborhood. We hope to address OTR’s progress, problems, preservation, pride, etc. in this series of OTRviews. If you know a good candidate for an OTRview, please contact us.
What follows is a serious of questions (in bold) followed by Mr. Coston’s answers.
- Casey Coston
You appreciate Over-the-Rhine. When did you first learn about and/or experience OTR? How has your perception of it changed since your first impression? Was it love at first sight?
Lemmee just shotgun on all of this and see where the chips fall. Please forgive my verbosity, but I can write about this forever (rein it in, senor…rein it in).
I moved here in April of ’03 from Detroit. I had lived for ten years in Detroit, and while there developed a deep affection for its built architecture, long before ruins porn became stylish. Just for the fact that they had one of the greatest collections of abandoned pre-war skyscrapers in the nation. And then the theaters, the car factories…and, of course, the train station. I loved taking out of towners (or suburbanites) on guided tours of the city (in, regrettably, an automobile, of course). Anyways, while there I wrote for a local alt-weekly publication called the Metro Times, and one of my columns I started up just before moving here was called “Rubble Rouser.” It attempted to deal with the issues of preservation, urban redevelopment etc., all within the Detroit context
So yeah, right? Whatever. You asked about OTR. But my point above is more about why Detroit matters. And when I moved here I immediately saw a similar raison d’etre with OTR. Well, similar in some aspects, although very different in others (see, e.g. density, architecture, age). The streetscape made me feel like I was back on the East Coast or something, and OTR was very different even back then. This was a few years after the “civil disturbance” of ’01. Many of the old douchey bars were still hanging on, albeit barely. Bar Cincinnati, Rhino’s, Have a Nice Day Cafe, Jefferson Hall, Harry’s, Courtyard, Japp’s, Jekyll and Hyde, RBC, Red Cheetah, Club Clau etc…they seemed to be in the death spiral. However it wasn’t the bar scene that attracted me, but the streetscape. You can just walk the streets endlessly, always looking up. Each building is amazing..different styles, facades, pediments, corbels,cornices, windows etc. And it’s amazing how many narratives there are on every block.
Coming from Detroit, and it’s distinct lack of urban density, it was amazing to see such a (relatively) intact 19th Century neighborhood. Through my son’s school The New School in North Avondale (another amazing, albeit very different neighborhood with a great history
), I had purchased tickets at a benefit auction for a walking tour of OTR/Pendleton with Jim Tarbell. I had met Jim before and knew of his reputation as the city’s, and OTR’s, de facto ambassador, but it was amazing to hear the stories. Stories about every block, and every building. And he could go on forever. I forget how long it lasted–we ended at Findlay market, but I came away with a dizzying history of the neighborhood and the people that make it and made it great. Suffice to say I went on repeat versions of the tour for several years after, each time learning more.
That’s the great thing about OTR. Literally there is a new story or surprise on every block. For example the time I went in Cosmopolitan Hall at 1313 Vine…the spring-loaded dance floor, the tunnels beneath…amazing stuff. Writing for Soapbox has given me a lot of access to these spaces, and it has been great to see the popularity grow. The success of the Queen City Underground tours, albeit hokey, is great for getting people into the neighborhood who haven’t been down in 30 years if ever. Same goes for the always soldout Bockfest tours this weekend.
I have watched in wonder as the public perception of OTR has gradually evolved. How Main and Vine have both adapted and undergone dramatic transformations. While there is still a long ways to go, both in terms of cleaning things up as well as public perception, the progress during my 8 years here has been nothing short of amazing.
Many people are familiar with Soapbox Cincinnati. You share your “rambling scattershot of anecdotal platitudes and homespun homilies” (your words, not mine) via that medium. Explain what Soapbox means in the context of Cincinnati media and attitudes toward OTR.
Okay, I promise that my subsequent answers will more tactfully honor the time-honored saying that “brevity is the soul of wit.” So yeah then…Soapbox. I had met with the Soapbox founders before it started, as one of the founding publishers of IMG (the parent company) is an old friend from Detroit. We talked about ideas, issues, concepts and spent a lot of time on the title (my suggestion of “3 Way Media” didn’t make it past the spam filters). I was excited about the concept of (to use a tired cliche) “changing the narrative” here in Cincinnati. Coming from Cincinnati, I thought this was like Xanadu or something (and yes, I have lived in DC and spent considerable time in major cities all over the globe). I thought it was such an undiscovered gem (second cliche alert), and was very supportive of helping tell the world, not to mention the exurbs, about the Queen City’s many charms.
I held off writing for a while, and then determined that I was motivated and ready to enlist. My column differs a little from Soapbox in general, as it is, at times at least, more opinion-oriented. This is from my very first Soapdish:
As many have remarked, Cincinnati, at times, often seems to be plagued by an unhealthy dose of self-loathing and entrenched parochial cynicism. To paraphrase Spiro Agnew (as originally penned by William Safire), there has never been a shortage in the nattering nabobs of negativity department. Oftentimes the genesis of such negativism can be boiled down, at its very essence, to “I don’t understand it, but I’m agin it [sic]” Generally speaking, this column has no interest in adding any more logs to that particular fire. In fact, in a mirroring alliterative phrase, think of this space more as a “percolating purveyor of positivism,”….but with a chaser of unvarnished realism. In a 1997 Nation article, Alexander Cockburn, in a glowing tribute to the late, great San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, observed that Caen, in his columns, regularly gave the city “a sense of itself—a sense that might be bitchy, sentimental, facetious, irritated, discursive, knowing, indignant or outraged, depending on his mood, which might often be the city’s mood on that particular day.” While I would never possess the level of hubris sufficient to equate myself to Herb Caen (or Cockburn, for that matter), one can’t help but follow a similar roadmap here in the Soapdish, i.e., to give the city a sense of itself, be it knowing or discursive, sentimental or facetious (we’ll try and stay away from bitchy, irritating outrage…but then again, one never knows).
So sure, that was my philosophy, which I melded to fit with the mission of Soapbox, i.e. “has been to tell “the new Cincinnati story – a narrative of creative people and businesses, new development, cool places to live, and the best places to work and play.” I would like to think we have been successful.
In January 2010, then-editor Tom Callinan penned a front-page article for The Enquirer titled “Now, not soon, is the time to save OTR’s historic treasures“.
In it he wrote:
“An estimated 500 buildings are vacant, 227 have been ordered to be vacated, 77 are condemned, and it is estimated that the neighborhood is only two buildings away from losing more than 50 percent of its historic building stock.”
He finished his call-to-arms this way:
“Preservation of the historic core is not just council’s job.
It is not about them; it is us.
It is not there; it is here.
It is not soon.
It is now.”
Yet, despite TC’s cri de coeur in January 2010, OTR lost the oldest brewery building in Cincinnati in May 2010 and Cincinnati Public Schools executed an especially egregious demolition in December 2010 at 142 E. McMicken.
What do you make of all this and Cincinnati’s “preservation community”? If OTR is worth saving, how ought we (as a city) prioritize what we save?
A: It is unfortunate to lose ANY building. But I am also a realist, bruised from numerous battles in Detroit which make Cincinnati look like a preservationist’s paradise (see, e.g. http://www2.metrotimes.com/music/story.asp?id=4553
). In this sense, I believe that progress can and is being made in the preservationist community. But this is a marathon and not a sprint, and there will unfortunately be casualties along the way. What I learned in Detroit the hard way is that “you can’t save ’em all,” as much as we would like to. But what you can do, however, is learn from those lessons. I know there was a lot of frustration with the City and CPS, but I also recognize that there are people at City Hall who care about preservation. The trick is to get engaged in the process earlier rather than later. To be pro-active rather than engage in triage and crisis mode. I also think the preservationist community is getting a healthy dose of youth and energy, no longer a cause celebre for patrician curators. I recently joined the board of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, and can see what they are doing and how they are evolving to be a more nimble and effective advocate for preservation. Add to that the grass roots activism fanned by the flames of social media and we have a foundation on which to build. Clearly OTR is worth saving, and I think the preservationist community needs to remain ever vigilant, pro-active and engaged, while also possessing a healthy dose of realism. This is also a political game in many respects, and standing in front of a bulldozer doesn’t always get the job done. We need to make sure the right people at City Hall are getting the message. I think that is happening, albeit perhaps not as fast as we would like. Shrill invectives and insults are not going to get the job done.
Although everyone is making a grab from the casino tax revenue, I would like to see a portion allocated to historic preservation. While yes, the Wheatley Tile building is going down as I type in order to build the casino, there could be a silver lining. While I agree with dedicating a portion of the revenues to streetcar operations and economic development (via the Port Authority), we also realize the enormous potential If the buildings are not appropriately mothballed and stabilized now, that potential could be lost forever.l for economic development that exists in the historic structures of OTR.
Finally, what’s up with Cassette Tape DJ? Explain that.
“Cassette Tape Parking Lot” started last summer when I bought a $3 boombox at a Newport yard sale. I had a large milk crate of old punk/new wave cassettes dating back to the dark ages. So one night at OTR’s historic Grammer’s bar I decided to start dj-ing (via the cumbersome cassette) in the parking lot. Since you are allowed to take your drinks outside in the parking lot, it became a fun alternative on warm summer nights. Subsequent introductions included kiddie pools and chalk drawing. I now do this on Wednesday night upstairs for ping pong league, and look forward to cranking it up again once the weather warms up. In the meantime, I am working to build up my depleted collection (those tapes disintegrate pretty easily).
(editor’s note: some of the Casey’s handiwork can be seen in this video filmed at Grammer’s Bar)
This blog would like to express its sincere thanks to Mr. Coston for his cooperation and insightful responses.