OTRview V: Queen City Underground and Newport Gangster Tours

Today, we proudly bring to you an OTRview with Jerome Gels, founder of American Legacy Tours which operates the Queen City Underground Tour, Newport Gangster Tour, Cincinnati Civil War Tour, The Queen City is Haunted Tour, Newport is Haunted, and others.

Jerry’s personal history is intertwined with the history of OTR and the city. Professionally, he has first hand experience with how to start and grow a business in OTR and Newport, KY.  On April 29, American Legacy Tours is opening its business headquarters and gift shop at 1218 Vine Street in the Gateway Quarter. It will be known as Cincy Haus.

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.

Queen City Underground Tour has attracted thousands to OTR and is on track draw even more in 2011

You appreciate Over-the-Rhine. When did you first learn about and/or experience OTR?

My dad and most of mom’s family were/are pipefitters and the 392 Union Hall is in OTR. I first fell in love with old buildings and neighborhoods when Dad would drive us home from the Union Hall by going down Elm Street to show us the different paths the street car followed. His dad grew up in the West End, and he was one of the last street car drivers. We visited Findlay market as well. Not only did we buy a lot of goetta, but once or twice a year Dad purchased giant sacks of a blood sausage called “Johnny in the Bag.” Dad, my little brother, and I loved it. I was told it was banned by the FDA a couple of years ago. Man, are kids missing out.

How has your perception of it changed since your first impression?

As a child it was the old buildings. When I was in college at Thomas More, I was the president of the Irish Club. Dr. James Camp, our moderator, and I started getting groups together on Saturday mornings to help rehab homes in OTR and the West End. (What this had to do with being Irish, I am not sure, but we drank a lot of beer afterward so that was the tie in.) We worked on about 15 places, and as I went inside each one, I fell in love not only the outside but the inside. There is so much to these structures.

But I guess what really inspired me is not so much the architecture, as it is the story of the people in the area–the figures that helped shape the neighborhood, our city, and, to an extent, our Nation. When you combine the architecture with the historical significance and the human interest, there really are few places like it in the world. For the last 8 years, I have been fortunate enough to travel a lot. Every time I return, I become more impressed with our city, both what it is now, what it was, and what it will be, and that is especially true of the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood.

Queen City Underground tour

Underground OTR, photo by flickr user rrrrred

You’re the owner and founder of the popular tour operation that showcases the history of Newport and OTR. Could you explain the evolution of your business?

My primary job is teaching. Aside from family and my teachers, my first trip out of the country to Australia inspired me the most. I wanted to offer the same opportunity to my students and started taking kids to Central America. Most of the students I take come from working class-poor communities which calls for a lot of fundraising. After taking the Underground Tour in Seattle and a ghost walking tour in Dayton, I created a walking tour in Newport to raise money for a trip. I had on old map that pointed out where all the casinos and houses of ill repute were, and I thought it would be great place and great subject for a walking tour. Three friends–Dave Kohake, Brad Hill and Mac Cooley, as well as my Dad and my sister Laura, also my current business partners, helped with the tour. We expected to see 200 people; 1200 showed up over two weekends. Newport’s Mayor, Jerry Peluso, who you could see personally cleaning Monmouth Street with a broom, pulled me aside during the tours and said, “You know, you really have something here. You might think about doing this on a regular basis.” Then numerous business owners called us to thank us. We didn’t realize this at the time, but walking tours do a great job introducing people to neighborhoods.

In August of 2009, we launched as a business. Sharon Foton, owner of the Syndicate and Gangsters’ Dueling Piano Bar thought we could be Cincinnati’s next big thing and allowed us to start at the Syndicate. During that time, we used our collection of ghost stories to start a ghost tour. We actually ended up seeing as many people on the Ghost Tour as the Gangster Tour. We knew our tours could be big attractions. Cities like New York, Chicago, and Seattle have walking tours on a regular basis, maybe we could too. We thought about the barriers to our tour, and we felt that although people in Greater Cincinnati may find it interesting, would tourists? We knew the biggest barrier to getting tourists was that people did not know the history. So we started on a rather ambitious project to write a documentary. Dick Hammersmith, a political advisor for Chris Monzel, and my father-in-law, offered to help. In our first meetings he brought in Jim Tarbel. At this meeting Dick suggested that aside from getting a documentary produced, that it would be great if we could replicate what we did in Newport in Cincinnati. For the next meeting I brought a book and lots of questions, and Jim drew a map on a piece of paper. He made some suggestions. After the meeting, Dick told me we should go for it. He said that not only would it be good for the company, it would also be good for the city. That was at the beginning of December.

My dad and I then bought every Cincinnati history book we could find, walked every street in Over-the-Rhine, and spent countless hours at the Cincinnati Historical Society. Over the next two months, I brought my poor pregnant wife (and the love of my life), and we walked through Over-The-Rhine all through February and March. Initially I wanted to do just an outside tour, but I called Chris Frutkin, owner of the Guildhaus, and Brother Tim, at St. Francis Seraph. I shared with them our idea. They liked it and were excited to help in any way possible. Chris Frutkin then introduced us to 3CDC who were likewise very helpful and an advocate for what we were doing. They offered to allow us to use some of their buildings. We could not get over how cooperative and supportive they were in Over-The-Rhine. Everyone was excited about making these tours a regular weekend event. If it could happen, it would be great for the neighborhood.

Queen City Undergroung Tour inside Weilerts Beer Hall

You’ve already sold a lot of tickets for your tours this summer. What are your plans for 2011?

We have sold close to 8000 tickets over six days for our different tours on both sides of the river. Over 6000 are for the Queen City Underground. To accommodate the crowds, we are offering tours four days a week at multiple times. Likewise, our Newport Tour will be offered two to three times a week. One of things we did last year really well was communicate with our audience; we asked them to tell us what they wanted to see, what they wanted to know. Memorial Hall, the Emery, and Old St. Mary were all buildings people had a curiosity about. Sean Rhiney, editor of Soapboxmedia and OTR Activist, was a big supporter of all our tours. He was very helpful in getting the word out about what we were doing early on. When he heard we had an interested in the Emery, he helped us secure it as tour stop. We had a pretty great connection to Old St. Mary’s through Bob Dainer, and Marge Hammelrath had offered to help us with Memorial Hall. After countless hours of research by Mac Cooley, we decided to launch our Civil War Tour. Our goal this year is to grow that tour and make it as big an attraction as the Gangster Tour and the Underground Tour. With the 150 Anniversary of the start of the Civil War, there isn’t a better time. The Civil War history in Over-the-Rhine and Cincinnati is probably our favorite historical piece. So much of this is forgotten, but the history is so important to the city and nation.

Tour group on Vine Street

How important is preservation to what you do?

We appreciate so much what the Over-the-Rhine Foundation, Steve Hampton and Greg Hardman of the Brewery District, and the Cincinnati Preservation society has completed. Some day a book will be written about how those organizations saved the city and laid the groundwork for the economic boom that I believe will begin in Over-the-Rhine. Their activism will become even more important in the next ten years. With a flow of cash and development into the OTR neighborhood, as well as other historically important areas, people are going to try and make the case that this building or that building is not important. Look at the crimes Cincinnati Public committed in two months ago. While the destruction of homes in OTR scares me, an acceleration of the destruction of Price Hill and other areas in Cincinnati scare me more.

Cincinnati Civil War Tour in Memorial Hall

How important is Heritage Tourism to Over-the-Rhine? The City?

I see no reason why Cincinnati’s and the Northern Kentucky’s neighborhoods can’t become the Charleston and Savannah of the North. Our history is as interesting, if not more so. Our architecture is more impressive, and the landscape is larger. We have two professional teams, a casino, and the population itself around the area exceeds 2,000,000 people. We have, on a given year, 5 million visitors to the region, and if you live north you at least have to drive through Cincinnati to get to Florida and Tennessee. Additionally, we have organizations like 3CDC and Southbank Partners in Northern Kentucky that are committed to the development in these areas. People enjoy heritage tourism. What would you rather do, go to a Mall or see tunnels? Go TGI Friday’s or Neon’s for a beer? It’s just a matter of getting a critical mass to these places. Heritage Tourism will surpass the professional football in terms of what it does for our city. It will pull the thousands of visitors out of the casino to see the neighborhood. Last year well over 15% of our customers were from outside of greater Cincinnati. It will grow this year.

The only way to save Over-The-Rhine, though, is for each building to find a responsible owner and user. This takes a lot of money and a lot of risk. Last year we showed that people will come down on a regular basis to attend our tours; we are hoping to turn that weekly event to a daily event. This will make it easier for shop keepers and store owners to take the risk and open a business. With potentially tens of thousands of people walking the neighborhood each month, they will hopefully discover a MiCA 12/V, Joseph Williams, the Lavamatic, Iris Book Cafe, the Lakman, Neons, For U Urban, ect… and continue to visit.

Last year our customers had two choices to shop and one to eat on Vine St. This summer, they will have six places to eat and five to shop within 100 yards of our shop alone. As the summer rolls on, the number of places that open will grow substantially. Just as these places benefit from our customers, these different shops support us and encourage their customers to go on the tour.

Cincinnati Civil War Tour in Washington Park

Why are you choosing the Gateway Quarter as your headquarters?

We feel at home there.

Cincinnati Civil War Tour in Memorial Hall

Tell us about the tours.

The Newport Gangster Tour is the closet to my heart as it is the tour that started it all. First and foremost the Gangster Tour is a great time. Second, it will change the way you view the city. The number of casinos, and the types of illegal operations in that town really were something. Las Vegas had a Mom, it was Newport. You will leave the tour with a great appreciation for the town and its contribution to the gambling industry.

Queen City Underground Tours

The Queen City Underground Tour and the Civil War Tour are likewise a great time out. The Undeground Tour takes you into the undeground crypt below St. Francis and the tunnels underneath the Kaufman, as well into 1313 Vine one of the last remain beer halls. On Sundays this year, instead of going into St. Francis patrons will get to see the inside of Weilert’s Beer Hall. The Underground tour is a lot of fun and paints the picture of what OTR looked like between 1865-1920. It is our most popular.

The Civil War Tour is a tour is a project we are really excited about this year. Not only do patrons get to hear about the Civil War History but they also get to tour the inside of three gems in Over-The-Rhine: Memorial Hall, the Emery Theater, and Old St. Mary’s. We initially planned on calling this a hidden gems of OTR Tour, but there was just too much Civil War History to ignore. This tour makes you really proud of Cincinnati and our German, African, and Irish Heritage. It beats the Civil War History in almost every city in terms of national importance, human interest, and intact landmarks. We are going to market this tour like crazy this year because we believe it is important to our city.

The Emery Theatre, photo from http://www.therequiemproject.com/

Old St. Marys Church Over-the-Rhine

Fantastic interview Jerry! Thank you sharing your view of OTR and creating a thriving business that showcases Cincinnati’s impressive heritage.

American Legacy Tours is currently working on a documentary about Newport. Check out the trailer, preview and a behind the scenes look at Newport: Gangsters, Gamblers, Girls

One Response to “OTRview V: Queen City Underground and Newport Gangster Tours”
  1. Al Hallam says:

    I already have 2 tickets for the Gangster tour and would like to make reservations for the 6/2 4:30 PM tour under the name of Hallam. Call if this is any problem. My tickets were purchase at the end of the Underground Tour last month. 513-793-9590. Many thanks Al Hallam

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