The 52 Places Traveler: The Arts Are Flourishing in Cincinnati

Scenes from Cincinnati. Clockwise from top right: The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge; the Beethoven Room at the Symphony Hotel; Piatt Park; a production of "Set of His Eye is on the Sparrow" at the Ensemble Theatre.

Our columnist, Jada Yuan, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. This dispatch brings her to Cincinnati; it took the No. 8 spot on the list and is the 16th stop on Jada’s itinerary.

Before last month, I had been to Cincinnati only once or twice, but I could have sworn I had lived there. My freshman year roommate, Dargie, grew up there, and, I’m convinced, must have been sent from the tourism board of the future to indoctrinate me with the idea that Cincinnati is one of the greatest places on Earth. Her family even got involved, with shipments of the city’s famous Skyline Chili.

What I’d failed to pick up from those gauzy recollections, though, was just how vibrant and inspiring of an arts scene I would find. Eight years ago, Dargie got married in the impressive Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Arts, or CAC, designed by Zaha Hadid. I had wandered through hall after hall of floor-to-ceiling pieces by Shepard Fairey, blowing open my impression of an artist I had only seen on Barack Obama campaign posters.

This time around, I got to dig deep on the wealth of murals in public spaces; an architectural history to make your jaw drop; and three newly renovated, world-class performing arts venues in a roughly four-block radius. Here’s what you need to know to experience it for yourself.

Back in 2010 at Dargie’s wedding, friends and I had marveled at the Art Deco grandeur of the downtown Hilton Netherland Plaza Hotel, where we stayed: Romanesque ceiling frescos, crystal chandeliers, gilded sconces for days. (To get a taste, have a cocktail at the bar or just peek inside.) If I had taken a minute to look at the exterior of the building, though, I might have had serious déjà vu.

The 49-story Carew Tower that houses the Netherland was actually an architectural model for the Empire State Building. It’s still the second-tallest building in the city, and for just $4, you can take an elevator to the roof and get stunning views in every direction. From there, you can see the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge (locally known as “the blue bridge”) that connects Cincinnati and northern Kentucky across the Ohio River. Twenty years later, Roebling also designed the Brooklyn Bridge, and the resemblance is striking.

Or go to Over-the-Rhine, or OTR, a neighborhood once dominated by tenement-living German immigrants, to see the largest contiguous collection of 19th-century Italianate architecture in America. Rust Belt decline actually heeded historical preservation here; abandoned buildings with great bones were never torn down because there wasn’t enough growth to warrant it. As recently as five years ago, multiple Cincinnatians told me, OTR was known as the place where suburban kids came to buy heroin. Now it’s your go-to spot for pour-over coffee at 1215 Vine and phenomenal Belgian waffles at Taste of Belgium.

Everywhere you go downtown, you’ll notice beautiful, elaborate murals painted on the sides of buildings. Favorites include a hyper-realistic vignette of vintage toys (Care Bears, Yoda, Mr. Potato Head), and a bright, graphic tribute to Henry Holtgrewe, a German immigrant once touted as the strongest man in the world.

They’re almost all the creations of a remarkable, 22-year-old, women-led nonprofit called ArtWorks Cincinnati. I spent an inspiring evening with its founder, Tamara Harkavy — through Dargie, who knows her and was in town — and learned that teenagers, under the supervision of an adult guest artist, had painted every mural I had been admiring. Beautification is just a side effect of teaching children from all over the city the value of diverse team building.

“Somebody asked a question like, ‘Why did you get into art?’,” Ms. Harkavy said, describing a meeting. “And this young woman, high school student, just lost it talking about being bullied. And this young man, who’s 14, just put his arm around her and gave her a moment.”

In the late 1800s, OTR’s Vine Street once contained 136 saloons, taverns, and beer gardens, as I learned on a terrific tour of the city’s underground beer-brewing tunnels. Today, the neighborhood is the booming heart of the city's performing arts scene.

Last October, the blocklong, 140-year-old Music Hall — a marvel of Gothic architecture and home to every classical-arts institution in the city — revealed a $143 million face lift. Down the block is Memorial Hall, a concert venue in a building from 1908 (also recently renovated). And across the street from that, the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, just moved into its new $17-million home, modeled after the Royal National Theatre in London and Shakespeare’s Globe, among others.

It’s designed so that no seat is more than 20 feet from the stage. The names of all 38 Shakespeare plays are engraved onto its steps; Cincy Shakes, as they call themselves, was one of the first five companies in the world to complete the canon. Even the bathroom sinks have a relevant quote from “Macbeth”: “A little water clears of us this deed.”

But the venue that had me tearing up was the Ensemble Theatre, which recently renovated after hanging strong in OTR for 32 years. For a long time, they were one of the only businesses, and the only theater, in the neighborhood. Their new lobby was created from a parking lot and an abandoned tenement building. “Even a few years ago, having a glass front in the theater was unthinkable,” said Lauren Carr, the theater’s director of education and outreach. “Everything down the street was bulletproof, but we wanted to be open to the neighborhood, and that’s why we stayed.”

That openness doesn’t just extend to a new facade. Every year, they hold an open casting call and invite their neighbors at Tender Mercies, a halfway house for homeless adults, to give monologues. I went to see the regional premiere of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” — a musical biography of the pioneering African-American singer Ethel Waters — with Torie Wiggins tearing up the stage for two hours, joined only by an accompaniest. After the show, Ms. Wiggins told me she’d spent 12 years in New York before finding Cincinnati’s promised land of meaty leads for black actresses and Equity pay. “I was like, ‘You know what? I think I want to be a big fish in a small pond for a little while.’,” she said. “That was five years ago.”

Cincinnati’s hottest art installation — as Stefon from “Saturday Night Live” might say — can be found on a modest residential block in its Camp Washington neighborhood. Thirty years ago, the artist Mark de Jong, who grew up here, dreamed of emptying out one of the city’s abandoned shotgun houses and installing a swing that traveled the length of it. “I just thought a swing would be the perfect vehicle for contemplating the history of the house with all its layers, and contemplating where we are as individuals,” he said. And, with The Swing House, he’s done exactly that.

“You’ve probably noticed the architecture,” Mr. de Jong said. “A free-standing house, not connected to any other buildings, this tall and this narrow, is kind of unusual to Cincinnati.”

He bought a three-story abandoned shotgun house across the street from a workshop his mother once owned, and gutted it. The arc of the swing, which hangs from 30 feet of rope, dictated where everything went: the kitchen, the bed, the bathroom (which is in the basement). He then used the building’s floor joists to make the seat’s swing, along with the furniture — and all the art that is now in an exhibit about the house at the CAC. Mr. de Jong is considering turning The Swing House into an Airbnb, but would like to make sure people don’t see it as just a “cool architectural oddity,” he said. “I’m an artist and my medium to work with is the house.”

You can visit the house on select days, free with CAC admission. I got to try it out, with Mr. de Jong pushing me. And if you lay flat, your body stiff as a plank, it feels like flying.

I loved the Symphony Hotel, around the corner from Music Hall. It’s been in OTR for 22 years and every room is inspired by a classical composer. For a nice meal, try the hip underground Italian joint Sotto. For dessert, try the blackberry chip ice cream on a pretzel cone from Graeter’s. Everyoneis going to ask if you liked the chili — just be aware that it's not a spicy stew, but rather a meat sauce with cinnamon served over spaghettiand topped with cheese. (I love it.)

But the most authentic bite is goetta — pork scraps mixed with oats, then grilled — from sixth-generation Eckerlin Meats in Findlay Market. Ride a streetcar up there with a guide from Cincinnati Food Tours, and, for a respite from all the meat, grab some Lebanese hummus from Dean’s Mediterranean Imports.

Jada Yuan is traveling to every place on this year’s 52 Places to Go list. For more coverage or to send Jada tips and suggestions, please follow her on Twitter at @jadabird and on Instagram at @alphajada.

Previous dispatches:

1: New Orleans

2: Chattanooga, Tenn.

3. Montgomery, Ala.

4. Disney Springs, Fla.

5. Trinidad and St. Lucia and San Juan, P.R.

6. Peninsula Papagayo, Costa Rica

7. Kuélap, Peru

8. Bogotá, Colombia

9. La Paz, Bolivia

10. Los Cabos, Mexico

11. Chile’s Route of Parks

12: Denver, Colo.

13: Rogue River, Ore.

14: Seattle

15: Branson, Mo.

Next dispatch: Saskatoon, Canada

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