By J.P. HOORNSTRA
originally posted on nydailynews.com
Cincinnati gave the U.S. its first professional baseball team in 1869. And on July 14, the third-largest city in Ohio will host Major League Baseball’s annual All-Star Game.
The presentation of the game, and the city’s public squares, channel a strong sense of nostalgia.
To a degree Cincinnati can’t help but channel its past. The centralized downtown neighborhood known as Over-the-Rhine claims to be the largest urban historic district in the country, densely packed with 19th-century brick buildings built in the Italianate style. The neighborhood shows its age but is also increasingly livable, walkable and shop-able.
Shopping in historic buildings is fun, but not always the substance of a vacation. What sets Cincinnati apart is how it’s rallied around its baseball, beer and old buildings, creating a unique urban Midwest destination.
The city takes its name from the Roman politician Cincinnatus, who resigned his dictatorship in 458 B.C. for the sake of the public good. A giant mural spanning the height of a downtown building bears his image.
Another painting, The Henry Holtgrewe mural on Vine St., is one of many public pieces undertaken by ArtWorks, a local nonprofit that taps local youth to paint Over-the-Rhine’s bare brick buildings. Many used to serve beer. Some still do.
Cincinnati might be famous for its beer, except that by 1890 almost 2,000 registered drinking establishments occupied the 7-square-mile city. So unlike in St. Louis or Milwaukee, there was no need to export Cincinnati’s best brews from coast to coast. There were plenty of customers right there in the city.
Stuart King owns an apothecary concept bar in Over-the-Rhine called Sundry and Vice (18 W. 13th St.; sundryandvice.com). It’s almost too hipster for Brooklyn; mustachioed men and women in flapper dresses sip cocktails like one called Dr. Shiloh’s System Vitalizer (mezcal/tequila, lime, pineapple, ginger, Peychaud bitters, soda). King ducked outside on a recent evening and pointed across the street to where Timothy Thomas, an unarmed 19-year-old African American man, was fatally shot by a Cincinnati police officer in 2001. Several days of riots followed the shooting.
King was living in Los Angeles at the time. He willingly relocated because of what happened after the riots. The short version: Using money from taxpayers and local businesses (Cincinnati is home to nine Fortune 500 companies), a coalition called 3CDC was formed to “strategically revitalize Cincinnati’s downtown urban core.”
Rather than tearing down and building back up — the less romantic, less expensive route — 3CDC preserved and restored Over-the-Rhine’s existing infrastructure. The chamber of commerce launched an ambitious grant program, giving small business owners like King incentive to move in. For the Fortune 500 firms, attracting talented employees to live and work downtown became less of a chore. For visitors, well, now there was a reason to vacation here.
Down the street from Sundry and Vice, a New York transplant named Jose Salazar has opened a wonderful namesake restaurant (Salazar Restaurant & Bar, 1401 Republic St.; salazarcincinnati.com) highlighting cuisine from his native Colombia. (Try the veal sweetbreads.)
Cincinnati Reds hats and designer neckties sit side-by-side in a local men’s clothing store. A gift shop sells congratulatory cards for same-sex marriages on another street corner. For a state that banned gay marriage in 2004, the something-for-everybody vibe is a departure.
Other things hardly seem new at all.
Greg Hardman describes himself as a “beer romantic.” The Cincinnati native purchased the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company (1621 Moore St.; christianmoerlein.com) in 2004 and moved the operation into a hardscrabble section of Over-the-Rhine. The taproom is still a tad gritty, but it’s full on Friday nights. Young people drink and play billiards, foosball and a combination of football and bowling called “fowling” — working-class recreation at its finest.
Moerlein is one of those vintage Cincinnati brands that might have suffered for limited distribution, although its seasonal hefeweizen (a blond wheat beer) is the best this side of Germany. Since Moerlein moved back into the neighborhood, several other breweries have followed suit. The beer scene in Over-the-Rhine hasn’t rekindled its pre-Prohibition flow, but it’s moving in that direction.
A series of guided tours highlight some of Cincinnati’s original 19th-century brewing facilities. The most curious is an apartment building, the Guild House at 1622 Vine St. There’s no beer here — just a cavernous underground storehouse designed to hold lager barrels, a relic from the days before mechanized refrigeration. It feels like a ghost could appear at any moment.
Another must-see is Taft’s Ale House, a German Protestant church meticulously converted into a beer hall (1429 Race St.; taftsalehouse.com). Don’t feel guilty about drinking here. A priest blessed the building prior to its opening in April.
The primary shrine in town might just be Great American Ball Park, the Cincinnati Reds’ $290 million stadium. Built in 2003, the park is just far enough away from the Ohio River that it’s impossible to hit a baseball into the water. But it’s just close enough that someone strolling the Kentucky side (the towns of Covington and Newport lie across the river) can hear the roar of the crowd. Both sides of the river are green and striped with foot and bike routes, making strolling the perfect pastime when baseball is out of season.
Bootleggers is a well-stocked craft beer house inside Great American Ball Park. A sign outside denotes it as part of the “Brewing Heritage Trail” — another clever attempt by Hardman, the beer baron, to connect Cincinnati’s past to its present. A second, less gritty Moerlein Lager House across the street is a popular hangout pre- and post-game. For out-of-towners attending the All-Star Game, this might be the best place to taste Cincinnati’s preferred beverage without venturing too far.
There’s a dubious baseball heritage trail in town, too. It was here, at the since-demolished Sinton Hotel, that bettors successfully bribed members of the Chicago White Sox to intentionally lose the World Series to the Reds in 1919. The most famous baseball player in Reds history, Pete Rose, was banned for life by Major League Baseball in 1989 for betting on games. Cincinnati doesn’t hide this. The Reds’ Hall of Fame has Rose’s image (and roses) all over it; the same guide offering the brewery tours has a 1919 World Series tour. But maybe the good vibes emanating from the All-Star Game are an attempt to move on from history more than embrace it.
Not long ago visitors preferred lodging on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River when visiting Cincinnati. Now there are places like the 21c Museum Hotel, a lavishly restored century-old downtown building featuring a free 24-7 art gallery and a trendy open-kitchen restaurant downstairs called Metropole (609 Walnut St., metropoleonwalnut.com).
A hipster coffee joint lies next door. A theater sits directly across the street, connected to a high-end Italian/French restaurant called Boca (114 E 6th St., Reservations recommended; bocacincinnati.com).
The boldest, most refreshing part of the transformation lies in what’s absent. Practically every city that revives, gentrifies — call it what you will — fills its storefronts with the same chain retailers familiar coast to coast. Cincinnati did not. Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts are outnumbered by local coffee joints.
Being proudly provincial and still offering something for everyone is tough to pull off. Like a church that serves beer, it seems to be working somehow.
J.P. Hoornstra is a sports writer based in Los Angeles and the executive editor of Conway Confidential. ***
IF YOU GO
Stay: 21c Museum Hotel (609 Walnut St.); 21cmuseumhotels.com.
– The Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame & Museum (100 Joe Nuxhall Way) is located outside Great American Ball Park and open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. reds.com/hof
– American Legacy Tours offers ghost tours, baseball history tours, beer tours and gangster tours of Cincinnati and the surrounding area. americanlegacytours.com
– Cincinnati Brewery Tours offers a variety of seasonal walking tours of the city’s brewing facilities (beer included) every Thursday through Sunday. cincinnatibrewerytours.com
– Rhinegeist Brewery (1910 Elm St.) is open seven days a week; hours vary each day. rhinegeist.com
– The Eagle Food & Beer Hall (1342 Vine St.) is open seven days a week for lunch, dinner and drinks. Reservations not required. 513-802-5007
– Holtman’s Donuts (1332 Vine St.) is open seven days a week. holtmansdonutshop.com