Cincinnati Unites to Celebrate Music Institution King Records’ Crucial Legacy while also Considering its Future Potential

September marks the sixth-annual King Records Month and the label’s 75th anniversary

By STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / AUG 21, 2018 
 

Cover0822King Records Building HB2The King Records building in EvanstonPHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

It may not be as big an event as BLINK Cincinnati or Oktoberfest yet, but the annual King Records Month is rapidly becoming a genuine festival. In fact, in its sixth year it can no longer even be contained in a single month, as the events are becoming as numerous as the number of hit recordings made by King’s greatest star, James Brown, or the number of classic songs first recorded by King artists — like Little Willie John’s 1956 version of “Fever,” later covered successfully by Peggy Lee.

King Records Month is supposed to occur in September — it was September 1943 when King founder and Cincinnati native Syd Nathan recorded the first songs by Country singers Grandpa Jones and Merle Travis to be released by his new record company, which went on to be a pioneer in the development of Rock & Roll by bringing Country and R&B together. King was based on Brewster Avenue in Evanston, in buildings still  Cover0822King Records Building HB5King Records markerPHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

there but not in good condition.

This year the celebrating of the “month” starts early — next Saturday in fact, with the first Celebrate the King: The Gala, a ticketed event at Over-the-Rhine’s Memorial Hall with special guests, live music and the presentation of Lifetime Achievement Awards to key figures in King’s history: the late Henry Glover, an A&R executive and producer who was an early black executive in the recording industry, plus important King musicians Bootsy Collins, Philip Paul and Otis Williams. The design company We Have Become Vikings is organizing the event; its co-founder Jason Snell did some King-related design work for projections on the exterior wall of downtown’s St. Xavier Church during 2017’s massively successful BLINK Cincinnati.

“The idea for the gala started over beers with two people active in (the King Studios project),” Snell says. “I’d just be sitting there and go, ‘What? That happened? No.’ Just being a fan of the music coming out of here and not really knowing a tenth of what hap King0822Bootsy Collins Photo We Have Become VikingsA King Records poster honoring Bootsy CollinsART: WE HAVE BECOME VIKINGS

happened… it gives me goosebumps.”

King Records Month activities also continue well past September with two high-profile events. On Oct. 25, the Cincinnati Preservation Association is bringing in Terry Stewart — the former director of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — to speak at its 23rd Annual Fall Forum Luncheon on the importance of preserving King’s legacy.

At CityBeat’s 2008 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards’ tribute to King, Stewart came to town and famously said at the event, “There’s not a more important piece of real estate in musical history than the building over there on Brewster. If you folks don’t remember and preserve it, shame on you.”

At the urging of board member Margaret Valentine, Cincinnati Preservation decided to focus this year’s lecture on King, a break from broader topics of the recent past.

After that, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park debuts the long-awaited world premiere of KJ Sanchez’s play, Cincinnati King, on Nov. 3, which has been in development for five years as she researched the label’s history and its impact on the community. (The play runs at the Playhouse’s Shelterhouse Theatre through Dec. 23.)

September itself is packed with programming, from a serious panel discussion Sept. 5 at the Mercantile Library on Syd Nathan’s place in music history to the goofy fun of “The World’s Largest Twist Dance” on Sept. 7 at Great American Ball Park, following the end of a Cincinnati Reds’ game and before fireworks. King artist Hank Ballard had the first recording of “The Twist” in 1959, although it wasn’t until Chubby Checker covered it in 1960 that it became a massive hit and enduring pop culture touchstone. (See here for more events happening during King Records Month and beyond.)

Structural Security

King Recording1966Retouched Color(1)A retouched 1966 photo of the King Records studio in EvanstonPHOTO: PROVIDED

All this is remarkable, when you consider that King Records lost its founder way back in 1968, when Nathan died, closed its Cincinnati studio/offices on Brewster in 1971 and essentially disappeared from the city’s consciousness after a Nashville company bought its assets. It’s been a long, slow process to make Cincinnatians aware.

But neither the increase in the breadth and duration of events nor the easy peg of a 75-year anniversary is the only reason why this year’s annual King Records celebration/observation is so much bigger than the past five.

In April, Cincinnati City Council approved a land swap with the existing owner of the former studio property in Evanston, who had been threatening demolition. The city had made the space a historic landmark in 2015. The transaction was completed this summer, and the city now owns King’s old studio/office at 1532-36 Brewster Ave. That means that the owners of King Records’ home are the citizens of Cincinnati, and they can now begin to plan for using the site to honor the past and possibly play a part in the community’s future. (Another part of the King property, 1538-40 Brewster, which held some of the manufacturing facilities such as record pressing, is still in private hands.)

“It is now an important public asset,” says Greg Koehler, economic development supervisor with the city. “We just hit this milestone of finally getting control over the original recording studio. Now we can talk seriously about getting this big project to happen. It’s a big lift — like a small-scale version of Music Hall or Union Terminal.”

Elliott Ruther, a co-founder of the nonprofit Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation that advocated for saving the building, says, “Here’s a truly significant spot where culture was created that had an impact on the world.”

People involved in King preservation efforts say that it isn’t just its contribution to American music that merits its remembrance. Owner Nathan was way ahead of the rest of society in running an integrated business. As Darren Blase, a co-owner of Shake It Records who studied King Records as an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati, explains: “(King) had an integrated baseball team within the company, but when they played in the greater industrial league, they had to break into a black and a white team.”

Before efforts can start on the restoration of the King site, it first needs to be protected structurally due to the wear of time and the elements. KING0822Jack White(King Artist Bootsy Collins,King Artist Otis Williams,Jack White,Mayor John Cranley,Evanston Council President Anzora Adkins,King Artist Philip Paul)Photo Courtesy Of Third Man Records And David SwansonL to R: King artists Bootsy Collins and Otis Williams with Jack White, Mayor John Cranley, Evanston Council President Anzora Adkins and fellow King musician Philip Paul at the original Evanston building.PHOTO: COURTESY OF THIRD MAN RECORDS AND DAVID SWANSON

“Short term, we hope to get a new roof on it before the end of year,” the city’s Koehler says. “It’s essentially missing half a roof. It’s been deteriorating; it’s essentially in abandoned condition.”

He says such roof repair will cost approximately $500,000 and will include new rafters and carpentry to support the roof. The building also needs some asbestos mitigation.

“That means you won’t be able to grow vegetables inside the building because it has a complete roof on it,” jokes Tim Riordan, the secretary-treasurer of King Studios, a nonprofit with the stated goal of exposing and energizing King’s legacy while also supporting efforts to spur revitalization in Evanston.

Riordan might have some useful contacts in that regard — he is a former Cincinnati assistant city manager and former Dayton city manager.

To work with the city on long-term plans, four nonprofit community groups that have been involved in King preservation efforts have formed a steering committee to make recommendations. Besides King Studios and Cincinnati USA Music Heritage, Evanston Community Council and the Bootsy Collins Foundation are involved. They are considering forming a new nonprofit organization that could conceivably be in charge of creating a new use for the site and supervising a fundraising campaign.

Concurrently, Cincinnati Preservation has been coordinating work on an application to get the site on the United States Department of Interior’s National Register of Historic Places. That could help with funding — both the federal and state governments provide sizeable tax credits for the restoration of historic properties.

Paul Muller, Cincinnati Preservation’s executive director, says that kind of funding already has been used for work on such public entities as Music Hall, Union Terminal and Memorial Hall. That the King site may not be their architectural equal doesn’t matter, he says.

“Preservation is about much more than bricks and mortar,” he says. “It’s about the lives of people who create things. (Historic buildings) become useful marks for people to tell our cultural history and how we came to be as a society.”

Once and Future King

King Rendering P5A rendering of the renovated buildingPHOTO: PROVIDED

The initial steps being taken are about keeping the King building structurally secure. But the ultimate goals being discussed for the space are about much more than keeping King alive in an empty, worn-but-architecturally-sound memorial.

“Long-term demands a pretty extensive renovation of the building,” Koehler says. “That gets into things like a museum, historic artifacts on display, a studio, community space. That gets into the millions of dollars. That’s really what a lot of people in the community want to see happen in the long run, and I do believe it’s doable.”

Because the vision of what King should be is still in the early stages, Koehler says concrete fundraising efforts aren’t in place yet. But he says the plan for King to be something living and breathing in the community of Evanston is more than notional, because all four of the nonprofit stakeholders “have coalesced around that vision.”

“This would be a public memorial that we think would have a pretty significant national and international audience, as well as a local one,” Koehler says. “And there are some significant national and international recording stars interested in this and may help with fundraising at some point. And there’s a target list of major foundations as well.’’

There are some early conceptual designs that were done at King Studios’ request, but are not meant to be final. SHP Leading Design, a Norwood firm whose executive vice president, Thomas Fernandez, sits on King Studios’ board and is also on the steering committee, earlier created renderings of a building that show space for exhibits, performances, an airy room with tables and chairs and a wall lined with old King vinyl albums. There’s also a draft of a reimagined Brewster Avenue between King and Montgomery Road in Evanston that shows it turned into a colorful walking King

King Rendering P18A Brewster Avenue renderingPHOTO: PROVIDED

timeline, with historic markers on the side. Earlier, King Studios had pursued plans for a complex on Montgomery Road, in the business heart of Evanston.

“The idea in a perfect world is to still have a facility on Montgomery that’s a welcome center, maybe a record store and gift shop, and then take a cart down Brewster or walk to the original building,” says Chris Schadler, a board member of King Studios.

There is also much feeling that a revived King Records building should serve residents of Evanston, especially students, by offering music education and being a source of community pride.

There is another concern. Some feel that if and when the King site gets its second life with a museum component, it shouldn’t be a “top-down” one that solely interprets the company’s history through the eyes of the movers and shakers who owned it. There needs to be a “people’s history,” one that honors and respects all the musicians and other workers who helped create what King became.

To that end, Kent Butts — vice chair of both King Studios and the new steering committee — is trying to keep those musicians and employees still alive (or surviving family members) aware of what’s happening as the King revival grows.

“Many of them didn’t have a clue; they thought it was over with King,” Butts says. “I want to get the legacy individuals — mostly families of artists — to understand there is something here and that we’re thinking about them. It needs to be understood for history’s sake what their father or mother did for king.”

Butts has a personal stake in this — his father, Otis Williams, recorded one of King’s greatest hits, the R&B/Doo-wop smash “Hearts of Stone,” with the Charms in 1954, and still performs.

Philip Paul, a King Studios board member who became a session drummer at King in the 1950s, also believes respect must be paid to the label’s forgotten musicians. He keeps a list of lesser-known King musicians he doesn’t want to see forgotten, such as session guitarist Freddie Jordan.

“If we couldn’t get the chord changes together, they’d send for Freddie Jordan and he’d put it together,” Paul says in praise of the musician. “I promised his wife that if I got an opportunity, I’d make sure he would be honored.”

While all this is going on, national and international interest continues to grow as more is learned about the early and influential Country and R&B records that came out of King. A string of visiting Rock musicians have paid their respects in recent years — Paul McCartney, Nick Lowe, Jack White, Billy Gibbons and more.

“We’ve always said, and there is tons of evidence to support it, that King can sustain a claim to being the birthplace of Rock & Roll,” Schadler says. “I’ve always said there should be billboards on Interstate 71 and 75 that say, ‘Welcome to Cincinnati, the Birthplace of Rock & Roll.’ ”

That may happen soon.

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Through the Years: Bob Dylan in Cincinnati

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BY STEVEN ROSEN / updated version of a story that first ran in CINCINNATI ENQUIRER, August, 2012

Bob Dylan, who plays PNC Pavilion on Aug. 26 with special guest Leon Russell, has performed in the Cincinnati/Dayton area so often in the past five years he seems like a resident. This will be his seventh show since 2007 — his fourth in Cincinnati.

His shows now have a certain genial predictability, too. With a band that plays hot roots-rock infused with jump-blues/country-boogie elements, he plays older hits from the 1960s and 1970s along with highlights from his more recent “comeback” albums of the 1990s and 2000s.

But there was a time when any show he held here was suspenseful and full of surprise, because he toured so rarely and was changing the pulse of American music, as well as his own identity, with every record. And when he lost much of his following in the early 1980s, he fought determinedly and defiantly to win it back.

Using the charts of Olaf Bjorner’s Bob Dylan Yearly Chronicles, it’s possible to find 26 shows in Cincinnati, Dayton and Oxford since 1964. Comparing those to what was happening in his career at the time, we’ve culled 10 especially memorable dates. (If you were at any, please share your recollections.)

• Taft Theatre, February, 1964: The exact date of Dylan’s first listed Cincinnati show is missing, but it would appear to be early in the month, soon after he started a cross-country trip following the early-January release of his game-changing The Times They Are A-Changin’ album of acoustic protest songs. Based on a set list from a May show in London, the show here featured songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Only a Pawn in the Game” and the album’s now-famous title song.

• Music Hall, Nov. 7 and 18, 1965: This was his second trip in Cincinnati this year (Bjorner’s records say he bookended two Music Hall dates between shows in Cleveland and Toronto); he had done a solo performance at Taft Theatre on March 12, for which a poster survives. But he was now a Top 40 rock ‘n’ roller touring with a fully electric band. His “Like a Rolling Stone” had been released in July and was an instant hit, and he played Cincinnati with Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. They would become the Band in a few years. If the Cincinnati show followed the format of others on this tour, he opened with an acoustic set featuring “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Desolation Row” and other recent, surrealistic ballads. Just four days after the Nov. 18 show at Music Hall, he would marry first wife Sara Lowndes in New York.

• Riverfront Coliseum, Oct. 15, 1978: Dylan had stayed away from this area for 13 years, but was a bigger concert draw than ever when he arrived with his World Tour Band that featured eight other musicians and three female back-up singers. The 27 songs included older material plus poignant songs from his 1970s albums Blood in the Tracks, Desire and Street Legal.

• Memorial Hall, Dayton, May 21, 1980: Ever changing, Dylan had become a gospel-rock singer and proselytizing Christian during this period – and his tour, with a great band and six female back-up singers supporting the album Slow Train Coming as well as previewing songs from Saved, finished there. This was a time when Dylan alienated his audiences – a second Dayton show had to be scrubbed for lack of sales — with frightening song introductions like this one before the song “Solid Rock”: “Well I remember trying to tell people in the sixties that hard times would come but it would change. I told them about it in 1963. Those harder times are coming now. The 1960s are gonna be just like a little lamb compared to the 1980s.”

• Music Hall, Nov. 4-5, 1981: For the tour supporting his final gospel-rock album, Shot of Love, Dylan wisely dropped the apocalyptic stage patter and broadened his repertoire to offer a retrospective of his work. Touring with a band that included Al Kooper on organ, this helped revive his fortunes. On the first night, there was a duet with back-up singer Clydie King on the Tin Pan Alley standard “It’s All in the Game” — they also shared vocals on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” both nights.

• Riverbend Music Center, Aug. 10, 1989: For his second show at Riverbend in two years (part of what has become known as his still-ongoing Never-Ending Tour), Dylan had a fiery combo — led by guitarist G.E. Smith from Saturday Night Live’s band — that tore through 1960s classics. And he treated the crowd to another Tin Pan Alley oldie — “I’m in the Mood for Love.” Steve Earle opened.

• Cincinnati Gardens, Feb. 19, 1998: Dylan’s 1997 Time Out of Mind, his most heralded album since 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, was just a week away from winning key Grammy awards when he arrived here with perhaps his best band since the Band. Larry Campbell, Bucky Baxter, Tony Garnier and David Kember moved effortlessly between acoustic and electric arrangements as Dylan proudly played Time Out of Mind selections and select older material.

• Bogart’s, July 11, 1999: Dylan and band took a night off from his co-headlining arena tour with Paul Simon to headline this special gig at the venerable Corryville rock club, which holds about 1,500. Again a mix of acoustic and electric numbers, it featured a hot version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” during the encore. This was a good year for Dylan in our area — he also played Dayton and Oxford.

• Taft Theatre, Oct. 15-16, 2007: He last played the Taft 42 years ago (in 1965), but he still had enough currency to charge $75 and $55 for tickets, and with his band played a satisfying set — often on electric keyboard rather than his more familiar guitar — that included songs, like the spooky “Ain’t Talkin,’” from his 2006 album Modern Times.

• Fifth Third Field, Dayton, July 10, 2009: Dylan’s short, unusual co-headlining tour of minor league ballparks with John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson came to Dayton because of Fifth Third Field’s attractive downtown location.

Will this upcoming concert turn out to be equally memorable? Hard to tell, but Dylan isn’t coasting on his legacy yet. He has his 35th studio album, Tempest, due out Sept. 11.

 

Neil Young and Jonathan Demme talk about ‘Heart of Gold’ at Sundance

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BY STEVEN ROSEN / DENVER POST & CINCINNATI CITYBEAT /2006

PARK CITY, Utah – Jonathan Demme orders orange juice for himself, Neil Young and this reporter at downtown’s  Zoom Restaurant — a  refreshing way to begin a morning interview on behalf of the concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold.

The film, which Demme directed, features Young showcasing gently intimate, quietly thoughtful acoustic arrangements of folk- and country-rock songs from last year’s Prairie Wind CD, plus older material. The concert was staged for the camera over two days last August at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, with audiences present.

At the world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival two nights before this interview, the sold-out audience at the 1,270-seat auditorium gave a standing ovation to Young — dressed in black Western-wear and cowboy hat with longish gray hair — right at the start.

This reception was a kind of unspoken “thank you” from the audience to the 60-year-old Young for surviving surgery last year for a potentially fatal brain aneurysm. The melodic Prairie Wind songs, with quietly reflective lyrics about his life until now, were for the most part written and recorded between his initial diagnosis and surgery.

The movie, in turn, was a means by which Young was offering his own form of “thank you” for being alive. It was filmed not long after his recovery from the surgery. Young and Demme first worked together when the singer-songwriter contributed a song to the director’s 1993 drama Philadelphia.  Demme also made one of the all-time greatest concert films, Stop Making Sense, for Talking Heads as well as Storefront Hitchcock with British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock.

“Everything I do in one way or another from now on is going to be a thank you — just walking down the street,” Young declares, sitting at the restaurant table next to Demme. His voice, unaffectedly straightforward and plainspoken, perfectly matches the direct way he looks at his interviewer while answering questions.

The Prairie Wind songs sound affecting in the film. And the elegiac power of the older songs from the late 1960s and 1970s, as well as from 1992’s Harvest Moon, is surprising. There’s something at work here besides nostalgia in his versions of such compositions as “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “I Am a Child,” “Comes a Time” and “Needle and the Damage Done.”

In this film, they become about watching how Young has changed — or remains unchanged — while one is also struck by how preternaturally mature these songs were when written. As a young man, he already seemed so concerned about “getting old,” to quote a memorable phrase from 1972’s “Heart of Gold.”

“I seemed to know more about it then than I do now,” Young says, prompting him and Demme to heartily laugh. “I don’t even know where I was coming from back then.” That prompts him to remember the circumstances under which he wrote one of his earliest songs, the mournful “The Old Laughing Lady.” “It’s the oldest song in Heart of Gold, he says. “I wrote it before I even got to Buffalo Springfield (the late-1960s rock band in which he was a member). I was in a White Tower in Detroit, across from a club and wrote it on napkin in the middle of the night. I had no place to go, no house, no hotel, no money.”

The job of the troubadour, Young explains, is winning an audience over with new material and then making it hear the old songs in a new way. And that’s not easy for someone as famous as he is.

“I have to overcome the celebration aspects of it — you know, people see me and get so excited and want to hear every song that’s their favorite song,” Young says. “Once you succeed at that, people are opened up and really listening to you. So then we get to the point we’re doing old songs and they’re still in that mode. They’re going, ‘I’ve got to pay attention here.’ It presents a whole new look at the old songs. This is what singer-songwriters are supposed to do.”

Here, Demme — who will be 62 on Feb. 22 — interjects that a Boomer audience that grew up with Young may indeed hear some of those songs differently now than decades earlier. “I know, when I first heard ‘Heart of Gold’ or ‘Old Man,’ I loved them and I was really grooving to them,” he says, snapping his fingers.

“When I see them now in the film, the emotional kick lurking under those lyrics comes across to me in a way it never needed to do before. At that phase in my life I wasn’t contemplating anything. I was digging the music.”

Young acknowledges that important change. “In some ways, some of the lyrics resonate a little differently than they did,” he says.

He also credits his fellow musicians at the Ryman event for giving the older songs added power — they include Ben Keith on pedal-steel guitar, slide guitar and dobro; Spooner Oldham on B3 organ and piano; and singers Pegi Young (his wife), Diana Dewitt and Emmylou Harris.

After the interview comes to an end, this reporter takes a few minutes to collect belongings and go down the stairs from the restaurant’s second floor to the exit. Coming up from a quick break is Young.

So one final question is asked: What next? Young answers directly with the unexpected frankness of a man who is still a bit shaken by his experiences, but glad to be alive. “I’m just looking for a sign,” he says.

(Photo by Peter Bregg/Getty Images)

Cincinnati organization reclaims, celebrates and activates urban passageways for pedestrians

Allies for Alleys

BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / JULY 26, 2017

Cover0719Alley Preservation HB21

 

Christian Huelsman enjoys wearing a T-shirt with a back designed to look like a roll call of stops on a Rock band’s North American tour, only instead of New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Toronto, etc., these names are decidedly unfamiliar to most of us: Colby Alley, Nagel Alley, Manchester Avenue, Renner Street, Unnamed Alley Steps, Saint Joe Street, South Wendell Alley, Rice Street Steps, Sharp Alley, Glanker Street, Goose Alley, Eton Place.

Closer inspection of the shirt reveals that it is commemorating the 2015 Eton Place Alley Festival, a 2.1-mile walking tour and activation of “street haunts and alley jaunts” hidden in Cincinnati. You may well have missed the event, held in Mount Auburn and Over-the-Rhine. But if Huelsman — co-founder of the 6-year-old organization Spring in Our Steps, which has received nonprofit status — has his say, you’ll be hearing much more about such spaces in the years ahead. Especially the alleys, most of which are brick-lined. Cincinnati has slightly more than 500, according to his research.

Huelsman has a dream for alleys to become urban spaces that are as beautiful and cherished as our parks. This is pretty radical — many of us see them as often gritty, littered, bad-smelling and sometimes dangerous places to get through as quickly as possible and only if you must. But he expresses that dream so poetically, with such effusive romanticism, that you want to succumb. Here’s the passionate cri de coeur, the declaration of love, that he wrote on social media several years ago for South Wendell Alley in Mount Auburn, the subject of an early and difficult cleanup by Spring in Our Steps:

“This place remains my sanctuary, symbolic of every turn, U-turn and detour my heart has taken over nearly four years. It has cajoled more sweat to drip from my body, inflicted more nicks and cuts, prompted more palpitations from my chambers and awarded more tears of joy than even the mostly six years it took to finish my degree. But it’s all a journey. I can’t imagine my life without this space, this alley and all it represents…”

The degree Huelsman mentions is an undergraduate degree in urban planning from University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. As for the arduous cleanup, which among other things uncovered the near-secret existence of an overgrown public stairway, he wrote, “I’ve done it for nothing but I’ve done it for everything: to survive and thrive.”

Spring in Our Steps is a small organization with just four board members, including Huelsman. (A fifth position is open.) It was founded in 2011 by him and Pam Sattler. For its alley and stairway cleanups, it has relied on volunteers. For current income, which it has used for community events, it has relied on a $10,000 grant from the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation.

But its advocacy of the emotional bond between contemporary Cincinnatians and our public alleys, many of which date to the 19th century and have outlived their original purpose of providing a rear service entrance for buildings, has struck a chord.

“Their value is in the historic granite curbs and the bricks,” says Jules Michael Rosen, Spring in Our Steps board member. “They’re just as much a historic asset as the buildings are downtown.” (Though Rosen believes public stairways — another of the organization’s focuses — hold more promise than alleys as urban pedestrian thoroughfares.)

That belief in alleys as a great civic resource has support from the city, too. “Alleys are certainly public assets, and by their nature and role in Cincinnati’s fabric, a historic asset,” says Michael Moore, director of the Department of Transportation & Engineering (DOTE), via email. “They are called out in (a section) of the Cincinnati Municipal Code and their use and/or restoration requires review on a case-by-case basis.”

As a result of that city support, on a recent Friday afternoon Huelsman attended the dedication of a new, long-percolating cooperative project between DOTE and Spring in Our Steps. Wearing that distinctive T-shirt, he arrived at the foot of the Main Street Steps to meet a small group of others.

This project is the Stairway & Alley Signage Project, involving the placement of 12 concrete bollards, with aluminum sign panels, along eight pedestrian gateways on the hillside between Mount Auburn and Over-the-Rhine. DOTE’s Moore says this $20,000 project was chosen because the steps, especially, can help get neighborhood students to Rothenberg Academy, a public school. But they’re for everyone. Once all are in place, some intersections whose locations would test the best Cincinnati Uber drivers or postal carriers, such as the junction where Peete Street, Peete Alley and the Peete Street Steps all meet, will have identification signs that also say, “Pathway cleared by Spring in Our Steps.”

“(That) means we have adopted them per our maintenance agreement,” Huelsman says. “We have agreed to host regular cleanup events to ensure regular surface maintenance (trash pickup, weeding, etc.) of these spaces … so that they continue to be viable, safer pedestrian connections in the community.”

Remarkably, Huelsman had come in for the event from Minneapolis, where he’s been working for the past year as a community livability specialist for that city’s downtown improvement district, as well as being a member of Minneapolis’ Pedestrian Advisory Committee. He has stayed active in Spring in Our Steps despite his distance and activities out of town, organizing local events, planning the signage and posting about city alleys on social media.

“Christian has done an incredible job of managing things, even from Minneapolis,” says Spring in Our Steps co-founder Sattler. She’s been less active in recent years, but attended the signage project’s dedication.

“There’s been more awareness from the city that there are people paying attention to these spaces,” she says. “There’s definitely a stronger connection with the city, just knowing there are people paying attention to these spaces and that they do matter.”

Huelsman’s larger vision is to see public acceptance for a concept called “living alleys,” which serve the public-at-large rather than just being where businesses get deliveries or load products.

“In a living alley, it’s about how people interact with the space, whether they are making use of it for leisure or brunch/lunch activities,” he says. “It’s about bringing in elements that attract people.”

This may sound counterintuitive, since cities already have open streets and sidewalks, plazas and parks as focal points for human activity. Urban alleys — narrow and often lined with buildings that create shadows and feel enclosing — are generally little used or, worse, used for such nefarious activities as public urination.

But Huelsman believes they have great potential if made more accessible and inviting for pedestrian use and activity. “There is a natural human inclination to go where people feel secure and feel they have full visibility of their environment,” he says. “A person’s interaction with a space, when their back is to a wall, creates a sense of control over the experience. So the enclosure of an alley works for the purpose of creating comfort. It allows people to feel they have full scope of what their surroundings are.”

The trick, he says, is to recreate the alley “as a focal point for human activity.” (Also, he points out, to the extent that cars use alleys, they tend to be driven at much slower speeds than on streets. Thus, they are less of a threat to pedestrians than thoroughfares.)

This is a transformation that’s not going to come without challenges, as a walk along the Stairway & Alley Signage Project route reveals. As Peete Street starts to turn into the much narrower Peete Alley at one end, the terrain begins to get rugged and a little bit weird. Graffiti on a chunk of rock points to “free hugs” awaiting adventurous urban explorers willing to go off-road. As the alley portion begins, there are a couple buildings, at least one of which looks vacant. Unnerving graffiti can be seen, like “If $ Is the Foot.”

Worse, it looks like the alley’s rare surface of 19th-century cobblestone pavement — it’s one of the city’s few cobblestone alleys — has been removed. Perhaps someone came back to this remote spot with a large vehicle, possibly to do some construction work, Huelsman suggests; there’s also a dumpster placed in the area. Spring in Our Steps had spent three years cleaning up this space, highlighting the cobblestone.

“We put a lot of time and energy into it,” Huelsman says. “But it’s hard to keep people accountable when it’s not being cared for or there’s nobody there to care for it.”

This is a problem elsewhere, too. Even Huelsman’s beloved South Wendell Alley has gotten overgrown again. (On a subsequent visit along Peete Street and Peete Alley by CityBeat photographer Hailey Bollinger, the dumpster and possibly some of the graffiti were gone.)

Amazingly, as we stand around this area and bemoan the visible destruction, a young man comes seemingly out of nowhere, nonchalantly walking up a pathway that doesn’t even seem to exist but is where the alley subtly bends, tightens and continues downward to Vine Street. He is carrying a bag with some purchased items and walks right past our small group without stopping. “If it’s an available pathway, people are going to use it,” Huelsman says.

Spring in Our Steps realizes they need to organize residents of the areas where it works to maintain their alleys and steps. “Engagement with residents, not just in the immediate communities of these spaces but also with volunteers in general, has been a huge struggle for us,” Sattler says.

But there are other people and organizations standing up for our alleys. Sometimes literally. Margy Waller, an Over-the-Rhine resident and community activist, almost got arrested last summer trying to protect quiet Adrian Alley from damage.

“I was working at home early in the morning and heard a loud noise coming from the alley behind my house,” she says. “I looked out my window and saw there was a big piece of equipment drilling through the bricks. So I went to see what was going on and it was a contractor for the city’s Water Works — they needed to get into the line underneath the alley. I asked them to stop because I was pretty sure they weren’t supposed to be drilling through historic bricks.”

She is right on this — DOTE’s Moore says his department’s 2016 Street Restoration Manual demands that “methods and materials used in making the permanent restoration shall match the existing pavement or surface conditions or be replaced as directed by the DOTE Inspector.” But it took Waller awhile to get that point through to the contractor, who wanted to keep working. She took action to protect the bricks.

“Eventually, I stepped in front of the machine onto the bricks so they had to stop,” she says.

A more artful example of Over-the-Rhine alley revival occurred last year when ArtWorks and Keep Cincinnati Beautiful collaborated on 14 mini murals along alleys between Main and Sycamore streets, south of Liberty Street. Called New Lines, this program included the alleys Goetz, Plough, Cogswell, Enon and Bland. “It was both to increase pedestrian use and access and to decrease blight and litter and make people feel safe so they could walk through alleys,” says Keep Cincinnati Beautiful’s Marissa Reed.

New homeowners — and new residents of Cincinnati — are discovering the pleasure of neighborhood alleys. There’s a good example in Northside, where a network of them sometimes crisscrosses its streets. Some are in good shape and access garages behind homes; others are overgrown and tough to navigate. Some folks might see them as a nuisance, a detriment to privacy, but Kelly Johnson and husband Chris Kerns saw them as a real plus when they moved from a “cookie-cutter” Northern Kentucky subdivision into a custom-built home on Fergus Street between Lingo Street and Chase Avenue. (There are two new homes on the street so far.)

Cover0726Kelly Johnson HB5Recent Northside arrival Kelly Johnson sweeps Pope Alley, adjacent to her home.PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

They are right at the intersection of Gray and Pope alleys; the entrance to their garage is on Gray and the couple has started sweeping their portion of Pope. They are out to revive their small segments of Northside’s alley grid.

“One of the features we really liked was the idea of keeping the alleys,” Johnson says. “We walked those alleys to different places around Northside when we were first thinking of building here. We loved that they connected to the main drag of Hamilton Avenue. It’s such a lovely walk along Pope Alley, though there are definitely some spots that need to be cleaned up. And I feel like I can walk the dog without having to worry about cars. We’ve considered the idea of keeping our alley looking good all the way to Hamilton.”

The opposite of alley revival is alley removal — and it does happen. DOTE’s Moore says the city has turned down requests to vacate, sell or privatize portions of alleys, as in a request by Chatfield College to take a portion of Kemp Alley in Over-the-Rhine. But, if there’s a compelling reason, as in a developer’s recent request for a portion of downtown’s alley-sized Bowen Street for a planned Kroger grocery and residential tower, the city might agree.

“Vacation and sale of an alley is not common, but the city probably averages two requests per year and approximately five or six requests for leases each year,” Moore says. “However, not all of these requests are granted.”

Huelsman and Spring in Our Steps would just as soon see none granted. “The sale of alleys to private interests eliminates options for pedestrians and opportunities to develop the city in more dynamic ways,” he says. “The leasing and gating of alleys only provide a short-term safety solution. Alleys should remain public and receive the same amenities we consider in making our streets and sidewalks safer and more desirable.”

The next Spring in Our Steps community event occurs Friday, beginning at 6 p.m., and Huelsman will be back from Minneapolis for it. It’s called the Dead End Film Festival and will also have some music, “lawn” bowling and other activities, in a very surprising and even eerie locale. It’s where two Over-the-Rhine alleys, Coral and Drum, meet to form a “T” between Main and Clay streets, just north of East 13th Street. Coral between Drum and East 13th can be a little gamey — during a visit with Huelsman, a syringe and socks lay on a curb near the brick pavement, which had been painted a light blue. There was trash near a garage door that faced the alley. But beyond that — behind a fenced-off and gated dead-end portion of Coral — was a more picturesque, kinder and gentler stretch of alley. There was what seemed to be an oasis, where trees grew in the right-of-way. And someone, Banksy-style, had stenciled two white tulips on a building wall. Spring in Our Steps has gotten access beyond the padlocked fence and on Friday night will project short films in this space. It’s possible the dead-end portion of Coral might someday become Spring in Our Steps Park.

“Over the years, we’ve cleaned up that space behind the gate tremendously,” Huelsman says. “It used to be covered in tall weeds, beer bottles and all sorts of siding had been disposed there. We really take ownership of the space and continue to improve upon transgressions of the past.”

All Cincinnati alleys should have such dedicated champions. But perhaps, with Spring in Our Steps, they all do.


SPRING IN OUR STEPS presents the Dead End Film Festival Friday at Coral and Drum alleys in Over-the-Rhine. More info: springinoursteps.com.
PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

Ten Interesting Alleys

Christian Huelsman, co-founder and executive director of Spring in Our Steps, finds these 10 Cincinnati alleys especially interesting.

Colby Alley (Over-the-Rhine)

An extensive granite block alley with a view of Rhinegeist (formerly a Christian Moerlein bottling plant) that runs behind structures from the former Moerlein empire and ends at the foot of the old Jackson Brewery/Metal Blast Building. From Eton Place to West McMicken Avenue.

Combs Alley (Camp Washington) 

Zigzags and angles of settled brick that weave through Camp Washington’s well-loved northern half, from Valley Park and the World War I Doughboy statue to the interstate. From Bates Alley to Massachusetts Avenue.

Corn Alley (West End)

A rare exhibition of cobblestone paving terminating at the rear of the historic Lafayette-Bloom School building. From Freeman Avenue to its eastern terminus.

Fortview Alley Steps (Mount Adams)

A picturesque alley stairway featuring two beautiful homes with exclusive access via steps. From Hill Street to Fortview Place.

Goetz Alley (Over-the-Rhine)

Spanning nearly the full depth of OTR south of Liberty Street and running parallel to Main Street, it offers an intimate neighborhood experience with a window into the city’s lush hillsides. From Michael Bany Way to Liberty.

Pope Alley (Northside)

A popular walking route beginning with a piazza at the business corridor and running to the Northside Children’s Playground. From Hamilton Avenue to Fergus Street.

Schorr Alley (Clifton Heights)

The lengthiest known alley without intersecting streets, it climbs steadily from the original commercial core in Clifton Heights to today’s bustling business district near the University of Cincinnati. From Warner Street to West McMillan Street.

Sharp Alley (Over-the-Rhine)

An inclined walking route with an identity crisis, it starts as a brick alley, continues with granite paving near the former Hudepohl Brewery and flows onward as an alley stairway. From Back Street to Mulberry Street.

South Wendell Alley (Mount Auburn)

From the former estate of beer baron Christian Moerlein, it travels past the dwarfing stone retaining wall and wilderness along its length and ends at a long-closed public stairway. From Mulberry Street to St. Joe Alley.

Weaver Alley (Downtown)

A nearly three-block stretch beginning at Doerr Alley that crawls under a sky bridge at The Phoenix, passes by a mix of historic and contemporary buildings along Garfield Place and goes to Plum Street and the front steps of City Hall.

Remembering Gene Autry in Kenton, Ohio

autry

BY STEVEN ROSEN/ LOS ANGELES TIMES/ JUNE 39, 2009

Reporting from Kenton, OH.

During last weekend’s Gene Autry Days festival here, a prominently displayed photograph showed the singing-cowboy movie star standing outside a local factory, surrounded by the proud employees.
It was taken on Aug. 8, 1938 – famously remembered by locals as the day Autry came to pay his respects to this small city in northwestern Ohio, about 75 miles south of Toledo. Kenton Hardware Co., a key employer that made cast-iron toys but was struggling to survive the Depression, had that year introduced the new Gene Autry Repeating Cap Pistol.
An immediate bestseller to young cowpokes worldwide at 50 cents per gun, a million had already been manufactured by the time Autry arrived to visit. For licensing his name and allowing a mold to be made of his own gun, Autry became the hero who saved the town’s main employer — and yes, he also got a cut of revenue.
That same day, Autry with his horse Champion did five performances at downtown’s Kenton Theatre. Some 4,500 people attended, according to contemporary accounts.
Kenton Hardware is long-gone, its factory shutting down in 1952 as America lost interest in cast-iron toys. But Autry’s impact on the city of 8,300 lives on via the festival. It just concluded its 16th year at the Hardin County Fairgrounds – not far from the still-standing but vacant factory. It’s a salute not only to The Cowboy but to a slice of American history that seems both similar to our own age (tough economic times) and very different (making toys in a Midwest factory).
Among those the event attracted this year was 70-year-old Richard Dzwonkiewicz, from Grayslake, Ill, a retired military careerist dressed as a white-hatted cowboy Autry for the festival’s look-alike contest.
“As you participate in this, that long-ago event becomes more meaningful,” he explains, as visitors come over to take his picture. “It’s still being remembered today, and all of us are part of that memory.”
The festival, run by the Hardin County Chamber & Business Alliance, started as a way to help pay for a new Community Building at the fairgrounds. Autry, still alive in 1994, approved it. (He died in 1998, at age 91.)
As a remembrance of him, Kenton’s event certainly isn’t as high profile as Los Angeles’ Autry National Center of the American West. It is a relatively small, mostly indoor affair where visitors can buy Autry and other Western-related collectibles and hear singers such as Paul Belanger (The Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy) perform songs associated with Autry, like “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” and “Back in the Saddle Again.”
The festival also offers an opportunity to teach and celebrate the way Kenton’s manufacturing past once intersected with pop culture. The history museum, for instance, had a booth with photos and other information about Autry’s 1938 visit. One of the vendors and festival organizers, 77-year-old Bob Bailey, can recall meeting Autry in 1938.
For the many older attendees, Autry represents a vanished aspect of pop culture.
“His movies were wholesome and had moral values – the bad guys didn’t win,” says 72-year-old Richard Gearhart, of nearby Bucyrus. He had come to the festival and then went downtown to snap photos of the five-year-old civic mural showing a waving Autry, on his rearing horse Champion, in front of a vibrantly red-brick Kenton Hardware Co.
Vendors at the festival were eager to show off and discuss the changes and additions that Kenton Hardware made over the years to its line of Autry repeating cap guns. For instance, Autry’s signature initially was only on the frame, but it soon was added to the red- or pearl-covered grip. In 1951, after it lost the Autry contract, the company briefly made a non-endorsed cap gun known as the Lawmaker.
Today, some models can bring hundreds of dollars, although vendors say sales have slowed in this economy. Also of value – and offered for sale at the festival – were the cardboard boxes the guns came in. They had Autry’s picture on them and noted that the gun was patterned after “the original six shooter of Public Cowboy No. 1.”
“The price is going up on mint guns in the box,” says vendor Joe Krock, 77, also a member of the Gene Autry Days Committee. “They’re hard to find in a box. These were meant for kids to play with, not put away.”
Kenton isn’t the only small American town still honoring Autry.
In September, there is a festival in Gene Autry, Oklahoma, which changed its name from Berwyn after he purchased a ranch there at the height of his fame. He came to that town on Nov. 16, 1941 to celebrate the name change. But just three weeks later, World War II started and he enlisted. Afterward, he sold the ranch but the town kept the name.
And also in September, this year’s Walk of Fame Music Festival and Induction in Richmond, Ind., will be dedicated to Autry. Very early in his career, he recorded for the city’s Gennett Records, a now-defunct but historic record label whose heritage city leaders want to promote.
Born in rural Tioga, Texas, Autry first found fame as a singer and performer on Chicago’s WLS Barn Dance radio show, branching out in the 1930s to movies while still keeping active in radio, recordings and personal appearances. He later became the owner of the California Angels based in Orange County.
“He always put across this man-of-the-people, everyman vibe that people picked up on,” says Holly George-Warren, author of the Autry biography “Public Cowboy No. 1” and a past attendee at Kenton’s festival, in a phone interview.
“And during the Great Depression, someone with that reassuring presence, who had become successful but still had a plainspoken and conversant tone, really got to people.”
autry

When Slavoj Žižek visited University of Cincinnati for a radical confab

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / April 9, 2014

I came across the Slovenian theorist/writer Slavoj Žižek in the recent movie The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, in which he passionately used scenes from Hollywood movies to spotlight his observations about the humanist struggle against repression and totalitarianism in oppressive capitalist systems.

His actual ideas were so densely intellectual, and delivered in such a rapid-fire manner, that I truthfully understood very little. But god (if I may use that word in reference to Žižek, an atheist), was he ever a fascinating cultural critic and film buff! In Pervert, he claims that one of John Carpenter’s more obscure horror movies — 1988’s They Live, in which aliens use subliminal advertising to control humans — is one of Hollywood’s most radically leftist movies ever.

Wanting to learn more about Žižek (pronounced Zhi-zheck), I discovered University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning was hosting the second-ever International Žižek Studies Conference and Exhibition. And it was going to focus on “parallax future(s) in art and design, ideology and philosophy.” Not only was it going to have a strong visual-art component, but Žižek himself was going to give a keynote lecture. So I attended last weekend.

It attracted around 100 or so Žižek scholars, students, artists and others from around the world — someone came from China. With panel discussions and workshops bearing titles like “Visualizing Metalepsis in Sites of Exception,” it wasn’t easygoing.  

Struggling to understand the concept of “parallax futures,” an important one in Žižekstudies, I asked the DAAP coordinator of the conference, assistant professor Kristopher Holland, what that meant. 

“We’re trying to figure it out,” he said. He also explained, as an example, that F. Scott Fitzgerald had first written and published Tender Is the Night one way, with flashbacks, in 1934, to poor reception. He then authorized a reconstructed version that was published posthumously in 1948. “So when we talk about Tender Is the Night, what are we talking about? Both exist. There are two ways of looking at things,” he said. 

The art for the most part was quite interesting. At the conference site, the mazelike DAAP building, several artists either had installations or did performances. Sue Wrbican from George Mason University encased a 1960s-era sail inside a 20-foot-high open bamboo construction to suggest the difficulty of navigating “between reality/fiction and male/female.” 

Nearby, Mira Gerard of East Tennessee State University intermittently reclined on a homey fainting couch and quietly read aloud from journals about her ongoing Lacanian psychoanalysis. 

In conjunction with the conference, DAAP’s Noel Anderson worked with Hebrew Union College’s interim museum director Abby Schwartz to curate a small but choice art exhibit called Parallax Futured: Transtemporal Subjectivities at HUC’s Skirball Museum. (It’s up through May 14.) 

The pieces tend toward minimalism and conceptualism with a twist. For instance, Tyler Hamilton’s “Untitled” features a concrete cube on which three metal legs have been attached, making it a kind of faux camera and tripod. And a beautiful small oil painting called “Mattress” by Zoran Starcevic is a close-up of gray-white mattresses seams, the repetition interrupted by a black diagonal slash. Is it, too, painted…or real? You want to touch it to find out. 

But the art — and everything else — took a backseat to Žižek’s own appearance Saturday afternoon. The DAAP auditorium attracted a couple hundred people who were enthralled by a rambling but fiery lecture (with Q&A) that went past two hours. 

Talking excitedly while compulsively tugging at his sweater or his face, the 65-year-old Žižek touched on so many topics so fast, good luck keeping track — Jacques Lacan to Ayn Rand, Marx to Edward Snowden, post-Colonial Africa to the Holocaust, the pending failure of global capitalism and so on.

But it wasn’t a dry dissertation by any means — the talk was peppered with non-academic words like “bullshit,” “stupid” and “blahblahblah.” And also with more of his fascinating, contrarian film references — he prefers Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to Spielberg’s Lincoln because it shows the violence of the fight against slavery. 

He believes Bela Lugosi’s 1932 horror classic White Zombie is vividly about class struggle. And he highly recommended the DVD of thriller The Butterfly Effect — “with the great American artist Ashton Kutcher,” he said sarcastically — for the atheist aesthetics of its “much more radical” non-theatrical-release ending.

As the applause finally ended, like at a Rock concert, I thought whatever else, he needs his own TV show. Maybe At the Movies With Slavoj Žižek? 


CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN:

srosen@citybeat.com


 

An Overlooked Accomplishment by Aaron Sorkin

studio

BY STEVEN ROSEN/ DEEPER INTO MOVIES / FEBRUARY 21, 2011

REVIEW: STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP: THE COMPLETE SERIES (WARNER HOME VIDEO)

Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network is probably going to get an Oscar on Sunday, and deservedly so. But a previous accomplishment by this writer, who knows how to tackle topical ideas about the role of media in society and offer complex, compelling characters, has been unjustly overlooked. Hopefully, Social Network will encourage people to take a second look at Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — a great television series.

As they did with Lisa Kudrow’s superb but ill-fated The Comeback, TV critics mistakenly attacked the daring Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sorkin’s knowing, brainy and fantastically acted follow-up to the The West Wing. They labeled it “pretentious” and “not funny enough.” As a result, the show never got the buzz it needed to be a success, and NBC canceled it after its first season. It was on for 22 episodes, from 2006-07.

It’s a great loss. This drama — it’s not a comedy — ostensibly is about the struggle of two head writers/producers (Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford, both excellent, with Perry a revelation) to put on a weekly Saturday Night Live-like comedy show.

But that’s just the window into Studio 60‘s real subject — the ethics, policies and politics of network television. And, next to the White House, what better institution for Sorkin’s lacerating, fast-paced and quick-witted writing style? The best of these 22 episodes include sizzling, literate, argumentative back-and-forth among Perry, Whitford, Steven Weber as the network chairman and Amanda Peet as the network president. Grade: A

(Adapted from an earlier Cincinnati CityBeat review)