How Ravi Shankar Helped Cincinnati’s Urban Renewal

By Steven Rosen


When Ravi Shankar died in December at age 92, Jim Tarbell’s thoughts turned to when he brought the great Indian classical musician to the historic — and endangered — St. Paul Church in the Pendleton District. 

At the time, in the early 1970s, Tarbell had created the Committee to Save St. Paul’s, and for a while had even moved into the parish house of the deconsecrated and unused then-120-plus-year-old Catholic church. He staged other events there, including a concert by the Jazz group Oregon, but Shankar’s 1975 appearance was the crowning achievement.

“It was the perfect match,” Tarbell says. “For someone with his mastery and spiritual side, it was the perfect setting.”

It was one of the most memorable activities Tarbell ever has been involved in — and he’s done plenty during a career that has included sponsoring Grateful Dead’s first local concert, owning the Ludlow Garage Rock club and Arnold’s Bar and Grill, championing Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton preservation and being one of Cincinnati’s most distinctive City Council members.

It also showcased Tarbell’s belief in saving historic urban buildings as “living museums” with new uses. It was not a popular idea yet — a few blocks away, in downtown, movie palaces were being destroyed in the name of “progress.”

Tarbell booked Shankar for two concerts — Saturday night on April 26 and on the following Sunday afternoon — and connected them to University of Cincinnati’s Spring Arts Festival. He paid him $3,500. Spring Arts, itself, was a major event that brought Santana, Allen Ginsberg and the Living Theatre Collective, among others, to the Clifton campus.

Shankar, whose mastery of the sitar and use of droning had a consciousness-raising effect that inspired the Beatles and John Coltrane in the 1960s, had already come to Taft Theatre in 1968. But this was different; a unique setting that was unfamiliar and decidedly off-the-beaten-path for many of the hundreds who attended. 

“That was part of it — to do something sort of otherworldly that would be a good reason for coming to the neighborhood,” Tarbell explains.

Besides the significance and quality of the show, it was memorable because Shankar played his meditative ragas on the floor of the sanctuary, surrounded by lit candles and the glorious windows. 

James Wierzbicki, a critic for Cincinnati Post, began his review (among the material Tarbell has meticulously saved) this way: “Candles burned around the stage area and cloudy sunlight seeped in through the stained glass windows.

Part of the audience — mostly young, mostly in blue jeans — preferred to sit on the floor rather than in the church pews.”

With his tabla player Ali Rakha and an unnamed musician playing the droning tamboura, a stringed instrument, Shankar performed some spellbinding selections. Wierzbicki praised a 35-minute solo: “He could have continued the improvisation for hours without ever repeating himself.”  

The spacious church, which had opened in 1850, had suffered from declining population. There was a fear that it and its companion buildings — a parish house, two schools and a convent, all now part of a National Historic District — might be sold to a parking lot operator. Among the church’s architectural treasures were its stained-glass windows, including one 35-foot-tall depicting the Wedding Feast of Cana that let early-morning sunlight stream in.

The neighborhood, as well as the church, was struggling at the time. Roughly bordered by Reading Road and Sycamore and Liberty streets, it had (and still has) a spectacular European streetscape of close-together, brick multi-family buildings with first-floor shops, but the church-going population had declined after a Liberty extension cut it off from Prospect Hill to the north. And U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had targeted the remaining enclave for absentee landlord-managed low-income housing.

Tarbell, who had been living in Over-the-Rhine/downtown locations, learned through the grapevine in 1973 that St. Paul was, essentially, surplus. 

Tarbell went to see recently appointed Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, who himself had made a point of living downtown. “I said to myself, ‘He gets it,’ ” Tarbell recalls. “He said, ‘What do you have in mind?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll live there and pretend to caretake. I’m not shy to having activities going on. I’ve done that elsewhere. Maybe it will provide some goodwill for the church.”

Tarbell and some friends moved into the parish house (he had moved out before the Shankar concert). “I’d come over with my sleeping bag to sleep at the foot of the stained-glass window when the sun came up. It was a religious experience.”

Today, Pendleton — like adjacent Over-the-Rhine — is in full renaissance, with an active neighborhood council and new projects being announced almost weekly. The restored older single-family homes along Broadway are among the city’s most desirable. 

Inspired by his St. Paul experience — of which Shankar was the highlight — Tarbell went on to open Arnold’s in 1976 and began buying, renovating and living in homes on Pendleton’s Spring Street and Broadway. 

And, although it took a few more years and Tarbell was not directly involved, Verdin Co. bought the church complex in 1981 for its headquarters. Today, the church itself is Bell Event Centre; the other buildings are used by Verdin. 

Shankar’s visit was also a key moment for Pendleton’s fledgling community of young urban activists who already had started a “back to the city” movement — way ahead of their time. 

“That Shankar concert was one of the greatest things to happen down here,” said architect Ken Jones, who in 1970 moved into one of the beautiful old homes along Broadway. It was in foreclosure. Jones provided a carpet for Shankar and his two accompanying musicians.

“It was a magic moment. Looking back, we were extremely fortunate to have someone like that come to our neighborhood.”

(From Cincinnati CityBeat, 1-23-13. Photo of Jim Tarbell with Ravi Shankar material by Jesse Fox, CityBeat photographer.)

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