Are we haunted by our past?
IT USED TO BE that regional history books were about our accomplishments — the people, places and things that gave us ongoing civic pride.
Such books continue to be published, but increasingly our history seems to be about what haunts us — what we regret, or at least, have overlooked. You can’t scan a bookstore’s “local interest” section now and not notice how many titles use the words “lost,” “abandoned,” “forgotten,” “hidden” or “ghosts.” Those are not words that make you instantly proud to be a Cincinnatian or Ohioan.
There is, for instance, Karen Abbott’s brand-new The Ghosts of Eden Park — a true crime drama that brings the once-forgotten Prohibition-era Cincinnati gangster/bootlegger George Remus to the fore. Published by Crown Publishing and benefitting from a national push, Abbott appears at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Rookwood Pavilion at 7 p.m. on Aug. 6.
But there are also such choices as Lost Cincinnati, Lost Tea Rooms of Downtown Cincinnati, Hidden History of Cincinnati, Lost Northern Kentucky and Lost River Towns of Boone County (Kentucky). Moving beyond books exclusively about Cincinnati, you’ll find Lost Akron, Lost Dayton Ohio, Abandoned Ohio, Lost Restaurants of Central Ohio & Columbus, Lost Circuses of Ohio, Buried Beneath Cleveland: Lost Cemeteries of Cuyahoga County, Lost Youngstown, Lost Toledo and Lost Amusement Parks of Kentuckiana. You can find this trend happening everywhere else, too — one variation on the theme consists of Never Built Los Angeles, Never Built New York and Unbuilt Toronto.
Jeff Suess, the author of both Lost Cincinnati and Hidden History of Cincinnati (as well as Cincinnati: Then and Now), says his publisher wanted the “lost” and “hidden” titles for those two books.
“But it wasn’t too hard to find a number of lost things that resonated with current readers,” he says. “Technically, most of the city is long gone, but I chose things that, when you see a picture, you say, ‘Why in the world did we ever get rid of it?’ I think that’s indicative to where we are now — we find value in the architectural side of history, or in the parts of our history that long have been pushed aside.”
As examples, he mentions continued regrets over the destruction of downtown movie palaces and the 1955 demolition of the beautiful 19th-century Old Main Library.
“I think part of the key to this interest in things lost and forgotten, or in ‘ghosts,’ is to learn from this and not repeat it,” Suess says. “When I was writing Lost Cincinnati, it was kind of saying, ‘Look at what we used to have. If we’re not careful, we’re going to lose the Terrace Plaza next.’ ”
Suess’ publisher for Lost Cincinnati and Hidden History of Cincinnati is The History Press — part of South Carolina-based Arcadia Publishing, which nationally releases up to 500 regional books a year that try to include appropriate images with well-researched text by local authors.
Adam Ferrell, Arcadia’s publishing director, says it has published or currently distributes more than 250 books with the word “lost” or “abandoned” in their titles. Among their subjects are local restaurants (an especially hot topic), circuses, tea rooms, amusement parks, hotels, asylums, industries, roads, farms, estates and waterfronts. It also publishes books about ghost towns, including one called Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County (Colorado).
“One of our more successful series is where the branding is ‘lost,’ ” Ferrell says. “Lost eras resonate with people, probably because it’s somewhat nostalgic, but also people can see what a place used to look like.”
He also says that books about dearly departed department stores — such as Columbus’ Lazarus or California’s Bullock’s — have been strong sellers, whether they specifically have “lost” in their titles or not.
“Department stores were a major shopping experience for people in the middle 20th-century to the 1980s or ’90s, and then were bought by Macy’s or another big company and fizzled over time,” he says. “Baby boomers might remember going with their parents, and they had tea rooms and restaurants and big Christmas displays.”
Abbott’s Ghosts of Eden Park has a very colorful and exciting narrative, making it quite novelistic. While the bootlegger Remus was in jail, a federal agent began an affair with his wife, Imogene. Subsequently, she tried to divorce Remus upon his release, but in 1927 he shot her to death in Eden Park, after a car chase. A jury found him temporarily insane.
Abbott is trying to use “ghosts” as a buzzword to equate that sensational murder to a colorful time — Prohibition — in the city’s and nation’s history. In an interview, she said she does see parallels with the way she uses “ghosts” in her title and the way other books use terms like “lost” or “abandoned.”
“I think Remus is an over-the-top character, so outlandish and brazen and clearly one of a kind and larger than life,” she says. “Therefore, the title has the kind of evocative idea of something that’s lost or gone.”
She also notes that it could have a literal meaning — the 2009 book Ghosts of Cincinnati: The Dark Side of the Queen City tells reports of people that have seen a mysterious woman in a dark dress near Eden Park’s Spring House Gazebo, where Imogene was shot.
Randy McNutt’s 1996 book Ghosts: Ohio’s Haunted Landscapes, Lost Arts and Forgotten Places was groundbreaking in using the word to signify a sometimes-melancholy exploration of small-town Ohio’s fading past. For the book, he drove around the state to find stories in its “dying towns, dead towns, forgotten people and places,” he says.
When he first wrote his manuscript, he had a different name for the book. But his editor — John Baskin of Wilmington, Ohio’s Orange Frazer Press — came up with Ghosts. (As an author, Baskin had written 1976’s classic New Burlington, about a “lost” Ohio town that was flooded to create Caesar Creek Lake Reservoir in southwestern Ohio, about 44 miles northeast of Cincinnati.)
The book proved so popular that McNutt has done two others for The Kent State University Press — Lost Ohio: More Travels into Haunted Landscapes, Ghost Towns and Forgotten Lives and Finding Utopia: Another Journey into Lost Ohio.
“I was surprised when (Baskin) showed me a copy of what the cover would look like and I said, ‘Do you think people are going to understand this?’ ” McNutt says. “He said, ‘Yes, it’s a metaphor.’ ”
(Contact Steven Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org)