Cincinnati organization reclaims, celebrates and activates urban passageways for pedestrians

Allies for Alleys


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:

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.


The Cincinnati/Weegee Connection and Other Discoveries During a Trip to L.A. Art Shows


(Nam June Paik’s “Video Flag Z”)

Sometimes you have to leave Ohio — and Cincinnati — to discover how many interesting and unusual connections there are between the Buckeye State and the larger world of modern/contemporary arts and design.

That was brought home to me, in varied and stimulating ways, when I ventured to Los Angeles recently to see Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980. This massive show, years in the planning, involved 60-some cultural institutions and looked at the evolution and worldwide impact of Southern California art and design. Going to Los Angeles for the show also gave me the opportunity to see one major museum building, new since I moved from there in 2007 — the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 

The Broad displays some of the largest contemporary pieces in L.A. public collections. And on the main floor was Nam June Paik’s 1987 “Video Flag Z.” This museum-owned work, in which TV monitors show video images that comprise a large American flag, has pride of place on a central wall — at least during a show called Human Nature — because it has just undergone restoration. 

“Video Flag Z,” it turns out, exists because of a working relationship Paik had with Cincinnati’s Carl Solway at the time. 

“The piece was built in Cincinnati, first exhibited at Chicago Art Fair in 1985,” Solway explained in an email. “There were three versions — ‘Flag X,’ the Chicago-exhibited version, sold to Detroit Art Institute; the Chase Bank purchased ‘Flag Y’ for their collection; and LA County Museum purchased ‘Flag Z.’ ”

Moving from that into LACMA’s Pacific Standard Time-related show, California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way, I quickly was confronted with another Ohio connection. Perhaps the key iconic piece in the exhibit is from an Ohio company, Airstream of Jackson Center. Modernist in form and in its vision of the American open road, the 1936 aluminum-body Airstream Clipper on display was designed by the company’s founder, Wally Byam. He created Airstream trailers in L.A., where they were manufactured from 1932-1979. But the company opened its Ohio plant in 1952, part of its post-World War II expansion. In an odd case of reverse migration, that’s where it is located today.

Probably the most interesting connection of all — another Cincinnati one — occurred at the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art’s Pacific Standard Time entry, Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles. Weegee (Arthur Fellig), the New York crime/street-life photographer who was propelled to fame after a 1945 book, Naked City, became a best-seller and prompted a movie, used the proceeds to move to L.A. and pursue a career.

I was struck by the fact that the 1945 clothbound copy of Naked City on display — the edition that triggered his fame — had been published by Zebra Picture Books of Cincinnati. According to MOCA, it sold through six printings, at 25 cents a copy, in its first year. (The unabridged hardbound version, also published in 1945, was from New York’s Essential Books.) 

And in trying to learn about Zebra Picture Books, I discovered George S. Rosenthal, part of the printing/publishing family that owned S. Rosenthal & Co. (Richard Rosenthal was his cousin.) He died young, not yet 45, in 1967, but his legacy is preserved by his wife, Jean Bloch of Cincinnati. She has provided his work to Cincinnati Historical Society and recently spoke to me about him in a phone call.

In 1944, when he was about to enter the family business and already interested in photography, he attended a summer session at Chicago’s Bauhaus-inspired Institute of Design under photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, which inspired his subsequent work. 

Collaborating with editor Frank Zachary, soon after the war he published a beautiful one-time magazine/yearbook called Jazzways. It was followed by the way-ahead-of-its-time graphic-arts magazine Portfolio, which apparently lasted three issues and featured work by Charles Eames, Alexander Calder, Richard Avedon, Saul Steinberg, Ben Shahn and others.

Rosenthal, meanwhile, pursued his own photo projects, such as one of Mexican ruins and another documenting the pre-expressway architecture of the West End. The Historical Society has these. 

Zebra Picture Books seems to have been more pop-oriented — besides Naked City, other titles were Life and Death in Hollywood and Murder Incorporated (about the Mafia). I looked through Jazzways at the Historical Society and it’s extremely impressive, with articles and photographs devoted to New Orleans, Chicago and elsewhere.

I look forward to finding out more about his work — he deserves renewed attention. Thanks, L.A., for introducing him to me





Blurt Online / June 9, 2009


Growing up in rural Clarksville in southwest Ohio, Chuck Cleaver learned early to hide his artistic interests from friends — even though at age six he had a gift for making up songs.

“I think in the community I came from, any kind of artistic
aspirations that a male had were considered wussy or gay, and you just don’t
want to be that in a small town,” he says. “So I never let on.”

Cleaver, who turns 50 in June and now lives in more arts-friendly Cincinnati,
isn’t sure if that memory is the impetus for the name of his band Wussy. It’s
the successor to the critically beloved but commercially iffy alt-rock band he
led, Ass Ponys.  In Wussy, he shares singing and songwriting with Lisa Walker, his significant other.

“Wussy just looks right,” he says of the name, during a
weekend breakfast at Blue Jay Restaurant in the city’s scruffy but hip
Northside section.

Active in the local music scene for three decades, he knows
just about every person in the divey, friendly place. The restaurant also
happens to be next door to Shake It Records, the city’s premiere record store
and also part of the enterprise that releases Wussy’s music.

On its new self-titled album on Shake It – the band’s third
since 2006 (plus an EP) – Wussy is looking right to a lot of people. Besides
Cleaver and 36-year-old singer-songwriter Walker, Wussy consists of Mark
Messerly on bass and late-arrival Joe Klug on drums (recently replacing Dawn
Burman). Its sound is often foreboding and intensely urgent, yet eminently
tuneful with an approach that recalls R.E.M. and the Velvet Underground.

Cleaver and Walker’ voices work well in harmony and solo; he’s capable of an imploring falsetto, she of compelling insight. Cleaver gets credit for the lyrics to five songs; Walker six. On a twelfth song, he wrote “most” of the lyrics; she “the end.”

The literate, mysteriously imagist quality of the songwriting about relationships (“Little Paper Birds” and “Gone Missing”) or life’s meaning (“Happiness Bleeds,” “Scream & Scream Again”) is striking. For instance, on the song “Happiness Bleeds,” Cleaver rhymes “porn” and “born” not in a jokey or smutty way, as so many bands might do, but rather almost existentially as he envisions a compellingly strange scene from rural youth:

“Trampling through the brambles til our pants were all
searching for a paper bag of mildewy porn/ reflecting on the neverending question/why had we been born?”

Wussy will be touring the East Coast and Midwest
this summer in support of the album. And in September, Cleaver and Walker will
do acoustic shows in Great Britain.  It will be his first time overseas. The Ass Ponys once were about to go, even had dates booked, but the original guitarist suddenly quit.

“We had gotten back from a 2½-month tour and his infant daughter didn’t know who he was,” Cleaver recalls. “So he said, ‘Screw this.’ By the time we got a new guitarist, the tour was over. That was between Electric Rock Music and the album after that.”

Electric Rock Music was Ass Ponys’ shining moment in the culture at large. Although that 1994 album was the band’s third, it was the first on A&M Records. The band had been signed when the majors chased offbeat and impassioned indie-rock acts in the wake of Nirvana’s breakthrough. It even spawned a modern-rock hit, “Little Bastard,” and earned the band a spot on tour with Pavement. But by the time of a 1996 follow-up on A&M, the
moment had passed. It came and went quickly.

“I think the label felt it had the next big thing, and for a while there was some frenzy,” Cleaver says. “But we were a bunch of midwestern guys, not especially good-looking and in our thirties, so they did not have the next Nirvana. We always got the impression they wanted us to be a little less heavy and to dress a little better. But we were like old grumpy men who didn’t want to do what they’d say.

“The guy who signed us to A&M really liked us,” he continues. “He signed a lot of ‘odd’ bands – Kitchens of Distinction and a band who were all really little and marveling at how big we were. They were really tiny people and looked like they all could be on charm bracelet.” Cleaver remembers that band had a one-word name, but can’t recall what it was.

Cleaver, it should be noted, is still a strapping guy – 6-2, heavyset, with a thick graying goatee, darker tousled hair and prominently framed glasses that give him a seriously bookish presence, like Trotsky. The tattoos, however, hint at a life on a hipper, alt-culture edge. He fits in both camps – he has a degree in fine arts from University of Cincinnati,
where he also started playing in experimental-music bands.

Ass Ponys continued on after the A&M moment passed. Two albums on Checkered Past, 2000’s Some Stupid With a Flare Gun and 2001’s Lohio, won praise for their committed rock and their witty and offbeat pop cultural references.

But something was happening to Cleaver around that time. “After we made Lohio, which was my favorite record, I thought I don’t know what’s beyond it,” he confides. “We were coming up with new material, but having trouble getting into it. I felt I needed a break. I’m not sure the Ass Ponys ever broke up, just faded out.” In fact, Ass Ponys is planning a
compilation, The Checkered Past Years, for release this summer on Shake It. It will include both albums, plus some live tracks and songs from various compilations.

After an Ass Ponys gig at a club in Newport, Ky., just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Cleaver was sitting on the building’s front porch when a younger women he had never met – Walker – came up to him.

“She picked up my guitar and started playing a song she had written and it was actually really good,” he says. “I tend to be a little picky – writing is the only thing I can do really well. So I was really impressed by that. And when she sang, Bam! That’s about all it took.”

Cleaver had earlier agreed to play a solo acoustic gig – a rarity for him – at a local festival. After that, “We thought maybe we can do this,” he says.

It was a tough time for them. Both were in the process of having their marriages fail. Cleaver was so financially strapped he had all his electrical musical equipment and gave up his fulltime business as a collectibles dealer. (He now works as a stonemason.) Then romance ensued. “We sort of went with it,” he says. “When you meet somebody, you don’t really have control over it. Our intention was never to be a couple.”

It has not been the easiest of relationships, Cleaver says, and some of that might be reflected in the songwriting. But, however much his image of the “old grumpy man” may persist in certain quarters, he feels renewed.

And, as he turns 50, he’s optimistic his best songwriting lies ahead.

“I hope so,” he says. “I always kind of hoped it was.”


(Photo, above, of Chuck Cleaver of Wussy by Jesse Fox)

‘A Lot of Sorrow’ Is Headed Contemporary Arts Center’s Way





As Steven Matijcio, curator of the Contemporary Arts Center, puts it about the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, “Boy, he’s really taking Ohio venue by venue these days!”

That’s true — indeed, Kjartansson, not yet 40, has become one of the hottest contemporary artists, period. He’s a performance artist, a musician, a creator of fine-art videos that use music and musicians, and a painter. And his work is especially being embraced by Ohioans.

Starting Wednesday and continuing through March 20, one of his most acclaimed video creations, last year’s A Lot of Sorrow, will be screening during regular gallery hours in the CAC’s Black Box Theater. It is here in connection with the MusicNOW Festival, which starts Wednesday and runs through Sunday at Music Hall, Memorial Hall and Woodward Theater.

A Lot of Sorrow consists of the band The National, most of them dressed in black suits with white shirts, performing their three-and-a-half-minute song “Sorrow” — from their 2010 High Violet album — for six hours straight. Kjartansson used up to six cameras to record the 2013 performance at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 branch and showed it at the New York gallery Luhring Augustine Bushwick last September.

MusicNOW was founded by Bryce Dessner — guitarist with The National and, like the other members, a Cincinnati native. The band is playing live on Friday with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at Music Hall as part of the festival. And Dessner wanted A Lot of Sorrow here.

I only have seen a 12-minute clip on Vimeo, and it was great, but Roberta Smith of The New York Times saw the whole thing and was deeply moved. “The delicate cooperation of The National’s members with one another to fill the space with sounds that gratify both themselves and the audience is perhaps both the subject and content of the piece,” she wrote. “Another subject, of course, is time, the way music changes and measures it, as well as the trancelike state the repetitions can induce.”

This Cincinnati debut of A Lot of Sorrow is occurring at the same time that another of Kjartansson’s videos, 2012’s The Visitors, is on display at the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art through May 24.

This is the prolific Kjartansson’s most well known work. A nine-channel video and audio installation, named after a 1981 ABBA album, it lasts just over an hour and chronicles eight performers — including Kjartansson — making music in separate rooms of an old country mansion while listening to each other through headphones. Museumgoers can move among the monitors that display the individual performers.

Actually, Kenyon College’s Graham Gund Gallery in Gambier, Ohio, already showed The Visitors from July 2013 through January 2014. In an unusual arrangement, Gund — a Kenyon graduate — purchased one of six official copies of the work (with another, The Man), and donated it in three equal shares to Kenyon, the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

“We were the first U.S. museum to exhibit The Visitors,” says Natalie Marsh, Gund Gallery director, via email. It is loaning the piece to Cleveland. (It has also shown at the ICA and Guggenheim Bilbao.)

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Museum of Art is preparing to show the high-definition DVD documenting Kjartansson’s 2011 Song, a live performance project at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art.

Truth be told, I’m a little worried that A Lot of Sorrow is going to get overlooked in its brief Cincinnati stint.

The CAC is busy with its own activities. On Friday night it has a members-only unveiling of its newly renovated lobby and related new art installations. And on March 20 from 7-11 p.m., the CAC is opening two new exhibitions — Albano Afonso’s Self-Portrait as Light and Daniel Arsham’s Remember the Future.

Since Kjartansson’s video runs during regular gallery hours, it will not be playing during the lobby reopening this Friday night. But since the March 20 opening of new exhibitions is for the public, A Lot of Sorrow will show that evening but be shut off from 7-8 p.m. for Arsham’s talk in the Black Box.

There could be more Kjartansson in our future. “We’re having ongoing discussions with Ragnar and his studio about an exhibition of one of the multi-channel works in 2016 or 2017,” Matijcio says via email. “We’re hopeful that Icelandic song of some sort will be ringing through the building in the near future. Ideally one of the videos would be paired with a new performance work to be premiered in Cincy.”

Visit for more information

Making Prints and Graphics Hip and Popular for Museums


Two popular art museum shows are disproving the notion that the public rarely flocks to prints/graphics shows: ‘The Psychedelic Experience: Rock Posters from the San Francisco Bay Area 1965-1971’ in Denver and ‘Shepard Fairey: Supply and Demand’ in Boston. The latter show comes to the CAC here in February.


For art museums, one knotty problem is that the public rarely flocks to prints/graphics shows.

Prints are an important art form for museums to collect and display — many institutions even have curatorial departments devoted to them. But they’re tough to promote to visitors, which is frustrating during a recession when museums need to develop more affordable shows that can draw a crowd.

Because the public regards prints/graphics as multiples, it rarely responds to them as being the equal of paintings. This is despite the fact they can be worth a lot of money and often take great effort to design and execute.

But maybe pop culture is coming to the rescue — and Cincinnati looks like it’s in a prime position to benefit.

Last Sunday, the Denver Art Museum closed a smash exhibition that exceeded attendance expectations, The Psychedelic Experience: Rock Posters from the San Francisco Bay Area 1965-1971. It had already extended the show once. For the museum’s second quarter, April through June, a period that included three of the show’s four months, total attendance was close to 136,000.

It’s worth noting that, for that same period, Cincinnati Art Museum’s attendance was 66,085 — and for half of that quarter, it had a very popular show, Surrealism and Beyond: In the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. It’s also worth noting Cincinnati Art Museum is free; Psychedelic Experience cost $15.

Denver’s assistant curator of graphic design, Darrin Alfred, organized the show from a 2008 acquisition of 875 psychedelic posters from Boulder collector David Tippit. These included full first-print sets from Bill Graham Presents and Family Dog, the two main concert presenters in San Francisco during the hippie era.

I saw the exhibition and thought Alfred did a superb job of making a case for the artistry of the work, delineating the subtlest of evolution in the graphic-design innovations of people like Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse and Rick Griffin. I also have to say that, because this was a big show, after a while such subtle variations became lost on me.

So instead I became fascinated with the musical acts advertised on the posters — some fabled, some forgotten. I’ve heard other visitors did the same. Does that still make it an art experience?

Cincinnati Art Museum originally had a show scheduled for the coming season with less edgy but still noticeable pop culture overtones: circus posters from Sarasota’s Ringling Museum of Art. But the Ringling delayed it, given the economy.


Meanwhile, The Boston Globe has reported that the current Shepard Fairey exhibit, Supply and Demand, at that city’s Institute of Contemporary Art — predominately screen prints, collages and Rubyliths — had exceeded 105,000 visitors by June, making it the most popular show in that museum’s 73-year history. The show opened Feb. 6 and continues through Aug. 16. Fueling that show’s popularity is the hip street/poster artist’s impact on popular culture and history — his “Obama Hope” poster has become almost as iconic an image as Uncle Sam, making Fairey a celebrity.

That show comes to Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center on Feb. 20, 2010, and might well be running for two exhibit cycles, into the fall, to meet expected demand. The CAC, it’s well to note, debuted an influential show that predicted this trend of pop culture-fueled art shows back in 2003, Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture. It included Fairey.

Rediscovering Lost Photos From a Long-Ago West End

Under the sponsorship of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio (now the Cincinnati Historical Society), George S. Rosenthal took roughly 3,600 photographs of West End places



It’s hard to have any conversation about Cincinnati’s past without someone bemoaning the impact of I-75 construction in the 1950s.

The West End neighborhood was torn asunder, much of its architecture destroyed and many of its residents uprooted. The urban fabric of the inner city was torn in half, and for what? Trucks and travelers, many of them participants in suburban sprawl, roar through the city day and night — when they’re not stuck in traffic.

When you think about this now, you ask, “Didn’t anybody see it coming? Didn’t anybody know what would be lost?”

As it turns out, someone did: the late George S. Rosenthal. And starting with a reception Wednesday and continuing through Dec. 21, you can see his photographs of the old West End in the FotoFocus Biennial-connected Documenting Cincinnati’s Neighborhoods show at Hebrew Union College’s Skirball Museum and Jacob Rader Marcus Center.

This show features two other photographers besides Rosenthal. One, the late Daniel Ransohoff, is a Cincinnati legend — a social worker who for decades documented the city’s disadvantaged as part of rallying the community to the their needs. The other, Ben Rosen, also deceased, had a long and productive career as a photographer for American Israelite and Catholic Telegraph.

I mean them no disrespect to focus this story on Rosenthal, but his work fascinates me for his prescience. Also, it’s so little known.

A part of the printing/publishing family that owned S. Rosenthal & Co., he had training in and a deep love for photography. He even studied one summer in Chicago under László Moholy-Nagy. At his company, he briefly published an avant-garde magazine called Portfolio — copies will be in the Skirball exhibit.

From 1957 to 1959, under the sponsorship of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio (now the Cincinnati Historical Society), he took roughly 3,600 photographs of West End places, mostly those marked for removal and mostly without people present. He used a 35-mm Leica camera.

His work was turned over to the organization, which in its 1960 Bulletin noted that his eye for “iron work, unusual doorways and windows, front porches, as well as brick and wood construction, served to bring out the best of Mr. Rosenthal’s art photography.”

Rosenthal died in 1967, not yet 45. It’s unclear if his photographs from this project ever had a show. His wife, Jean Bloch, seems to remember a small one at a West End library at the time.

Bloch recalls that Rosenthal would go out early in the morning to shoot. He often would be accompanied by a friend, John Garber. As coincidence would have it, Garber, too, is starting to enjoy a rediscovery; he was an architect responsible for the strikingly modernist St. John Unitarian Church in Clifton.

The two were lifelong friends, she said, attending University School in Avondale together. That school appeared to be an early Montessori one, although a 1975 Cincinnati article said its teacher was told not to use that word because people might think it a strange indoctrination technique.

According to Skirball Museum Director Abby Schwartz, there has been no showing of Rosenthal’s work since it was turned over to the society. It’s kept at the Cincinnati History Library and Archives at the Cincinnati Museum Center.

Schwartz was told about Rosenthal’s project by Regine Ransohoff, Daniel’s sister-in-law. Both men’s archives are at the historical society. A small Skirball contingent began going through contact sheets and negatives, picking what to have scanned and then printed.

It was apparent quickly that Rosenthal’s work was a find.

“(We) were looking not only at images of buildings but also beautiful aesthetic photographs,” Schwartz says. “They began to fall into that category. Some are very focused architectural details, others are images of buildings but there might be cars in them that give us a sense of time and place, the late 1950s. There are ones taken from certain angles that give you a distorted view of buildings. So we started to group them in interesting ways.”

Reading the 1960 Bulletin publication about the historical society’s acceptance of Rosenthal’s photographs, one can see there was hopefulness that accompanied the freeway demolition of a neighborhood viewed at the time as a slum. New housing projects, the article said, would “restore the area to Cincinnati as a respectable residential district.”

But now, these photographs chronicle a loss rather than a new beginning.

The opening reception takes place 5:30-7 p.m. Wednesday at the museum (3101 Clifton Ave., Clifton). The show is up through Dec. 21. For more information, visit

Chubby Checker on His Place in the Classic Rock Pantheon

Twist of Fate

Chubby Checker returns to the birthplace of his biggest hit

MARCH 17, 2014


Whenever Chubby Checker comes to our area to perform “The Twist” and his other early-’60s dance-craze hits, he admires the view as he approaches downtown Cincinnati.

“It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” he says, talking by phone while driving into town. “I’ve pulled to the side of road so I can see my beautiful Cincinnati. Oh man, look at that. Nobody’s got that. It’s beautiful!”

But might it be more beautiful, perhaps, if there were a digital billboard at city limits — or perhaps a statue — denoting Cincinnati as “The Birthplace of The Twist”? After all, this is where, in 1958, King Records’ act Hank Ballard and the Midnighters first recorded the song, which Ballard (who died in 2003) wrote. Ballard had a string of R&B hits but never a Top 40 smash. (The song’s melody is based on The Drifters’ “What’cha Gonna Do,” which Ballard already had adapted once for a song called “Is Your Love For Real?”)

In one of those weird showbiz stories, King failed to promote Ballard’s “The Twist,” at first issuing it as a B-side on a 1959 single. But in 1960, when it finally started to make noise on a grassroots level, Philadelphia’s Cameo-Parkway record company rushed 18-year-old Checker into the studio for a cover version.

Dick Clark, whose national American Bandstand teen-dance TV show was Philly-based, had Checker perform it on his show and “The Twist” shook into the stratosphere. Just last year, Billboard magazine named it the top song of all time on its Hot 100 charts, partly because it’s the only song to ever reach No. 1 during two different chart runs — in 1960 and 1962.

That was because “The Twist” — and its accompanying dance, where couples suggestively swiveled their hips while grinding their feet — became a cultural phenomenon. It changed the way people danced forever and its success carried Checker with it. He had numerous other hits in the early 1960s, including “Let’s Twist Again,” “Pony Time,” “Limbo Rock,” “Slow Twistin’” (with Dee Dee Sharp) and more.

Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ “The Twist”:


Checker (born Ernest Evans) at first laughs at the idea of Cincinnati (and not Philly) being the world’s Twist capital.

“Well, you know, from what I know, (Ballard) wrote the song and recorded it and (the label) lost faith in it,” he says. “‘The Twist’ became a girl nobody wanted and Chubby saw her in all her swaddling clothes. She wasn’t dressed beautifully, but had a beautiful soul. Chubby came along, dressed her up, showed everybody how beautiful she was and everybody wanted her.”

Checker is loquacious in a colorfully rapid-fire way that recalls Muhammad Ali. At 72, he’s extremely positive about life and the high energy of his performances, but he does harbor a complaint about showbiz.

Checker believes racial prejudice keeps his classic song from being played on Oldies and Classic Rock radio stations as much as, say, The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” or Rod Stewart’s “Twistin’ the Night Away.”

I suggest to Checker that maybe the reason is generational or ageist — Rock music is thought to have blossomed as a Baby Boomer means of expression with The Beatles’ arrival in 1964. Maybe there’s a divide between pre- and post-1964 Rock & Roll?

Checker doesn’t buy that explanation.

“The strongest period for black singers was 1948-64, so that wiped them out,” he says. “I’m not as old as some of The Rolling Stones or Beatles. It’s just a bunch of crap. They know why they’re not playing the music and need to fix it and change it.” (Checker is a year younger than Ringo and the same age as Charlie Watts.)

“Play their songs,” Checker says of artists like the Stones, Beatles and Stewart. “But play mine, too. Don’t wipe me out. Don’t forget about me. Play my music.”

In Checker’s version of events — and Billboard archives bear him out (although there are other versions) — Clark considered playing Ballard’s version and having him on Bandstand to perform it, but another Ballard single, “Finger Poppin’ Time,” was climbing the charts just as buzz for the original “The Twist” started to grow. Clark felt Top 40 radio would be reluctant to play both songs.

“No one was going to play two songs by anybody, white or black,” Checker says. “(Ballard) had a song climbing the charts a little bit, and somebody thought (Ballard’s version of) ‘The Twist’ was going to come alive. It wasn’t going to happen.”

So Checker recorded a very similar version and performed it on Bandstand.

“From the very moment we came on stage to sing that song written by Hank Ballard, everything changed,” he says. “The dance floor changed.”