Category Archives: Cincinnati

Father Knows Best

20151101-freedom-from-wantIn wake of the presidential election, lots of think-piece articles are flowing around social media saying that “elite” coastal liberals  should empathize with and respect the opinions of rural white Trump voters. Having grown up in a very conservative area smack where the Midwest meets the South, I find such articles more than a bit patronizing. In response, this recent article in Roll Call articulates my feelings much better than I could. Change a few details and I could’ve written it myself.

I grew up in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, a small bedroom suburb of Cincinnati that — like many Cincinnati suburbs — is almost entirely white, Roman Catholic, insular, and rapidly conservative. I never met a black person my age until my family moved to Asheville, North Carolina when I was ten, and I still remember my third grade music teacher at Woodfill School explaining to us that a Jewish kid had enrolled in the school as if it were something controversial. Sunday school at our mainline Protestant church included regular exhortations about the evils of communism. Cincinnati itself, just across the river, was largely considered a no-man’s-land. My dad was a big volunteer for Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning on their early runs for public office, and has a hand-written letter from President Gerald Ford thanking him for his work for the Republican Party.

After we moved to North Carolina, I spent the rest of my childhood and teenage years in very conservative parts of the South, usually on or near military bases. I come from a long line of authoritarian military men who thought of violence as the first and last solution to any problem. Discipline in our home was meted out at the end of a leather belt, especially when I was struggling in school due to an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder and related issues of anxiety and depression. I was bullied nonstop at school because I was perceived to be gay or asexual, and it’s taken me years to finally admit to myself that I grew up in an abusive home environment. I’ve been suicidal at various points of my life, and came very close to ending it all during a particularly dark spell in 2003.

Despite all that, I still bought into the Republican worldview hook, line, and sinker. I listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio all the time and believed every word he said, I owned two of his books, and spent most of my time convinced that my world was under attack by liberals and minorities who I had never actually met. My friends from high school may even remember me giving a speech in favor of re-electing George H. W. Bush during the 1992 election.

My views never really began to change until I had moved out on my own in Chicago, and found myself in a diverse urban neighborhood with a lot of people who weren’t like me. (Chicago’s hyper-gentrified Lincoln Park neighborhood wasn’t exactly a model of urban diversity in the late 1990s and is even less so now, but it was still a million times more diverse than anywhere I had lived previously.) It wasn’t until I was well into my 20’s, spending a summer in Boston during the 2000 election season, that I finally reached the point where I explicitly rejected the values of my upbringing.

I had never met anybody who I knew to be gay until that summer, and I don’t recall meeting anybody who identified as Native American until I moved to Seattle earlier this year. It’s taken me a long time to remove myself from the insular bubble I grew up in, and I no doubt still have a few steps left to go.

Most of my family, however, has never lived anywhere but Campbell County, Kentucky, and my parents still see the world through the lens of people who came of age in 1950s white suburbia. My dad only listens to recorded radio shows of that era, rarely watches any movies that don’t star John Wayne shooting a bunch of nonwhite people, and still thinks Ted Kennedy wrecking a car in 1969 is an indictment of the entire Democratic Party of today. He’s proud of the fact that now-retired Jim Bunning is his neighbor.

For me, as much as I love my hometown, being back there still brings up a lot of personal baggage and trauma. I tried to give Cincinnati a fair shot during grad school and for a while afterwards, but I ultimately made the decision to move to Seattle this past year. I haven’t regretted that decision for a second. I have nothing but incredible respect for those who stay in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky and pour their lives into making it a better place, but my path lies elsewhere.

So, with all that in mind, it’s a bit patronizing to suggest that the onus is on urban liberals to step out of our bubbles, as if the parochial, lily-white “heartland” I grew up in is America’s default condition and that diverse, liberal coastal cities are the outliers. Cities like New York and Seattle are filled with people who have spent their lives trying to escape insular bubbles, and are every bit as much the “real America” as Midwestern factories and cornfields. On an issue-by-issue basis, America’s values are strongly in line with those of urban liberals; it is the rural and exurban conservatives who are living in an insular bubble, by choice or not.

Unfortunately, we’re stuck with a Constitution that was largely written to appease Southern slaveholders of the 1700s, which is a big reason why our representative republic is anything but representative. Anti-urban bias is practically hard-baked into America’s DNA, and is why Trump got elected despite getting fewer votes.

I’ll close by quoting the Facebook status of a friend of a friend that was shared anonymously:

I come from a small rural town much like the ones discussed in that Cracked article everyone has been resharing in the wake of the election. I get the sentiment expressed. I understand that people in those areas feel like their way of living is being wiped out. I comprehend the need for compassion.

But at the same time, many of us who grew up in those places left precisely because of the unshakable social underpinnings their culture wrought: Biblical literalism, fundamentalism and evangelism. Racism. Hatred for gays and lesbians. Lack of education.

A few of us have tried to return and work in those communities (whether as entrepreneurs or as volunteers) to improve situations we felt were suboptimal. In many cases, our efforts were rebuffed by individuals so enthralled by a stagnant mindset about urban planning and politics that they could not make room to try anything new that might improve their situation. […]

I’m not saying ether side is right or wrong, necessarily—but I’m having a really hard time understanding how this is the fault of me and people like me who have fled these communities and cloistered families because we couldn’t endure the ignorance we saw play out there. It’s difficult to comprehend what, if anything, I *owe* them. Because right now, I FEEL as if I owe them nothing.

This doesn’t mean that people in liberal cities can smugly sit on our laurels; we have a ton of work to do. Without any support from the federal government, we’ll be largely on our own. And I fear that we’ll soon find out that many of our own neighbors and public officials aren’t as liberal and compassionate as we had hoped; we won’t be spared the shitstorm that’s coming. In fact, we’ll be the target for much of it.

My focus for the immediate future is to help make sure my new home city remains a safe sanctuary for all, to ensure that people who come here are given the same warm welcome that has been graciously afforded to me, and I will do whatever I can to support those who are oppressed, hurting, and trying to make the world a better place, wherever they are.

Back East

Once again, I’ve decided to dust the cobwebs off this blog and bring it back to life. Over the past few posts I made a big deal about wanting to clear excess detritus out of my life, and the self-imposed commitment to maintaining a personal blog ended up being one of the things that got chucked by the wayside as I concentrated on finishing grad school. A quick rundown of what I’ve been up to in the interim:

I ended up staying out in Los Angeles for an extra semester and delaying my graduation for a year. This was due to a number of factors, mainly some problems I was having with my Structures course sequence being complicated by the university’s switch from a quarter system to a semester system, as well as my desire to spend some more time working in LA and see my project along to a more complete stage. I returned to Cincinnati in November 2012, but not before spending a week stranded in San Bernardino County while my Jeep’s transmission had to be rebuilt. (Buy me a drink sometime and I’ll be happy to recount that story. It’s a real hoot.)

Bad tranny

Bad tranny

By taking an extra year to finish grad school, I was given the opportunity to take another co-op placement. I ended up working for a mid-sized firm in New York City over the summer of 2013 and greatly enjoying it. I had actually been planning to spend that co-op at a local firm in Cincinnati, but applied to the firm in NYC without thinking I stood much of a chance of actually getting the position. The firm does great work and I felt that my portfolio was, at best, middle-of-the-pack compared to my classmates, and I was somewhat leery of moving back to NYC after getting seriously burned-out with the city twice before. To my surprise, I got hired and the job turned out to be the best co-op placement of my grad school career. While walking back to the subway one night, it dawned on me that, despite all my frustrations, New York felt at least as much like a hometown to me as my original hometown of Cincinnati. I eventually made the decision that I would try to move back to New York upon my graduation the following spring.

I returned to Cincinnati in August and spent the next nine months fleshing out my thesis project, which I had decided would be something small and manageable: a new Penn Station for New York. It was either that or a meditation cabin in Oregon. Meanwhile, I had begun the search for post-grad school employment. After several months of false starts and dead ends, I received two offers within minutes of each other late in the spring semester: one from a local firm in Cincinnati that does a lot of fairly bland workplace design, and another from a small boutique firm in New York that does mostly high-end residential and hospitality projects. I picked the latter option, and began preparing to move to New York while I finished up my thesis.

In April, I successfully defended my thesis and completed my Master of Architecture degree from the University of Cincinnati. While finishing my bachelor’s degree in 2010 was a huge relief at the time, it felt more like a formality than anything else; it was just my permission slip to enter grad school. This graduation ceremony, though, was the real deal. Looking back several months later, I still can’t believe that I actually did it.

Pro tip: When you can't win over the thesis jury with quality, overwhelm them with quantity.

Pro tip: When you can’t win over the thesis jury with quality, overwhelm them with quantity.

World of PainWith hardly any time to catch my breath after graduation, I put all my stuff into storage once again, boarded a plane to New York, and started working at the aforementioned boutique firm the following Monday… And it immediately became clear that I had entered a world of pain. The work environment could best be described as abusive, the hours were extreme, the work was unoriginal and unproductive, and the firm’s financial standing appeared to be shaky at best. I began sending out resumes again before I had even gotten my first paycheck.

In late June, I visited Chicago for the AIA National Convention. It was my first visit back there since graduating from DePaul in 2010, and the longest I had been away from the city since I first moved to the area in 1993. It was great to see the city again and renew some old friendships, and to let go of some of the bitterness I had been feeling about Chicago since I had moved away in 2007. New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are great cities that each have their own unique personalities, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have lived in all three at various times in my life.

Another benefit to attending the AIA convention in Chicago was a chance encounter with one of the principals of the firm where I spent my last co-op before thesis year. One thing led to another, and within a couple weeks of the convention I had accepted an employment offer at this firm and turned in my resignation at the abusive boutique firm. It didn’t happen a moment too soon; I had been expanding my job search to the west coast, and was seriously considering moving to Los Angeles or Portland if the right opportunity came up. I love New York, but it’s impossible to survive for long here unless you love what you do, and my first priority was to find a better employment situation. Luckily I didn’t have to move again; I’ve now been at the new job for about four weeks, and so far it’s been going well.

With my job search happily resolved, my next big priorities are to find permanent housing here in New York and to complete the Architectural Registration Exams. I’m hoping to have enough money saved up for my own apartment by around January or so, and I’m hoping to be registered as an architect within the next year or so.

My resolution for 2012 was to rid my life of distractions as I finished grad school. Now that that’s done, it’s time to start building again. Wish me luck; I’ll certainly need it.

Good luck cats

Manifest Destiny

Early in the year I resolved to let go of things that I felt were holding me back, and one of the biggest things I had in mind was the home I had created for myself in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. I moved there in January of last year to be closer to friends and nightlife downtown, closer to school, and to have an overall nicer place to live. And what a place it was: a huge, newly-renovated loft in an 1860’s-era row house, complete with exposed brick walls, three decorative fireplaces, 10-foot ceilings, an incredible view of the downtown skyline, and within easy walking distance of nearly bars and art galleries on Main Street. I put a huge amount of effort and money into making the apartment into a real home, and the results were spectacular. My friends were properly impressed, and for a while, it felt like the kind of home I thought I wanted. The idea was to stay there until a few years after grad school, when I’d presumably be ready to buy a house or condo.

It was impossible to resist the siren call of exposed brick, polished concrete countertops, and hardwood floors.

It was the right idea, but at the wrong point in my life. With my meager student budget and co-op schedule, the apartment turned out to be an incredibly seductive but expensive albatross. The rent was already at the high end of what I could afford, and became untenable when the utility bills started pouring in. (As I discovered, it’s incredibly expensive to heat and cool a huge apartment with exposed brick walls and high ceilings, especially in a climate like Cincinnati’s where winters and summers are both equally brutal.) And there was the fact that I was already thoroughly burned-out with the whole “urban pioneer” lifestyle when I left New York in 2010. I love the city and its neighborhoods, but before long I quickly remembered just how much I hate loud car stereos and obnoxious college kids on a Friday night.

There’s also the issue of Cincinnati itself, and my long-term career options there. My first two co-ops were both with local firms in downtown Cincinnati, and I came away from them with a pretty strong conviction that if I were to stay in Cincinnati and practice as an architect there after grad school, I’d be spending the bulk of my career designing grocery stores and renovations to strip malls. My gaze turned westward, which prompted me to apply to firms in Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles for my five-month co-op. When I accepted the offer from the firm in Santa Monica, I made the difficult decision to give up the apartment and put almost everything I own into storage. My ideal home would have to wait until some other time and some other place.

At the end of the winter quarter, I began packing up and moving out. By the evening of Thursday, March 22nd, all the effort I had put into that apartment had been undone. My stuff had been packed away into a self-storage facility, my cat had been dropped off to live with my parents while I’m away, and my car had been loaded up with my clothing and some other essentials. It was already starting to get dark when I finally hit the road, but at this point I just wanted to get Cincinnati behind me before I had time to think too much about what I had done or what I was getting myself into out in California. Almost eight years after leaving my life behind in New York and heading to Oregon, I was once again taking a giant leap of faith to the west coast, and I had just stepped off the edge of the cliff.

Somewhere before reaching Louisville, I had a mild anxiety attack as I was driving down the dark interstate. Now that I was on the road and was finally able to catch my breath after moving all day, the second-guessing and self-doubts started kicking in. What the fuck have I just done? What if I hate Los Angeles? What if the new job sucks? What if everything I left behind in that storage unit gets wiped out by a fire or tornado? I felt a bit like Captain Kirk in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, having just scuttled the Enterprise and now watching its burning hull streak through the sky of the newly-formed Genesis Planet:

"My God, what have I done?"

I made it through Louisville and a few miles into Indiana before stopping for the night. Tomorrow would be a new day, I figured, and the sooner it got here the better. I left the hotel the next morning feeling rested and renewed, and my focus turned from what I had left behind to what was waiting for me on the road ahead. The following three days took me across eight more states, the Great Plains, the Colorado Rockies, and the desserts and mountains of the Southwest.

In western Kansas the following night, I was treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen. The next day I stopped for a pint at the Cheeky Monk on Colfax Avenue in Denver, which had been the site of celebrating my friend Bret’s ordination to the Episcopal priesthood at nearby St. John’s Cathedral a few years ago. The Rockies, of course, were spectacular, and it was nice to see them again after my last visit to Colorado. I took a short detour to Breckenridge to have lunch at the Breckenridge Brewery, and spent my third and final night on the road in a tiny place called Salina, Utah.

The last day on the road took me through the remainder of Utah, a few more deserts and mountain ranges, a small corner of Arizona that’s home to the spectacular Virgin River Gorge, a monster traffic jam that lasted almost the entire way from Las Vegas to San Bernardino, and finally Los Angeles.

I arrived at the Santa Monica Pier late in the evening of Sunday, March 25th, in the midst of a rare Southern California thunderstorm. I would’ve kept on driving, but I had reached the edge of the continent. I’m convinced that every American should take a solo road trip across the country at least once in their life. Until they do, they’ll never truly appreciate the immense size and beauty of this country.

I checked into my hotel in Woodland Hills — where I’d arranged to stay for a week while I looked for more permanent housing — and began work the next morning. One of the few cardinal rules I have for this blog is that I rarely ever discuss work (I’m happy to air my own dirty laundry online, but not my employer’s), but I will say that it’s going well so far. The firm is well-regarded within the profession and has been widely published, the office culture is generally casual and drama-free, I like my co-workers (and they seem to like me), and the projects are challenging and interesting. More than just being a high-profile “starchitect” firm, though, their philosophy towards design is very closely aligned with my own. No grocery stores or strip mall renovations here. In fact, it’s the kind of place I could see myself working long-term after I finish grad school.

Southern California itself has also been treating me pretty well so far, despite dire warnings from my East Coast and Midwestern friends that the place is nothing more than a traffic-choked wasteland of suburban sprawl and fake personalities. Most stereotypes have a grain of truth within them, but for the most part, I’ve found that Los Angeles isn’t nearly as bad as people who’ve never been here insist it is. (And let’s be honest here. Nobody in Cincinnati is in a position to spew negative stereotypes about any other city. Cincinnati has its own less-than-stellar public image to deal with.) Ironically, I live in a very walkable neighborhood that’s within an easy bike ride of my office, with a 24-hour Ralphs grocery store right around the corner. As such, traffic is a non-issue during the week, and I can usually take an alternate route on the weekend if a particular freeway is jammed up.

As for the fake personalities, I think that stereotype is perpetrated on late-night talk shows by those the entertainment industry, where people’s livelihoods are often based upon how well they can put on a fake persona. The vast majority of the people I’ve encountered, though, are no different than the people I’ve encountered elsewhere. Some of them I like a lot, some of them I can’t stand, and most of them fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Even among the few people I’ve met who actually are connected to the entertainment industry in some way, I’ve found them to be as genuine as anybody else. For every celebrity who manages to be a constant source of tabloid fodder, there are a thousand other people who work regular day jobs while advancing their particular craft during their spare time. And then there are all the behind-the-scenes people who, despite incredible talent, will never see their names in lights. Even though I have no desire to go into that business myself, I still find it all incredibly fascinating.

The things I like most about Los Angeles?

The climate is perfect for me. Just warm enough during the daytime to wear short sleeves (maybe a blazer during the winter), and cool enough at night that I can sleep under a thick blanket with the windows open. It’s amazing to not be living in constant fear of the weather. As an added bonus, my allergies — which normally go haywire whenever I’m within 500 miles of Cincinnati — have been clear for the entire two months I’ve been living here.

I'll take the one on the left, please.

The natural scenery is great; within the same county are miles of beach as well as snow-capped mountains. Having lived most of my life near either the ocean or Lake Michigan, I had forgotten just how much I miss the beach and the associated casual beach culture. And of course, there are the mountains. With the San Gabriel Mountains and other nearby ranges, it’s like having a piece of the Colorado Rockies closer to downtown Los Angeles than the actual Rockies are to downtown Denver.

These two photos were taken within a few hours of each other.

In addition, Southern California is a culinary delight, even on my meager budget. I don’t think I’ve had a bad meal here yet, except when it’s been something I cooked myself. And of course, there is the refreshing lack of Bible-thumpers and teabaggers in the civic realm.

Perhaps most importantly, though: almost everybody out here is from somewhere else, and nobody here gives a damn which high school or college I went to or what family I’m from. By almost any account, there shouldn’t even be a city here; there’s no natural port, and the nearest large-scale source of fresh drinking water is hundreds of miles away. But in the same way that the Los Angeles Basin was an entirely blank slate upon which to build a massive city from scratch, my life out here feels like a blank slate that can be given whatever attributes or characteristics I want.

My biggest complaint so far has nothing to do with my job or the locale, but the transitional living arrangement I find myself in while I’m out here. I keep telling myself this whole student lifestyle is only for a couple more years and will be worth it in the end, but a part of me is very much obsessed with getting my stuff out of storage and re-establishing a real home that actually feels like a home. I’m 37 years old, and way past the point in my life where I should be sharing a small apartment with a roommate and going to parties where beer pong is the dominant form of entertainment. My biggest motivation for finishing grad school is to put this decades-long student phase of my life behind me. More than giving me the credentials I need to achieve my professional goals, my masters degree will hopefully be the piece of paper that gives me permission to settle down, sink some roots, build a career, and finally create a real life for myself. It can’t come fast enough, though, as I’m getting incredibly impatient.

Genesis Planet

A couple weeks after my arrival, I was asked to house-sit at a friend’s apartment in Culver City while she was out of town over a long weekend. The large apartment complex felt almost like a fantasy world, with lush tropical landscaping and fountains between the buildings, several pools, and all the other modern amenities one would expect. The apartment itself had a large fireplace, dramatic vaulted ceilings, and just the right amount of space. At night, the only sounds where crickets chirping and the running fountain outside the window. I did some further research, and found that this apartment complex should actually be within my price range once I’m out of grad school and earning the average salary with somebody at my level of experience. And being a fairly large complex with several hundred apartments, there are always a certain number of vacancies each month. If I end up staying in Los Angeles for good after grad school, they’ll likely be the first place I contact about housing. I just need to hold on until I have that permission slip.

Blank slate.

The Next Horizon

Apologies for neglecting this blog lately. Being a full-time graduate architecture student at DAAP has a way of forcing one to jettison all other extracurricular activities in favor of school-related work. Now that the fall quarter is over, I finally have a chance to catch my breath and turn my attention to some of those things that have been pushed to the back burner over the past few months.

Back in July I posted The Grass is Always Greener, which describes my dilemma as to whether or not I’ll want to remain here in the Cincinnati area after grad school. In that post I concluded with, “If I ultimately decide to leave town, possible destinations include London, Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest, or back to the East Coast. Each locale has its own pros and cons, which will probably be the subject of a future blog post.” This is that blog post.

In addition to the long-term question of where I go after grad school, there’s also a more immediate question of where I’ll end up spending my 5-month co-op that begins in late March. I’ve already begun laying the groundwork for that decision, and where I end up going for co-op has the potential to strongly influence where I’ll end up post-graduation. And of course, the decision isn’t entirely up to me, as it will depend heavily upon where I can find a job. In this crappy economy, I may end up having to hold my nose and move someplace I otherwise wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, at least until the job market improves and I get an offer someplace more desirable.

That said, there are a few locales that I return to often in my mind, where I can envision myself having a reasonably good quality of life, and will probably be the places where I concentrate my job search both for the co-op and for permanent employment. The short list changes from time to time,  and will almost certainly change many more times before a decision is made, but now consists of Cincinnati, London, Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest, and Asheville, North Carolina.

Cincinnati

Home sweet home... for now.

As I mentioned before, my roots here in Cincinnati run deep, and no matter where else I end up, I’ll always be a Cincinnatian at heart. I grew up here, I have a lot of friends and family here, and I’ve made a point to get as involved as I can in local civic affairs. Cincinnati is small enough that one person can make a big splash, the cost of living is dirt-cheap, and the city has ambitious plans for remaking its urban core. I have enough professional connections that finding a job here after graduation will likely be considerably easier than in any other city.

On the downside: While I love Cincinnati dearly, I generally loathe the Midwest. No mountains, no ocean, very little international vibe, and despite some progress here in the city, the region’s political culture is loaded with right-wing ideology with strong undercurrents of racism and religious fundamentalism. In my more cynical moments, I feel like Cincinnati is where the bigotry and religious fanaticism of the Deep South meet the burned-out post-industrial landscape of the Rust Belt. The weather — featuring the most unpleasant extremes of both winter and summer — makes the mere act of going outside tortuous for entire weeks at a time. The local architectural scene, while not without its bright spots, tends to be very conservative without much in the way of new ground being broken. If I end up working here as an architect, it almost certainly won’t be in the areas of design that I’m most passionate about.

London

My life in six months?

This past September I finally took my long-awaited return trip to London, and stayed there for almost a full two weeks. There’s something invigorating about being in a global city where you can hear a dozen languages being spoken while walking down the street, and if I want to specialize in transportation-related design, there’s plenty of such work in London. London’s mild climate would be ideal for me, and the benefits of living in a city with such a rich history go without saying. London is also an ideal jumping-off point for exploring the rest of Europe. And while no political system is without its faults, the overall political climate in the United Kingdom is much more to my taste, and working in the UK would provide job benefits that Americans can only dream about. Depending on how the currency exchange rates fluctuate, I might also be able to repay my student loans in a much shorter period of time.

The biggest catch, though, is that it’s in a different country. Finding an employer willing to sponsor me for a work visa would be a big challenge (especially when so many British and European Union architects are already out of work), and if I were to live there permanently, getting professionally registered as an architect with my American masters degree and work experience would be at least as challenging. Moving that far of a distance across an ocean would present its own logistical problems. London is a long way from home both in miles and in culture, and while I consider my Anglophile credentials to be pretty solid, nothing would change the fact that I’d always be a foreigner in a foreign land. Beyond that, living in a major global city like London, with its long commutes and extreme cost of living, would present a lot of the same frustrations I found while living in New York City. On those frequent occasions when I get tired of the rat race, it simply wouldn’t be possible to jump in my car and escape to the countryside in a few minutes like I can do here. Visits back home would involve a long trans-Atlantic flight and all the hassle that entails.

While London would be ideal for  my 5-month co-op, I don’t see it being the place where I ultimately settle down after grad school. As such, there’s the possibility that whatever networking connections I make in London on my co-op ultimately wouldn’t do me much good if I decide to stay here in the US for the long term.

Los Angeles

You are entering a world of pain.

This past summer I had the opportunity to visit Los Angeles

for the first time, and to my surprise, I liked it a lot better than I thought I would. The climate can’t be beat, and the city is in the process of rapidly expanding its mass transit system. I have a couple good friends out there already, and the ocean and mountains are both nearby. The architectural scene in LA is decidedly more forward-looking than that of Cincinnati.

Of course, the idealized vision of Los Angeles giving way to its harsh realities is one of the oldest cliches in the book. The cost of living — while not nearly as high as that of New York or London — is still very high, crime and general quality of life would be big concerns, and having the ocean and mountains nearby won’t count for much if I have to sit in traffic for two hours to reach them. Visiting Cincinnati would involve a 4-hour flight. While not nearly as long as a flight from London, it’s still a major hassle.

The Pacific Northwest

All else aside, if I could pick any region of the country in which to settle down based purely on its climate and natural beauty, it would be the Pacific Northwest. I briefly lived in Eugene, Oregon from late 2004 to early 2005, and not a day goes by where my mind doesn’t wander back to the mountains, forests, and waterfalls of the Oregon Cascades. While living in Eugene I visited Portland a couple times and liked what I saw of it. Similar in size to Cincinnati, Portland seems to have made all the right decisions regarding its future as a city, while Cincinnati has made many wrong ones. Seattle is less familiar to me, except to say it’s somewhat larger than Portland and has the benefit of being on Puget Sound. Both cities offer an attractive quality of life in a mild climate, a reasonable cost of living (although Seattle is a bit more expensive than Portland), incredible natural beauty outside the city, and a more progressive architectural climate. Portland has a well-developed light rail and streetcar system, while Seattle has ambitious plans for expansion of its own light rail system. I’ve never been to Vancouver, BC to date, but I haven’t yet heard a bad thing about it.

I'd be willing to put up with a lot of bullshit Monday through Friday if it meant being able to drive to a place like this on Saturday.

It’s hard to think of many downsides to the Pacific Northwest, but there may be a few potential pitfalls. The job market in Portland is notoriously bad even in good economic times. Lots of people want to live there, but there aren’t enough jobs to go around. This puts downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on the cost of living, and I’ve heard people half-jokingly say that almost every bartender and barista in town has a masters degree. I’m not sure what the situation in Seattle or Vancouver is like, but I imagine it’s similar. While I wouldn’t move to someplace like Portland or Seattle without first having a job lined up, this could pose a big problem down the road if I got laid off or otherwise had to look for work again. As with London, moving to Vancouver would require getting a visa, but I understand it’s generally easier to get a Canadian visa than a British one. While living in Eugene I found myself bored once I had explored most of the area, although I attribute that more to being unemployed and broke in a smallish town than to any inherent flaws of the region. I also remember feeling like I was about a million miles away from my friends and family back east, and I could see that being a potential problem. But I didn’t have social media like Facebook and Twitter at my disposal in 2004, and the world feels much smaller now than it did back then.

Asheville, North Carolina

Oregon Lite

I almost hesitate to include this on the list, but I lived there for a couple years as a kid and I was back there for a couple days last spring break, so I may as well mention it. Asheville is similar in size to Eugene, and offers many of the same advantages: a mild climate, a beautiful setting in the mountains, and a relatively progressive college-town atmosphere with a strong emphasis on the arts and brewing. Asheville also has the advantage of being only a 6-hour drive from Cincinnati, making weekend visits back home relatively easy.

Unfortunately, Asheville is the largest city for many miles in any direction. Whenever I got bored in Eugene I could always drive a couple hours up the road to Portland. Driving a couple hours in any direction from Asheville only puts you smack in the middle of Deliverance country. Driving back home to Cincinnati from Asheville takes about the same amount of time as flying to Cincinnati from Portland or Seattle. And there’s even less of an architectural scene in Asheville than in Cincinnati. If I end up working as an architect in Asheville, I certainly won’t be designing transit systems or other major infrastructure projects. But maybe that’s okay, and I would certainly consider Asheville if the right opportunity came along.

So, that’s the list as of today. I reserve the right to revise it, refine it, or scrap it altogether in the future. All in all, I’d say the Pacific Northwest has the most advantages and the fewest disadvantages, and I’ll admit that area of the country has been on my mind a lot lately. But it’s too early to say for sure where I’ll end up, and like I said before, it’s not entirely within my control anyway. If nothing else, though, it will be interesting to see where the road leads.

The Grass is Always Greener…

Sometimes I wonder how my life would have turned out if my family had never left Fort Thomas in 1984. Maybe I would have stayed here in the Cincinnati area my entire life, married soon after high school, and settled down into a middle-class subdivision with a yard and some kids. Or maybe I would’ve run screaming to New York or Chicago the first chance I got, never looking back at Cincinnati with anything but resentment and loathing. I know plenty of Cincinnati-area natives who have taken each path.

You can't go home again. (photo: Tim Lindenbaum via flickr.com)

As it turned out, we moved away when I was ten, and I haven’t spent more than four continuous years living in one city since then. As a kid I didn’t have a choice in the matter, but as an adult I’ve embarked on long-distance moves for academic reasons, better career opportunities, a better lifestyle, and most recently, an overwhelming desire to just come back home to Cincinnati. Anybody who has read the archives of this blog will know that some of these moves have been more successful than others.

Chicago was the closest thing to an adopted hometown I ever found outside of Cincinnati, but after living there three times for a total of eleven years, I feel like I’ve exhausted all my possibilities there. Many of my closest friends have moved away, and most of my recent jobs in Chicago have felt like dead ends. During a weekend visit to Chicago last year, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was walking around in the empty shell of a life that had ceased to exist a very long time ago.

I guess you could call it the 18-month itch. Once the novelty of living in a certain place has worn off and daily life has settled into a routine, the wanderlust starts to kick in again. It doesn’t help that I struggle with clinical depression, and when it’s at its worst, I often find myself with a strong urge to leave everything behind and start a new life for myself somewhere else. I’ve even acted on that urge a few times (my decision to move from Philly to New York in 2004 and then to Oregon later that year would be two prime examples), but so far my attempts to outrun depression haven’t been successful.

By almost any measure, Cincinnati has been pretty good to me since I moved back here in March of last year. I’ve fallen in with a great group of friends, I’ve begun my long-awaited M.Arch. degree at one of the best programs in the country, I have the nicest apartment I’ve ever lived in, and I’ve even learned a lot more about the bar business than I ever thought I would. No matter what else I do in life and where I do it, I think the Cincinnati area will always be home to me.

But even before I moved here, I knew there would be a dilemma I’d have to face, which is the question of where I’ll ultimately settle down once I finish grad school, particularly in regard to rewarding career options. Assuming I remain in the architecture business, the odds of finding something here that excites me would be fairly slim even if the economy were in better shape. If the economy stays the same or gets worse, any job I take here in Cincinnati would most likely be a survival job until something better comes along.

One of my main design-related passions involves transit design and planning, and even if Cincinnati were to build its proposed streetcar line and get started on a bare-bones light rail system, there will probably never be enough of that type of work here to sustain a career. I also have an interest in high-end hospitality and custom residential design, but again, other cities offer far more opportunities in those areas than Cincinnati.

There’s also the question of what kind of city Cincinnati really wants to be in the coming years. Right now we’re fortunate to have a mayor and some city council members who appreciate the potential this city has, and are doing what they can to make the city an attractive place for new blood. (The aforementioned streetcar project is a big part of that.) But it’s an uphill battle. Cincinnati has lost over 10% of its population from 2000 to 2010, which continues a long trend of depopulation that began in the 1950’s. Suburban-based “Tea Party” groups have allied with some professional rabble-rousers within the black community to slam the brakes on anything that might make the urban core a viable destination for young professionals and start-up businesses, and our local media is quick to whip up fear and resentment against any idea that might threaten their anti-city narrative.

Artist's interpretation of Chris Smitherman and Chris Finney conspiring to derail the Cincinnati streetcar project.

Add the fact that Ohio has a teabag-waving governor and congressional delegation who seem hell-bent on turning the entire state into a third-world country, and the future for Cincinnati looks pretty grim. I have a lot of friends who see Cincinnati as the next Portland or Austin, and while I hope they’re right and I agree Cincinnati has that potential, I find myself a bit pessimistic lately. Potential is one thing, but capitalizing on that potential is something else. I love my hometown and I’ll continue to do whatever I can push the city forward while I’m here, but don’t want to tether my future to a sinking ship.

Aaron “The Urbanophile” Renn writes about the perils of “boomerang migration”, when young creative types from the Midwest expand their horizons in search of better career options or a certain lifestyle, and later come back and try to make a difference in their hometown:

I think boomerang migrants are more likely to encounter problems reconciling themselves to a place than those who move there with no connection. I’ve mentioned the problem of “that’s little kids stuff” before. People, especially those from smaller or less hip destinations, are very cognizant of their plebian origin. You see this manifest itself when they move to bigger cities. They immediately realize their inadequacy and set about in earnestness trying to get beyond it. This frequently takes the form of contempt from where they came from. Again, I’ve noted that the place that probably has the worst brand perception of smaller Midwestern cities is Chicago. Why is that? Well, because all too many of the people who live there came from those same smaller places and are desperate to prove their big city bona fides. As someone once said, contempt for where you came from is the signature attribute of the arriviste.

Returning, all of this comes rushing back. Particularly when perceptions have legitimately changed. When I was a kid, Ponderosa was my favorite steak place. Now, after years of eating USDA Prime, I can never go back and experience Ponderosa in the same way again. I probably don’t enjoy today’s steaks any more than yesterday’s, a topic worthy of its own post, but I’ll never be able to capture that past experience. The act of moving away from home unmoors us from the limits of our origins. It’s no surprise that the college educated are more likely to migrate. It isn’t just the skills, it’s that four years away from home opens a world of possibility in our eyes. Even at 22, if you return, it’s to a different place than you left, because you’re a different person. Because those who didn’t leave haven’t experienced this change, there’s an estrangement from your past. You no longer fit in. There’s something wrong. The cliche is true: you can never go home again.

I can certainly identify with this on a number of levels. For now, my focus is on finishing grad school, and I’ll remain here for as long as it takes to do so. But in the meantime, I can’t help but wonder if I have a long-term future here.

Where I go after grad school will largely depend on what sorts of opportunities are available at that time, and what type of city Cincinnati wants to be. My fear is that I’ll ultimately end up having to make a choice between A) a good standard of living along with proximity to friends and family here, but at the expense of more fulfilling career options, or B) a more rewarding career, but saying farewell to Cincinnati and all the things I enjoy about living here.

If I ultimately decide to leave town, possible destinations include London, Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest, or back to the East Coast. Each locale has its own pros and cons, which will probably be the subject of a future blog post. But wherever I end up, I suspect there will always be a part of me that wishes I was somewhere else.

And Now for Something Completely Different…

This past Friday we had sort of a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre at the office, with about 10% of the staff being laid off. Yours truly was among them, thus ending my 2.5-year tenure at Dattner Architects. I’m not holding any bitterness against my now-former employers; while every job has its good days and bad days, my time at Dattner has been an incredible learning experience, and I’ve never been treated with anything but the utmost professionalism and respect while working there, and I’ll look back with fondness on my time there.

This didn’t come as a complete shock, as the writing had been on the wall for a while. Thanks to a couple of large projects via the stimulus program, our office was able to maintain a decent workload for about a year longer than most other architecture firms, but all good things must end sooner or later. There had been a noticeable slowdown in our workload over the past couple months, and more often than not, I found myself without much to do during the day. The thought of getting laid off had occurred to me, and I had already begun to develop a contingency plan in case the axe dropped. This past Friday, when I was asked to come in to the office of one of the partners for a meeting, I instantly knew what was about to happen. It was time to institute my contingency plan.

As this means the end of my 2.5-year at Dattner, this also means the end of my 2.5 year residency in New York City. I moved here in 2007 with high hopes and grand ambitions. Some of those ambitions have been fulfilled, and some have not. When I moved here, I figured I’d be going to grad school here in New York City, presumably at Columbia or some other big-name school, and get a job with some boutique firm that does ultra-modernist hotels and condominium interiors. Instead, I ended up postponing my grad school plans for a while, and developing a strong interest in transit design, urban planning, and civic architecture.

As the economy went down the toilet, and I came to the realization that I had reached an age where a sense of stability and comfort were much more important to me than being in the middle of all the action. My thoughts increasingly turned back to my hometown of Cincinnati, and what it might mean to move back there for grad school and possibly even settle down there for the long term. Instead of Columbia and a bunch of East Coast Ivy League architecture schools, I ended up applying to the University of Cincinnati, Ohio State, and the University of Kentucky for grad school. At the same time, I found myself increasingly burned-out with New York City. There are still many things I love about this city, and I won’t rule out the possibility of moving back here sometime in the future, but for now, this city simply isn’t my natural habitat.

In the meantime, I’ve become increasingly involved with the local blogosphere and online community in Cincinnati, and have already added my voice to those advocating for improved mass transit and urban planning in Cincinnati. In the relatively short time I’ve been involved with these people who are relentlessly pushing to make Cincinnati into a better city, I’ve already developed a number of good friendships, and I know I’ll be welcomed with open arms when I return home. This is in addition to the numerous old friends and family members who have always been there to welcome me home whenever I found myself in town for a visit.

With my job now no longer keeping me here in New York, I’ve decided to leave NYC and move to Cincinnati at the end of the month. I’m hoping to start grad school at UC (or if not UC, then at least nearby OSU or UK) in the fall, so my unemployment benefits and savings should last until then, and I’m actually pretty psyched about finally going back. That said, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous as hell. Finding a landlord willing to rent to me will be a challenge, and if I don’t start grad school or land a job in six months, I’ll really start to panic. Also, the last time I lived in Cincinnati was 25 years ago, when I was 10 years old. Going back is certain to bring up all sorts of old memories and weird emotions for me.

I’ve reserved a Penske rental truck for the weekend of February 27th, and if all goes well, I’ll be arriving in town sometime on the 28th. As of this writing, I have no idea where I’ll be living, but I have a couple of strong leads.

At this point, I don’t have the slightest idea how this will all work out. In six months I may end up in Columbus or Lexington, or moving in with my parents in North Carolina. At some point I may end up frustrated with Cincinnati’s notorious provincialism, and run screaming back to New York or Chicago. No doubt there will be times I wish I was back in New York City, or longing to expand my horizons even further, perhaps as far as London or the West Coast.

But for now, I’m just happy to be coming home.

‘Nati Weekend

Time for another trip back to base camp. The official reason for the trip was to attend the M.Arch. open house at the University of Cincinnati. Just as importantly, it was an excuse to get the hell away from the NYC pressure cooker and spend a much-needed few days back on my home turf, and look at things that aren’t made of asphalt or concrete.

I arrived in Cincinnati late Thursday morning, and promptly checked into the hotel, took a shower, and crashed for a couple hours. I had overslept that morning, and woke up about ten minutes before I was supposed to be leaving for the airport. The next few hours were a blur, but I made my flight and landed at CVG without incident.

That evening, I attended a debate at UC about Cincinnati’s streetcar project and Issue 9. I met up with Sherman Cahal and Gordon Bombay at the event. Long story made short, later that evening Sherman and I found ourselves having beers with Mark Miller and Chris Finney, the two people most responsible for getting this stupid referendum issue on the ballot. Talk about awkward. Mark Miller turned out to be a nice guy and I found myself agreeing with him on more things than I thought I would. Chris Finney? No comment.

The next day was spent almost entirely at the M.Arch. open house at UC. I didn’t learn much that I didn’t already know, but it was still nice to be on campus and meet people in the architecture program there. UC was my first choice of architecture schools when I was in high school, but I didn’t get accepted there, and I ended up at a few other places instead. Now I’m hoping to go there for grad school. I’m trying not to get my hopes up too high and jinx myself, but I think I already crossed that bridge a long time ago.

That evening I met up with Eighth and State, Maximillian, testell, Caseyc, thomasbw, Kevin LeMaster, and a few others (my apologies if I left anybody out) at Grammers in Over-the-Rhine, and ran into Michael Moore. Not Michael Moore of “Bowling for Columbine” fame, but Michael Moore, the City Architect for the City of Cincinnati. He’s the one working to build a streetcar line through OTR, and he’s got some other good ideas as well. Nice guy, and I wish him the best in making Cincinnati a better city.

The following day was spent driving around the city and checking out routes and locations for my thesis project, a rapid transit system for Cincinnati. I got as far west as Lawrenceburg and as far east as Milford. Google Earth is great, but nothing beats going out and seeing a place in real life. One thing that struck me was how badly aerial photos are at depicting topography.

That evening was spent at my cousin’s place in Silver Grove, eating chili, drinking beer, and engaging in good conversation. I think I had more of a social life in three days in Cincinnati than I’ve had in the past two years in New York.

On Sunday I checked out of the hotel, drove around for a bit, and headed back to the airport. In what’s becoming somewhat of an unfortunate tradition, my return flight from Cincinnati to NYC was yet another clusterfuck.

My flights to Cincinnati from NYC have invariably been on-time and incident-free. My return flights back to New York are another story. A year ago, Delta forgot to load the baggage onto the plane, resulting in 150 angry people about to start a riot at the baggage claim office at Newark Airport. Last June, after a series of delays and mechanical failures, my flight was ultimately canceled and I arrived in New York 26 hours after first checking in at CVG — enough time to drive or take Amtrak from Cincy to New York and back.

This time, the flight was two hours late, there were a half-dozen hyperactive brats in the back of the tiny plane, a screaming infant in the row behind me, and the landing was so hard I thought the pilot was trying to put a crater in LaGuardia’s runway. And of course, arriving in Queens from almost anywhere is like arriving in Tijuana after a weekend in Lake Tahoe. I’ve reached the conclusion that God really doesn’t want me to return to New York from Cincinnati, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

Well, if I get accepted to UC and things go the way I hope they will, my next trip to Cincinnati will be sometime in May, and the purpose of that trip will be to look for an apartment. Wish me luck.

Issue 9 debate at UC:

Main Street on the University of Cincinnati campus:

The old quad at the University of Cincinnati:

Main Street @ UC:

Grammer’s in Over-the-Rhine:

I love beer steins. My grandfather used to have a few, but I have no idea whatever happened to them.

Grammer’s. Some neighborhood thug threw a cinder block through the leaded glass window on the right a few months ago, but it has since been restored.

A name from Cincinnati’s rich brewing history.

Beer steins on display at Grammer’s.

More beer steins. Grammer’s has been around in one form or another since 1872.

The bar at Grammer’s. Lately the hipsters have discovered Grammer’s, but tonight it wasn’t too obnoxious.

Old railroad tracks on the Oasis line. In my thesis project, this right-of-way carries the Blue Line rapid transit route.

An old church along River Road on Cincinnati’s west side. The steeple reminds me a lot of St. Michael’s in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood.

Northside. I had a great sandwich at Melt.

No visit to Cincy is complete without stopping at Fountain Square and paying homage to the Genius of Water.

The so-called “Short Vine” business district near the UC campus.

Cincinnati’s hills offer great vistas of the downtown skyline from all directions. This one is from a steep street in the Prospect Hill neighborhood.

Prospect Hill:

Cincinnati’s Pendleton neighborhood. Many parts of Cincinnati wouldn’t feel out of place in Brooklyn or Philadelphia.

My survival kit for the winter:

Rediscovering Cincinnati

This past week I took a much-needed vacation back home to Cincinnati, my first real vacation (other than short weekend trips) since my 2001 trip to London. I had been hoping to take a 2-week trip to the UK later this summer, but that was looking increasingly unrealistic from a fiscal point of view, so I decided another trip to Cincinnati was in order. This was the longest trip I’ve taken to Cincy in quite a while, and it felt good to be back home without having to rush around to cram everything into a couple short days.

Most of my time was spent meeting up with friends and family, and wondering around town and taking lots of photos. A couple highlights included:

  • Meeting local bloggers Randy Simes, the Provost of Cincinnati, Sherman Cahal, and a few others for drinks on Fountain Square. Randy was also kind enough to meet up for drinks and give me a brief driving tour of the city the day before. It’s nice to meet up with people who share a passion for the city and who are doing what they can to make it a better place.
  • I had a meeting with a longtime professor at the University of Cincinnati’s school of architecture to talk about the program and have him look over my portfolio. The meeting went well, and I came away cautiously optimistic that, if all goes well, I’ll be starting my M.Arch. degree at UC around this time next year. I’m trying not to jinx myself by getting my hopes up too high before anything is official, but it’s hard not to be excited about the idea.
  • I was able to visit the Cincinnati Zoo, Union Terminal, and a few other spots around town that I haven’t had a chance to visit in far too long.

Most importantly, though, the trip was a chance to remind myself how comfortable Cincinnati feels to me, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to finally move back there.

The only real black mark on the whole trip was the return flight to New York. I showed up at Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky Airport (CVG) at around 6 PM for an 8 PM flight. But the flight kept getting delayed because they were waiting for a crew member to arrive on an inbound flight from JFK, and when they finally loaded us onto the plane at 11 PM, we taxied out to the runway only to be informed that the plane had some mechanical issues. We sat there for an hour while some mechanics tinkered around with the hydraulic system, before finally sending us back to the gate and canceling the flight. They put us up in a hotel, and then I was finally able to catch a 4:30 PM flight the next day. I landed at JFK at around 7:00 Saturday evening, 25 hours after first arriving at CVG for my departure. And people wonder why I hate flying so much…

Here are lots of photos. Click on the title to view the full album.

Fort Thomas, Kentucky

I was born in Cincinnati near Mariemont, but I spent most of my childhood just across the river in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. “Cake Town” is about as middle-America as you can possibly get, a cozy bedroom community strung along the top of a steep ridge overlooking the Ohio River, best known for its excellent public schools and its streets of tidy, well-kept houses. The type of place where you want to wake up on Christmas morning.

For me, it’s always refreshing going back there. Almost every spot in the city has some sort of childhood memory associated with it. No matter where I’ve been and what kinds of sordid ordeals I’ve been going through in my life, I feel like I can always go back and find Fort Thomas pretty much just as I had left it.

Most of my extended family and a few old friends in the Cincinnati area still live either in or near Fort Thomas, so the town typically serves as the hub of my activities during my periodic visits back home.

Prior to my most recent visit, though, it occurred to me that I hardly had any photos of the city, so I made a special point to remedy that oversight with my new digital camera. (63 photos)

Downtown Cincinnati and the Riverfront

While growing up in the Cincinnati area, downtown was like the nerve center of my universe. I was always begging my parents to take me over there. Until I visited Atlanta for the first time in high school, Cincinnati was the largest city I had ever been in. Later in my life I found myself living in places like Chicago and New York City, so downtown Cincy no longer really impresses me with its bigness.

That said, downtown Cincy is no slouch, and there are some much larger American cities that would kill to have a central business district as strong as Cincinnati’s. Many fine old buildings have been preserved and restored, the streets are generally clean and well-kept, and things are looking up. Downtown went through some rough periods through the 90’s and 2000’s, but the mood seems much more optimistic now that vacant storefronts are being filled and more people are choosing to actually live downtown. (108 photos)

Over-the-Rhine

To the north of downtown lies Cincinnati’s famed (and infamous) Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, a spectacular collection of 19th Century Italianate buildings that was once the most densely-populated American neighborhood outside of New York City. OTR spent much of the post-war period as a burned-out ghetto, but is now finally being rediscovered and redeveloped. Think of it as Cincinnati’s answer to the Lower East Side. (32 photos)

Union Terminal

Have you ever been given a priceless family heirloom or antique that, despite its incredible beauty and functionality, never seems to really fit anywhere in your home? That seems to be the dilemma Cincinnati has faced with its magnificent Union Terminal complex over the years. Completed in 1933, Union Terminal was not only one of the finest examples of art deco architecture in the world, but it was also one of the best-planned transportation facilities of its age. A large concourse spanned the tracks at the rear of the building and provided stairs to each train platform. At the front, dedicated ramps for taxis, busses, and streetcars funneled passengers to their ultimate destinations in an efficient manner. The central hub of activity was the massive half-domed rotunda.

Unfortunately, Union Terminal opened just as passenger rail in the US was beginning its long decline. Despite an upsurge in rail travel during the Second World War, the building soon found itself empty and obsolete. In 1974, the Southern Railway demolished the concourse to make room for an expanded yard for its freight operations. As if to add insult to injury, all but one of the concourse’s famous murals were relocated to the new airport across the river in Boone County, Kentucky.

In 1990, Union Terminal re-opened as a home to the Cincinnati History Museum, the Museum of Natural History & Science, an Ominmax theater, and a children’s museum. The following year, Amtrak resurrected the building’s original function as a passenger rail station in a limited way, with its Cardinal train calling at the station three times a week in each direction.

With plans underway to develop a regional high-speed rail system, Union Terminal may once again see its place restored as a magnificent gateway to the city. (25 photos)

University of Cincinnati

My earliest memories of the UC campus are from some sort of grade school field trip to Nippert Stadium. Since then, many parts of the campus have been completely rebuilt, and the campus now includes new structures by some of the most prominent architects currently practicing. (46 photos)

Maysville, Kentucky

One of the most frustrating things about living in NYC without a car is that I don’t often get the chance to take a nice long drive on country highways. So, this past week I decided to take a break from Cincinnati and head down Kentucky 8 towards the historic river town of Maysville. The town’s history dates back to before the American Revolution, and it was an important waypoint for travelers navigating the Ohio River. (10 photos)

Mount Adams, Eden Park, and the Krohn Conservatory

The Cincinnati neighborhood of Mount Adams and adjacent Eden Park have always been one of my favorite parts of the city. Mount Adams is a vibrant urban neighborhood that consists of steep, narrow streets that wouldn’t be out of place in San Francisco, and densely-spaced row houses that cling to the hillside for dear life.

Eden Park, although not the city’s largest public park, is arguably the best-known and most popular. The park features the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Krohn Conservatory, and incredible views overlooking the Ohio River. (66 photos)

Cincinnati Zoo

It had been ages since the last time I visited the Cincinnati Zoo, so I decided to stop by and check the place out. It’s the second-oldest zoo in the US (opened in 1875, only 14 months after the Philadelphia Zoo) and is consistently ranked as one of the best zoos in America. (59 photos)

Village of Mariemont

Mariemont was founded as a planned community in 1923, and modeled after an idyllic English village. I was born nearby, so I guess you could say my Anglophile streak goes back a long way. My maternal grandmother, now 86 years old and still sharp as a tack, still lives a few blocks away. (20 photos)

Around Town

Here are a few neighborhood shots and various other photos that don’t neatly fit into albums of their own. This album includes Columbia-Tusculum, Hyde Park, Mount Lookout, Spring Grove Cemetery, and an unplanned late night at CVG Airport. (41 photos)

Return of the Prodigal Son

As I mentioned on an earlier posting in September, I had planned on taking a weekend trip back to Cincinnati this month. Well, I just got back from that trip, so here’s my report.

I had to wake up at the ungodly hour of 4:00 AM on Thursday to catch my flight out of Newark Airport. Somebody remind me never to book a 7:45 AM flight again, especially when it takes over an hour just to get to the airport from my apartment. Fortunately, once we got airborne, the flight to Cincinnati was uneventful. I absolutely hate flying with a passion that passes all human understanding, and I’ll do anything I can to avoid it, but sometimes there’s no viable alternative and you just have to bend over and take it like a man.

Upon arriving at CVG, I picked up the rental car and grabbed a bite to eat at the Frisch’s in the Cincinnati suburb of Fort Thomas, just a couple blocks away from the house I grew up in. Afterwards, I drove around Fort Thomas a bit to see what, if anything, had changed. To nobody’s surprise, the town has hardly changed a bit in decades. They built an addition to the high school, and there’s been some streetscape improvements in the little downtown business district. That’s about it. Fort Thomas is about as middle-America as you can possibly get, a cozy bedroom community strung along the top of a high ridge overlooking the Ohio River, best known for its excellent public schools and its streets of tidy, well-kept houses. The type of place where you want to wake up on Christmas morning.

For me, it’s always weird going back there. Almost every spot in the city has some sort of childhood memory associated with it. No matter where I’ve been and what kinds of sordid ordeals I’ve been going through in my life, I feel like I can always go back and find Fort Thomas just as I had left it. For better or worse, the town feels like it’s stuck in some sort of time warp where the calendar never got past 1984. In many ways it’s nice to have a place like that to go back to, but I can’t help but wonder if I’d ever be able to live there again without going nuts.

My hometown of Fort Thomas may not have changed much since I moved away in 1984 at the ripe old age of nine, but my friends and family there aren’t getting any younger, and it always comes as a jolt to my senses when I realize how fast the years are passing. I’m now about the same age as my parents, aunts, and uncles were when I was a kid in Fort Thomas. My parents and their siblings are now rapidly approaching the same age my grandparents where at the time I most remember them. My cousin Austin and I were inseparable as kids in Fort Thomas; now he’s married and has a kid of his own. My best friend April is about the same age as me, and we spent countless hours playing together down in the woods behind our houses. She’s been married for a few years now, and has three kids. Her oldest kid is now as old as I was when I moved away in 1984.

I have no regrets about moving around as much as I have, even the moves during my childhood when I had no choice in the matter. I think being exposed to so many places has made me a more well-rounded and open-minded person than I probably would have been otherwise, and I’ve met some great people and made some great friends along the way. But I can’t help but mourn all the things I’ve missed out on while I’ve been away from my hometown, and it’s during these periodic visits when those feelings always come rushing back up to the surface.

For that reason, I made a special point during this trip to touch base with some friends and family members who I haven’t seen in a long time, to rekindle some of those relationships. I visited my aunt Ellen on Thursday, soon after my arrival in town. Saturday evening I was able to get together with Austin, his wife and kid, his sister Emily and brother Eliot, and his mother (my aunt) Lisa down at his place in Silver Grove. We all goofed around a bit while kicking back pizza and cold beers, and Austin and I still hit it off like old times. A lot of things have changed, but people’s personalities seem to stay fairly constant.

Earlier that day, I had met up with April at her place. This was especially emotional for me, as I hadn’t seen her in ages. There’s been more than one occasion where I’d become convinced that we had lost touch for so long that our friendship had become just an old memory, but we always seem to get back in touch. We were such close friends back in grade school that, at the time, I just assumed that we’d eventually get married. But I moved away and now she’s grown into a beautiful woman, happily married to her husband for about ten years now, with three kids and a nice house. I can’t help but think about the “what-if’s” that might have played out if we had been allowed to continue growing up together.

All but one of my grandparents have long since passed away, but Grandma Hillerich, now well into her 80’s, is still more healthy, more mentally sharp, and more active than most people half her age. The Energizer Bunny has nothing on her. She’s actually my mother’s stepmother, but I never knew my biological grandmother on that side of the family, so she’s always been my “real” grandmother as far as I’m concerned. As active and healthy as she is, she’s not getting any younger, and I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I should really make an effort to visit her while I’m in town. I made a couple attempts to call her, but wasn’t able to connect. So this morning, after checking out of the hotel and with a few hours to kill before I had to be at the airport, I decided to take a drive around her part of town. She lives near Mariemont, a picturesque village made up of Tudor-style buildings clustered around a central village sqaure. Up the hill not far away is the site of the hospital I was born in, now converted to a nursing home. Fort Thomas is my hometown, but Mariemont is where I was born. During my drive I happened across a familiar-looking little gray church on Plainville Road, and I realized that it was my grandmother’s church, where she’s been active for decades. I kept on driving, but looking at my watch, I figured she was probably in there getting ready for the worship service. I took a deep breath, turned the car around, pulled into the church parking lot, and went inside. How long since the last time I’d been inside that church? At least 25 years. I soon found her, and she gave me a huge hug and was proud to introduce me to her friends there. I stuck around for the service, and then we grabbed a bite to eat together afterwards. It was nice seeing her again, and for once I’m glad I listened to the little nagging voice that told me to turn the car around.

Eventually we had to say our goodbyes, and I made my way out to the airport to turn in the rental car and get checked in. Unlike the flight out there, the flight back was a living hell, the type of flight that reminds me why I hate flying so much. Two rows in front of me were three spoiled-rotten toddlers, who screamed non-stop the entire three hours I was on board that plane. It was with a huge sense of relief that I finally stepped off the plane, even if I was in Newark. My relief turned to dismay, though, when my baggage never showed up on the carousel, and I was informed that it was apparently never loaded onto the plane at CVG. About half the people on the flight had the same problem. Supposedly the baggage was put on a later flight and they’ll deliver my suitcase to my apartment sometime late tonight, but I’ll believe it when I see it. They said midnight, and it’s now 1:00 AM as I type this. Somebody remind me never to fly anywhere again, ever.

The obstensible reason for this trip was to attend the M.Arch. open house at the University of Cincinnati on Friday. Even aside from the chance to catch up with friends and family and to get my Skyline Chili fix, the event at UC was well worth the trip. I came away with lots of questions answered, and with UC now ranking among my top picks for grad school. Unfortunately, it looks like I’ll be delaying my application for another year while I finish my BA degree and get some money saved up, but I’m looking forward to sending them my application around this time next year. Assuming I get accepted and decide to enroll there, I’ll be moving back to Cincinnati around June of 2010, about 20 months from now.

I just hope New York City doesn’t drive me crazy in the meantime. Don’t get me wrong; I still love NYC with a passion. But it takes a certain type of person to live here for an extended period of time, and sometimes I question whether I’m that type of person or not. I’m rapidly reaching the point in my life where I need to pick a spot to settle down and sink some roots, and right now it’s looking like that place will either be New York or Cincinnati. Cincinnati has plenty of its own issues and problems, so I guess my task for the next 12 months is to decide which city is least likely to drive me crazy.