Cincinnatians have struggled recently with an alarming crime surge or a runaway perception that crime is surging, take your pick -- it's the same thing really. Placed on top of lingering doubts about the city's population loss, downtown issues and political leadership, many of us feel the city is drifting downriver without power.
And then along came Tall Stacks last weekend, one of the most impressive festivals this city has ever seen. On a beautiful late afternoon watching old-fashioned riverboats cruise the river while your kids play on the public lawn amidst thousands of strangers, it's easy to remember what makes Cincinnati special.
Life's like this, isn't it? Things are rarely as bad as they seem sometimes, and they're also rarely as good as advertised.
A wonderful riverfront festival can't bring back the murder victims, nor does it make any city neighborhood safer or any criminal less brazen.
Yet it does bring a ton of people downtown, including many who probably had sworn off visiting such an "unsafe" area again. Surely someone got their car broken into and someone got upset seeing panhandlers, but the vast majority of these visitors no doubt had a great time.
I'm not sure what Tall Stacks means in the big picture, but it's something. It means something that kids enjoyed Zak Morgan, Madcap puppets and the old-time games and later the adults enjoyed John Hiatt, Wilco and Buddy Guy under a full moon. Local bands played to pretty decent crowds, volunteers strolled around in hoop skirts and Mark Twain get-ups and people stopped to chat with groups of relaxed police officers.
A weekend like this reminds you of what makes Cincinnati Cincinnati: the river, its history and its role; the geography in general, especially the hills; the musical heritage, particularly the Southern influence, and the incredible musical talent still in town; the quirky food specialties; the importance of beer (if you didn't know that already, see last week's cover story, "Beer Goggles"); the overall ease of getting in and out of downtown and parking, plus the easy connections with Northern Kentucky; the amazing arts community (maybe you caught ArtWorks' The Outdoor Museum at Berry International Friendship Park just down from Sawyer Point -- see page 45 for details); and the general spirit of residents who love showing off the city and who organize these festivals.
And then the stages come down, the old-timey storefront facades are dismantled, the tall stacks cruise away and it's plain old Monday morning again.
Over the weekend Cincinnati Police announced arrests of a drug gang allegedly responsible for murders and other vicious crimes. Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune proposed a $1 million fund to entice witnesses to help police crack almost 200 unsolved murder investigations.
One of those unsolved murders, of course, is the shooting of Philip Bates on his front lawn in late August. Its randomness and high profile -- the husband of Cincinnati School Board member Melanie Bates was shot just after midnight on a peaceful street in North Avondale -- jolted even those numbed by the ongoing "crime in the city" headlines.
What jolted people even more was Police Chief Thomas Streicher's seemingly cavalier attitude about the murder -- and crime in general -- at a subsequent press conference.
"Let's paint a realistic picture for people," Streicher told the press. "Cincinnati is one of the safest cities in the nation."
Reporting on Streicher's remarks and the negative backlash against them from Melanie Bates and others, CityBeat's Kevin Osborne called it Cincinnati's "Hurricane Katrina" moment, "when officials' indifference and disorganization in the face of a looming crisis were made apparent to a surprised public."
You can just hear Mayor Mark Mallory saying, "You're doing a heckuva job, Streichy."
OK, maybe not. As Osborne later reported, the chief was "strongly advised by unnamed officials" to go to the Bates home and apologize for his remarks (see "Streicher Goes Ballistic," issue of Sept. 20). He then visited the Cincinnati Enquirer newsroom unannounced and, according to Osborne's story, "angrily vented his frustration to reporters and editors about their allegedly biased coverage."
During the press conference, Streicher said the media feeds Cincinnatians' perceptions of a crime problem when, in fact, no such problem exists. Thus he became the latest leader to voice the city's official post-riot political stance: If people around here would just quit complaining, everything would be alright.
That attitude reminds me of the Bush administration's dismissal of "reality-based" people. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," a senior Bush aide told The New York Times in 2004. "We're an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality."
Clearly Streicher is creating his own reality, a place where crime isn't a problem, drug dealers killing each other is the price of doing business, certain neighborhoods are simply written off, city council and the city manager are nuisances, the media is the enemy and his officers can stage a work slowdown when they feel like it, as happened in 2001.
But that isn't the city we "reality-based" folks live in. We need Cincinnati to be a friendly, thriving, exciting, safe and tolerant place 365 days a year, not just the occasional weekend when the riverfront is fenced off and they charge admission to visit.
After these recent escapades, I honestly don't know why Streicher still has his job. Why does his supervisor -- not his boss, since clearly Streicher doesn't "answer" to anyone but himself -- still have his job?
Why won't anyone elected by the people of Cincinnati -- Mayor Mallory and City Council -- hold Streicher accountable or responsible for avoiding the reality the rest of us inhabit? Why won't any of them demand a specific plan for dealing with the crime problem sweeping Cincinnati?
One major perception floating around town right now is that Cincinnati's political leaders, like many residents and much of the media, are intimidated by the Cincinnati Police Department. Until proven otherwise, that perception -- like residents' feelings about crime -- is the city's reality.
Contact john fox: jfox((at)citybeat.com