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'Ghost Art' on Cincinnati's Public Stairways

By Steven Rosen · August 26th, 2009 · The Big Picture

When it comes to public art, I appreciate programs like ArtWorks’ ongoing MuralWorks project (and the jobs it creates), but what I really respond to is “ghost art.”

By that, I mean public art or architecture that seems almost accidental – residue or remnants of something once present and now gone, or something mysteriously placed in the public domain for no discernible intent.

Among the latter, I was always intrigued by the poster for Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign that was glued to a boarded-up window of an old Over-the-Rhine business called Charlie’s Fine Food & Great Spirits.

Obviously the poster hadn’t been up there since 1968. Someone put it up more recently; probably even reproduced the poster and then chose this incongruous spot with no explanation. Was it a deliberate act of art? A political statement? A prank? A memorial? (Kennedy was assassinated during that Democratic primary campaign.) One will never know — the poster has now been scraped away, leaving only the ghost of its memories.

Another piece of seemingly “accidental” ghost art is along Columbia Parkway, primarily between Delta Avenue and Torrence Parkway. Last year, the city’s Transportation & Engineering Department began concreting over the “stairways to nowhere” that rose from the concrete supporting wall into the overgrown hillsides.

But it left their outlines weirdly discernible through the new wall.

Decades ago, these stairs once went to houses, but as the road below developed from a patchwork of above-flood-level alternate routes for Eastern Avenue into a limited-access parkway, the city slowly bought the land and demolished the homes. But the stairs, since they were built into the retention wall, remained – a siren-like beckoning to commuters from an older Cincinnati to abandon their cars and “come on up.”

Since they served no purpose, there was little outcry when the city — in a $240,000 project primarily funded by the state — began covering up the half-dozen or so stairways. Crews poured backfill and topsoil into the stairwells and created concrete partitions facing the parkway. But the visible outlines of the stairways now cause a double-take. They work as outdoor sculpture.

It turns out the effect is not accidental. The city did this on purpose, putting the new partitions slightly behind the edges of the old handrails to create the outline.

“When I first came to Cincinnati 10 years ago, they were the mystery steps,” says Michael Moore, interim director of the Transportation & Engineering Department. “This sort of keeps their memory, rather than having it disappear into the concrete.

“When we do a project, we like to be sure to create a sense of history so you’re aware of the place you’re in. We thought it would be nice to remember that it used to be a habitated hillside. It’s kind of like the ghost of the steps that used to be there.”

Looking to a green future, maybe (hopefully) there will come a new day when people want to take stairs down from hillside homes — or walking paths through the hills — to board Columbia Parkway streetcars into downtown. Won’t we need those stairways once again?

Moore says, if that should happen, the rapid-transit system probably will follow a now-little-used rail line between Eastern Avenue and Columbia Parkway, and the city could build bridges over to it.

So it appears the ghost art will remain.

“I hope it rings some bells for people about what was once there,” Moore says.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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