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Main Street Coming and Going

By Stephanie Dunlap · March 21st, 2007 · There But For Grace

The morning after finds me creeping down the entryway. For the first time since I moved to Over-the-Rhine, I'm scared to see the street beyond my apartment building.

The security gate's curling design sections a gleaming hood into paisleys, so at least the car is still there.

I move closer and half-avert my eyes, giving any broken windows a last chance not to exist. My peripheral vision catches only a couple glints from long-broken bottles.

My car passed its first night on Main Street unscathed.

This is my first new car, and it's not exactly a frugal kind of new. This is a distinctively fun car. And it's giving me some identity fits.

How does a zippy little car fit into a low-key, sensible Over-the-Rhine existence? Does this mean I no longer belong on Main Street? Did I ever? Am I becoming -- horrors -- a young professional?

More than just the ride is new to me. I've never before worried about the exteriors of my cars. Nor, for that matter, their innards, until they revolted and stopped making the cars go.

So moving to Over-the-Rhine a year ago and parking on the street wasn't an issue once I figured out never to leave duffel bags in plain view.

This concern about the well-being of an inanimate object is making me question my self-image.

I take pride in a laissez-faire attitude toward most of my own maintenance. I like being the woman who buys clothes only from Goodwill and sale racks, who can rarely be bothered to slather on makeup or blow-dry a mop of hair.

I liked living in Clifton's quirky Gaslight area, but I've stayed in Over-the-Rhine because its darker personalities and corners move me. Something feels real and vital; there is an apocalyptic beauty in urban decay.

The history is here whether or not the Italianate architecture has been restored to its former glory.

On the other hand, emergency vehicles provide almost-nightly entertainment at the nearby intersection of Main and Liberty.

A couple gun- and knife-wielding hoods once tried to mug a friend of mine. They beat him pretty good when he refused to hand over his money, which amounted to all of $2.

The odds probably dictate that I can't live here very long without something similar happening to me.

But that's any city living, and this is far from the most dangerous place that Cincinnati has to offer. I tell people that the worst they can expect on Main Street is panhandling. Just say a polite, firm "No" if you don't want to give money, avoid buying your drugs on Vine Street and you should be fine.

But at night on Main Street I hold my head high, ball my fists and make sure to say "Hey" so strangers might think I'm not afraid. The dog at my side is probably more intimidating.

I don't want to live in fear. But I do wonder sometimes whether living here is palatable only until something happens to me.

How tough am I, really? Am I waiting to get rolled before I take up my parents' offer to subsidize a moving service?

Maybe I haven't been around long enough, but no one can convince me that Main Street is either coming or going; any conviction either way strikes me as more political than empirical. Is each new business a sign of renaissance or each successive closing more evidence of irreversible decline? Who knows?

Every so often a wave of idealistic entrepreneurs moves through this area wielding fancy branding initiatives. ("Hey, idea: If we called it 'The Loop' instead of 'Main Street Entertainment District,' we could really market this place.")

They roll in ... and a short while later they roll back out, leaving little displaced in their wake. Rinse and repeat.

Before I moved here I helped scuttle the Main Street revival schemes of one of those entrepreneurs.

As a CityBeat reporter, I asked the developer of Memphis' Beale Street to elaborate on questionable comments he made about Chinese restaurants. John Elkington said something about not wanting to work with such restaurants because Chinese do "fuzzy math." I printed his quotes. (See "OTR Consultant: No Chinese Allowed," issue of Oct. 1, 2003.)

When faced with an angry coalition of local Chinese-Americans, City Council lost interest in a proposal to pay the guy tens of thousands to work some of his Beale Street magic on Main Street.

And now here I am. If this were a Western flick, tumbleweeds would be bumping along past a succession of empty storefronts. In place of police sirens there would be one long, plaintive whistle.

Sometimes I look down the quiet street and sincerely wonder if Elkington's ESPN Zone or House of Blues schemes could have made a difference.

Then comes a Final Friday or Second Sunday on Main event, and I'm convinced that cut-and-paste commercialism would dilute something vital.

Meanwhile, bars or no, a lot of people do live and invest themselves here.

Some go to 3CDC's planning meetings, pick up trash instead of stepping over it and plant flowerboxes. A few take on their own renewal projects such as the small Northern Row Park, renovated by a handful of committed residents.

Still others quietly run their businesses or eke out livings in uninspiring jobs the same way people do in most neighborhoods.

When Main Street starts making me feel more threatened than connected and more annoyed than amused, I might put my dog in the passenger seat and go for good.

For now I just remind myself never to leave bags in my car, notice the beauty that's already here and take things day by day like everyone everywhere.

CONTACT STEPHANIE DUNLAP: letters(at)citybeat.com. Her column will appear here the second issue of each month.


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