Everything looks right in Over-the-Rhine under warm nighttime skies and a wintertime full moon. Revelers crowd outside BarrelHouse Brewery -- with no clue that it was literally the brewery's "final Friday" -- and watch Scottish bagpipers parade down 12th Street.
It's late on Feb. 25, the night of Bockfest, Over-the-Rhine's annual winter-ending celebration of bock beer. The Bockfest Parade is over, but crowds continue to fill neighborhood bars and the few remaining galleries for a Final Friday gallery walk. The larger-than-normal crowds at Final Friday and the Bockfest parade create some understandable optimism. (The free flowing beer also helps the mood.)
Cincinnati City Council candidate Nick Spencer, who scheduled a campaign fund-raiser at his nearby nightclub, alchemize, in conjunction with the parade, calls this his kickoff weekend. The "Elect Nick Spencer to Cincinnati City Council in 2005" party has waned by 9 p.m. to a small crowd of hardcore supporters, an out-of-place politician like State Rep. Tom Brinkman and a stumbling Bockfest reveler or two. Don't worry if you didn't make the party. Spencer can fill you in on it at his Blog (www.spencer2005.com/blog) after he explains why he didn't get the Alexander Payne film Sideways.
Councilman Jim Tarbell walks the streets in his Bockfest costume, showing up briefly at Mr. Pitiful's, satisfied with the turnout.
Carteaux & Leslie, a framer and antiquarian bookseller in the shadow of the Kroger Building, is located below the Over-the-Rhine border of Central Parkway, but co-owner Tim Leslie says he wanted to take part in Final Friday and add another art stop to the neighborhood's struggling gallery walk.
I've known Leslie long enough to remember his days as a framer at Prince's Art Supply and to hear repeatedly about his plans to locate his framing shop in Over-the-Rhine in a vacant building adjacent to Findlay Market. But costs and delays derailed that dream, leading him to his current Vine Street location and a newfound interest in selling limited edition prints.
Friends and patrons fill the shotgun storefront while 16mm archival art films play on the store's whitewashed walls. The evening turnout is proof that people will cross Central Parkway for a Final Friday as long as there are worthy destinations.
There's plenty of nighttime fun to be had around Main Street, but in sober daylight, on this day or any day, the neighborhood's struggles are glaring.
The Friday street party began with bullet holes in the front door of an apartment building on McMicken Street and the dead body of Obadiah Israel on the other side, confirming the neighborhood's latest shooting fatality. Cincinnati Police are discussing a slowdown in the wake of stalled contract negotiations, an act of defiance that could lead to violent crime consuming Over-the-Rhine again.
Every neighborhood has its share of development dreams -- Walnut Hills, the East End, Northside -- but Over-the-Rhine is Cincinnati's longstanding Cinderella story. It still lacks a happy ending.
The interest in Over-the-Rhine remains because the potential is breathtaking and its importance to the city is undisputed. But it takes only a walk around the block from the BarrelHouse building -- the future home of the Art Academy of Cincinnati -- to come face to face with eyesore buildings, grim street corners and out-in-the-open drug dealing.
There are plenty of people and groups looking out for Over-the-Rhine, especially the nonprofit Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), formed in 2003 to develop Fountain Square, Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine and the riverfront. Much of the news seems optimistic. The question is whether current neighborhood businesses can hold on until new development breaks ground.
BarrelHouse Brewery, home to many of the Bockfest activities, is the latest Over-the-Rhine casualty, joining other shuttered businesses like Grammer's restaurant, Jump Café and Marta Hewitt Gallery.
A couple of days later, on a wet Monday afternoon, teenagers from the nearby School for Creative and Performing Arts pile their backpacks near an upfront piano and fill the backroom tables at Kaldi's Coffeehouse. They're loud and energetic, and a young string bean of a boy with a Devil Girl Choco Bar T-shirt hanging loosely over his thin frame laughs the loudest.
They're future Over-the-Rhine residents and customers, students who already think of the neighborhood as their own. That is, if Over-the-Rhine survives until their adulthood.
In the light of day, away from the Bockfest revelry, the neighborhood's future remains up for grabs.