I’d never known Cincinnati as a city brimming with secrets. Then my grandmother died in 2012.
Cincinnati is the city of my birth, and its seemingly endless ring of suburbs the backdrop for my parents’ own adolescence. Due to a job transfer when I was just four years old, my father moved us out of Cincy to rural Pennsylvania, which meant the city became something of a vacation destination for the majority of my life.
Growing up, my parents would drive us back for summer visits, family reunions, the occasional Thanksgiving. We’d hit the tourists spots, ride rollercoasters at King’s Island, catch a Reds game, scoop a bowl full of the city’s famous chili. As a child, the place was magical.
Little did I know how much lay secluded.
As a young man in my 20s, even into my early 30s, visits to Cincinnati followed the familiar routine established during my childhood. But in the old working class neighborhoods I never visited, among the hills and stones of the cemeteries, in the old railyards, even among the mansions of the well-to-do, the ghosts of a secluded past waited to be discovered.
a city of missed opportunities
Cincinnati for many Americans exists as a city to fly over. For sports fans, the city’s teams usually find themselves featured, if at all, in the also-played segment of highlight shows.
Cincy ranks 66th in population among American cities, behind Lexington, Honolulu, even Louisville, a sibling-like city down river to the west.
Yet it’s a beautiful city with a downtown whose lights sparkle like stars on the surface of the slow moving Ohio River. Today, it’s experiencing phenomenal growth and development from its waterfront entertainment to the boutique shops and taverns lining the once given-up-for-dead neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine.
I do love it. I’ll take a weekend there over just about any other city in the world, no lie. Cincinnati once inspired poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1854 to write:
And this Song of the Vine
This greeting of mine
The winds and the birds shall deliver
To the Queen of the West
In her garlands dressed,
On the banks of the Beautiful River.
The history of Cincinnati, though, is littered with missed opportunities, perpetuating a what-could’ve-been attitude among its residents for generations.
After it was founded in the late 18th century, it quickly became on of the most prominent American cities, a stop for many on their way westward. Immigrants settled, especially the German and Irish, industries sprang up, cultural hubs thrived. It seemed for a time Cincinnati would cement a place among the New Yorks, Philadelphias, and Baltimores of the fledgling country.
Then came railroads to dominate the American landscape.
Cincinnati lived off of water-based travel thanks to the Ohio River and several canals. The city leaders tried to sell itself as a prime destination for rail, but Chicago and other mid-American cities proved more adept and advantageous for the new technology, and Cincinnati fell behind.
Many Cincinnatians “express … dismay regarding Cincinnati’s past, noting that theirs is a city that peaked more than 150 years ago,” writes David Stradling in his history, Cincinnati: From River City to Highway Metropolis.
Railroads did arrive in Cincinnati, but by then, the Chicagos and St. Louis’s were already well established. During the Great Depression, many working families migrated to Cincinnati hoping to find jobs, and that’s how several strands of my family ended up in Cincinnati with railroad jobs.
Here is where things begin to take a real twist.
from vacation destination to a holder of secrets
My memoir Maintenance of Way covers the search for my father’s birth mother, and part of that search included peering deep into Cincinnati’s past and my family’s role in it.
I found more than I ever knew.
The woman I knew as my grandmother (my father’s mother) died in the early spring of 2012, and during her wake in Cincinnati when father first told me he’d been adopted. Actually, according to what he knew, he’d been abducted by his own father from a teenage mistress, who for all we knew disappeared 60 years ago.
I spent years not only searching for my father’s birth mother, but also peering into the corners, the old streets, at gravestones, old city records, trying to piece together context and evidence.
The memoir I’m writing covers my journey into the city’s old cemeteries, hospitals, archives, neighborhoods I’d never before bothered to notice. I never knew previous generations owned a short-lived grocery store, right around the time of my Dad’s birth, until I saw an ad in a 1950s newspaper for Pidgeon’s Market. Today it’s a parking lot. Hidden tragedies also revealed themselves, which no one had ever talked to me about, whether out of shame or an attempt to shield from my generation the harsh experiences of those who came before us. I even discovered the jaw-dropping extravagance of a street lined by mansions where my father’s adopted mother lived as a small girl, a neighbor a survivor of the Titanic sinking, another a renowned naturalist with a botanical garden preserved today by the city. And more.
Cincinnati for me has become an urban landscape of mystery and intrigue in ways I never imagined. And it makes me love it more than I ever did when it was just a vacation destination.
What I’ve found in my late 30s is you can rediscover a place you once thought you knew, to see it again for the first time. Every place that served as a backdrop of your life, it deserves a second look.
Dave Pidgeon is a freelance magazine journalist and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org