Russ Ringsak

Two Solid Cities

December 26, 2006

It's not easy to sit down to write while you are in the middle of reading a book by Cormac McCarthy, at least not for me. I opened a Christmas present early Saturday night, his latest, The Road, a dark and beautiful work, wrenching, like the others. Maybe moreso, because of the notably tenuous situation beneath Yellowstone Park. And of course the book isn't about geology but about our own natures, and I'll let it go at that. I'm only a third of the way through and have no idea what set off the apocalypse, and don't expect to find out. But writing after that is like sitting down to play guitar after seeing Chet Atkins or Roy Buchanan. You know you'll never get there. You know for sure. Not even close.

So I won't try. I can pretty much guarantee that you will not get the chills or lose sleep from reading this piece; I know this before it's started and before I have a subject. If I thought I could scare the bejeesus out of you in two pages or even thunderstrike you with a short perfect sentence, I might try it. But it ain't gonna happen.

* * * *

We did a short fall tour of two solid American cities, Cincinnati and Buffalo, the kind of places I'd like to go to more often. You don't spend hours there rowing the gearshift lever through coagulated traffic five lanes wide, at least I didn't have to. And they both offer a decent stand of quality old buildings downtown, escapees of the curse of the grotesquely misnamed Urban Renewal of forty years ago.

They also have more interesting histories than one might expect, especially if that one gets their geography primarily from Monday Night Football. Cincinnati feels the most central of all American cities, architecturally northern and musically southern; eastern tall and western wide. The John Augustus Roebling Bridge, flying across the mighty Ohio River from downtown to the South and vice versa, is so dynamically beautiful they named it after its designer. He was a Prussian who came over here in 1831 to get away from all that crazy European turmoil. This bridge, spanning a thousand feet, was his ninth major project and was built during the great American turmoil of the Civil War; it was finished in 1867. Roebling later did a bigger one yet, a 1600 foot span across the East River, the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883 and famous among metallurgists for being the world's first steel structure; a real improvement over iron.

The first indoor shopping mall sits downtown, the Netherland Plaza in the base of the Carew Tower, now the Hilton Netherland Cincinnati. In Minnesota we like to think of ourselves as pioneers of the shopping mall, but Netherland (not to be confused with Neverland) was planned in 1929 and done in 1931, 25 years before our Southdale.

The vision of an indoor shopping arcade, coupled with a hotel and offices, was conceived by John Emery, who had made a lot of money processing leftovers from the Cincinnati slaughterhouses, of which there were quite a few back in the good old frontier days. The banks didn't want to finance it because they weren't sure the idea would work. They did him a favor and turned him down.

He was so sure of himself he sold all his stocks and bonds, to the horror of his advisers, and financed the construction himself. The Wall Street crash of October 1929 would have wiped him out had he followed good advice; it was his stubbornness that led him to becoming the largest employer in town — one of the last rich men standing — when he put a thousand guys to work building this amazing labor-intensive Art Deco tour de force. Not to get too breathless about it all, but it is quite the deal. The same guy who designed the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and the Hotel Intercontinental in Chicago, Walter Ahlschlager (7 consonants in a row), was the chief designer. The builder was Col. William Starrett, who by then had Washington's Union Station and Lincoln Memorial, and New York's Empire State Building and Penn Station, under his belt.

But it was radio that put the city on the minds of the South. Station WLW was authorized to broadcast at the power of a whopping 500,000 watts at night, the most ever for a US AM station. When it was up and cracking it took 10,000 gallons of water a minute to cool the transmitter. (Its other famous radio station existed only as a television show, WKRP in Cincinnati, 53 episodes from 1978 to 1982.)

The city is named after the Roman general Cincinnatus, who saved Rome from destruction. In 458 B.C. he was named dictator for six months by the Senate, to fight off the Aequians. He won the battle and could have been named dictator for life but resigned after sixteen days in office to resume life as a farmer, setting a noble but seldom-followed example, especially by dictators. There is a statue of him at Sawyer Point, downtown on the Ohio Riverfront.

The downside of the beautifully restored Cincinnati Music Hall is backing into the loading dock; the trailer will fit inside the building, barely, but its passageway is narrower than the average high school hallway and the sidestreet from which you enter not much wider. It took thirty minutes of very touchy jockeying with the tractor up on the sidewalk across the street, with the trailer doors tethered open and a good guy on the ground, Jim, to guide in the blind side. Actually the blind side was both sides, and it took another twenty minutes just to inch out Saturday night. But it was worth it, and done with nary a scratch. Tightest fit in the history of APHC. And that's tight.

* * * *

Some say Buffalo's name came from the French beaux fleuve, for beautiful river. It didn't come from the animal because they weren't there. Never have been. And Buffalo Bill himself had no special connection there, although they named their pro football team after him. (A nice gesture, and why didn't the Washington team call themselves the Georges, instead of the Redskins?)

Buffalo's Art Deco masterpiece is the City Hall, a 28-story must-see and must-go-to-the-top-of, overlooking the McKinley Monument in downtown Niagara Square. It's one of a slew of treasures, most from the 1800s, that look great even when you are leaning into a cutting Lake Erie wind and hanging on to your hat.

My personal pick would be Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building, the most refined of his pioneering skyscrapers, from 1896; but there are more than a dozen more stunners within a few short blocks, including Beaux Arts neighbors Buffalo Savings Bank and the Electric Tower. This was the world's first electrified city, thanks to the genius of a Serbian named Nikola Tesla, "The Man Who Tamed Niagara Falls," who came here, invented AC current, and lived a life rich in both discovery and controversy.

Buffalo was the western port of the Erie Canal; the connection to the frontier Great Lakes gave the New York City harbor a tremendous advantage over other ports on the eastern seaboard. There were no railroads, so the opening of the canal in October of 1825 was a Huge Deal. It was 425 miles long and 4 feet deep, dug mostly by hand in less than three years, and it made Buffalo into the largest grain handling port in the world.

The city is also home to the Lafayette Tap Room, a blues bar with all the crusty funkiness they're supposed to have, plus an elegant high metal ceiling and chandeliers. The stage is up in the front window, like they do it on Broadway in Nashville, and there is a long wood bar with a big old ornate three-bay mirrored back bar. Framed and signed photos of blues hands, old and new, nearly cover the walls. Anson Funderburg, Son Seals, Kenny Neal, Maria Muldaur, Matt Murphy, Charlie Musselwhite, Johnny Copeland, Derek Trucks, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, and on and on, and all playing through amplifiers running on AC current. They serve a fine jambalalya and the beer is trucker cheap. A good place.

Our venue was the sumptuous Shea's Performing Arts Center, another well deserved and well done restoration. Here we had the luxury of width, both in the inset loading dock and in the wide one-way Pearl Street. Pull up, stop, crank the wheel, curl it back in all with one move. Two minutes. One of the easiest in APHC history. And that's easy.

* * * *

It's Monday now, Christmas Day, and I've finished The Road and I keenly recommend it. Especially to those able to face grim possibility and appreciate it's not happening to them, at least not yet; and who favor sturdy writing, one powerful paragraph after another. A work to transform one's perceptions.

However, nothing written here in the last two days gives any suggestion that this author may have undergone a fundamental transformation in either power or perception. So I was right. It ain't gonna happen.

© R.Ringsak 2006

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