Columbia-Tusculum is a tale of two neighborhoods. Considered Cincinnati's first neighborhood, the community of Columbia was founded in 1788, predating Cincinnati by a month. Two hundred years later (1989), the Columbia-Tusculum Historic District was formed to protect the area's unique architecture.
I had always been intrigued by the area when I made the drive from Clifton to the kickball fields at Lunken Airport. At one end of Columbia-Tusculum, new businesses are thriving, Victorian homes have been restored and renovated, and young people gather in bars and restaurants. At the other end, homes have been neglected, streets are deserted, and poverty reigns. Driving half a mile feels like crossing into another world.
Although it wasn't planned, my visit to Columbia-Tusculum granted me access into both worlds.
I began the afternoon at Tammy's on the southeast edge of Columbia-Tusculum. Before walking inside, I read this review online from January of 2010: "Rude people and they allow smoking inside! I have reported them to the No Smoke OH authorities." Well, almost two years later, nothing has changed.
Unfortunately, literally every single person in the bar was smoking. I tried to snap a few undercover pictures, but I was nervous someone would murder me. Upon entering, I once again got looks asking, "What the f@#k are you doing here?" I'm starting to think I don't fit in anywhere. It was difficult to be certain through the haze of cigarette smoke, but I believe about twenty people were in the bar. After the bartender (who was also smoking) took my drink order, only two people spoke to me.
First, the lady next to me asked if her smoking bothered me. That was nice of her, but I said it was okay. After all, her one cigarette didn't have much effect on the permanent cloud of smoke. The woman's husband/boyfriend looked like he eats nails for breakfast, and I wasn't feeling brave enough to strike up a conversation. Later, the woman came back from the bathroom with three singles and some change, and the man angrily demanded his five dollar bill back. They argued. I assumed he would have smacked her had they not been in public. Eventually, the woman walked up to someone else in the bar, talked for a couple of minutes, and came back with a five dollar bill. I'm not sure exactly what happened, but that dude either loves Abraham Lincoln or simply enjoys being angry at his lady friend.
Second, I'm getting used to thieves selling me stolen merchandise in dive bars. Halfway through my beer, a young guy walked in with a bag of candy. At first, he asked the handful of people at my end of the bar if anyone wanted to trade him a cigarette for candy. Quite a deal. The owner quickly rushed down and asked him to leave. He told her he wasn't selling the candy, just trying to trade for a cigarette. Had I accidentally stumbled into a prison?
She let him stay, and the old man next to me finally made a trade. A cigarette for a Snickers. Lovely. That's when the candy trader betrayed himself. A woman asked if he stole the candy. He openly told her he swiped it from the local UDF. Then he tried to sell her the candy ... after telling the owner he wasn't selling candy. I suppose theft is worse than lying, but seriously dude? You steal candy from UDF and sell it at Tammy's Bar? God help us.
After forty-five minutes, I couldn't stand the smoke. In my twenties, I spent many nights in smokey bars, but the cigarette ban in Ohio has been a breath of fresh air (get it?). My lungs have adjusted, and almost an hour inhaling cigarette smoke was taking its toll.
But I didn't want to go home. I knew Columbia-Tusculum had more to offer than a dive bar with smokers and thieves. On the northwestern edge of the neighborhood, I found Stanley's Pub. I had been to Stanley's once before after watching the Labor Day fireworks, but it was a short stay (and at the time, I was a bit tipsy). This time around, I never wanted to leave.
Walking into Stanley's immediately put me at ease. These were my kind of people. Young, smokeless, and not trying to sell me stolen goods. I fit in! The customers welcomed me with open arms. The bartender was friendly. I talked to almost everyone in the bar. I got to know the bartender (who was once married to a former NFL player), her friend (who is currently dating an MMA fighter), a regular (who just went through a divorce), a high school teacher (who was celebrating Senate Bill 5's defeat), and I even ran into a former student.
Stanley's Pub is a bar that fit my expectations. Its customers weren't necessarily local (unlike almost every West Side bar). There was a range of sexes, ages, and races, but everyone was incredibly friendly. It was also the first place I never mentioned my Pub Crawl. One of the guys asked how I ended up in Columbia-Tusculum, but before I could explain my tour of Cincinnati bars, his phone rang.
Because of that, I don't feel comfortable sharing specific details, but the three people I spent most of the evening talking to shared intimate, personal details of their lives. It was a reminder that everyone has a story, no matter how "together" someone is on the outside (attractive, funny, smart, cool), we're all doing our best to make like work. Because they reminded me of myself, I think our conversations were the most natural I've had so far. By the end of the night, I felt like I had made new friends. More than anything else, I actually had fun. That created some cognitive dissonance. I essentially go into these bars as an undercover ethnographer. I try to avoid blatant lies (although I've told some), but I definitely change my persona to fit in and connect with people I encounter. I feel the need to act as a chameleon in order to make others feel comfortable. When my former student walked it, I definitely had a sense of being "caught." It felt like I was an undercover cop, and my cover had been blown.
Regardless, Tammy's Bar and Stanley's Pub provided perfect bookends to Columbia-Tusculum. Old vs. new. The neighborhood that was crumbling vs. the neighborhood that is rebuilding. Young, fun, beautiful, diverse, educated people vs. well, the patrons at Tammy's Bar. Will there always be a line drawn in the sand, separating the two distinct areas of the neighborhood, or will urban development eventually push out suburban stagnation?
Based on my two very different experiences, I know which option I prefer.