Saturday, December 24, 2016

Welcome To My Blog!

As you can see, I don't maintain this blog anymore. The world has evolved, and blogging feels so 2007. I wrote regularly on this site for many years, but now I focus most of my energy on loving my wife, maintaining friendships, teaching at the University of Cincinnati, and telling stories (both real and imagined).

If you poke around, you'll find my church experiment, pub crawl, and some amateur ethnographies. I've included links to some of my proudest moments in the tab bar above. By clicking, you can learn more about me as a blogger, writer, teacher, and storyteller.

If you would like to stay in touch, read my random thoughts about life, faith, sports, politics, entertainment, or current events, and keep up with my latest project, follow me on Twitter. That link is also included at the top of this page.

Either way, if you're new to this blog, thanks for stopping by. I still read comments, so feel free to contribute to the conversation. If you're a veteran reader, thanks so much for your support over the years. None of this would have been possible without you.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Queen City Pub Crawl: Columbia-Tusculum

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.

This sign is clearly displayed on the front door:

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.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Queen City Pub Crawl: Over-the-Rhine

Over-the-Rhine has to be the most polarizing neighborhood in Cincinnati. In 2009, it was ranked as the most dangerous neighborhood in the United States. Many Cincinnatians unfamiliar with the area likely believe the report. For suburbanites, Over-the-Rhine is a war zone to be avoided. Many residents and frequent guests would likely disagree. I have many friends who live and play in Over-the-Rhine, and they rarely encounter problems. I've spent significant time in the neighborhood myself, and while I wouldn't wander the streets alone at three o'clock in the morning, the dangers are greatly exaggerated by national and local media. The Cincinnati Police Department refuted the original 2009 ranking by claiming crime in OTR was down almost 40 percent from 2004-2007.

Over-the-Rhine first made national news during the riots of 2001. The chaos was again exaggerated by the national media, but the riots clearly gave Cincinnati a black eye. Local businesses closed their doors or moved away, and many residents followed. 

But, over the years, Over-the-Rhine was granted a rebirth by investors interested in revitalizing the neighborhood. Young people are moving back. Homes are being rebuilt. Crime continues to decrease. By 2010, OTR had dropped from 1 to 24 on the list of America's most dangerous neighborhoods.

But, Over-the-Rhine is far from a Utopian society. Abandoned buildings still line its streets. Drugs and prostitution are around almost every corner. Crime rates have dropped, but crime is no stranger to OTR.

Based on a recommendation, I chose to visit the 1132 Bar (named after its street number) on the corner of Race and 12th, and across the street from The School for Creative and Performing Arts.

Okay, first, I have to admit, this was the most bizarre experience of the Pub Crawl so far. I'm far from racist (beyond the normal prejudices that we all have), but walking into an all-black bar in the middle of Over-the-Rhine challenged me in ways that opened my eyes to my own internalized stereotypes. I hated feeling uncomfortable, but if I'm honest, I felt uncomfortable.

And not because I dislike African Americans. I have lived and worked in diverse communities for over a decade. I'll spare you all the nonsense white people say to convince others they aren't racist, but trust me, I try really hard not to judge others based solely on their skin color. Paradise Lounge in East Price Hill was almost all black, but the vibe was completely different. There, I felt like one of the crowd. In the 1132 Bar, I immediately felt like an outsider.

When I walked up to the bar, the female bartender said, "What do you want?" But not in a tone that communicated her desire for my drink order. She was literally asking me what I was doing in her bar. It knocked me off guard. I was expecting a fun place open to a diverse community. What I got felt more like a social club expecting a secret handshake to gain admittance.

I ordered a Budweiser and gave her a one dollar tip. She tried to give it back, thinking I overpaid for my beer, but I explained it was a tip. She seemed confused.

That's about the time the woman sitting directly to my left went off on a Cincinnati rant. To quote her directly, "Fuck Cincinnati. Fuck the mayor and the police and all them. This city fucking sucks." She repeated herself over and over again ... to me, to the bartender, to her companion, to no one in particular. Finally, I looked over and realized the man sitting next to her had a teardrop tattoo under his right eye. Now, I've seen enough Law and Order: SVU to know that meant he had killed someone. Two tears = two murders. 

I really should have started a conversation with them, but the combination of her ranting against Cincinnati and his ... well, his murders ... put me on tilt. I sat quietly watching television until a man walked in the front door and stood beside me.

This man asked the owner, Carl, for a five and five singles in exchange for a ten dollar bill. Carl refused. He then turned to me with the same request. I wanted to fit in and be helpful, so I told him I had two fives. He said that worked, so we made the exchange and he walked back out the front door. Now, I suppose the meat incident in Camp Washington had me jaded, but I immediately felt like I had been taken advantage of. What was the scam? Was the $10 bill counterfeit? Was it stolen? Recently used to snort cocaine? I mocked my buddy Bradley Wise for including a scene in his movie, Fenced Off, that seemed ridiculous to me. Although it was based on a true story, a white dude freaking out because he thought something in his yard was drugs just because he lived in a black neighborhood seemed absurd. But, as the movie's theme is attempting to communicate to its audience, logic gets thrown out the window when our racism buttons get pushed. 

I'm sad to say, I tried to put the $10 bill in my wallet without touching it. Then, later that evening, I found a way to spend the ten dollars so it would no longer be in my possession. Hi, I'm Steve, and I'm insane. Nice to meet you.

The only other white person in the bar was Carl, the owner. He had an interesting relationship with his customers. They all seemed to know him, and although Carl didn't seem like the most friendly or affectionate man on the planet (he never said a word to me), there was a mutual respect between him and his customers. I really wish I could have heard more about Carl's back-story, but there was a problem ...

I walked into the bar at approximately 4:15pm. At 4:55, the bar had almost completely cleared out. A few minutes later, Carl began walking around the room locking doors and turning off televisions. I asked the bartender if they were closing, and she said Carl had somewhere to go that day, so they were closing early. Well, okay then. I wasn't quite done with my beer, but I definitely wasn't sad about leaving. From the moment I walked in, I felt like an unwelcome outsider. 

Even my final moment was awkward. I walked to the front door and tried to open it. But it was locked. The man standing next to me reached over and unlatched the dead bolt. I turned around and said, "I guess I should learn how to unlock doors." He stared at me with the blankest look known to man. I'm not saying my line was hilarious, but man, a friendly chuckle to ease the tension would have been helpful. From "what do you want" to a blank stare, my experience at the 1132 Bar was quite an adventure.

People at the 1132 bar seemed angry. I only experienced a tiny sample size, of course, but it was unlike any experience I have ever had with African Americans. The vibe was tangibly different. I could taste the tension in that bar, and I'm not sure I would go back. Bars on the West Side, whether white or black, seemed like happy places. Fun places. Places where strangers become friends and community happens. The 1132 Bar seemed like an angry place. An unhappy place. A place where strangers are the enemy and differences are highlighted.

Over-the-Rhine is a fascinating neighborhood with stories as diverse as its residents. I can't begin to sum up OTR in one blog, but its continued transformation over the next decade will be interesting to watch. I hate experiences that reveal my prejudices, but I'm only human. So was everyone else in the 1132 Bar. I'm sure we have a lot to learn from one another.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Queen City Pub Crawl: Queensgate

What better way to pass from the West Side of Cincinnati to its centrally located neighborhoods than Queensgate. Best know for Union Terminal (the Justice League headquarters, named the Hall of Justice, was modeled after our train station turned museum) and the former home of Crosley Field (where the Reds played baseball from 1912 to 1970), driving through Queensgate is like time-traveling back to the industrial age. 

David Holthaus wrote, "Queensgate is Porkopolis. Hog slaughtering started here in the early 19th Century and the butchering business continued throughout the 20th Century, nearly until today, giving the city one of its oft-quoted nicknames."

If you have ever wondered what led to Cincinnati's "pig heritage," well, there ya go.

What's interesting about Queensgate is that almost no one lives there. In fact, recent census data suggests the neighborhood is almost two square miles but houses less than one thousand residents. That's under five hundred people per square mile. In comparison, the Cincinnati 52-neighborhood average is nearly 4,500 people per square mile. 

A neighborhood that once supported dozens of bars (factory workers drinking after their shifts ended) had been pruned to a couple of rogue pubs. As the factories closed their doors, so did the watering holes that served their employees.

But JB's Honky Tonk and Emporium remains. At the northern tip of Queensgate, surrounded by abandoned factory buildings, a working man's oasis sits alone.

Confession: I'm beginning to have some ethical concerns about this Pub Crawl. Almost everyone I have encountered inevitably asks how I stumbled into their bar, and I always openly explain my journey. But people are sharing intimate, personal details with meinformation they likely don't want published on the Internet for perfect strangers to read. 

For example, I met the owner of JB's Honky Tonk and Emporium this week. If that name sounds familiar, you may recall that a small biker gang called the Iron Horsemen got into a shootout with Cincinnati police at the bar in September of 2010. Two officers were injured in the shooting and one biker was killed. Now that would have been a crazy experience to write about. Oh well, maybe next week. The owner didn't mention the shooting, but she and I did talk for over two hours. She told me life experiences that most people would probably hide from their psychiatrists. 

Karen (name has been changed) worked at JB's thirty years ago as a young girl. Then, decades later, she bought the bar as a married woman. Unfortunately, her husband (sixteen years her elder) didn't approve of his wife working in a bar. His insecurities led to jealousy, which led to an unhappy marriage. After fourteen years and two children, they separated, and two years later, that's where it still stands. Karen loves her children, her bar, and her customers.

I have encountered a handful of female bar owners so far, and interestingly, they have always been working at the bar. I haven't met one male bar owner yet. As Karen and I spoke, a theory began to take shape. Karen was a caretaker to her customers. They were almost all men. They were clearly blue collar workers. And she mothered them. She knew their names. She asked about their lives. When someone left, she made sure he was okay to drive. 

Perhaps men seek out these types of nurturing relationships from women? Perhaps females own bars to provide it?

Karen was definitely not excited about the idea of getting married again. She waited until her early thirties to tie the knot, and it's obvious the experience didn't go how she had hoped. For the first time, I began wondering about all of the middle-aged men and women reentering the dating scene. There are millions of them out there, and for the most part, they're probably bitter about marriage. Do you just give up at that point? Do you start all over again and risk more heartache? Do you date for recreation instead of love? Does romance become a way to pass the time? I know what it feels like to be young and fear growing old alone, but what does it feel like when old age is crouching on your doorstep?

A female bar owner / male bar patron relationship seems beneficial to all parties involved.

Perhaps the most entertaining part of my visit was discovering a "bar war." I watched Cheers growing up. Remember their rivalry with Gary's Olde Towne Tavern? A similar rivalry exists between JB's and the Stockyard Cafe (which you'll recall I visited a few weeks ago). Along Spring Grove Ave, they're basically the only two bars left, fighting for customers, trying to stay afloat amongst the debris of a crumbling neighborhood. When a community is built on the foundation of industrial factories, what happens when those factories close their doors? Queensgate and Camp Washington are both trying to answer that question.

Only time will tell what becomes of these two neighborhoods, but with so many residents, it's hard to imagine a revival unless they can reinvent themselves for the 21st Century. Until then, the beer is cold at JB's Honky Tonk and Emporium and the owner is friendly. For the two dozen men I encountered, that's exactly what they needed. And from what I could tell, Karen needs them too.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Queen City Pub Crawl: Westwood

I have discovered my new favorite bar. Babe's Cafe, where have you been my whole life? Bars on the West Side of Cincinnati are like nothing I have ever experienced before. First, they all claim to be the oldest bar on the West Side. Unless The Crow's Nest and Babe's Cafe were opened on the same day, they can't both be the oldest. History and tradition are important to Westsiders, even if effective advertising necessitates tweaking that history from time to time.

Westwood is Cincinnati's largest neighborhood, covering more than six square miles and housing over 35,000 residents. In comparison, Westwood is bigger than the eight combined neighborhoods directly to its east. Originally incorporated as a village in 1868, many of Cincinnati's wealthy citizens (including James Gamble from Procter & Gamble fame) built homes in Westwood to escape the Queen City's growing inner-city population.

Interestingly, Cincinnati's recent streetcar debate is nothing new. Shortly after incorporating, Westwood community leaders spearheaded a drive to construct a railroad that would help to overcome their transportation issues, ultimately making the area more attractive to new residents. In the mid-1870s, a narrow gauge railroad was born called the Cincinnati and Westwood Railroad. Unfortunately, it encountered financial problems almost from the start. (Sound familiar?) Operations came to a halt in 1886. (Sound familiarer?) Thankfully, the railroad was restarted a year later due to efforts of community leaders and was converted to a regular gauge in 1891. So, fellow Cincinnatians, all we have to do is wait another two decades and we'll be riding the rails of Cincinnati once again! Lovely.

In 1896, the village of Westwood was annexed into the city of Cincinnati. Seven years later, a red brick four-story building appeared at the corner of Applegate and Glenmore Ave. Seventy-four years after that, a bar formerly called Babe's Tap Room moved across the street into that brick building, and thirty-four years later, I walked into Babe's Cafe.

Tony might be my favorite bartender of all time. Anyone with a fresh tattoo written in Italian that reads, "Fear No Man," on his right bicep and, "Trust No Bitch," on his left bicep is my kind of dude. He was a friendly guy who was liked by everyone in the bar. When I asked if his tattoo was inspired by a specific woman, he said, "All of them." Well played, Tony. Well played.

The guy sitting next to me was even better. At one point, he excused himself to go home (he lived close) and smoke a bong. He returned about ten minutes later much more relaxed with a craving for Cheetos. I'm pretty sure that dude smokes a lot of weed, even though his pregnant girlfriend and small child live with him. The thing is, he didn't seem like a bad guy. I know "druggies" get a bad reputation in our society, but it's ironic that I was consuming an addictive drug (beer) that kills thousands of people every year, and I judged him for smoking an non-addictive drug (marijuana) that hasn't directly killed anyone. Silly laws.

In fact, my stool-mate seemed like a hard-working guy. He mentioned a long day of work at some factory job that seemed awful. Maybe self-medication is a reasonable way to survive blue collar jobs. I'm almost positive I don't have the physical or mental toughness to do what he does for a living. Teaching is easy; it's fun; it's rewarding. I went to school for many years and earned the right to enjoy my career, but I respect men and women who get their hands dirty every day at work. My dad supported his family by working in a factory for four decades. Maybe I am drawn to Westsiders because I see some of him in them (minus the weed ... I think).

I keep returning to this same point every week, but there's something about the West Side. I've spent more time on the rival side of Cincinnati during this experiment than I have in the previous thirty-four years combined. My impressions of Westsiders have always been lowpoor, uneducated, and regressive topped the list. But something magical happens in their bars. A sense of community emerges that leaves me feeling jealous. There is little time for pretensions when everyone legitimately cares for others in the bar. They're friends. It was like walking into an episode of Cheers. Not only did everyone know everyone else's name, but they had all gone to the same wedding over the weekend. Literally. There must have been fifteen people in the bar, and they all attended the same wedding. Community like that seems so foreign to me. You mean, places exist where people actually care about others without trying to use them to get their personal needs met, manipulate them to further their own agenda, or abuse them to stroke their own ego? Trippy.

I knew I had found the right bar when, five minutes after I sat down, we witnessed a car accident outside the front door. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but it sure was fun drinking a beer as the two drivers confronted each other. I also enjoyed the honking, cursing, and bird-flipping as other drivers expressed their frustrations to the driver who refused to pull his car off to the side of the road. When a cop finally showed up, the first thing she had him do was move his car so it stopped blocking the intersection. Obviously. People are bizarre little creatures.

Also like The Crow's Nest, Babe's Cafe claims to be haunted by "strange things that go bump in the night." Their official Web site claims, "Unexplained occurrences make the owners wonder, but the exact history of this building's previous inhabitants is unknown."

The only unexplained occurrence I experienced in Westwood were a bunch of awesome people that continue challenging my misconceptions about bars, Cincinnati's West Side, and the Queen City itself. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Queen City Pub Crawl: Riverside

Riverside is another community on the west side of Cincinnati spooned by the Ohio River. If you look at the map, you'll also see it's the longest Cincinnati neighborhood. Nestled between Sedamsville and Sayler Park, Riverside is clearly about location, location, location.

3.129 square miles and only 2,500 residents is a bizarre combination. That's about 800 people per square mile. Compare that number to Cincinnati's overall average of 4,250 people per square mile, or my neighborhood's (Clifton) 3,400 people per square mile.

Where's the beef (and by beef, I mean people)?

It's obvious that Riverside is an industrial town. If you've never made the drive down 50 West, it's worth the trip. Many well-known companies line the streets of Riverside. It makes me wonder if Riverside and Sayler Park are part of Cincinnati because the city benefits financially from that row of businesses. It seemed odd that two neighborhoods were so disconnected from the rest of the city, but I should have known it had something to do with money. Doesn't everything?

For the first (and only) time on this journey, I visited two different bars in the same neighborhood. My first stop was Drew's River Saloon, a bar that desperately tries to transport customers from the banks of the Ohio River to the Florida coastline. Neon lights, fake palm trees, and beach flare add to the ambiance, which, honestly, is pretty close to hitting its tropical mark. If you let yourself believe the fantasy, it's easy to imagine Drew's River Saloon as a beach bar.

My time at Drew's was mostly uneventful. The bartender was nice; the server was nice. We made casual conversation about their lives. Interestingly, the bar is named after the owner's first grandchild, Drew. He died at the age of two in a tragic accident. The owner, George, named the bar after Drew in 2004 to keep his memory alive. Born and raised on the West Side, it was easy to see how important community is to George and his family.

Speaking of community, that leads me to the second bar on my Riverside adventure. Jim and Jack's can best be described as a cure for Attention Deficit Disorder. I have never been in a bar that had so many disjointed activities going on at the same time.

First, there was a typical bar-top filled with locals. And, like everywhere I have been in West Side, everyone knew everyone else. I walked to the far side of the bar and sat next to a handful of older locals who were obviously close friends. Fifteen minutes later, I saw one of them motion in my direction and say something about "running him out of here." I was so shocked that I said, "Are you guys talking about me?"

She apologized immediately, saying there was a different guy who always sat on that side of the bar, and because their bowling league was beginning the following week, they would likely have to run him off.

"Oh, okay, I was just ... wait, what? Bowling league?"

That's right. Every Wednesday night at seven o'clock, the Dream Team competes against other west side bowlers for fabulous prizes. But no one is throwing balls down oiled lanes in this league. Instead, these women (yes, women) focus on the trackball of Silver Strike Bowling (an arcade game). I was a week early to catch official league action, but the Dream Team did let me watch them bowl a practice game. 

On the other side of the bar, the seven o'clock line dancing session was about to begin. Approximately forty women flooded the dance floorsome quite old, almost all women, many dressed as cowgirls, one little person, and everyone was an expert in line dancing. The organizer tried to get me on stage, but if there is one thing I don't do, it's line dancing. The atmosphere wasn't exactly conducive to a newbie anyway. Those ladies were there to line dance, and some uncoordinated blogger wasn't going to get in their way. 

I walked back to the bar and realized someone I saw at Drew's had made the trip to Jim and Jack's. Another pub crawler? Doubtful. I'm pretty sure he just likes beer. And I'm also convinced he likes one other thing ... community.

A couple of weeks ago, I compared the Pub Crawl to my Church Experiment. More than ever, I'm beginning to believe most people want the same things out of life—whether they seek them in a church or a bar is almost irrelevant. 

People want to fit in. They want to belong. They want friends. They want community.

You can get that at churchBible studies, picnics, services, outreach events, etc. Jesus is great, but I wonder how many churchgoers are really interested in finding their savior, and I wonder how many are simply interested in finding a few friends?

Bowling leagues and line dancing are about finding community. Maybe I thought bars were about getting drunk. I know a lot of my Christian friends feel that way. They avoid bars because they don't drink. But bars are filled with regular people just trying to make life work. Maybe the rest of Cincinnati isn't like the West Side. Maybe other bars will be filled with young people getting drunk and trying to get laid. We'll see. But, for now, it's obvious West Side bars are about something else. Hard-working people needing a place a unwind and bond with friends. That's not so bad.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Queen City Pub Crawl: Sedamsville

I'm guessing 99 percent of Cincinnatians have no idea where Sedamsville (Suh-DAMS-ville) is located. I had never even heard of the neighborhood until I began researching this project. Those of you familiar with the tiny town (under .5 square miles and less than 700 residents) owe its fame to Peter Edward Rose. The hit king played baseball on the fields at the edge of Sedamsville as a child.

One thing was certain as I drove the streets of Sedamsville: There were no bars. Heck, there were barely any signs of life. But as I explored, I was struck by the visuals. This was a town with history. Potential oozed from its cracked sidewalks and abandoned buildings. It was like seeing the ugly ducking before she transformed into a beautiful swan. There were times when I felt sick to my stomach as I stood and imagined a different Sedamsvillea vibrant neighborhood filled with life. Where had all the people gone? And when had the town's heart stopped beating?

What happened to Sedamsville? A river town just west of downtown Cincinnati should be bustling with activity. Young professionals should be buying up property and transforming this historic district into the Queen City's next hot spot.

From what I can gather, there has been a clash of interests over the past three decades. Local residents want Sedamsville to remain untouched. Developers prefer to demolish crumbling houses (and churches) in the name of progress. The stalemate has created a stale community. Even the courts have gotten involved as residents have filed desperate pleas to declare Sedamsville a historic district to stop the bulldozers. For now, stagnation seems to be winning.

Eventually, I parked and began a walking tour of Sedamsville. Almost immediately, I ran into a local who eagerly gave me an overview of his neighborhood. He pointed out the homes of two locals who had been living in Sedamsville for over seventy years. He also offered me a house for $5,000. I got the feeling someone could literally buy the entire town for the price of a home in Clifton.

That's probably why I received the strangest looks from locals. Perhaps they thought I was another developer snooping around town hoping to demolish their homes and stomp on their traditions.

Hometown pride? Stubbornness? Stupidity? Loyalty? Despair? Hope? Your guess is as good as mine. Sedamsville is a fascinating neighborhood on life support. Will it be a ghost town in thirty years when the current residents die off? Will a younger generation transform the community into a thriving neighborhood? Either is possible. Both are equally encouraging and saddening.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Queen City Pub Crawl: Sayler Park

The first thing that struck me about Sayler Park was that I could not believe I was still in Cincinnati. Head west, young man, follow the Ohio River, and eventually a small turnoff directs passer-bys to a tiny town that is best known for the tornado of 1974. (That is an actual picture of Sayler Park taken during the tornado. It was one of many that swept over the region in early April, causing major damage and killing three people.)

Called Cincinnati's western gateway, Sayler Park is so far west that I assumed I had crossed over into Indiana along the way. Luckily, after taking the turnoff, I stumbled upon the Parkland Grill, which from what I could tell, is the only bar in Sayler Park. There's a United Dairy Farmers that seems to be the neighborhood's hub, but not much else.

Before I forget and jump into my experience, I need to deliver some bad news to Rob Young (courtesy of the bathroom wall next to the urinal at Parkland Grill):

Oh, Rob. I know this must be difficult to process. I hate to break it to you this way, but I felt like you needed to know. It's only fair. Hang in there, buddy.

Over the past few weeks, I have meet some fascinating people and heard some amazing life stories, but this week's reflection is going to veer in a completely different direction. It's not that Sayler Park isn't filled with interesting residents. From what I could tell, they were everywhere. From the incredibly tan bartender, to the tomboyish woman who jokingly threatened to beat me up if I gave the bartender any trouble, to the couple that looked out of place in the industrial town, to the man who rode into the bar in his wheelchair with an oxygen tank attached to the back (I was really hoping he was going to stay a while, but he picked up food and wheeled back out the front door), Sayler Park overflowed with intrigue. 

But I couldn't wedge my way into any conversations. More than almost any other experience I've had (including the Church Experiment), I felt like an outsider. 

Price Hill was different. Men who walked into the bar in pairs were talking my ear off five minutes later. Camp Washington was different. Everyone in the bar participated in one large conversation. But Sayler Park seemed to draw a line in the sand, and I was standing on the wrong side.

It's not that they were bad people. After almost two hours of sitting at the bar, the bartender did introduce herself and shook my hand, but it took a long time for her to warm up to me. I tried initiating a few conversations, but before long, a pair a locals would walk in and monopolize her time. The guy sitting closest to me most of the day had his back facing me most of the time while he talked to his group of friends. I tried jumping into the conversation once, but he barely acknowledged me and quickly turned back to his companions.

Perhaps Sayler Park is so isolated that their people skills aren't the best? Perhaps they aren't used to seeing a non-local hanging out at the Parkland Grill? Perhaps I didn't fit in? Perhaps I smelled funny? Perhaps I should have worn pants? There's no way of telling why I couldn't break into the group, but it did get me thinking ...

Churches and bars are eerily similar. Because the Church Experiment so closely resembles this project, it's easy to make comparisons. As I sat there nursing my $1 draught beer (that's right, $1 draughts all day, every day!), I realized people criticize churches for engaging in normal behavior that often goes unnoticed in other social settings.

No matter what we're doing, people naturally form cliques. We want to see and talk to our friends. We feel anxiety about meeting new people, so we often huddle with those most similar to us. It happens at department stores when men congregate near the televisions while their wives shop for clothes; it happens at parties when small groups huddle together in separate corners of the room; it happens in bars when regulars inadvertently shut out newcomers; and it happens in churches when it feels more comfortable to associate with friends rather than visitors. I wonder, then, why we're so critical of churches for making us feel unwelcome, but we give free passes to all other social groups?

Sayler Park is a small community. I got the sense people live there because they want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, but remarkably, the citizens of Sayler Park are still part of Cincinnati. It's that separation that seems to define this small town. Friendly people, a simpler way of life, and a guardedness whose shell is tough to crack.

I might actually return to Sayler Park sometime soon. Dollar draughts whisper my name in the stillness of night. And breaking into the neighborhood most separated from the rest of Cincinnati could be a fun challenge. Or maybe it will lead to a bar fight. Either way, it sounds like good times.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Queen City Pub Crawl: Camp Washington

Last week is going to be a tough act to follow. After being offered drugs in Lower Price, homemade hot sauce in West Price Hill, and a fascinating life story in East Price Hill, my expectations were through the roof. Luckily, The Stockyard Cafe in Camp Washington didn't disappoint. I'm going to begin with the most fascinating thing that will happen to me on this journey. Two weeks and four neighborhoods in, I'm calling my shot. Nothing will top this:

Shorty after six o'clock, while I nursed a cold beer, a young man walked into the bar with something tucked under his arm. We didn't make eye contact, but he took a direct path to my stool. Then he plopped two rectangular packages down on the bar and said, "I got some meat."

At first, I thought he was stealing the pick-up line I used throughout college. Then, I glanced at the bar and realized he actually had meat. Sitting before me were two raw steaks, in plastic wrap, clearly from a grocery store.

I said, "You're giving away free meat?" (You know how sometimes it takes your brain a couple of minutes to catch up with what's happening to you?)

He said, "No, but I'll sell it to you for twenty bucks. That's forty bucks worth of meat right there." I did glance at the price tag and saw one package sold for $17.75, so his math was pretty close.

Obviously, I was tempted. How often does a person get the opportunity to buy raw meat from a stranger in a bar? No risk involved there. What could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, I had to decline his generous offer, but I was still confused. That's when the bartender walked over and told him to leave.

"What the heck was that?" I asked.

She told me he was a booster. I had no idea what that meant. She and the guy sitting next to me explained that people walk into places like Kroger, steal stuff, and then sell it on the streets. The bartender said she knew a guy who walked into a home improvement store, put on an apron, pretended like he worked there, and had an actual employee load a dozen chainsaws into his truck that he later sold for a profit.

All this led to a very important question: Who the hell buys meat from a random stranger in a bar? Oh, wow, two steaks for twenty bucks? I have no idea who you are or what you've done to the meat. In fact, I do know that you stole it, so that gives me some insight into your character. This is illegal and seems incredibly dangerous. Oh, what the hell, I'm saving fifteen bucks. Deal!

Maybe I have lived a sheltered life, but unless someone stabs me in a bar fight, my most cherished moment from this experience will always be the bar-to-bar meat salesman.

Camp Washington is probably best known for its chili parlor, Camp Washington Chili. If you have never been, the interior reminds customers of a 1950s diner, and their breakfast is cheap and delicious. Another historical landmark was the Cincinnati Workhouse, a jail that operated for more than one hundred years before closing in 1988. Other than that, Camp Washington is home to numerous factories. Its proximity to the stockyards clearly birthed The Stockyard Cafe, and I was surprised that almost everyone I met in the bar didn't actually live in Camp Washington. Most stopped in for a few drinks after work. Even the bartender lived on the east side of Cincinnati.

Someone less discerning might have mistakenly believed he or she was in Kentucky. For the first time in years, I encountered someone smoking in an Ohio bar. I'm sure lots of dive bars still allow smoking, but it shocked me. Why risk the fine? Why put other customers in that position? Why make me inhale your second-hand poison?

Other than the booster (look at me using a cool new term I learned at the bar) and the smoker, I adored everyone I met at The Stockyard Cafe. I sat next to a Vietnam veteran, discussed legalizing marijuana with someone at the other end of the bar, and spent most of my time talking to Lisa (her name has been changed), the owner and bartender.

The first thing most men would notice about Lisa is her physique. At nearly fifty years old, she still pulled off a short, low-cut dress. I'm sure Lisa deals with a lot of drunk men making comments and offers that get old after a while, but I doubt she minds the attention. Born and raised on the east side of Cincinnati, Lisa married young, had a daughter, divorced a few years later, and eventually became a nurse. Eventually, she found a partner and purchased The Stockyard Cafe in Camp Washington.

There are two stories Lisa told me that I can't get out of my mind. First, she said The Stockyard Cafe first opened in the 1890s. After getting off work at the stockyards, men would carry buckets of blood across the street into the bar, order a drink, mix it with the blood, and voilĂ , welcome to the original Bloody Mary! I really hope that's not true, but it's an interesting urban legend either way.

Second, Lisa told me her life story. Growing up in Cincinnati, marrying young, having a child, divorcing her husband, becoming a nurse, buying a bar ten years ago, developing a relationship with a married man, staying with that man for a long time knowing it was unhealthy and wrong, ending her business partnership, working at the Stockyard Cafe as its only employee, and working as a nurse part-time to help pay the bills.

Even though Lisa grew up in a different Cincinnati neighborhood, she seems to represent Camp Washington perfectly. Hard-working, rough around the edges, but kind. And, perhaps most of all, vulnerable. Lisa told me she was desperately insecure, and because of it, she often dates the wrong men. She stayed in a dead end relationship for years, only recently finding the courage to leave. So strong and independent, yet so vulnerable.

When I drive through a neighborhood like Camp Washington, I can't help but thinking of its vulnerability. Vulnerable to drugs, prostitution, crime, and despair. Vulnerable to children repeating the mistakes of their parents. Driving down Colerain Avenue reminds me of a Scooby Doo ghost town. Most businesses have closed. Lisa told me the area once hosted twenty bars; now, only two remain. Homes and apartments seem neglected or abandoned altogether. People walking the streets look ragged and are likely looking for trouble. (Stolen meat, anyone? Perhaps a chainsaw to carve the steaks?)

But it's difficult to understand the heart of a community during a drive-by assessment. The core of Camp Washington keeps grinding. Lisa keeps showing up to work every day. Her customers keep working in the local factories. Even a handful of new businesses have opened in the neighborhood. And Camp Washington Chili acts as an anchor, steadying the community and pumping life through its veins of streets and allies.

Vulnerable, but not defeated. People who don't give up easily. A neighborhood that once served as a training ground for thousands of soldiers during the U.S.-Mexican War is now fighting for its survival. Perhaps neighborhoods have a soul. If so, Camp Washington seems to embody a scrappy spirit that refuses to give up.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Queen City Pub Crawl: Price Hill

My journey begins on the West Side of Cincinnati with three mysterious neighborhoods. Perhaps the most misunderstood quadrant of the Queen City lies west of Interstate 75. Who lives there? Why do they live there? Is there any reason to venture west?

Last week, I decided to kick off the Pub Crawl in Lower Price Hill. I had driven through  that microscopic neighborhood many times while observing a hotbed of Cincinnati prostitution. (Prostitution fascinates me.) The area resembled ground zero of a nuclear explosion. Dilapidated buildings. Ragged people. Crumbling roads. Each time I drove though, I noticed a corner pub filled with locals. If there were stories to be told, the authors were huddled together in that bar chugging domestic beer.

I drove to Lower Price Hill only to find an abandoned building where a bar once operated. Another casualty of the war. A quick tour of the neighborhood—which is just over half a square mile—produced nothing. No bars; no restaurants; barely a pulse. The only sign of life was a prostitute who shouted at my car as I drove by.

As I drove down St. Michael Street (by the way, St. Michael is considered a field commander for the Army of God), I noticed a portly man walking my direction. I slowed my car and rolled down the passenger window. The man approached and smiled—three teeth. I asked if he could point me to the closest bar. After a long pause, he suggested downtown Cincinnati. When I clarified I needed something in Lower Price Hill, he explained that his neighborhood was an economic ghost town. Nary a bar in sight. 

After thanking him, he said the most peculiar sentence: "If I can help you out another way, I will."

What did that mean? Maybe I have been jaded. Maybe my mind is totally warped, but was that overweight man with three (jagged) teeth making me an offer I desperately wanted to refuse? Oh boy. 

I drove away confused. How the hell was I going to finish this pub crawl if at least one of Cincinnati's fifty-two neighborhoods doesn't even have a bar?

I drove through East Price Hill ready to give up. I passed another closed bar on Glenway Ave. Once I got to West Price Hill, I was scrambling to find any bar that could suffice for week one. After turning right on Quebec and left on Queen City, I stumbled upon the Louisiana Fish Bar. The problem was that it was getting late, I had an hour before my next appointment, and I didn't even know what neighborhood I was in.

I decided to go home. I felt defeated, but Price Hill was still calling my name.

Two days later, after a Google search and a recommendation from Jason Boys, I ventured back to the West Side. This time, I drove to West Price Hill, and for better or worse, I figured out why the West Side feels so different from the East Side. Everything is old west of Interstate 75. Old buildings, old roads, old mentality. I'm not suggesting everything east of I-75 is paradise, but it still has that new neighborhood smell. At least, that is my perception. Perhaps this journey will teach me otherwise.

I finally stepped into my first pub Friday afternoon, September 2. The Crow's Nest in West Price Hill saved me a seat at the bar. It was strangely crowded for three o'clock, and everyone was drinking Bud or Miller. I broke that trend by ordering a Summer Shandy. I honestly couldn't believe a bar on the West Side would have it on tap; it was simply too tempting to pass up.

The Crow's Nest, originally opened in 1895 under the same name, is considered the second oldest bar in Cincinnati (Arnold's in downtown is the oldest). Interestingly, even though I experienced nothing supernatural, it's also said to be haunted. Emily Brickler, a local historian, reported that the bar is haunted by its original owners, and they can often be seen slow dancing in the upstairs apartment window. Lights flicker on and off (bad electrical wiring?), small items go missing and reappear at the bar (thieves?), doors slam shut (wind?), and there has even been a young man spotted sitting on the basement stairs who mysteriously vanishes when someone approaches (ummm ... it's a bar, and people are really drunk?). 

I glanced around the room and saw a pretty typical scene—ESPN on the high definition television overhead; Pete Rose memorabilia covering the walls; an incredibly drunk (and possibly mentally challenged) man drinking pitchers of beer by himself at a bar table; a hip-looking bartender that didn't seem to fit in with my image of the West Side; a row of bar stools filled with people who fit exactly with my image of Westsiders; music on the jukebox, and a cold beer in my hand.

It didn't take long for John, the man sitting to my left, to strike up a conversation. And it took even less time for me to make a critical discovery—people on the West Side are a friendly bunch. I have been in local dive bars all over the country, but I'm not sure I have ever experienced a place where everyone literally knew everyone else on a first-name basis. They must have looked at me like my spaceship was parked outside, but you never would have known I didn't belong. Over the course of two hours, I found myself in three meaningful conversations with three complete strangers.

First, John.

John was born in Price Hill. He went to Elder and still has season tickets to the high school football games. It amazes me how much Westsiders care about high school football, but from spending some time in Price Hill,  I now believe it's a natural residue from communities that take so much pride in their neighborhoods. What I don't understand is why so much of the West Side seems to be falling apart. Perhaps it's a simple economic reality, but elevated amounts of hometown pride should lead to a better infrastructure, shouldn't it?

John has been married for almost four decades and has one son. In one of many coincidences you'll read about this week, John's granddaughter is named Aubrey, which happens to be my dad's name. Also, John graduated from the University of Cincinnati almost forty years ago. Small world. I was especially interested in John's job. Although he retired years ago from Fernald (a job that requires him to get tested every year to assess exposure from harmful radiation), John stills works at a local convent driving the nuns around town. (For the record, I learned nuns do not swim in their habits. Also, I want to record this song: I saw you driving 'round town with a nun I know, and I'm like bless you, and bless her too.) Unfortunately, there weren't many "Nuns Gone Wild" stories, but John told me it was actually a lot of fun chaperoning the sisters. 

We spoke for almost an hour about nuns, sports, marriage, UC's campus, and the West Side. When I mentioned my experience in Lower Price Hill, John corrected me, saying folks in West Price Hill consider Lower Price Hill part of East Price Hill. An East-West rivalry within an East-West rivalry? My head was spinning, and I had only had two Summer Shandy's at that point.

When John exited, I had the opportunity to chat with Adam, the bartender—also born and raised in Price Hill, and also a graduate of Elder High School. But Adam seemed different. A little more "worldly," perhaps. After he told me he has been living downtown for eight years, I knew that was it. He expressed a love for Cincinnati that I don't often hear east of I-75. In fact, Adam and I discussed one of my favorite topics: I hate when people from Cincinnati complain that there's nothing to do in Cincinnati. There may not be much in the suburbs, but the city center is alive with music, theater, the arts, sports, great food, and diverse people. I liked Adam.

But my favorite part of the afternoon was when Steve and Steve walked in. It was a Steve-fest. Steve cubed. Menage a Steve. The Steves sat down right next to me and pulled out a bottle of homemade hot sauce called Steve & Steve's.

Steve #1 (born and raised in Price Hill and also a graduate of UC) handed me a straw and told me to taste. It was good. Hot, but sweet. I don't normally accept hot sauce from strangers in a bar, but I was already starting to feel like a regular. And they were named Steve. What could go wrong?

Steve #2 (born and raised in Price Hill) had recently been laid off. Steve #1 was a retired plumber. On a whim, they decided to grow peppers in their back yard and start making hot sauce. That was last Thursday. On Friday, they were making the rounds trying to sell Claira Vista to local bars. Ironically enough, their first stop that day had been Arlin's, the dive bar that is located a few blocks away from my house. Did I mention something about us living in a small world earlier?

Steve #2 seemed like the quiet type, but Steve #1 was the type of person who made friends anywhere he went. He lived in a variety of places, but moved back to Price Hill when he inherited a house. I couldn't figure out his relationship with Steve #2 (I doubt very seriously they are gay), but it sounded like they live together and take care of a disabled woman. Steve #1 and I chatted for another thirty minutes before I had to make my way back east.

And that's when my experience in Price Hill reached a whole new level. Going into this journey, I prayed I would meet people like Ashley (although she knows I'm writing about our conversation, I have changed the name to protect her identity). This experiment was conceptualized to meet real Cincinnatians in their native habitats. If there are 296,943 (according to the 2010 Census) of us spread out over 52 neighborhoods, then I believe there are 296,943 unique stories waiting to be told.

Ashley told a doozy.

When I walked into Paradise Lounge (even though a Google search told me its name was Poor Man's Country Club), Ashley was standing by herself talking on the telephone. There were a handful of people on the back patio, but I was the only customer inside the building. By the way, only separated by a stone's throw, the patrons of The Crow's Nest were all white, and Paradise Lounge's customers were all black. Both neighborhoods cover about three square miles, and both have approximately 20,000 residents, but East Price Hill has twice as many African Americans than West Price Hill.

Inside, the bar had a huge main room with a couple of pool tables. Lots of liquor. Good prices. A great outdoor patio. And they host parties on weekends. One woman walked in asking if she could host a party for her friends on Saturday, but unfortunately, they already have an evening of male strippers on the schedule. Looks like I know how I'm spending my Saturday night.

After ordering a two-dollar bottle of Bud Light, Ashley told me her babysitter was on the phone. I said she looked too young to have children (in her twenties), and Ashley replied that she had six kids ... before age thirty. Wow.

Growing up in Lower Price Hill, Ashley actually knows many of the prostitutes still roaming the streets. She went to school with most of them. She and another gentleman, who later joined us at the bar, explained that Lower Price Hill had deteriorated into a community of drugs and prostitution. She clarified that the man who offered to "help me in another way" was probably offering me drugs, not sex. That was a real blow to my self-esteem. In fact, the corner pub filled with locals that I originally thought would begin this pub crawl was now a private meeting place for local bikers. Ashley told me they meet three or four times per week in that building, and part of their mission is to revitalize Lower Price Hill. I desperately want to get into that secret biker bar. Anyone have a sweet biker's jacket I can borrow?

Ashley didn't have the best childhood. Her dad sold drugs and spent a significant chunk of her early life in prison. At age 11, she was forced to raise her siblings. At age 13, Ashley's mother finally left her husband and got herself clean, eventually moving to Florida and leaving behind her children (with their grandparents). Years later, her mother returned a transformed woman, but Ashley's father continued his downward spiral into the world of crack and heroine addiction. Then, one day (the day after Mother's Day, to be exact), Ashley found her father dead in Lower Price Hill.

No one knows for certain how past experiences influence the course of our lives, but Ashley explained she started having kids early and often because all she ever wanted was a big family she could love. After having her first child at age 19, she got married before having four more. She desperately wanted to avoid her father's mistakes and live the American dream, but the father of her children followed in her own father's footsteps.

She's been divorced for three years, mostly because he cheated on her dozens of times, culminating in getting another woman pregnant. Then he went to jail for selling drugs. Ashley only found out about the other woman's pregnancy after she called to tell Ashley the baby was due on her son's birthday. Happy birthday, kiddo.

In her early- to mid-twenties, Ashley spent five years working at a local strip club. Nothing could top the stories I heard from this experience, but Ashley also had some fascinating customers. Men who asked to be urinated on, men who still (years later) take Ashley to have her nails done, men with very important jobs (I won't share any more details to spare the guilty) cheating on their wives. Interestingly, Ashley doesn't regret her time at the club. She made a lot of money, never participated in the more seedy side of that lifestyle, and positioned her family well. She said it took time getting used to dancing nude in front of strangers, but she would often retreat into her own world to find the courage to keep going.

"I would just pretend I was somewhere else, and I was able to do it," she said.

Now, after living with drug-addicted parents, watching her father go to jail, watching her mother run away to Florida, burying her father, marrying a drug addict who spent time in jail, dancing nude in a strip club, birthing six children, Ashley works full time at a neighborhood bar.

But Ashley has a plan. She wants to open a sandwich shop with her mother. She wants to make her children proud. She wants to live the American dream.

It's so easy to dismiss people. Strangers often play bit parts in the stories of our lives. We label them so they fit neatly into our personal narrative.

He's the homeless drug addict who will die in a shelter. She's the prostitute who walks the dark alleys of our neglected neighborhoods. He's the blue-collar alcoholic who spends more time on a bar stool than at home with his family. She's the baby-factory who keeps having children to increase her welfare check.

So easy to label. So easy to dismiss. So easy to ignore.

But they are people, just like you and me. Ashley has dreams. Ashley loves her children. And while it's easy to judge someone like her, she got on a stage for five years and danced naked in front of thousands of drunk strangers in order to give her children a better life. It might seem warped to some, but after I looked beyond the facade, I saw a mother who would do anything for her children. Anything. And as I told Ashley, her kids will realize that someday. Children like toys, clothes, big houses, and money, but all we really want are parents who will sacrifice anything for us. Not to make this overly spiritual, but I wonder if that desire comes from a God who did sacrifice everything for us?

When I asked what kept her going, Ashley said, "My kids. I don't want my kids going through what I went through."

Feel free to judge Ashley's choices, but her kids have a mother dedicated to making their lives better. Ashley didn't have that. How many of us do? If you were dealt Ashley's hand in life, what kind of decisions would you have made? It's easy to speculate, but being taken from a relatively easy life and being thrust into incredibly difficult circumstances might have led you down a very different path.

Price Hill is the first neighborhood on this journey. While its buildings may look worn down, and its citizens may have faced difficult circumstances, its spirit gave me hope that the people of Cincinnati will keep fighting for the city they call home.