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.