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.