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Cincinnati hits a home run

After years of typical downtown decline, the city is taking on a lively new look.

September 07, 2003|Steven Rosen | Special to The Times

Cincinnati — At 6th and Walnut streets, I became excited about Cincinnati again.

There it was, a building that in itself has the effect -- the sense of newness, vitality and even beckoning mystery -- that the entire city had for me as a youth. The building, designed by acclaimed London-based architect Zaha Hadid, is the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Contemporary Arts Center, which opened this summer.

Seeing it from a distance for the first time, while approaching it at one of the busiest intersections in this old Ohio River city's downtown, is both soothing and invigorating. Its concrete rectangles float up and jut out from a first-floor glass base as if, like birds, they had decided to take flight.

The new building -- the first by the Iraqi-born architect to be built in the U.S. -- has the power to calm and center the visitor with its quiet palette and materials. At the same time, I was eager to see what might be inside the strange, inviting exterior.

Funny, that's how I used to feel about coming to downtown from the suburbs at night when I was a teenager. It was an exciting journey into unknown territory, with the lights of the movie theater marquees, late-night orange-drink bars and chili parlors (a Cincinnati specialty) providing guidance. Much of that has been gone for years.

Cincinnati, like many cities, has struggled to keep its downtown alive. The low point came after the 2001 riots on downtown's fringes. That resulted in a civic gloom and a decline in activities.

I had left long ago, first for Denver, then Los Angeles, and had stopped thinking of Cincinnati as an exciting destination years ago. Fortunately, civic leaders had not given up. Residents have long been proud of their attractive city, built as it is on verdant and gentle hills affording spectacular views of the Ohio River. And they never forgot what Charles Dickens wrote in his "American Notes": "The inhabitants of Cincinnati are proud of their city as one of the most interesting in America and with good reason." Or that Winston Churchill found it America's most beautiful inland city. Or that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called it the "Queen City of the West."

So they set out to revive it. Years of effort suddenly are reaching critical mass. The $20.2-million contemporary art center -- a worthy destination in itself -- is but one of many new attractions, along with some vital old ones, that make a trip here a delight.

It's an especially good place to visit in this year of Ohio's bicentennial, when special events are being planned. The Tall Stacks Music, Arts & Heritage Festival, featuring visits from 17 riverboats, is Oct. 15-19. In a bid to make it a regional -- even national -- event, organizers this year have added outdoor concerts by 26 acclaimed roots acts, including Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Los Lobos, Bo Diddley, the Jayhawks, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Ricky Skaggs, Delbert McClinton and others. The cost to attend Tall Stacks and see all five days of concerts is $12. Riverboat cruise tickets cost more. (For information, call [866] 497-8255 or visit

Capping the year, an exhibit of Vatican art treasures arrives on Dec. 20 at the Cincinnati Museum Center, in the spectacularly restored Art Deco-style Union Terminal train station, and runs through April 18.

An urban adventure

THE new Contemporary Arts Center building, the first free-standing home for the 64-year-old institution, is the most dramatic attraction in Cincinnati. The interior is every bit as exciting as the exterior. Although the 87,000-square-foot building is placed tightly into an 11,000-square-foot corner lot, it is surprisingly spacious. The building divides six floors of space into planes that seem to intersect with a logic apparent only as you experience it.

Hadid's innovative "urban carpet" design technique -- the concrete floor curves up in a graceful swoop to become a rear wall -- turns the arts center into a kind of playground. Near that wall are long, black walkways. I found myself running up and down them like a kid walking long, dark pirate-ship planks. Everyone I passed seemed to be having just as much fun.

On exhibit through Oct. 25 is a thought-provoking conceptual art show featuring work by 35 international artists, "Somewhere Better Than This Place: Alternative Social Experience in the Spaces of Contemporary Art." It is a serious show with political aspects, but it also has a sense of fun. I was blown away -- almost literally -- by Monica Bonvincini's "A Violent, Tropical, Cyclonic Piece of Art Having Wind Speeds of or in Excess of 75 Miles Per Hour," which is just what it says it is. I'm glad I wasn't wearing a hat.

Janet Cardiff's "Forty-Part Motet" featured 40 speakers placed around an empty gallery with each playing a different voice singing English Renaissance court music. I wandered around it, sometimes with eyes closed, and listened as the voices came together and separated. I could have stayed forever.

Baseball on the river

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