By Renée S. Gordon
The centerpiece of an exhibit I saw during my recent trip to Cincinnati was the rarest of Egyptian artifacts, a letter, penned by a court scribe, but with the 2,000-year old signature of Cleopatra. The letter, for a friend of Mark Antony’s, grants an exemption against paying an Egyptian tax on the importation of Roman wine. The most interesting aspect of the document is a Greek word that is added in her own hand, “Ginesthoi,” “Make it happen.” It seems that in 50 BC the Queen of the Nile summed up the soul and character of Cincinnati.
In 1669, La Salle is believed to have been the first explorer into the Ohio River Basin, an area used as a river crossing by Native Americans. Settlers established a trio of small colonies in 1788 on the north shore of the Ohio River with Losantiville, the middle one, located near the Licking River. A year later Fort Washington was constructed to protect the newly acquired Northwest Territories and the following year the settlement was named after the Roman General who gave his name to the Society of the Cincinnati. Like Rome, it is built on seven hills. It was incorporated as a city in 1819.
Cincinnati has always been a city of industry and has consistently been able to remake itself throughout the years. Early on it was an important staging point for expeditions and settlements westward. River commerce boomed after 1812 and by the 1830s it was referred to as Porkopolis because it was the world’s major pork packing center. When trade was cut off by the Civil War Cincinnati remade itself into a recruiting and outfitting center with lucrative government contracts.
River traffic declined and in the 1870’s Cincinnati remade itself again by becoming the only city to build its own $20-million southern rail line. The city grew to such an extent that for a time it was the largest city in the nation.
Cincinnati has always been a city of great diversity and this fact has contributed to the cultural riches that enhance the city. The large influx of German immigrants made Cincinnati a beer brewing hub and a keeper of German traditions.
In 1849 it became the nation’s first city to produce a Saengerfest, a choral competition that began in Europe and is believed to be Germanic in origin. Early European competitions were forums for political statements but American contests are apolitical.
The World’s largest and most prestigious choral competition, the World Choir Games (WCG), is held biannually and entrants include international amateur choirs. Choirs are selected with no regard for race, musical genre, country or political stance as reflected in the motto of the Games, “Singing together brings nations together.” The guiding principle is that international communities can foster mutual respect through peaceful artistic competition.
In January 2008 the city decided to bring the World Choir Games to Cincinnati. The games have never been held in the US, the competition was tough and twenty other cities were in the running. Cincinnati made it happen and in May of 2009 they learned they were awarded the 2012 Games.
This unique competition will bring hundreds of choirs from around the globe to compete at various venues from July 4-14, 2012. Twenty-three musical genres will be presented including barbershop, gospel, jazz, folklore and spiritual.
There are two categories of competition. Championship Competition is for choirs that meet stringent qualifications but any choir that would like to participate can enter the Open Competition. They need only submit an application and be approved. All choirs will be judged by an international panel and medals, gold, silver and bronze, will be awarded. www.interkultur.com/world-choir-games/new-artistic-concept/champions-competition
The kick-off ceremony for the WCG was held on July 11, 2011. It marked the start of the countdown clock in Fountain Square and the beginning of a yearlong celebration. Cultural Institutions will host concerts and present creative displays and exhibitions in keeping with the global music theme. This is the time to learn more about the WCG and make reservations and/or enter the competition to be part of this momentous event. www.2012worldchoirgames.com
Enslaved people sought freedom from the moment they arrived in this hemisphere. Originally most ran south toward Spanish territory but as their number increased and slave territory expanded the northern free states and Canada beckoned. The Underground Railroad, a series of routes to freedom that ran to Canada from points south, was most active from the 1830s until the Civil War.
The Ohio route, with more than 200 stations, was the most traveled in the country and Cincinnati and nearby Ripley were the major destinations. Ohio was a good place to enter into free land. The state borders Kentucky with more than 150-miles of shoreline and western Virginia with more than 200-mlles. At certain points the Ohio River is only 50-yards wide and in winter it freezes creating a walkable ice road.
To commemorate those who struggled for freedom then and those who continue the fight, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in 2004. The emphasis throughout the museum is on understanding that freedom seeking is a journey not a destination.
Tours begin on the 2nd floor where visitors can watch an orientation video. Displays are largely interactive and hands-on. There are numerous artifacts but the crown jewel and largest of them is an authentic 1830s slave pen that visitors can enter and examine the physical and feel the spiritual residue left by the enslaved held there in chains.
The center also offers free assistance with family research. Appointments are recommended. It should also be noted that the center’s shop is one of the best I have seen. It has a selection of gifts, collectibles and a huge number of books. www.freedomcenter.org
The impressive Cincinnati Art Museum, founded in 1881, has a permanent collection exceeding 60,000 works spanning 6 centuries. The museum is free and offers public tours daily. Currently on view through October is the groundbreaking “Conserving Van Gogh.” This exhibit allows visitors the opportunity to watch a conservator as he stabilizes and cleans “Undergrowth with Two Figures.” The painting will be displayed in Philadelphia. www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org
The Art Deco Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Station is housed in what was once the 2nd busiest depot in the country. At the end of the railroad era this grand edifice was turned into a complex consisting of three museums, the History Museum, the Museum of Natural History and Science and the Cinergy Children’s Museum. The Rotunda, the largest semi-dome in the western hemisphere, measures 180-ft. wide and 106-ft high. Twenty-one murals were commissioned by artist Winold Reiss, the two largest, each 22-ft. high by 119-ft. long, depict the history of Cincinnati. Some of the murals have been removed but the lobby murals remain. The museum is a must visit to gain a more complete understanding of the region. www.cincymusem.org
One of Cincinnati’s biggest draws is actually in Newport, Kentucky, the Newport Aquarium. The 121,000-sq. ft. aquarium features thousands of animals in more than 65 exhibits in 1-million gallons of fresh and salt water. Highlights of a tour include the Penguin Palooza, the daily outdoor penguin parade, children’s level and 360-degree tanks and a Duck Tour at an additional cost on which visitors can take a 1-hour narrated tour through the streets and into the river. www.newportaquarium.com
On the tour you are treated to the Cincinnati skyline and its iconic buildings and a bridge completed in 1867, the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time. Pedestrians were so afraid to cross it that they sold a beer and a sausage for a penny in the middle to make people walk across. In January of 2011 the $322-million, 660-ft., Great American Tower at Queen City Square opened. A crown in honor of the city’s nickname, “The Queen City”, tops the tower. The crown replicates Princess Diana’s tiara.
American Legacy Tours offers several unique, entertaining and educational tours of the city. Tours are thematic and currently tours include, “Newport Gangsters”, “The Queen City is Haunted” and “The Civil War.” I highly recommend the tours not only because they are awesome but also because a portion of the money goes to support programs in schools and other philanthropic endeavors, www.americanlegacytours.com
Don’t leave town without a stop at The Blind Lemon. This restaurant has been open since 1963 and a bronze plaque listing the well-known folks who have visited with Halle Berry, Micheal Jackson, George Clooney, Jimmy Buffet and Janis Joplin among them. The fact that David Crosby held his 39th birthday party there attests to the fact that this is the place to eat, kick back and listen to music nightly. www.theblindlemon.com
The Hilton Cincinnati is an award-winning hotel that offers luxurious accommodations, gourmet dining and exemplary service all in a central location. Rates and reservations are available online as well as information on special packages. www.cincinnatinetherlandplaza.hilton.com
Your turn! Cincinnati has made it happen now you need to go see it! www.cincinnatiusa.com
I wish you smooth and diverse travels!
Excavating Ground Zero: Fragments from 9/11 will be on display at The Penn Museum, 32nd and South Sts. From August 20th until November 11, 2011. On exhibition will be 15 items excavated from Ground Zero. Additional special programming, designed to enhance the exhibition will be presented. For information and a complete schedule go to www.penn.museum
Be on the lookout for forthcoming information on “Imagining Africa” at the Penn Museum.