Monday, August 23, 2010

Appreciating a Cultural History

Those who know me well know that I am fascinated by my family history and our cultural heritage. I am proudly very German and, it's my hope, to someday learn as much as possible about the area from where my family emigrated. But, as important as it is for me to know where we came from, it is equally important for me to understand where we ended up and how history shaped us and our cultural traditions. It's also interesting to me how my family fit into the cultural landscape of their neighborhoods, no matter how 'insignificant' our roles were.

A large part of my paternal family's story is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. My great-great grandfather was born in Germany around 1820. From what I have found thus far, he settled his family in the Mt. Adams neighborhood of Cincinnati, working as a laborer. I haven't found much more than that...simply one listing on an 1880 Census record. I would like to imagine that he was an early part of the great German immigration to Cincinnati in the 1850s, an immigration that sparked debate similar to that of the current Mexican immigration debate. That period in history really effected the cultural landscape of Cincinnati, as German-language churches, newspapers, and neighborhoods took hold throughout the city.

My great-grandfather was born in Cincinnati and lived there his entire life, though in various neighborhoods. He was a driver for a brewery (he was the beer delivery guy!), listed in Census records as both a Stable Driver and simply a driver, meaning that he likely delivered said beer via cart and horse to the city's bier gardens.

My grandfather, born at the end of the 19th century, grew up in Over the Rhine. OtR, as it's now known, was a cultural mecca of sorts for Cincinnatians of German decent. As an adult, he moved for a short time to Price Hill and later, with his new family, to Mt. Auburn. My father was born in a house that still stands on Dorsey Street in Mt. Auburn. They lived in that house until the mid-1950s when they moved to Northern Kentucky. My grandfather owned and operated his own business in Cincinnati. Frank's Coal and Ice was a delivery business in the days before electric heat and industrial refrigerators. Grandpa had a dump truck and would literally dump coal and/or ice orders into the cellars of businesses throughout the city. I am lucky to have a placard of his business that businesses would use to place their orders -- from their windows.

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The house where my dad was born/raised in Mt. Auburn.

The point of all this background is that my history, my family, has direct ties to the cultural make-up of Cincinnati. So, Cincinnati history and culture still means a lot to me. Sure, I live in the Cincinnati metro area so it should matter anyway. But, honestly, I live in Northern Kentucky and consider myself a Kentuckian before a "Tri-Stater". We're kind of like a little world of our own here in NKY. And, from the perspective of a suburbanite, it seems that many of the recent arrivals to our fair area have little desire to learn nor appreciation for the culture/history of the region. And yet, it is important - for understanding the early make-up of Cincinnati neighborhoods and the cultural traditions of families that have long ties to the Queen City.

Yet, part of my personal story took me away from Cincinnati. For 7 years, I lived in the heart of Appalachia in Knox County, Kentucky. I worked at a college there and was, despite my role in connecting the campus to community, considered an "outsider." Yet, I learned a great deal about Appalachian history and culture while living there. And I definitely came to appreciate the wonderful things about Appalachia, though I did long for "home." I was also blessed in my first year there to be able to connect my 'two worlds' of my "home" and my new home. As the community service director, I worked with a faculty member to arrange a service-learning trip to Cincinnati. The class was meant to be an introduction to Appalachian culture and the professor wanted to teach about both rural Appalachia and urban Appalachians, specifically those who were descendants of the the Appalachian migration to urban areas like Detroit and, you guessed it, Cincinnati. So, we travelled the three hours north and worked with the Urban Appalachian Council. They gave us a wonderful tour of neighborhoods, discussed the needs of those they serve, and introduced us to cultural and social issues for the 1 in 4 Greater Cincinnatians with ancestral ties to Appalachia. Our service was to paint the inside of a community center that they operated for local Appalachian youth.

Earlier today, I was dismayed by the local Twitter response to an article posted in the New York Times. In the article, the author says, "The old neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine still serves as a northern outpost of Appalachia." Somehow, this line offended people. The Cincinnati Enquirer posted this opinion piece in response. I mean, I get some of the backlash. After all, Cincinnati is on the defensive a little after a terrible article in Vanity Fair. No one likes the idea of an outsider coming in and writing a national piece that "picks on" Cincinnati. But, this anti-Appalachian stuff really got under my skin because of my aforementioned personal experiences. I even had one tweeter respond to me that she's never seen an Appalachian in OtR. Really? You can tell who is Appalachian by looking at them? I do have to give kudos to one prominent Cincinnati Twitter user who removed his posts about this topic when the stereotyping issue was pointed out, though it was too late to avoid the dreaded re-tweet of his main posts by one of his colleagues.

I guess the reason that I got upset about it was this: the culture of Appalachians is just as important to Cincinnati as that of my own German heritage. Everyone was focusing, it seemed, on the stereotypes associated with Appalachia rather than on the historical context from which the author was writing (funny, as the entire article was about history of the city and its baseball tradition). Throughout Cincinnati, there are residents who can outline their ancestry as I did above, but trace it back to the Appalachian Mountains rather than Germany. I was offended for the point where I felt the need to write after a year hiatus. I was also offended for the many friends I still have in Appalachia, those that have moved from the mountains to other places throughout the country, and my cousins who moved from Cincinnati to Appalachia. When you talk about Appalachians, you aren't talking about the fictional Clampets...we're talking about real people here despite your desire to stereotype.

I am, yet again, thankful to my high school classmate Jason over at The Cincinnati Man who, as always, can write a point-blank shot about the issue way better than I ever could (and more succinctly, obviously). He's done this on a couple of issues and I absolutely love seeing him weigh in on these items. (HINT: if you don't follow TCM, you should)

My point is, if you are going to espouse the virtues of a city and say, as the Enquirer piece does, that we have so many "cultural offerings," I think you might do well to include cultures of historical importance. I love seeing a strong influx of new cultures to our area and look forward to seeing the significance they will have in shaping the future of the region. But, we shouldn't trample on those cultures that have made the city what it is. To do so shows a lack of historical knowledge and, quite honestly, an insensitivity to a culture that you clearly don't understand and/or didn't know existed.