In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, the usual “Meet Cincinnati, America! Here’s What We’ve Been Up to Since You Last Checked In” articles made the rounds, and the best of them appeared in USA Today† The author, Anne Saker, is a former staff member of The Cincinnati Enquirer† She quoted Longfellow and WKRP. She’s tasted the four way. She understands.
One line from the piece bothered me, however. It was the part in which she described the Queen City as a former “Rust Belt gelding.” This puzzled me. It is a fine turn of phrase, one touching on the industrial struggles of the Midwest in the last century, but I’m not quite convinced it’s accurate. We have been flooded, flattened, and burned. But never a ruin.
Even when the river that bore us surged over its banks and into the hills that hem us (and, then, almost tauntingly, burst into flames), we were not ruined. Downtown neighborhoods decayed and rose and decayed again; we were not ruined. We have been humiliated and passed over and turned our centerpiece fountain every which way and suffered betrayal from those we love most– and yet, we are not, and never have been, a ruin. There’s a little rust around the sharper edges at times, yes. But we have yet to leave ourselves to rot.
The 1937 flood that tore our carousel horses from their posts at Coney Island was not allowed to keep its bounty. We got them back, all the way from Tennessee. We will chase even our Sunday afternoon fun to the ends of Earth if you come at us.
What is rest, anyway? Rust is the result of iron, water, and oxygen. And air. We’ve got the oxygen; we’ve got the water. We see it every day. The origin. It’s why we’re here, the winding Ohio that touches enemy Pittsburgh and friend Louisville.
And the iron– the iron is us. It has been us since the time of the Woodland people, and will be us no matter who the quarterback is, even if someday we have no quarterback at all. Revolutionary War vets and abolitionists and rum runners and artisanal soap makers taking up shop where a carriage shed once stood: The metal may soften and bend beneath the great heat of hell, but it will not drip way in tiny rivulets. It re-forms and hardens once more.
Even when the great expanse beyond Music Hall was littered with needles and trash, the hall still sang every May and elegant dancers pointed one toe to sky. It might have seemed hardhearted and futile to indulge in spangles and Bach when our neighbors were suffering just outside the door, but what better place to stage reminders of all that is fine and uniquely human? How to more effectively highlight the contrast between what is and what is possible? Online, the Reds congratulated the Bengals for a winning season, and the populace yelled at them for it† get better you†
We are a tightly connected bunch, placing much in context of our history. Some Cincinnatians flew to California for the game, but more came home to watch where it really mattered. And so as our Monday morning fate unspooled on the far side of the country, we didn’t see an overexcited young cornerback rush to join his friends in a joyous endzone moment— we saw the 2016 Pittsburgh debacle all over again, an undisciplined team blowing itself up on its own energy and speed. This is what happens. This is what always happens. When there was still 90 seconds left, we saw ourselves 34 seconds short. None of this is new to us.
Neither was the grand gathering at Fountain Square on a cold day in January 1989, when we aimed our 110 cameras at Chris Collinsworth and believed him when he said we’d be back next year. Next year turned into three decades. But here in 2022, the children’s children of those standing beneath our turned-about fountain showed up in the middle of the night to shower adulation upon the team that lost.
Where there is still a flash of iron, there is no ruin.