Stairways to stories: Students trace steps of history

The staircases clinging to the hills surrounding the urban core of Cincinnati allow for a rare perspective. Walking the stairs, you begin to notice the city’s layers and how their reach upward facilitated the city’s expansion, much as stairs propelled the growth of Pittsburgh, one of the only cities in the country that is thought to have more publicly accessible outdoor staircases.  

Now you’re starting to see the staircases as NKU undergraduate students Shane Winslow and Andrew Boehringer see them—as keys that unlock the story of the city.

Together, the pair is working to trace the history and impact of the approximately 399 staircases maintained by the City of Cincinnati. They’ll compile their findings in a book that zeroes in on the most important sets and explores how public staircases affected transportation and religious, economic and residential growth and development in Cincinnati.

And they plan on doing much of this before graduating next year.

Boehringer, 23, says the project had to start with hoofing the stairs.  And now they do so again as they offer an explanatory tour, explaining the steps’ function and form.

Winslow stands midway up a flight of stairs between a housing complex and wooded hillside at the edge of Over-the-Rhine across from Rothenberg Preparatory Academy on Vine Street. The stocky, bushy-side-burned 24-year-old talks about the staircases the way most people talk about old friends.

These stairs lead to Van Lear Alley, where a second flight of steps, already carpeted with fallen leaves, offers the only link to Ohio Avenue in Clifton. Winslow and Boerhinger traverse the steps like detectives, pointing to houses along the paths and explaining how to interpret step construction.

The two of them feed off of each other, adding color inside the lines sketched by the other’s last thought. The two young men took vastly different paths on their routes to studying history. For Winslow, vacations to historical sites offered the rare, unchanging anchor in an often tumultuous and anxiety-ridden life. For Boehringer, history was woven into the fabric of his family life, from staying up late to read about it in his bedroom to lessons about his family tree.

Despite those divergent trails, they both appear tuned to the same frequency when talking about staircases.

“Those are fairly new poured-in concrete steps,” Boehringer says, referring to the last two flights. “But they were probably originally precast and even before that probably wooden.”

At the top of the second flight, he motions toward a wall and railing, the latter of which he says dates circa 1914.  "You can kind of tell when these might have been built just from the clues around the stairways because the stairways themselves get torn out and rebuilt over time,” he says.

The next and final flight in the set skirts the end of upper Ohio and continues to rise through the woods. The rustic appearance of these limestone and concrete steps clashes with the beer bottles, wrappers,  and other urban litter scattered throughout the surrounding flora.   

“What’s wonderful about this area is it gives you the view,” Winslow says as the trees part and a grassy slope marks the entrance to Bellevue Hill Park, which overlooks Over-the-Rhine and downtown.

“To get here from down there you’re going to have to walk all the way up Vine, into Clifton, all the way back down Ohio Avenue,” Boehringer says, catching his breath. "In terms of connecting communities and creating short cuts," he adds, “this range of staircases is huge.”

Boehringer and Winslow met earlier this year during spring semester. They had both enrolled in World History Through a Dozen Meals, a course requiring students to collaborate on cooking projects. During Cincinnati week, the two bonded while making goetta. Both double majors in History and Anthropology, they got to know one another and soon found that the lenses through which they viewed the world were strikingly similar.

It wasn’t long after they met that Boehringer noticed a staircase on the Western Hills viaduct at the intersection with Central Parkway: “It had an art to it,” he says. “It seemed like it had been forgotten. There’s a beauty within it that intrigued me. I wanted to see the history behind why people use some stairways and why some people don’t use other stairways.”

He talked about staircases with Winslow, who suggested they write a book about them and their connectivity to Cincinnati’s history.

Not everyone could see their vision – at first.

 “I must admit, my thought was, ‘They want to do a book? How cute!’ ” says Jonathan T. Reynolds, an NKU history professor and the pair’s informal adviser. “But once I started asking them questions about the book concept, I realized this was a very well-conceived project.”

The students have used city records to research the origin of the stairs. To gain access to 18 filing cabinets filled with blueprints and other documents in the city's transportation and engineering department, they agreed to organize and catalogue hundreds of records, a project for which they are also receiving internship credit.  

The blueprints unlock the mystery of when each set was built. Once the researchers know that, they can find the stairs in an index, which leads to much more information in the minute book, Winslow says. “It takes a slight bit of madness to go into this much detail.”

And that hint of madness led the students up the hill to Clifton and the University of Cincinnati, where the index and the minute books set in the rare books collection of Blegen Library. Those records paint a picture of a young Cincinnati where the wealthy moved up the city’s hills to escape a dense urban pocket. The working class followed, and the stairs provided many of them access to their jobs in the basin.

The materials used to build the stairs changed over the decades; from wood to concrete. Boehringer notes the shift to more durable materials reflects the esteem with which the city held the staircases.

There are a few less utilitarian examples illustrating the city’s historical regard for the staircases. They found one at the top of a long, narrow, multi-flight set of stairs ending at Young Street in Mt. Auburn. There Winslow and Boehringer point to two blocks of concrete that used to form the base of an arch.

“The archway was the last remnant of the old courthouse,” Winslow says, noting that the arch had survived a riot in the late 1800s and was subsequently placed at the top of the Young Street steps.

Ultimately an accident destroyed the arch in 1965, leaving only the blocks.

“Before, it looked pretty grand. It felt like you’re entering the top of the world, especially after walking up these hundreds of steps,” Boehringer says, as if he had been there and walked through it.

The city has, in the past, paid to maintain the steps. But Winslow and Boehringer say that the budget is tight and there isn't any money allotted for the upkeep of the stairs next year, noting that while their history as commuter pathways may be a distant memory for most, many are still used for exercise and recreation.

 “I still think that’s important for the community,” Boehringer says.

The story of the staircases is Boehringer and Winslow’s to tell. In t-shirts, cuffed jeans, and Chuck Taylors, they may not fit the typical image of historians, but six to eight hours at a time, several days a week, they are proving to be just that.

As a professor recently told them, they’re not just learning history now, they’re doing it.
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