My Soapbox: Zan McQuade, The Cincinnati Anthology

"The Cincinnati Anthology" is a collection of essays about the Queen City, written by Cincinnatians from many walks of life. Here, editor Zan McQuade shares her inspiration for compiling the essays and why she decided to return to Cincinnati after living in New York city after college.

What's your history in Cincinnati? How would you summarize your life and career up to the publishing of your new book?
I grew up in Oxford. When I was younger, we'd come down to Cincinnati for special trips to the museums, to the theater, to baseball games, and when I was in high school in the mid-90s, I used to drive down to Sudsy Malone's for shows or go clothes shopping at Avalon in Clifton. But I didn't know the city very well beyond that. I spent my years from college onward on the east coast. When I had grown tired of the stress of living in New York, my husband and I were trying to figure out where we'd like to go next. On one visit back home in 2010, we came down to Cincinnati to explore the city, and I was completely amazed to find how different it was from the city I remembered as a kid. Sure, all the landmarks were still there, but the energy had completely shifted somehow, and I loved it instantly. Or maybe I'd just grown up enough to be ready for Cincinnati. 
Either way, we were both excited to move to a city where there was an easier pace of life, and yet where something was being built and created around every corner. As soon as I got here, I knew I wanted to contribute something, and since my background is in editing and writing, having worked for 14 years as an editor at Random House and seven years writing a blog and various online essays, I realized the best way I could contribute would be to make a book about the city.
Where do you now live in Cincinnati? 
We live in a house along Congress Run Creek in Finneytown. When we first decided to move to Cincinnati, we looked at houses everywhere from Prospect Hill to Northside to Covington, but in the end it was a book about Charley Harper that led me to find all these great modern houses in Finneytown, and we fell in love with a house down here in the woods with a zig-zag roof and birds and minks in the backyard. I feel guilty on a daily basis for not living within the city limits, but I spend a lot of time exploring (and spending money in) various neighborhoods around the city itself in order to maintain a strong connection to the city proper. 
In fact, there's a piece in the anthology by Jenny Ustick about the dilemma of wanting to feel like part of a city while living just outside the city's limits. It's a really honest piece that I totally relate to about how even those of us who are swept up in the city's sprawl for one reason or another can be part of the magnetism of the core, and how we can work to connect energies and ideas from all over the city, not just its center, for the benefit of the entire city.
What wrere your hopes for the book? 
I had a lot of different goals for this book: I wanted it to be a sort of time capsule for the city that inspired me to move here; I wanted it to be a showcase of the talent and inspiration that comes out of this city; and I also wanted it to be an honest and critical look at what defines Cincinnati, both now and in the future. In using narrative essays, art and photography, I tried to create a book that would help insiders and outsiders see this city from various viewpoints, sort of like the view of downtown Cincinnati from various hilltops around the city.
The publication came about as a stroke of luck: A friend had directed me to a piece on a website up in Cleveland,, and when I contacted the editor, Anne Trubek, for advice on building a similar website, she asked if I wanted to edit a Cincinnati book similar to one they'd done in Cleveland. 
How did you compile these essays? Who is the most unexpected contributor to this book?
As I said, I really wanted the pieces in the book to be a good representation of different experiences of this city, the good and the bad, or as I started to call them, the love letters and the hate mail. I had an idea of what this book could be but let a lot of the submissions I received guide what it became in the end. We had a great set of contributions sent to us as a result of our call for submissions, but while they were high in quality, they were low in number, and so to fill out the book, I started contacting writers directly about pieces of theirs I'd read and admired. This is how I ended up getting pieces from Curtis Sittenfeld, Polk Laffoon, Katie Laur and David Falk, among others. Even the Over the Rhine lyrics were something I just happened to be listening to while editing the book, and I realized they would be perfect as part of this anthology. I wrote a note to Linford and Karin asking to reprint them, and they said "yes."
A lot of the pieces in the anthology were just a matter of people saying "yes" to me when I asked, which I find wonderful—and very Cincinnati. A great example of this "yes" attitude was Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Sam LeCure. Sam frequently makes #5things lists on Twitter about the things he loves in life, and so I thought it would make a great addition to the book if he were to do a Cincinnati-specific list. I sent him a tweet asking if he'd be willing to write a #5things list about Cincinnati for the anthology, and he replied with his list pretty much right away. I was completely thrilled to receive his contribution, but he's a really good guy who loves this city, so I suppose it shouldn't have surprised me at all.
You wrote that this book is intended to stir up discussions about how Cincinnati can improve as a city. What is the most pressing conversation Cincinnatians need to have?
I think I haven't lived here long enough to have a strong opinion on this yet, but I do think that economic disparity is behind a lot of different issues this city has, from issues of gentrification and racial tensions, to other hot topics like the streetcar project and various downtown developments. There are two essays in the book about what's been happening in Over-the-Rhine, and I think that while it's exciting, it's also extremely dangerous to assume that what's happening down there is automatically good for all of our citizens. It's important to examine these shifts from all perspectives. That's not to say that developments shouldn't happen, just that we should be open to having honest discussions about how the city is changing, and how it will affect people at all income levels, and how we can maintain a healthy diversity in this city. 
What's Cincinnati's best kept secret?
I feel like I discover a new Cincinnati "secret" almost weekly that is new to me, but well-known to everyone else: the view from Bellevue Hill Park, the pozole at Mazunte, MadTree's beers, the Mercantile Library. There's so much to discover here, and so many things keep springing up around the city. It might be easier to say that Cincinnati is America's best kept secret. I became a little bit evangelical about the city when I first moved here; I thought it was ridiculous that everyone didn't want to come live here. You can buy a house for next to nothing, there is one of every type of restaurant you could imagine, good restaurants, and these hills and this river make it one of the most beautiful places on earth. This city takes my breath away on a daily basis, and I couldn't understand why more people weren't flooding the place.
Imagine you're at a cocktail party in LA and someone mentions how "behind the times" Cincinnati has always been. How do you counter?
I have a stock answer for this type of question: Whose times are you talking about? I think it's unfortunate when people think that everyone in the middle of the country has to keep up with the coasts. We're not LA; we're not New York. We shouldn't feel the need to live up to someone else's standards of what it means to be "with the times," of what it means to be a good city, and we should be proud of our differences. We can do things at our own pace here, and that's what makes it such a wonderful place to live. 
I'm also a bit of a nostalgist, so if this city has one foot in the past, be it architecture or art or food or whatever, I'm fine with that. The fact that we are able to be a movie set for films set in the 1950s or 1960s, like "Carol" or the new Miles Davis biopic, might mean that LA thinks we're behind the times, but to me, it just shows that we also value our old buildings, that we're not too set on tearing things down and building glass high-rises or having banks on every street corner. While not everything from the past is good, there is plenty of good to honor and recognize from this city's past, and I think there's something really wonderful in finding a way to maintain the good parts while still moving the city forward. 
When has Cincinnati let you down? How could/did it redeem itself?
One of the essays in the book by Rebecca Morgan Frank talks about how hard this city can be to live in if you're not from here. She suggests that Cincinnatians love our city so much that we're hesitant to be open to accepting outsiders because we fear outside criticism. I think that this is absolutely true; I myself have experienced a bit of this hesitancy from others to open up, and as much as I think it's important to love the city you live in, I think it's important to invite criticism and look at our city objectively now and again. That's where we can find new ways to grow. 
For the most part, though, I think this city feels like the kind of place anyone can make a dent, and that's where it redeems itself. It takes some time to crack, but if you keep giving it enough love, it will absolutely love you right back. 
What's your No. 1 favorite place in Cincinnati?
My friends would say I was lying if I didn't say I was happiest at the ballpark, but as I wrote in the introduction to "The Cincinnati Anthology," I could spend all day wandering the Cincinnati in Motion exhibit at the Museum Center. I love everything about that diorama, all of its moving parts, its tiny kite flyer and riverboats and Crosley Field, each little lit window, but mostly I love the way it shows the fluid past and present of this city. I love how when you leave the exhibit, it really helps focus your eye on the landscape of Cincinnati, on the things we've preserved as well as the ways the city has changed. I hope they keep adding decades to it as the city continues to grow and change; that would be wonderful to see.

The Cincinnati Anthology, published by Rust Belt Chic, is on sale now for $20 and available to order here.