Soapdish: 100 columns and a look back at Cincy's diminishing self-esteem problem

Well, dear, loyal readers, it has finally come to this: Since banging out my first little Soapdish screed more than nine long years ago — in the wake of multiple frustrated editors, two patient publishers and untold days and nights of unproductive procrastination and post-post-deadline submissions — we have finally arrived at column number 100.

Yes, that’s right. It’s that time-honored centennial prop, a milestone that never fails to motivate coasting columnists to maudlin trips down myriad Memory Lanes, replete with hackneyed “best of” crutches, regurgitated-yet-turgid prose and mail-it-in sentiments befitting of the entitled sentiment, “Well, I earned it.”

I won’t subject you to such pedestrian pap and drivel, but.... Well, actually, now that I think of it, yeah! I earned it.

Fear not, however, as this column is oh-so-much more than that. It’s an opportunity to see where we began, how far we have come; to take measure of oneself and gain perspective on how our fair city has changed over Soapbox’s nine-and-a-half-year existence — at least from my humble columnist’s perch. And also throw in a lot of those long-form excerpts from the past, the kind that editors loathe. (Did I mention this was my 100th column?)

To start, let’s take a trip in the way-back machine and get our bearings.

Once upon a time — Feb. 12, 2008, to be precise — on a rainy evening at the Mercantile Library, Soapbox Media was born. While I was already involved with the publication, I decided to wait in the wings for a few months while this plucky little internet rag gained its sea legs, as it were, on the rocky media coastline of 2008-era Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Post had recently gone under, and the Enquirer was asserting its monopolistic grasp over our city with a musty, curmudgeonly, if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it style of conservatism that many would come to alternately classify as “same ol’ Cincinnati.”

Soapbox, though in its infancy, was certainly not without a voice, however — a voice provided by our esteemed original editor, Jeff Syroney. Indeed, in his first column, Syroney addressed Cincinnati’s visible (to an outsider at least) and longstanding “self-esteem issues,” musing,

“Can a city have a self-image issue? Could it be we’re like that awkward couple you see at dinner parties — nice enough to get invited, but obsessed with worry that they’re not cool enough to hang with the other guests, so they spend the whole time whining that no one really likes them until the other guests finally believe it? But why is this Cincinnati’s case? If you look around there really is a lot to be proud of: a rich, captivating history, major arts and cultural institutions, professional sports teams, copious business interests, a great location with abundant natural resources, fantastic cost of living, a commitment to family and heritage and most importantly, a desire to be better than we are. Somewhere along the way, we lost our audacity.”

As an outsider who moved from struggling Detroit to Cincinnati in 2003, this column struck a particular chord. Cincinnati seemed to have a lot going for it, even in 2008, but the general narrative was one of tepid and stoic boosterism — an attitude some local observers attributed to the city’s proud German heritage, innate conservatism and a tsk-tsk-don’t-toot-your-own-horn mentality.

Detroit-to-Cincinnati transplant Casey Coston surveys developing Pendleton. Issue: Feb. 8, 2011. (Photo: Soapbox Archives)Had we, as Syroney queried, “lost our audacity?”

Rereading that column in present day, I looked back upon my previous 99 columns, and I was reminded of the 1983 one-hit-wonder, "99 luftballoons" by Nena. (Actually, scratch that, it was nothing like that Cold War protest song, but at least I can scratch working-in-a-99-luftballoons-trope off my column-writing bucket list. Again…100th!)

In any event, that Soapbox of yore really strove to (cliché alert!) change the narrative. Why not toot our own horn? And loudly.

My first Soapbox column in 2008 — which no doubt precious few will recall and which Syroney and I thrashed out over lunch at the late, lamented Bistro Jean Ro on Vine Street — I laid bare my naked biases and goals for this little corner of Soapbox, a mission statement, as it were:

“While I unabashedly admit that I am indeed a proponent of the City of Cincinnati and the region in general, that is not to say that I am either blind to the flaws and frustrations that emerge on a daily basis or incapable of some candid criticism of the burg’s imperfections and blemishes...after all, any city where a decent chunk of the citizenry takes their editorial letter-writing cues from (ed: time hop alert!) Peter Bronson, obviously needs to be called to the carpet from time to time.

Casey explores Union Hall's recently renovated catacomb sub-basements. Issue: March 28, 2017. (Photo: Soapbox Archives)As many have remarked, Cincinnati, at times seems to be plagued by an unhealthy dose of self-loathing and entrenched parochial cynicism. To paraphrase Spiro Agnew (as originally penned by William Safire), there has never been a shortage in the nattering nabobs of negativity department. Oftentimes the genesis of such negativism can be boiled down, at its very essence, to, ‘I don’t understand it, but I’m agin [sic] it.’

Generally speaking, this column has no interest in adding any more logs to that particular fire. In fact, in a mirroring alliterative phrase, think of this space more as a ‘percolating purveyor of positivism,’ but with a chaser of unvarnished realism.

In a 1997 Nation article, Alexander Cockburn, in a glowing tribute to the late, great San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, observed that Caen regularly gave the city ‘a sense of itself — a sense that might be bitchy, sentimental, facetious, irritated, discursive, knowing, indignant or outraged, depending on his mood, which might often be the city’s mood on that particular day.’

While I would never possess the level of hubris sufficient to equate myself to Herb Caen (or Cockburn, for that matter), one can’t help but follow a similar roadmap here in the Soapdish; i.e., to give the city a sense of itself, be it knowing or discursive, sentimental or facetious (we’ll try and stay away from bitchy, irritating outrage…but then again, one never knows).”

Dovetailing with Syroney’s self-esteem commentary, my intent was to take back the narrative from the aforementioned nattering nabobs of negativity. I moved here in 2003 from Detroit, and it seemed to me like Cincinnati was, well, a whole new world. Like a real, functioning mini-big-city, Cincinnati, it seemed, kind of had it going on. Yet people here were desperately clutching their pearls about the Maisonette moving to Montgomery (and demanding a ransom from the city to stay here). People were carping about the reconstruction of Fountain Square — e.g. “I used to be able to see the fountain from my car while driving by at 35 mph, now I can’t!” — and reflexively citing the "riots" of 2001 at seemingly every opportunity. In the same breath, they longed wistfully for the "Fields of Ertel" and expressed gee-whiz amazement at the saccharine-fueled simulated "downtown" known as the "Streets of West Chester, replete with a town clock!”

It was like these people didn’t know what they had.

Envisioning the future of a long-stalled Banks project. Issue: April 19, 2011. (Photo: Soapbox Archives)My early columns aimed to reverse that dialogue. I wandered about town expressing my own gee-whiz, non-Raymond-Thunder-Sky amazement at the number of cranes dotting the skyline, at the major projects looking to transform our urban core, looking "Behind the Fences" at the immense and untapped potential of Over-the-Rhine (the subject of no fewer than 15 early columns) and at the potentially transformative catalyst that is the streetcar (the subject of no fewer than 12 early columns).

There were new developments at every corner. A once-moribund city core was discovering its true potential, and Soapbox was there to toot that horn, to discover Syroney’s missing “audacity.”

As I noted in our 100th Soapbox issue (yet another 100 alert!) of February 2010:

“Suffice to say that the narrative has changed. The overriding themes nowadays seem to be the resurgence of Over-the-Rhine as one of the city's hottest neighborhoods, the success of Fountain Square as a city center and incubator of corresponding development and the rejuvenated center city as the place to be. We've gone from saying ‘nobody goes downtown’ to ‘everyone goes downtown.’ Projects that doomsayers said would never come to fruition (Queen City Square II, the Banks, the Ascent and, soon to come, the streetcar) are transforming our city. All of these subjects, and many, many more, have been the consistent focus of Soapbox over the course of our first 100 issues.”

Indeed, the venerated yet dowdy old Maisonette’s closing yielded a veritable foodie renaissance in our city. Its shuttered location became the glittering culinary exemplars of both Boca and Sotto. Its former chefs and sous chefs became the innovative restaurateurs of the present. Fountain Square’s transformation from a Soviet-style politburo prop of brutalism and concrete yielded a tree-filled, festive communal space whose energy spilled over into countless new restaurants and bars, emanating in rippling, concentric circles out from the center of the city.

The early fight: Coston and son Nigel rally in a new age of Cincy transpo. Issue: Oct. 4, 2011. (Photo: Soapbox Archives)We here at Soapbox would like to think we helped change the “same ol’ Cincinnati” narrative. The crusty curmudgeon naysayers of yore are perhaps not on the run per se, but at least met with equal levels of passion, intelligence and energy. The profile of historic preservation has been raised exponentially over our tenure. Urbanism, complete streets and expanded transit and bicycle infrastructure, among other topics, have been pushed to the front of our civic dialogue.

Cincinnati has seen tremendous progress since our launch in the depths of the '08 recession, and as this column transitions to its post-centennial tenure, there is no longer a need to act as a perma-grinning cheerleader for “Yay, Cincinnati!” but rather as a curator of the present and future Cincinnati, and, as always, to prod and challenge the city to continue to "Demand Better."

Thank you to Soapbox for the opportunity to opine on the expansive and oftentimes incongruous and Byzantine spectrum of topics and whims over the past nine years and 100 columns.

I look forward to the bicentennial, when I can do this all over again.

Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.