Riding the Rail to ... Redemption?

Local filmmakers explore Cincinnati's underground urban legend

“Did you know that Cincinnati has an abandoned subway system?”

That question kickstarts Cincinnati’s Abandoned Subway, a documented journey into the city’s mythic past that runs directly into our congested present highway loops and teasingly branches off onto alternative visions for Cincinnati’s future, a paradoxical place that could, based on Mark Twain’s famous quote, still be years behind everywhere else.

When director Leland Schuler first moved to Cincinnati from Fort Myers, Fla., seven years ago, the subway was kind of this urban legend. He decided to tackle it head-on a year ago with producer Paige Malott, who was raised in Williamsburg and currently resides in Northern Kentucky.

“We really wanted to tell the history behind the subway and get the facts out there for people to know because there are a lot of misconceptions,” Malott says.

[Malott and Schuler are pictured above in one of downtown's abandoned subway tunnels.]

Cincinnati has always attempted to model itself on other cities. The film points out that during the initial subway project planning and conception that the New York City system was a focal point, and there were hopes that with a subway in place Cincinnati might itself become a model city in the Midwest.

And 10 years ago city planners and cultural visionaries struggled with lessons from Richard Florida’s study of “the creative class” and sought to entice young forward-thinking professionals and artists to remain here by following the examples of various cities that had reshaped their urban corridors to accommodate this new people-centered shift back to a sense of creative connectedness.

Mass transit certainly plays a key role in determining the success and/or failure of such efforts. As studies have shown, without movement between and through the city and its extended regions, there can be no connection. And without that link, the city fragments into a loose and dispersed collection of townships and isolated communities, which over time will fragment and fracture into even further, to the point where we start to approach the notion of each individual home becoming an island unto itself.

Schuler’s documentary, which hones in on the transportation angle, is divided into two parts. The first half is more about the history and the facts, while the second half, Malott says, “covers part of the modern conflicts with mass transit, the 2002 election on the light rail that was supposed to be built and we talk about the planning that went into a survey that was done on the current situation with rapid transit tunnels and whether or not it would be viable.”

From his outsider perspective, Schuler points out that “Cincinnati is different than where I was before because it’s kind of a big circle. Everything circles around downtown, but there’s no convenient way to move around, other than (Interstate) 275. I think if the subway had been finished originally like it was supposed to, it would have eventually expanded probably to some of the outer areas like Florence or Fairfield and Eastgate, places like that.”

Seemingly big dreams, especially for a city and region that's perpetually eyeing the present from a distance. But as the film illustrates, back in 1916 through the early 1920s, when the subway project was initiated, the gap between Cincinnati’s present and its vision for the future wasn’t so wide.

“I think if the city ever finished the subway, it would be one of the greatest redemptions in Cincinnati,” Malott says.

That confident and hopeful sentiment comes as a result of working on this film with Schuler.

“It (the subway) was planned to be a beautiful and very convenient structure in downtown,” Malott says. “Architecturally, everything was designed in that beautiful Art Deco sense that you see in Over-the-Rhine and around Main Street. And that would be the details we would see in those tunnels. There’s a lot of Rookwood pottery that would have gone into them, and I think it was something that would complement the landscape if it were ever brought to fruition. It is something that would draw people in and be unique to the city.”

The style and beauty would be major attractions, but redemption would be the real prize for Cincinnati and the region.

“That’s been the big hold-up with the subway," Schuler argues. "They keep bringing it up and doing surveys, and then nothing happens.”

“And what’s funny,” Malott adds, “is that the consensus from all of these surveys goes back to the first one done in the 1920s that Cincinnati would be a great city to have light rail or a subway in because of the landscape, since it is shaped like a basin. To have the downtown area with the hills rolling out from it and because of that rugged terrain you have to build a lot of highways and off-ramps to get around the area, so it would just be more convenient to build a subway to move people in and around the basin.”

Cincinnati's Abandoned Subway stands as strong evidence in support of the viability and redemptive notion of the subway. The film gets its premiere screening at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Cincinnati Museum Center, an ideal location when you consider Union Terminal’s position as a transit hub.

But the next step belongs to us, the citizens of the region.

“We would like to see something come out of the citizens, to see if the film changes their minds about rapid transit, to see if it would have a positive impact on society,” Malott says. “We’re all about educating people on the facts. Whatever direction the subway takes us, we’re onboard.”

CINCINNATI'S ABANDONED SUBWAY screens at 7:30 p.m. June 9 in the Reakirt Auditorium at Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal. Tickets are $10 for museum members and $12 for the general public. DVDs of the documentary will be available for purchase at the event and on sale online at www.thecincinnatisubway.com.

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