A DIY Approach to Main Street

Main Street is dead. Main Street's dormant. Main Street's in a cycle. Main Street's waking up. It's the end. It's the beginning. It's the beginning of the end. No, it's the end of the beginning. I

Jun 21, 2006 at 2:06 pm

Main Street is dead. Main Street's dormant. Main Street's in a cycle. Main Street's waking up.

It's the end. It's the beginning. It's the beginning of the end. No, it's the end of the beginning.

It's a cycle. It's a rebirth.

It's something we can easily classify. No, it's still seeking an identity.

According to John Fox's editorial last week, Over-the-Rhine and the city of Cincinnati suck and rock ("Sucks. Rocks. Both," issue of June 14-20). They rock back and forth between not sucking and not rocking.

Count me among the many who can't quite determine the proper ecology of this vast region north of downtown. Like any ecosystem, the extinction of a species might have dire consequences for the environment — and Drinkus Establishmentus is endangered.

Add to the abandoned spots the newly shuttered Jefferson Hall (bailed for Newport on the Levee) and Harry's Pizza, which went with them, and Jekyll & Hyde's. And, of course, alchemize is threatening to leave the area.

"I think that this is a natural cycle," says InkTank's Jeff Syroney, who would like to see the Main Street businesses integrate with the community in a meaningful way. "I don't see the places that close really accomplish that. That means that, if that (a particular bar) didn't work, then we're making room for something else. The key is whether or not we think creatively and do something different."

This arts district of Over-the-Rhine has become an unwitting battlefield for disparate cultural factions: Classical music institutions, 'burbs-hailing bar patrons hankering for a gritty experience, social service agencies serving and propagating an indigent residency, new-dev homeowners and scrappy, do-it-yourself art exhibition spaces. This broad expanse of city blocks holding ancient structures has hurtled toward a tipping point.

So here we are. And balanced here on this point are multitudes of entrepreneurs, development organizations, regional loyalists, frustrated business owners, residents and artists, each with an idea of what belongs. Each pushing to tip the future one way or another.

OK, so why the premature eulogies? Why the pronouncements of Main Street post-mortems? Is it because Main Street sucks and is empty and dangerous and dirty, which is why some bars are closing, and so this important contributor to the community is extinguished? I don't think so.

Everyone has a vision of what Main Street should be. I interviewed a number of Main Street regulars and decision-makers and heard ideas and opinions as vast and varied as the organizations themselves. I gathered a list of contacts pages long.

Over-the-Rhine and particularly Main Street have their own noisy cheerleaders and heckling nay-sayers and all manner of potential entrepreneurs in between. And although I feel a little disingenuous relegating artists to test subjects (in other words, economic revitalization guinea pigs or harbingers of renaissance), artists are by their nature risk-takers.

So, artists, here's your chance. Take a risk. Try something new. Experiment.

"It's one of the most exciting opportunities we could possibly have because there's a power vacuum," says Kathy Howladel of InkTank.

A power vacuum. I think about that as I talk to Jerid Bartow at Kaldi's, an urban design student who says Cincinnati is "a do-it-yourself city. You wanna run an art gallery? Fine. It's not that hard. You might never be able to (afford to) do that stuff in Chicago or New York."

Howladel agrees. "If you are young, if you have imagination and no money, this is the greatest time to come to Main Street ever," she says. "You can get a great retail space for incredibly little and just experiment."

"I think that Over-the-Rhine has yet to find its identity," says Lydia Stec, director of iRhine. "We know it's the largest Italianate architecture collection. It houses most of Cincinnati's arts. It has that creative flair, but I still think it's trying to find its identity."

The identity of Main Street? How about this: The DIY District.

Performing arts are thriving a few blocks west, with established institutions like Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati, the Art Academy and Know Theatre Tribe. But let's look east.

That's where the DIY District needs creative people, new ideas and artists. Over on Main, the "power vacuum" vacancy can grow into improvised venues, sites for site-specific works, resources and territories for creativity.

I'm the last person — or perhaps the second-to-last person (the last would be Georgia State University economist Bruce A. Seaman, who wrote that arts impact studies are at best a fashionable excess and at worst irrelevant) — to suggest that the arts will revitalize Main Street. I don't recommend riding the arts to urban renovation, since that pony probably won't take you far.

But I do perceive the emptying cycle of Main Street as an opportunity for artists and creative people to get messy, try out ideas, generate thought and perform action. Think big, think small, whatever — just make The DIY your own.

What about a residency for visiting artists complete with studios and exhibition spaces? What about Howladel's proposal for an off-site space for the Cincinnati Art Museum to display some of the works hiding in their collection, allowing them room to take hidden gems down from the hill?

What about an artsy co-op restaurant like Casa Nueva in Athens, Ohio, where I was an undergraduate? What about hundreds of thousands of large and small creative projects engaging the community with art, bringing experimentation, improvisation and urban living together?

I would love to see creative arts ideas for Main Street. Email them to me and I'll write about them in a future column.