Creative Recall

It's been five years since I moved to Cincinnati. There's no need to present a "woe is me" vibe, because I'm still jonesing for the big city, but I'd be less than honest if I didn't acknowledge the

Sep 21, 2005 at 2:06 pm

It's been five years since I moved to Cincinnati. There's no need to present a "woe is me" vibe, because I'm still jonesing for the big city, but I'd be less than honest if I didn't acknowledge the unique and perplexing situations that have marked my time here in the Queen City.

There have been several significant cases of police brutality, one that resulted in riots and drew the harsh glare of the national spotlight; a mad roaming cow that local authorities couldn't figure out how to contain, which also attracted the nation's attention; and a seemingly endless debate about the mass exodus of Cincinnati's creative offspring and our inability to attract a new generation of passionate, artistic souls.

As a bit of a newbie with a combination of insider-outsider status, my exasperation with Cincinnati somehow never outweighs the hope I have for the city's potential. But it's maddening that we lack a dynamic vision or strong leadership willing to corral the scattered communities onto one blazing, albeit risky, path to greatness.

I've witnessed such change in my relatively short life. When I arrived in Philadelphia back in 1987 for my freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, there was little brotherly love in a city still reeling from a deadly police assault in West Philly. Center City lacked the allure to overcome the after-work retreat to the suburbs, where everyone felt safe and secure in their own enclaves. Nearby was University City, where the Penn and Drexel University campuses uncomfortably abut a struggling low-income populace that eyes the ivy towers with suspicion.

What turned things around for Philadelphia and put it back on track to remain one of the nation's premier cities?

A leader, then-Mayor Ed Rendell, with vision and the moxie to strong arm the disparate parties needed to realize goals.

And while I believe the same prescription would right the ship here, it'll take more than one savior. Politics alone can't resuscitate the Queen City. The vision necessary isn't simply that of a bustling business district and nightlife that would attract suburbanites to dine and shop downtown and even move back.

No, the other element, the significant visual component, is for Cincinnati to better acknowledge and recognize its own treasures. One aspect of the conservative nature of the city is its embrace of apathy, a lulling sense of security and trust in the good sense and adult sensibilities of the status quo.

As much as I hate to use this phrase, true genius rises from beautiful minds, and the beauty is full of passion, drive, frustration and madness.

We can't fear that raw beauty. We must embrace it, especially when it makes us uncomfortable.

All of this elemental talk is far too abstract in the face of concrete and steel and a struggling downtown run by a largely reactive body politic. Fight crime. Raise taxes. Lower taxes. Cut spending. Jump. Spin.

You're out because you didn't say, "Mother, may I?"

That's how I feel about the mayoral candidates, Mark Mallory and David Pepper. They'll follow the rules and play the game, but there will be no winners or losers because none of the pieces on the board will be moved. There's no risk and therefore no chance for a reward.

I propose a recall before we even subject ourselves to election results that will deflate our hopes any further. I envision a revolution, a movement to embrace the energy of the creative spirit. Instead of a "strong" mayor, elect a Creative Director for the City of Cincinnati. Find someone willing to define a mission statement for the Greater Cincinnati region.

I'd like to draft Tommy Rueff, executive director of Happen, Inc.

Four years ago, I volunteered as part of Happen's Lights-Camera-Learning in Action Program. I knew nothing of Happen or Rueff, but when I arrived for a brief tour of his studio space on Beechmont Avenue, I found myself face to face with a man dedicated to practicing what he preached. And his main sermon, Happen's mission and vision, is literally written on the walls so there's never any doubt as to why you're there and what the purpose is.

A Happen experience is about educating, entertaining and empowering participants, both children and adults, through arts-related activities. It's theatrical — dramatic in the best sense because it taps into the spontaneous reserviors inside each of us, where our improvisational skills run deepest.

Happen's success on this grassroots level has translated into national attention that offers a stark contrast to the more depressing headlines Cincinnati has garnered. The Wall Street Journal showcased how Happen strives to create a win-win in the passion vs. profit dynamic that theatens to takeover smaller arts organizations. CNN recognized Rueff as a Monday Morning Maverick for his creative vision and will.

Awards and recognition serve as outward reminders of success and glory, but it's the day-in, day-out efforts that matter most. Leaders have the vision and the wherewithal to get their hands dirty trying to build the dreams and maintain the revolutionary sparks.

I came on as a volunteer with one program, became inspired by one man and stayed on to make sure others might come to see that man and his vision. And I haven't been alone.

This call to service is wishful thinking, my version of Don Quixote's assault on the political windmills of Cincinnati. It's not just because Rueff or another creative, outside-the-box type of candidate doesn't exist or couldn't be cajoled into embarking on such an unlikely crusade.

The region isn't ready to initiate such a massive recall. The sad thing is I'm not sure what unfortunate event might open our eyes.

TT CLINKSCALES: His column appears here in the third issue of each month.