Downtown's Square Deal

Our lives are in constant motion, even on holiday weekends promoted as well-earned rest-and-relaxation time. I pass through downtown's heartbeat, Fountain Square, on my way to nearby banks and Kink

Jul 6, 2005 at 2:06 pm

Our lives are in constant motion, even on holiday weekends promoted as well-earned rest-and-relaxation time. I pass through downtown's heartbeat, Fountain Square, on my way to nearby banks and Kinko's on a regular basis, but I can't remember the last time I hung out there.

Banners hanging from Fifth Street lamp posts declare the "Great American Weekend — 4th of July in Cincinnati USA," but that's news to a local like me. It's a warm Saturday afternoon over the key summertime holiday, and I've come downtown to watch visitors experience Fountain Square the way beachcombers look for shells.

There are green plastic chairs scattered on the square's east side, but few diners using them. Most of the sandwich shops along Vine Street are closed, so eating outside on the square is next to impossible.

One out of three passersby wears Cincinnati Reds T-shirts and ball caps, proof that there are still people who attend Reds games no matter the team's place in the standings. There's a photo-op in front of the Tyler Davidson Fountain every five minutes. An older woman removes her straw hat before posing. Three young men stand arm-in-arm. Another couple lingers at the fountain's edge and holds up a city map to catch their bearings.

Flags hang limp over the square, as few breezes are left from the previous night's thunderstorm. Yet there's just enough wind to feel the spray from the fountain as you walk past.

Tell the posing visitors that this time next summer the Tyler Davidson Fountain will be located further north on the square, and the responses are mostly shrugs and casual curiosity. 3CDC, the private nonprofit corporation in charge of the redevelopment of the Square as well as Over-the-Rhine and The Banks, promotes rehabbing as a necessary step for revitalization. More shade trees would be welcome on a sweltering day like this one. A coffeehouse, a bookstore to browse, food vendors — any of the new retailers being promoted by 3CDC — could only bring more activity.

On this family holiday afternoon, Fountain Square is quiet — the perfect spot for tuning out the surrounding world. Political and business leaders want to overcome the square's sleepy reputation; if they achieve their goals, it'll be ground zero for hustle and bustle by next summer.

The young woman at the nearby visitor's center has little info to share about the "Great American Weekend" except to confirm riverfront fireworks on July 3. So I venture north past the empty lobby of the Contemporary Arts Center and into the Weston Art Gallery for a blast of air conditioning and a glance of British artist Sophia Hayes' suspended motorized stuffed birds, part of her mesmerizing installation "Flock."

A quiet Saturday afternoon is a good time for a staffer at Prince's Art Supplies to get on a ladder and paint the word "Sale" on their Seventh Street windows.

My ultimate destination is Publico, the Over-the-Rhine gallery space with a nondescript Clay Street doorway that gives the feel of a secret art club. Publico offers the opportunity to see new work by Cincinnati artist Keith Benjamin, a good reason to battle a summertime stench and walk the Over-the-Rhine streets.

Benjamin works with beautiful simplicity using common household items. "Out of Four" is a stained block of dark wood carved to resemble an open book — a sizable one that resembles a worn Bible. Jutting from the wooden book's center is the Keebler Elf astride a horse and holding the scales of justice. The gag is sly and subtle enough for viewers to concoct their own punch lines.

There's a scale model of grandstand seats made out of cardboard. Seven small cardboard ornaments sit on a table, constructed from Budweiser boxes and cartons of marshmallow cereal. They're colorful, simply constructed, the type of small gems that Benjamin has crafted for years.

Publico volunteers eat potato chips and watch golf on a 19-inch TV in the gallery's corner when not talking about the artwork on display. Electric fans whirl constantly to keep the room bearable on the sultry afternoon.

Publico is worlds apart from Fountain Square in so many ways, yet both need to thrive for Cincinnati to be more than a typically sleepy Midwest city.