The conversation continues, both inside your head and on the street: Cincinnati sucks. Cincinnati rocks.
Each day offers events and encounters to change your mind. Sometimes your opinion of this city changes within hours.
You take in a few nights of the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, hoping to see something different and to be inspired. Before you even watch a performance, you're inspired by the dozens of people in the Fringe shirts and walkie talkies running the event, taking tickets and making stage announcements.
They're the kind of active young men and women we always claim Cincinnati needs to retain, the "creative class" — and at the Fringe they're schooling the rest of us on how to get off your ass and get involved. From Jason Bruffy, Jay Kalagayan and Jeff Syroney on down, these are people who wanted to be part of a scene that had a cool Fringe Festival, so they invented one themselves.
You run into some of them toward the end of the week, and they're sporting bloodshot eyes and "Hey, I think we pulled this off again" smiles. You pat them on the shoulders and can only say, "Thanks."
Then you wrap up your Fringe experience in the cramped left-hand room at Kaldi's, where Matt Slaybaugh is killing with his spoken word rant. He starts off by convincing you of "the absurdity of writing poetry," the name of his piece. He tears down your beliefs and has you agreeing that art is meaningless and your very existence on Earth pointless.
And then he slowly builds you and your faith back up again, and by the end Slaybaugh has absolutely sold you that not writing poetry is what's absurd and that not creating art is what's pointless. "Work it where you are right now," he implores us. "Commit to it like a vow."
That line would be an excellent slogan for next year's Fringe Festival — if Slaybaugh hadn't also skewered popular culture for demanding art that can be packaged and printed on a T-shirt. Maybe he'd appreciate the irony.
You leave Kaldi's around 10:30 on a Saturday night and walk along a totally dead Main Street. You pass darkened bars like Jefferson Hall (moved to Newport on the Levee), Jekyll & Hyde's (closed) and Harry's Pizza (closed). You press your face against the window at the fomer Jump, closed for years now, and see the beautiful two-floor layout just sitting there. You wonder how long the remaining clubs can hang on.
Hang on for what, though? The Over-the-Rhine riots that supposedly killed Main Street's momentum were five years ago, and city leaders still haven't come up with a real plan to give the business entrepreneurs in that area a boost.
One of those entrepreneurs is Nick Spencer, an owner of alchemize, the nightclub a block over on Walnut Street. He's made no secret of his intention to move alchemize out of Over-the-Rhine, citing the presence of vandalism, prostitution and drug dealing near his business and the lack of foot traffic coming over from Main Street.
As if running a bar weren't difficult enough, Spencer has also taken on the task of organizing a three-day Indie Rock festival called Desdemona. When Pepsi Jammin' On Main shut down two years ago, leaving the city without a major music street festival, Spencer decided some day he'd be the one to resurrect the concept, only with cooler bands.
He's about 10 days out from Desdemona, and you see on his blog (nickspencer.blogspot.com) that he's desperately seeking people to petition Cincinnati City Council to cut him some slack on venue rental fees and required police and ambulance fees, which they do with festivals they like (Taste of Cincinnati being the most recent example). Maybe Spencer shouldn't have waited until 10 days out to freak about paying $25,000 in city fees, but maybe someone at City Hall ought to understand how much buzz this festival is generating among the national music press and what a colossal embarassment it would be for everyone if it crashed and burned without city leaders lifting a finger.
At times like these you're happy that someone has gotten off his ass to build a fun event like Desdemona. And yet you wonder why Spencer would put himself through such misery. He clearly is risking his own money and his own reputation to bring an event to Sawyer Point and young music fans downtown, and the city treats him like he's a nuisance.
As politicians will tell you around election time, the backbone of Cincinnati's economy (and Ohio's economy and the U.S. economy) is small business and entrepreneurs. And obviously the backbone of the area's entertainment scene — from the bars on Main Street to the Fringe Festival, Desdemona, MidPoint Music Festival, Blues Fest, Cincy Latino Fest, Lite Brite and this weekend's Juneteenth, Rivertown Breakdown and GoettaFest events — is entrepreneurs who want to make a difference in their community.
And yet it's difficult to discern a coherent approach from Cincinnati City Council to helping entrepreneurs make their dreams (and our entertainment desires) come true.
You end the weekend by putting your 2-year-old in his stroller and walking up to Ludlow Avenue to watch the Pride Alive parade on a rainy Sunday afternoon. You see flags and balloons, a lawn chair marching brigade, drag queens in convertibles and kids handing out candy. Everyone is smiling despite the weather.
A neighbor standing next to you shakes her head and says, "I can't believe this is Cincinnati. It's wonderful."
You have to agree.
Contact john fox: jfox(at)citybeat.com