Take Us to the River Grass

A riverfront spot to be proud of, something unlike anything else in Cincinnati, sits upriver from the headline-making National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Ohio River Grass is a nursery for

A riverfront spot to be proud of, something unlike anything else in Cincinnati, sits upriver from the headline-making National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Ohio River Grass is a nursery for ornamental grasses on Wenner Street just off Eastern Avenue, right before the junction of Delta and Kellogg avenues in the East End.

On its own, this is a wonderful place, a melting pot of the diverse cultures that both challenge and inspire Cincinnati.

In the front yards of the surrounding homes, shade tree mechanics work on their cars. A girl's soccer team practices in the field across the street under their watchful eyes of their coaches. Cars pull up to the Schmidt boat ramp ready to slide their boats into the muddy river water.

One piece of the proposed riverfront bike path stretches past the boat ramp, ending at an overlook reaching into the river. There are no bikes on the path during my late August afternoon visit to Ohio River Grass. It's a five-minute ride at best — too brief for even the smallest bikers, a route cut off by remaining factories and fuel depots.

Like much of the East End, this sliver of bike patch is a hint of things to come, a snapshot of an integrated neighborhood between longstanding Appalachian residents and transplanted professionals moving into the luxury condominiums a little further west on Eastern Avenue.

The affluent and the needy often live side-by-side in the East End. If the neighborhood's continuing development is successful, it will be a bright spot for like-minded efforts in Over-the-Rhine, Walnut Hills and the rest of Cincinnati.

Ohio River Grass was quiet on my recent weekday visit except for a few workers tending to a personal vegetable patch behind the greenhouses and a bank of tall grasses limping in the still summer air. Nature takes over here, replacing common city sounds like car horns and police sirens with insects, birds and the rumbling motor of a passing barge.

Ohio River Grass is a business, but it also functions as a welcome oasis, an example of the diverse plant life that thrives in a river flood plain.

Two days prior, on a rare August evening when Cincinnati's cool temperatures resembled San Francisco, close to 400 people came to Ohio River Grass for its annual Art in the Grass exhibition, a late-summer show featuring outdoor public art from 10 local artists such as Tony Becker, Yvonne van Eijden (who curated the exhibition) and Stuart Fink, the previous owner of Ohio River Grass.

In a mesmerizing setting too beautiful for words, artist Thomas Phelps organizes manmade objects into a subtle gateway, a distinct variation on the gritty installations he's created in industrial settings. Linda Einfalt's tall bronze column stands at the center of the garden, a simple reminder of the synergy among art, nature and the visitors lucky enough to see the work.

Downriver from Ohio River Grass, the Freedom Center is Cincinnati's shining example of a community trying to reclaim its riverfront for public use and the public good.

Earlier this summer, Cincinnati City Councilman Jim Tarbell announced plans for a new commission on public artwork, an overdue attempt to increase the amount of such art throughout the city.

Art in the Grass already celebrates the Ohio River, provides a bucolic getaway in the heart of the city and introduces quality artwork to the people of Cincinnati. It might not be getting the news coverage of the Freedom Center, but it deserves plenty of praise.

There are no immediate plans for outside artwork at the Freedom Center, another missed opportunity in a city with an awful track record when it comes to significant public artworks — pigs, bats and flower pots not included.

At Art in the Grass, at least through September, there's a chance to witness an urban spot that meets expectations.

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