Tearing Down Paradise

I love to walk by the School for Creative and Performing Arts in late spring, when the lush climbing roses scale the fence on East 14th Street to provide a heady profusion of color, beauty and scent

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I love to walk by the School for Creative and Performing Arts in late spring, when the lush climbing roses scale the fence on East 14th Street to provide a heady profusion of color, beauty and scent, softened by the light from the northeast corner of Prospect Hill.

In reasonable weather, my dog Sister and I walk past the roses to the footpath on Broadway under a half-dozen large sweet gum trees planted more than 30 years ago, according to my friend, Ken Jones, who has lived in Over-the-Rhine for 33 years. He and other Pendleton residents have tended the many species of trees and shrubs, the lace-barked elm trees, the Siberian elms, the decorative grasses near the gum trees. Their gentle sway is hypnotic.

Every year I call my friend Nell Surber and order her to jump in her car. "Hurry," I say, "the roses on 14th Street are blooming!" I doubt that she feels as much urgency as I do — she has her own roses, of course. But I have testified.

In full summer in Over-the-Rhine, the leaves are thick on the London plane trees at the corner of 14th and Sycamore. When you think that every tree is an air conditioner, those trees are not only beautiful — their broad, welcoming shade makes a leafy canopy, a safe haven in sun or rain.

The school is quiet on weekends, but the playground is full of life, its own kind of life: children playing ball, a man exercising his golden retriever, a couple mulching the crabapple trees. I see bugs, caterpillars, ants, acorns, fallen branches and seed pods — even a praying mantis one day.

Once I pulled a clump of pinfeathers out of Sister's fur, and we went back the next morning and saw Sister's red hair in the webs of spiders, wet with dew. What had been excess for us provided sustenance to another, and the spiders and the birds used the dog hair, filament by filament, in their weavings, and the webs stretched over the edges of the fir tree.

The roses start beyond the fir tree. At one time over 30 varieties of roses grew on this back fence, from a pale blush cabbage rose to hybrid teas, floribundas, American, Chinese, French and English roses — even long, thick-stemmed florist roses deep red with petals folded like capes, each over the other. At the other end of the school, the graves of the Woodwards (who founded this school) are lined with newly planted Winter King Hawthornes.

Another couple settled this land first, though: Levi and Katherine Coffin built a boarding house and dry goods store here that eventually played a part in the Underground Railroad.

On the southwest corner, where the shelf of the playground is steep, I sit on a bench under a small-leafed linden tree. Sometimes on summer evenings Sister and I watch the world go spinning by, full of vigorous people, and I feel I'm in the eye of a hurricane. I came here after 9/11 to sit and feel the peace of the place envelop me. I have written poems on this bench, words tumbling out of my mouth like acrobats.

Now the Cincinnati School Board has decided to sell SCPA; it won't be vacant until 2006, even later, when a new school opens over by Music Hall, but rumor has it that Western Southern is already inside the facility measuring. This adjoining park, a kind of paradise, is vulnerable to what pundit Garrison Keillor has called the "hairy-backed swamp developers" who are selling progress out of the backs of rusty BMWs.

A corporate entity designed to oversee the development of Over-the-Rhine and other areas in the central city, 3CDC, might donate this magical place to Cincinnati Parks and leave its graves and its mind-boggling variety of plants and trees open to the public. Or it might not.

Back in the 1950s the great writer Lionel Trilling wrote that we have a moral imperative to be intelligent. Now that re-election campaigns have begun, perhaps we could grow into that moral imperative and begin to think for ourselves again. It's time to exercise our right to act intelligently, to consider some things to be beneath us and beyond the pale, to listen to our own inner voices even as our leaders drone on about jobs and economic upticks. Their words are empty and self-serving, and they make hollow promises. It's time to get smart, get involved and tell the "corporate shills" and the fast-buck operators to get out of our way. We are tired of this nonsense.



CONTACT KATIE LAUR: Her column appears here the first issue of each month.

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