In my effort to expand my interests and try new things, I decided, rather randomly, that I would run a half-marathon in Fall 2013. Although I had been adept at swimming and other water activities, I was the proverbial fish-out of water when it came to land activities. As a child, I had tried soccer, baseball, and volleyball, but never had much success in these ventures—at least not compared to swimming. Regardless, I was headstrong in my ambition, and began training in early Spring for my race.
Fast-forward about four months in my training, and I had completed several 12 and 14 mile runs with relative ease, and decided that maybe I’d just scrap the half, and go all out for the full 26.2 miles. So that is what I did; I trained with my friend and fellow runner, Anna, and through her motivation I was able to get myself into peak running shape by mid-Summer. Unfortunately, she left for Paris in early August—two months before my marathon, so with time to go, and a lot of progress at stake, I made it my goal to keep myself intrinsically motivated and not ease up in the home stretch. It was this time that really tested my drive and determination, as I began logging longer, 18-19 mile runs. Running had thus transitioned to a more personal experience for me. Although it was, at times, difficult to convince myself to get out of bed at 5:00 AM, in darkness, and venture almost twenty miles through Greater Cincinnati, I really grew to enjoy the serenity and observations that this activity offered to me. I witnessed the progressive "awakening” of the city and citizens of Cincinnati, as cars began to fill the streets, buses began to circulate, and people began to populate the sidewalks. In addition to the inevitable stares of bewilderment (probably at my short shorts), I was met with smiles, “good mornings”, and an unexpected level of liveliness. Truly, the people of Norwood and North Avondale must be morning people, because it was difficult to find an unhappy face!
Training for my marathon allowed me to see much of Cincinnati that I never knew existed, as well as to more greatly appreciate the places that I already knew of. Before running, my knowledge of Cincinnati, with regards to geography and navigation, was very limited. Although I knew my way around the immediate vicinity of campus, a few blocks from this zone was the same as a few miles, as far as my knowledge was concerned. With running, however I began to explore Cincinnati—beyond Vine Street, MLK, Calhoun, Clifton, and the other boundaries of my comfort zone. I began to delve into the side streets, the obscure parks. I began to care less about how far I ran, and more about what I was seeing and the experience I took from each run. I relished getting lost because it caused me to find my own way home—without Google Maps. I am a strong believer that the world you view from a car or bus window is completely different than the world you perceive through all five of your senses—on foot. There is something intimate about walking or running through any neighborhood, especially those neighborhoods as diverse, vibrant, and multifaceted as Cincinnati’s.
When October arrived, I found myself excited but still a little anxious about what lie ahead. Although I had continued training, and hadn’t gotten out of shape with Anna’s departure, like I had feared, I felt like I probably could have, and should have, trained a little harder than I did. I suppose hindsight always allows us to dwell on what we think we could have done, when reality could be something entirely different. Regardless, I went in with a confident mindset and was hoping, first and foremost, to finish the race, and, secondly, to finish with a good time (I was shooting for < 3:30). At this time, running seemed to once again change character, this time from a personal to a shared experience. In addition to the over 10,000 runners and innumerable spectators present, my parents and younger brother made the trip from Chicago to join my older brother and sister in law from Springboro in cheering me on. Although this definitely added a degree of stress and desire not to screw it all up, I was still confident and eager to prove to others, and most importantly myself, that I could do this.
When the race finally started, it was kind of like a shock—it’s actually happening; I am actually doing this. Before crossing the starting line, it hadn’t fully hit me how crazy I was for doing this! As I set into my pace, however, I settled down, and began to run my race. Although I was in the company of tens of thousands of people, I kept my focus and pace on my own ability and confidence. I was surprised how instrumental the spectators, most importantly my family, were in actually keeping me focused on my own goals. I began to visualize my run as both personal and shared—and I started to speed up. Between the miles of 13 and 17, my pace was so fast that my brother actually warned me to "slow down". Although I heard him and understood why he said it (I was going way faster than my planned pace), I simply smiled to myself and said “no way”. I was feeling good and, although I knew I would probably hurt later in the race (and did), I was determined to give every ounce of my effort. I finished the Columbus Marathon at 10:49 AM with a time of 3:17.53—over 13 minutes faster than my farthest goal and less than 13 minutes off of the Boston Marathon qualifying time for my age group. The race itself was, by far, the most difficult, painful, and strenuous thing I have ever done, but it was the training, personal and shared experience, and positive outcome that made it all worth while.
Exhausted yet exuberant after finishing the Columbus Marathon. My brother (in the background) was nice enough to lend me his sweatshirt, despite my being smelly and sweat-soaked.
Honors Experience #3 - Making The Metropolis
If I am to be honest, I was very hesitant about taking this class and feared I would hate it—all before I even showed up for the first day! Upon reading the course description on the class offerings I was afraid this was going to turn into an art history class, or a class only focusing solely on architecture or urban planning. Art history is one of the few subjects that puts me to sleep, and I don’t have a great deal of interest towards urban planning or architecture. I think I dropped and re-added this class 3-4 times due to my indecision and, honestly, the thing that caused me to finally commit was the fact that we’d get to go on field trips! I am grateful that I decided to give this course a chance because it turned into one of the greatest and most memorable experiences of my college career. Although we did focus somewhat on art history, urban planning, and architecture, I found the style of teaching more interesting than I remembered or expected it to be. Additionally, I was pleased that we focused a lot on the social, economic, and political impacts of these topics, rather than the topics themselves. Through selected readings and relevant field trips, we visited several topics that define the modern metropolis.
The first topic we focused on was the concept of a private vs. public space. On the surface, the distinction might appear obvious: a public place is public—anyone can go there, while a private place is reserved for certain people. Technically, this distinction is accurate, but realistically and practically, it is much more complex. While some locations, such as Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati are technically public, e.i. - anyone can go there, there are strict rules about the “kinds of" people who should be there, and often these rules don’t have to be posted. While the park itself might be “open” to all, it is directed towards a wealthier, primarily white, consumer population, and thus can dissuade those who are poor and/or minority—even though they might be the ones who actually live in the near vicinity. Likewise, there are examples of private places that serve the function of public places. Carew Tower, for example, is a privately owned building in downtown Cincinnati, yet it serves the function of a public arcade in its ground level. This whole experience intended for us to reexamine what we thought of when we heard the terms "public" or "private"—what does that really mean.
The second topic we discussed was the concept of gentrification, specifically as it currently refers to Over The Rhine (OTR). Over The Rhine is one of the oldest and most culturally indicative neighborhoods of Cincinnati. Traditionally serving as a "blue-collar", predominantly German (thus the name) neighborhood, the area has seen drastic economic and physical decline over the past 50 years. Because OTR sits directly north of the downtown district of Cincinnati, its economic woes have had a major effect on the well being of the downtown economy, as well. Shortly put, not enough people want to go into downtown Cincinnati, because of the connotation of Over The Rhine, and the city's downtown economy cannot expand past this. This puts a tremendous pressure on Cincinnati politicians to do something quickly about the situation in Over The Rhine. Recently, there have been numerous revival and renovation projects in the OTR area, sparking from OTR's naming as a "national historic site", many aimed at renewing the traditional, German "look" that the neighborhood once had. This has been met with dramatic "success", with areas like Washington Park and some lower sections of Vine Street "turning over" in less than 3 years. The change is so obvious, in fact, that if you drive or walk down Vine Street, you can see, exactly, where the gentrification line is, and this line is moving at a considerable rate. While it would be easy to coin it as "great" or "just what the city needs", there is an underlying and inherent problem with "revitalizing" and area of the city—what do you do with the people already there? We have seen this problem, time and time again, whether in Chicago, New York, Detroit, etc. People choose to live in OTR, presumably, because it is most conducive to there well being, in some way. Perhaps they work in the area, have family in the area, or simply cannot afford to live in another area. Indeed, with OTR's favorable distance with regard to downtown, and cheap rent, it is a tempting option for any individual. The whole concept behind gentrification is to, essentially, make the area more favorable to denizens by spending money to fix and improve it. This money, which was spent to revitalize it, has to come from somewhere, so rent is forced to increase. With increased rents, many people who live in Over The Rhine, and who have done so for many years, have become aliens in their own homes, forced to move. The argument of Over The Rhine, as we discussed in class, is a debate about what cultural, economic, and temporal "identity" the neighborhood should be aligned with. Since the 1950s, the neighborhood has become home to a predominantly Black community, so this has been it's identity for the past 50 years or so. With new pushes to revitalize the neighborhood, there is an urge to oust this "identity" and revitalize the traditional, German heritage, even though for almost half of Over The Rhine's existence it has been a predominantly black neighborhood. As we discussed in class, there needs to be a revisitation as to how we go about gentrification and neighborhood revitalization. Everyone is in agreement that something needs to be done about OTR, in terms of making it a more habitable and safe area, however there are numerous explanations to fix it. We need one that includes all cultural, racial, and economic identities in the discussion and that is tailored to the betterment of everyone.
The third topic we discussed was the concept of a city park serving as an urban oasis. For this, we examined Eden Park east of downtown Cincinnati. Eden Park serves a very similar function to Cincinnati, as Central Park serves to New York—it allows the citizens of the city an escape from the congestion and "busy-ness" of the downtown area. The park is situated, quite aesthetically, on a hill overlooking the city of Cincinnati. This hill serves to further separate the city of Cincinnati from the urban oasis that is Eden Park. One of the most important aspects of an urban oasis, and one that is frequently missed, is that it doesn't contrast with the city it serves, but reflects and adds to its image. For example, Burnett Woods, near the University of Cincinnati would be an incredibly inappropriate and odd park to place directly next to the downtown area because it is the exact opposite of downtown—green with almost no development. Eden Park, however, maintains an urban feel to it while still provided the more open feel of a park. It has structures, such as the art museum and old water-tower, as well as well-kept roads and paths, but is buried in a plethora of trees and leaves. Additionally, with its view of the city from the various overlooks, it is impossible for one to "forget" that they are in an urban environment. When viewed from the downtown area of Eden Park, or rather Mt. Adams, simple blends and aesthetically works with the wavy hills of the Cincinnati landscape. This provides Cincinnati's inhabitants with an important urban oasis without compromising the personality of their city.
The fourth topic we discussed was white-collar vs. blue collar neighborhoods. For this, we visited St. Bernard and Mariemont, two suburbs of Cincinnati, in order to characterize their respective personalities. St. Bernard is a predominantly working-class neighborhood north of the city of Cincinnati. When we traveled to the area, at around 1:00 PM, the working class feel was obvious because of the emptiness of the streets—everyone was either at work or school. There weren't many small businesses where people worked; the majority were likely employed at the nearby P&G factories. Although the area was not notably wealthy (you could gauge this simply by looking at the cars people drove), it had an inviting feel to it. Mariemont, is a wealthy suburb of Cincinnati situated east of the city. One of the first things I noticed about Mariemont was its distinction and obvious difference when compared to Fairfax, its neighboring suburb. Fairfax, which one must go through to get to Mariemont from Cincinnati, is a good, average suburban neighborhood, but when compared to Mariemont, is ugly and poor. You could get out of your car and chalk in the border, on Wooster Pike, between Fairfax and Marimont by seeing only the difference in houses—it is almost laughable. The city of Mariemont, itself, is a very pleasant place and feels like your average suburb. The houses are beautiful, the lawns are sizable and green, and children are playing in the yard. Despite this, there is a definite "private" feel to the area that isn't exactly inviting to outsiders. We walked through the neighborhoods with our 15-20 person class of, somewhat, racially diverse honors students and were met with many odd stares and watchful eyes by individuals in their homes and on the sidewalks. Kind of like how in a small town everyone knows everyone, in Mariemont, everyone "knew" the archetype—white, well-dressed, and probably driving a BMW. We simply did not fit in. To tell a somewhat facetious, yet profound, story, we were walking through Mariemont when we saw an albino squirrel run in front of us. When someone said the obvious one-liner, "even the squirrels are white in Mariemont", everyone laughed, but it actually was a somewhat accurate depiction of the non-existent diversity of Mariemont. There was an obvous difference between these two suburbs of Cincinnati stemming primarily from their economic differences.
To end the semester, each student was to find a place, either urban or suburban, and write a report about it using information learned through the semester. I chose, after some deliberation and procrastination, to do my report on a small park in Newport, KY called General James Taylor Park. The park is very small, and I would never even know it existed had I not found it by chance when running. We were urged to find a smaller area so that we could focus on the minor details as much as possible. We put together a presentation, explaining our research, and then wrote a 6 page research paper on the site. Here are some excerpts from my paper:
In this paragraph I characterized General James Taylor Park as an urban oasis (similar to Eden Park) and explained what this meant and why this was important for the cities of Cincinnati and Newport.
The park plays an important, historical role as an urban oasis, especially for Newport. Differentiated from Cincinnati, via the Ohio River, and Newport, via the levee, General James Taylor Park has a distinct personality that is simultaneously urban and serene. While the park itself is notably calm and green, it directly overlooks perhaps the most urban scene in the area, the Cincinnati skyline. Likewise, the park is located, within sight, only about 200 yards from Newport on the Levee, which is the center of Newport’s downtown, yet the park doesn’t reflect much of the traffic its downtown counterpart receives. Because of its physical but not visual divisions from the local urban areas, General James Taylor Park is able to offer exactly what an urban oasis should: spatial removal from the “busy-ness” of city life, yet an inclusion and impression of that urbanity in its person. Just like other urban retreats, Central Park, Lincoln Park, or Boston Commons to name a few, this park defines itself from the city, but doesn’t reject the city in its design. There is no part of this park where one could stand and not see any sign of urban civilization, and this is done on purpose, to define this park as urban. Indeed, even the local helicopter tour companies of Cincinnati use this park as their base, which serves as an indicator of how intimately this park is tied into the urban environments nearby.
In this paragraph, I examined the creation of the park and how it was reflective of a holistic history, rather than just one subset of it. This was one of the resounding themes in our discussion of Over The Rhine, where "history" meant German, despite the fact that for almost half of OTR's existence it has been a predominantly black neighborhood. I discussed how General James Taylor Park was a good example of community engagement in revitalization and how this revitalization respected all aspects of its history.
Along with the concept of community engagement, one of the other concepts taken from our discussion on gentrification was that a place should not be taken only in the context of what is arbitrarily deemed as its “true” history, but that the entire history of a place should be respected and reflected onto its personality. For example, with the Over The Rhine neighborhood being created during a traditional, German presence, there can be a tendency to diminish the other “histories” of the people who lived here. As Hurley argues however, there needs to be a complete understanding and celebration of a places history before true, successful, and just change can take place. This is another concept that General James Taylor Park does a great job of transferring into reality. The history of the park can be essentially divided into three time periods based on how the land was used: the original untouched nature, its use as a barracks and its importance as a military post, and its return to a green space in the form of a public park. The first period, the untouched landscape, can be seen clearly in the southern portion of the park, where the only structure is a small covering over picnic tables. At this location, the grass leads smoothly up to the water of the Licking River on the West, while the levee plays perfectly into the design, maintaining an upward sloping green to the East. This gives the impression of the space being much larger and more remote than it actually is, and promotes the image of nature, at least as much as is possible in its urban locus. The next period, its use as a military installation, is reflected best in the northern area of the park, where a bunker-style building pays homage to the lands original use as a barracks. The structure is not large or complex, but demands attention from those visiting this location due to its contrast to the green area around it. Located on the bunker is a memorial and flag dedicated to all those who served in the barracks as well as to commemorate the creation of the park. The bunker is significant not only as being a memorial, but functions, probably unintentionally, as the vantage point for the “best shot of Cincinnati’s skyline”. The final period of the location’s history is the modern area where the location was redefined as a park for the local people of Newport. As has been discussed, this park was designed in the image of and for the residents of the local neighborhoods and stands as a testament to them. In this respect, the whole park serves as a reflection of this modern time period and helps to unify the park’s history, the history of Newport, and the cultures of the people that live and lived there. ______________________________________________
This is a picture overlooking General James Taylor Park from the Newport Levee. The Ohio River, as well as the skyline of Cincinnati, can be seen in the background. It is clear from this image how separated, spatially, the park is from Cincinnati, with the Ohio River, and yet how intimately tied it is to the city. There is almost no point in the park where you could stand and not see the skyline of Cincinnati. This embodies, in my opinion, exactly what an urban oasis should be—spatially separate, yet reflective.
In final, although I was skeptical about taking this course, given my lack of interest in architecture, planning etc., I am very happy that I decided to. The course introduced many topics, such as gentrification and urban oasis, that I had never heard before, and caused me to think deeper about aspects of our urban and suburban designs. It forced me to realize that we live in a society that is racially, culturally, and economically segregated. I find myself, after taking this class, not taking a city or public place at face value but instead examining underlying questions such as who is going there, who is supposed to be going there, and why is it there. Finally, this class reminded me to keep my mind open when learning and to push my comfort zone. You might think, with some confidence, that you will hate something, but you will never know until you try it.