In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, the usual “Meet Cincinnati, America! Here’s What We’ve Been Up to Since You Last Checked In” articles made the rounds, and the best of them appeared in USA Today. The author, Anne Saker, is a former staff member of The Cincinnati Enquirer. She quoted Longfellow and WKRP. She’s tasted the four-way. She understands.

One line from the piece bothered me, however. It was the part in which she described the Queen City as a former “Rust Belt ruin.” This puzzled me. It is a fine turn of phrase, one touching on the industrial struggles of the Midwest in the last century, but I’m not quite convinced it’s accurate. We have been flooded, flattened, and burned. But never a ruin.

Even when the river that bore us surged over its banks and into the hills that hem us (and, then, almost tauntingly, burst into flames), we were not ruined. Downtown neighborhoods decayed and rose and decayed again; we were not ruined. We have been humiliated and passed over and turned our centerpiece fountain every which way and suffered betrayal from those we love most– and yet, we are not, and never have been, a ruin. There’s a little rust around the sharper edges at times, yes. But we have yet to leave ourselves to rot.

The 1937 flood that tore our carousel horses from their posts at Coney Island was not allowed to keep its bounty. We got them back, all the way from Tennessee. We will chase even our Sunday afternoon fun to the ends of Earth if you come at us.

What is rust, anyway? Rust is the result of iron, water, and oxygen. And air. We’ve got the oxygen; we’ve got the water. We see it every day. The origin. It’s why we’re here, the winding Ohio that touches enemy Pittsburgh and friend Louisville.

And the iron– the iron is us. It has been us since the time of the Woodland people, and will be us no matter who the quarterback is, even if someday we have no quarterback at all. Revolutionary War vets and abolitionists and rum runners and artisanal soap makers taking up shop where a carriage shed once stood: The metal may soften and bend beneath the great heat of hell, but it will not drip way in tiny rivulets. It re-forms and hardens once more.

Even when the great expanse beyond Music Hall was littered with needles and trash, the hall still sang every May and elegant dancers pointed one toe to sky. It might have seemed hardhearted and futile to indulge in spangles and Bach when our neighbors were suffering just outside the door, but what better place to stage reminders of all that is fine and uniquely human? How to more effectively highlight the contrast between what is and what is possible? Online, the Reds congratulated the Bengals for a winning season, and the populace yelled at them for it. Get better yourselves.

We are a tightly connected bunch, placing much in context of our history. Some Cincinnatians flew to California for the game, but more came home to watch where it really mattered. And so as our Monday morning fate unspooled on the far side of the country, we didn’t see an overexcited young cornerback rush to join his friends in a joyous endzone moment— we saw the 2016 Pittsburgh debacle all over again, an undisciplined team blowing itself up on its own energy and speed. This is what happens. This is what always happens. When there was still 90 seconds left, we saw ourselves 34 seconds short. None of this is new to us.

Neither was the grand gathering at Fountain Square on a cold day in January 1989, when we aimed our 110 cameras at Chris Collinsworth and believed him when he said we’d be back next year. Next year turned into three decades. But here in 2022, the children’s children of those standing beneath our turned-about fountain showed up in the middle of the night to shower adulation upon the team that lost.

Where there is still a flash of iron, there is no ruin.

12 Responses

  1. Gonzo Reds

    And all in life is connected. The player hit with the 15 yard penalty for running off the bench in street clothes, into the end zone waving a towel, Vernon Hargreaves, went to the University of Florida, as did Chris Collinsworth, as I did too! And I work for a lab that, among other things, tests Fe in water.

    I will say, as a Dolphins fan, I was happy to see the Bengals make the SB. Why? Well, that slides the Bengals to #31 in the draft behind the Fins at #29 (SF’s pick) and both teams want the same player in Pennington, the OL out of N Iowa, to protect their oft sacked QBs next year. Bengals already messed up the Fins plans last year in the draft (picking Chase when the Bengals passed on the OL they really needed in Sewell – not that I’m unhappy with our consolation prize of Waddle who was great his rookie year).

    Why am I talking about football here when baseball has always been my favorite sport? Because there will be no baseball in 2022 and no competitive balance even when it returns which is what is really needed to give the Reds a chance to be the baseball version of the Bengals. No way as it stands currently to realistically go quickly to the equivalent of morphing from a 4 win football team to the SB in baseball’s non fan friendly environment.

    Keep writing, I’ll keep reading.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thanks, G! I was just thinking about the Dolphins this week, and in fact looked up the last time y’all were at the dance. Been a while for you, too– at least as long as I’ve been reading Dave Barry, who registers his distress every now and then.

      • Gonzo Reds

        Yes, a painful loss to… yes SF go figure, in Dan Marino’s second year. Sadly, he never made it back, but to me he always will still be the GOAT, and one who was never accused of cheating! (and that cheater played for a coach accused of cheating and an owner who cheated on his wife at massage parlors but I digress)

        I still stick with the teams I chose as a young boy, often painfully… the Dolphins as the only team in FL at a time when they won back to back SB (including the only perfect season) and the Reds at the time of back to back WS when there was no team in FL but my parents were from Ohio. ’72-’76 were good years for sports in my world but just the ’90 WS win between them since. I ache for more championships!

  2. Scott C

    I would say Cincinnati people are tough as nails. We loved Pete Rose because he would do whatever it took to win. Regardless of his failures he was tough as a player. We loved guys like Krumri because he put his heart into every play. We love the old houses and the high hills and who wants to eat plain spaghetti? Lets put chili on it. That is who Cincinnati is. No Rust belt Ruin, that is up river in Pittsburgh.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Yeah, who builds houses on a 45 degree incline anyway?! WE DO!!
      Good point!

  3. Jimbo44CN

    My Grandmothers house on Wheeler street was one of those sideways jobs. People always gave me funny looks when I said we had steps to get over (and up) to the next street. Really unique. Nice column brings back a lot of memories.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Winner is Straight Street, which is… not.

  4. Rednat

    i still say the reds have a better chance of winning the world series than then the bengals have of actually WINNING the Super bowl. if we can’t the Rams i think we are doomed. the reds at least have a lineage of beating some storied franchises in the world series with the redsox, yanks, and A’s. history does tend to repeat itself in sports

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I was just glad the 49ers weren’t showing up again.

  5. Mark Moore

    Chasing the horses as far as necessary … that is IRON indeed!

    Great piece once again, MBE. You are keeping us entertained during the drought, and for that I thank you greatly.

    BTW, if you haven’t run across the Canadian series “Still Standing” you should look it up (on Tubi). All about small towns with extreme “pluck” trying to stay ahead of the pressure to fold.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Appreciate your kindness. I have heard of “Still Standing”! One million hours of Olympics skating to plow through first, however 🙂