Thursday, May 25, 2017

Cincinnati Street Memorials

Street Memorial for Office Sonny Kim
At the corner of Whetsel and Roe, in Madisonville 

It's almost Memorial Day and I've been thinking a lot about street memorials. That's what I call the arrangements that adorn trees and poles along streets throughout Cincinnati. Of course, I've never heard anyone else call them "Street Memorials"--or anything, actually. In fact, I've never heard anyone talk about them at all.

Perhaps that's because those arrangements have been there so long they're accepted as a normal part of the scenery. Or maybe it's because each one marks the spot of an untimely, often violent death and that's just too painful to think about.

The phrase "street memorials" came to me one day as I drove past several of them in the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the street on Reading Rd. in Bond Hill. I thought about the persons who died and how someone somewhere loved and missed them enough to erect a public remembrance.

They remind me of my family's annual Memorial Day tradition of honoring lost loved ones by decorating their graves with flowers. In fact, when I was a child, we called the holiday "Decoration Day." Back then, my father taught us to memorialize our deceased relatives because it was the right thing to do. Street memorials uphold a similar tradition.

Whetsel & Roe
in Madisonville

Corner of Whetsel & Roe in Madisonville

I could find no names or dates on the Street Memorials I photographed, but some are well known despite the lack of identifiers. This simple memorial at the corner of Whetsel and Roe Streets honors Officer Sonny Kim who was shot and killed at this location two years ago. 

It's a simple display of red, white, and blue plastic flowers with a small US flag. At the base of the stop sign, someone added a bit of sparkle by embedding glass beads in the ground. Despite the passage of time, this memorial remains neat and colorful.   

Tokens of Love & Affection on Reading Rd 

Street Memorials are collected objects, the spontaneous offerings after a death on the street. They are flowers, balloons, teddy bears, and crosses... tokens of love and affection. These collections are often tied to a tree or a pole with a web of ribbons. Enduring rain, wind, and snow, the decorations fade yet they stand their ground for years.

Site where Iesha Williams was killed
Reading Rd. in Bond Hill

Based on a scene from a WCPO news video dated January 24, 2016, the above street memorial is a tribute to Iesha Williams. The young mother was shot and killed while driving down Reading Rd.

Reading Rd

Each Street Memorial is Different 

No two street memorials are alike. While some appear worn out and weatherbeaten, others show signs of upkeep with recently placed toys, newly-inflated balloons, and fresh flowers or colorful plastic versions of the real thing.

Each is the result of contributions inspired by unique grief, emotion, and maybe anger. Still, they all share the same purpose. They identify the spot where someone died and a call for remembrance. Street memorials are proof that someone cared.

It's Not Just a Black Thing

These days I mostly see street memorials in African American neighborhoods, but those remind me of decades ago when I first saw similar collections in rural Ohio. As an insurance claims investigator, I frequently traveled to communities along State Route 27, a two-lane highway designated by locals as the "Highway to Heaven.

Before the state straightened Route 27, it was a far more twisted path than it is now. That's where I first saw bouquets of flowers, crosses, and other tokens of affection. They dotted the grass at the edges of the sharpest bends and leaned against dented guardrails. 

I'd never seen them before, but knowing the reputation of the road, I didn't have to ask what those roadside artifacts meant. The Street Memorials along State Route 27 marked the scene of so many fatal accidents. 

Over the years, I investigated a number of those accidents myself. I came to understand how drunk or sober, day or night, drivers died because they felt compelled to take those curves at outrageous speeds. Their actions were just as dangerous as the gunplay that kills Cincinnati residents.  

 Vine Street Across From The Zoo

Most people create Street Memorials as a tribute to other people but not this one. The biggest, most colorful arrangement I've photographed decorates a light pole across from the Cincinnati Zoo's main entrance. 

This collection of colorful flowers, small stuffed bears, and ribbons is a tribute to Harambe, who was killed by zoo staff to save a child's life.

Lost Lives

I suppose I've been haunted by street memorials since my first sightings all those years ago. I've noticed them along streets and highways everywhere I've traveled. That urge to memorialize a life in a public place is a natural human instinct, I suppose. 

Each time I pass a tree or a pole or a grassy patch decorated with objects not ordinarily found along a roadside, I think about lost lives. I think about the senselessness of lives taken too soon by gunplay or reckless driving. I'm sure I will continue this line of thinking long after Memorial Day has passed.  


Opera Goes to Church 2017

Cincinnati Opera Singer, Jasmine Habersham

If you didn't get a chance to see Opera Goes to Church/Opera Goes to Temple or you didn't know anything about it, you're too late. You've missed the exciting mix of music styles and the enthusiastic audience response. For this year anyway. 

This enjoyable musical presentation is an annual Cincinnati series staged in an area church or temple. In 2016 opera events were held at Lincoln Heights Baptist and RockdaleTemple. This year there were Opera Goes to Church performances on May 22 and 24, both at Allen Temple AME. News Anchor, Courtis Fuller, was the MC for the event. He seems to enjoy this annual role.

Host, Courtis Fuller, WLWT News Anchor

It Started With Gospel

The program began with Allen Temple's mass choir singing a few rousing gospel songs that let you know for certain you were in a black church. Later in the program, Allen Temple praise dancers performed and the choir sang as back-up on two gospel numbers performed by the opera singers. 

Allen Temple AME Choi

Of Course, There was Opera

Headlining the event this year were Cincinnati Opera singers, Jasmine Habersham and Phillip K. Bullock, both black. (I mention that just in case you didn't realize that Cincinnati's Opera Company does, in fact, have African American singers.) 

Habersham sang a number from "La Boheme." Bullock sang a piece from "Hamlet." The couple also performed a duet from "The Magic Flute" and each sang a gospel song with the choir. 

Cincinnati Opera baritone, Phillip K. Bullock

And There was Jazz Too!

There's always a jazz group, a fabulously cool surprise in any church setting. This year's performance featured the Michael Cruse Quartet. All four members of the group have degrees from UC. They met at the College Conservatory of Music, formed a lasting friendship, and continue to make great music together.

Michael Cruse Quartet
I was particularly impressed by Cruse's trumpet interpretation of a Miles Davis tune. (He played the role of Ernie Royal in the movie, "Miles Ahead.") And I probably shouldn't say this, at the risk of sounding seriously old school like my dear departed dad, but I'm saying it anyway. That little white boy (Jackson Steiger) sure could play the piano. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Withrow High School 2017 Bridgewalk: Tradition With Fun on the Side

The Withrow Senior Class Bridge Walk on May 18, 2017, was a throwback to Withrow commencement history, but it was also the settling-in of a fun new tradition. Up until 13 years ago, graduating seniors would cross the bridge, walk east on Madison Rd., then head to the school stadium for the graduation ceremony. When the school moved the annual commencement to an indoor site, students lost their chance to cross the bridge one last time. 

The Bridge Walk brings back that lost tradition as a separate graduation event. It gives seniors an opportunity to walk the bridge, party with fellow students, and socialize with friends and family. The walk takes place a few weeks before graduation, so seniors get a chance to wear their caps and gowns more than once. 

I attended the 2017 Bridge Walk as a Class of 70 school alumnus. I snapped a ton of photos and video footage and marveled at how the campus was pretty much the same as it was when I was a teen. The tower was still impressive. Madison Rd was still busy. Despite the vandalism earlier this year, Withrow is still the most beautiful high school campus in the city of Cincinnati and the of state of Ohio. 

A few things have changed 

Withrow is a school of color 

Back in the early 70s, Withrow was more white than black. There were no Asians, Latinos, or other ethnicities and classes were highly segregated. Despite sitting in the middle of Hyde Park, the color dynamic flipped a while back. It is now a proud school of color. 

The Bridge Walk was more fun than formal

As I snapped photos or video of seniors exiting the bridge to head down Madison Rd., I noticed how they laughed, held hands, paused for photo ops, and chatted on their cells. Despite years of standardized test that tried to force them all into the same mold, they did their own thing. There's nothing wrong with that. 

They sported school colors with pride

Seniors wore robes in Withrow's signature black and orange color scheme. They sat at tables decked out in black and orange. Friends and family wore orange tees (and orange hair.) Orange canopies provided shade.

They celebrated!

Seniors tugged on black and orange balloons, carried flowers, and ate burgers hot off the grill. Withrow High Class of 88 Alumnus, D J Stank, kept the mood light and fun with a party-music backdrop. Each student flaunted a celebratory spirit. 

The excitement of a new tradition

The 2017 Bridge Walk celebration was so energetic, it made me rethink my 1970 class march across the bridge. Our walk was beautiful. It was also a somber silent, color-neutral trek with men in all-black robes and ladies in all-white. 

We marched quietly. Our final destination was a mind-numbing ceremony that began with Smitty's big Band playing "Pomp and Circumstance." We remained quiet until it was our turn to stand, receive our walking papers, flip our tassels, and go home. It was impressive but boring by comparison.

No party. No Music. No DJ Stank!

I sat on the sidewalk as I captured video of Withrow seniors crossing the bridge and I couldn't stop smiling. I know they've done the new Bridge Walk at least once before, so this is not a one-time whim. It's the continuation of a new Withrow tradition and I was glad to be sitting right in the middle of it. 

Carol George-Rucker
Withrow High School Class 0f 1970