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CINCINNATI — They look like something you might see inside a medieval castle, these massive stone rooms with their high arched ceilings and uneven dirt floors.
But no, they’re right in the heart of Middle America, some 30 to 40 feet below the streets and buildings of Ohio’s third largest city. These are abandoned lagering caverns and tunnels, part of a miles-long subterranean network used in the 1800s by the city’s many brewers to store their beer at a cool 56 to 58 degrees in the days before refrigeration.
“And you may have heard that these tunnels were used during Prohibition to hide booze from the cops,” said John Funcheon, our tour guide. “Nice stories, but not true. The tunnels were sealed up long before Prohibition.”
Funcheon was the leader of our walking tour through Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine district, the city’s oldest neighborhood, listed since the 1980s on the National Register of Historic Places. Before descending into the tunnels, Funcheon had pointed out some of the remarkable 19th-century Italianate architecture of the area’s four and five-story walkups along Vine Street. Some of the buildings have been beautifully restored, while others looked ready to collapse.
Over-the-Rhine, on the northern edge of downtown Cincinnati, was named by German immigrants in honor of their homeland’s Rhine River, and it was once the main brewery district in a city that ranked among the leaders nationally in beer production.
As the years passed, however, some of those breweries closed while others were swallowed up by larger, out-of-town competitors. The knockout punch for local brewers was delivered by Prohibition in 1920, and Over-the-Rhine began a slow but steady decline.
As the German immigrants’ descendants moved out, they were replaced by poor transplants from Appalachia, Southern blacks, and others who rented rather than owned their homes. Most of the neighborhood’s beautiful buildings fell into disrepair and Over-the-Rhine ultimately became little more than a violent, crime-ridden ghetto.
Periodic revitalization efforts were tried, but they never made much headway, particularly after a series of race riots in 2001 that followed the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.
But in more recent years, things have been looking up in Over-the-Rhine, thanks largely to a well-funded public-private partnership called 3CDC (Cincinnati Center City Development Corp.). Formed in 2003, the nonprofit corporation has spent millions of dollars to buy vacant buildings and begin renovating them for use as housing, retail, and entertainment venues.
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Not coincidentally, a dozen or more small breweries have opened in recent years in and around Cincinnati, as entrepreneurs concluded that the city’s fortunes may well end up rising on a tide of full-bodied, locally produced craft beer.
Of course, there’s plenty to see and do around here besides wander through a maze of tunnels, as my wife and I discovered during a recent visit. For instance:
● Located along the Ohio River near Paul Brown Stadium, the Great American Ball Park is a superb place to watch a baseball game, and there’s nary a bad seat in the house. Next year, the park will play host to the Major League All-Star Game.
● Between the two sports stadiums, mostly empty land has been replaced by a new riverfront project called the Banks, which features several bars and restaurants, and a nice park. Plans include a hotel, stores, apartments, and condos.
● A former Christian Moerlein bottling plant in Over-the-Rhine houses a fledgling brewhouse called Rhinegeist (“Ghost of the Rhine”). The huge space offers patrons cornhole sets, Ping-Pong tables, Wiffle ball (yes, really), and the chance to buy a customized “crowler” of fresh beer — that’s a 32-ounce can — that’s poured and sealed with a pop-top lid while the customer watches.
● The New Riff Distillery in nearby Newport, Ky., has been open just three months, so its “urban bourbon” won’t be aged and ready to sell for four years. In the meantime, the craft distillery offers tours and cooking demonstrations, and it’s bottling and selling “OKI” bourbon, which Production Manager Jay Erisman explains stands for “distilled in Indiana, bottled in Kentucky, and loved in Ohio.” (Then shouldn’t it be “IKO” bourbon?)
● What began life in 1850 as a German Protestant church is in the midst of becoming a three-level Over-the-Rhine brewpub called Taft’s Ale House, named after former president and Cincy native William Howard Taft. “We call him Big Billy,” said head brewer and partner Kevin Moreland, “because he was a character.” The ale house will open next spring, and its logo features Taft holding a beer while sitting in a bathtub.
● Located in an old post office, the Eagle Food and Beer Hall specializes in southern comfort food, including spoon bread, collard greens, and a fried chicken sandwich that would make the Colonel envious. Naturally, dozens of craft beers are available to wash it all down.
● The city’s downtown hotels are hardly of the cookie-cutter variety, with a prime example being 21c, a boutique hotel and modern art museum housed in a 100-year-old building. Conde Nast Traveler magazine named 21c the top hotel in the country last year — and not just because it has a flock of four-foot-high yellow penguins that are liable to appear anywhere in the building.
● Thursday nights from May through September mean Salsa on the Square in the city’s downtown Fountain Square. There are live bands, and dance instructors wandering through the crowd offering tips to novices and experienced hoofers alike.
● The biggest event in town is coming up soon: the annual Oktoberfest Zinzinnati, scheduled this year from Sept. 19-21. It’s the largest such festival in America, and one of the biggest in the world, attracting up to half a million people each year for German food, music, and — gee, what else? — beer.
More information: Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-543-2613 or www.cincyusa.com