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Original Issue

City of the Year: CINCINNATI


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
—CHARLES DICKENS, "A Tale of Two Cities"

We went wire-to-wire in first place, honey. We kept the highest standards in baseball—clean-shaven players, a sense of history, no cutesy-poo girlfriends on team flights. And we won the World Series. But this was not the best year of my life, honey.
—Marge Schott, Owner of the Cincinnati Reds

It wasn't the best year of Cincinnati's life either, honey, it was bruising, confusing, at times very amusing, a roller-coaster ride that sent the town careening from pits of civic despair to peaks of pride. It was a year of scandals unfolding and heroes falling, a year that ran the gamut from grand opera to soap opera and back again.

Now, you must remember, this is Cincinnati, not some frenetic, magnetic, kinetic world center of show biz, politics, fashion or war. Mark Twain is reputed to have said, "I'd like to be in Cincinnati when the world ends, because it will happen 10 years later there." The mayor, Charlie Luken, a young (39), bright Democrat who will join the U.S. House of Representatives in January, put it this way: "Cincinnati is a city that considers predictability one of life's truly major virtues."

Says the Cincinnati Enquirer's award-winning editorial cartoonist, Jim Borgman, "This city is not big enough to have full confidence in itself. There is always a looming insecurity under the surface. When the nation turns its attention to Cincinnati, people here get very nervous."

Cincinnatians were nervous a lot in 1990, because much of what happened in the city took place in full view of the country. "The media kept portraying us as Jerkwater, USA, a bunch of blockheads, night after night," says Luken. Indeed, this shy old river town with a population of only 370,480 probably logged more time on the national news than any other noncapital since Chernobyl burst out of Ukrainian obscurity to poison the sky over Europe in 1986.

Fortunately, Cincinnati's year in the spotlight did not rise out of a cloud of catastrophe. It was powered by a mix of three commonplace ingredients—all nonradioactive, though not necessarily nontoxic: sex, lies and baseball.

As the year spun out, oddly enough, each of the events that catalyzed Cincinnatians included one or two of those ingredients, but none included all three.

1) Lies and baseball, no sex. The long, tortured fall of Pete Rose from local icon to federal convict was the worst of the worst of times for Cincinnati. Charlie Hustle swore that he never bet on baseball, though a mountain of evidence suggested otherwise. When he finally went to prison on Aug. 8, it was because he had lied to the IRS about his income from gambling.

2) Lies and sex, no baseball. Charles Keating was another local hero who fell. An NCAA swimming champion at the University of Cincinnati in 1946 and a founder of the Cincinnati Marlins swimming club, which has produced a number of Olympic medalists, Keating later became one of the most prominent activists in Cincinnati's army of crusaders against pornography. He moved to Arizona in 1976, and his most recent incarnation is as the notorious savings-and-loan shark and namesake of the Keating Five, a quintet of U.S. Senators who, after receiving large campaign contributions from Keating, allegedly intervened on his behalf with federal banking regulators. In September, Keating was arrested on charges of defrauding investors at his Lincoln Savings and Loan of $250 million. He was jailed for a month before his bail was reduced from $5 million to $300,000. A photograph of him in shackles appeared on the front page of the Enquirer, the publisher of which is Keating's brother, William.

3) Sex, no lies, no baseball. A show of 175 photographs, many of them homoerotic, by Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in March 1989, opened to the public on April 7 at Cincinnati's Contemporary Art Center (CAC). Later that day, a Hamilton County grand jury indicted the museum and its director, Dennis Barrie, on charges of "pandering obscenity" and "using minors in nudity-related material" in seven of the photographs. Police descended on the exhibition, cleared out the crowds and spent more than an hour videotaping Mapplethorpe's photos for evidence. Outside, angry museum-goers chanted, "Gestapo, go home!"

4) Baseball, no sex, no lies. The Reds started the strike-delayed season with a victory on April 9, flew through a nine-game winning streak and held first place in the National League West every single day of the season, clinching the division title on Sept. 29. They were the first major league team to go wire-to-wire since the Detroit Tigers did so in 1984, and the city celebrated with a huge parade.

5) Sex and baseball, no lies. On Sept. 27, Barrie and the CAC went on trial in Hamilton County Municipal Court before a jury of four men and four women. Barrie faced a maximum sentence of a year in jail and a $2,000 fine; the museum, a $10,000 fine. On Oct. 5, the jury brought in a verdict after less than two hours of deliberation. Barrie and the CAC were found innocent. At that same time, the Reds were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates at Riverfront Stadium in the second game of the National League Championship Series. When the radio station broadcasting the game broke in with a bulletin about the verdict, many people in the stadium stood and applauded, and drivers in cars all over town honked their horns.

6) Sex, no lies, no baseball. The very same day, Sam Wyche, the irrepressible coach of the Bengals, learned that NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue had fined him $27,941.18—one week's salary—for forbidding a woman reporter from USA Today to enter the team's locker room after an Oct. 1 loss to the Seahawks in Seattle.

7) Baseball, no sex, no lies. In the World Series, the Reds were overwhelming underdogs to the defending world champion Oakland Athletics, who had blown out the Boston Red Sox in four straight games in the American League playoffs. In one of the greatest upsets in sports history, the Reds pulled off their own four-game sweep, culminating in a 2-1 victory in Oakland on Oct. 20. Cincinnati rose up in celebration, but there were no riots, no serious injuries, no arrests for anything worse than public drunkenness.

These were the major triumphs and traumas that sex, lies and baseball laid on Cincinnati in 1990. Did they cause revolutionary change in the city? Apparently not. Cincinnatians still insist that, above all else, they value good behavior, clean clothes, steady pulses and low profiles. "Whatever we do, we stay within our parameters," says Mike Rozow, who is president of the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau, in Covington, Ky., just across the Ohio River. "We are a city that watches our manners."

Irma Lazarus, a member of the department-store family who, at 78, still snow-skis, water-skis, rides to the hounds and reigns as Cincinnati's grande dame of culture, says, "This town is honest and polite. We are not showy. We don't buy new clothes; we wear our good ones. We are a very cultivated city, but the contrast between what we think of ourselves and some of the disgraceful things that happened this year was very extreme."

And Jerry Springer, a lawyer and former mayor (1977-79) who upgraded himself eight years ago to local TV news anchor, says, "Cincinnati is generally made up of middle-class people operating with a steady rhythm—skilled workers and nice families who wear nice clothes, even neckties, to baseball games. Every so often we get a sudden spike on the graph. There are probably more 'characters' in one New York City subway car than in all of Cincinnati, but we do have our share."

Thank God for them. Since its founding 202 years ago, Cincinnati has nurtured a wide variety of celebrities—a short, arbitrary list of whom includes Doris von Kappelhoff, who became Doris Day; William Holmes McGuffey, who educated most of America in the 19th and early 20th centuries with McGuffey's Eclectic Reader, William Procter, a candlemaker, and James Gamble, a soapmaker, who together begat Ivory soap and Mr. Clean; the ballerina Suzanne Farrell; the boxer Ezzard Charles; the quarterback Roger Staubach; the movie idol Tyrone Power; the cowboy Roy Rogers; three U.S. presidents: William Henry Harrison, Benjamin Harrison and William Howard Taft; the father of Reform Judaism, Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise; the tennis player Tony Trabert; baseball players Dave Parker and Don Zimmer; Babe Ruth's Yankee manager, Miller Huggins; and the inventor of the oral polio vaccine, Dr. Albert Sabin.

Cincinnati has also spawned characters whom it has more or less kept for itself, such as George B. Cox, a saloonkeeper turned city czar, who ruled the town for 35 years, between 1880 and 1915, from a table at the Mecca Bar. Although Cincinnati had a reputation for being corrupt and poorly governed, Cox thought otherwise. "I am the boss of Cincinnati," he said. "If I didn't think my system was the best, I would consider I was a failure in life."

Then there was August (Garry) Herrmann, a henchman of Cox's who was president of the Reds from 1902 to '27, headed the Cincinnati Waterworks and served as Grand Exalted Ruler of All the Elks in America. Herrmann was chairman of the National Commission—a position equivalent to today's baseball commissioner—in 1919, when his Reds won their first World Series, with the help of the infamous Chicago Black Sox, but that was only a coincidence.

And there was Powel Crosley, the radio genius who started a 500-watt station, WLW, in 1922 and watched it grow to 500,000 watts, strongest in the world at the time. WLW became so powerful during World War II that aborigines in Australia tuned in regularly, and people in certain neighborhoods of Cincinnati complained that they picked up its signal in the fillings of their teeth. (After the war, the FCC reduced WLW's wattage to 50,000.) Later Crosley owned the Reds and, true to his penchant for innovation, championed the cause of night baseball, introducing it at Crosley Field on May 24,1935.

However, of all the characters Cincinnati has produced, none is more true to the city's soul, heart and calluses than Rose. That is why his conviction and imprisonment were the harshest medicine the town had to swallow in 1990. Says Borgman, the cartoonist, "Nothing has ever wounded the city like Pete Rose did. He broke hearts. I couldn't find anything funny about it at the time. People identified with him, the self-made man, the gritty attitude toward work, the Germanic heritage woven through everything. There was a somberness over this town when Pete Rose fell."

Indeed, the loss seemed cosmic. "Where else on earth has a hometown hero fallen so far?" says Springer, the mayor turned TV anchor. "This man was born here, raised here. We knew his dad, we went to his high school, we put him on a pedestal for an entire generation. Pete did it all here—including the night he passed 4,192 hits and went into history. We shared all that with him. He was our kid, our son. I haven't jumped off Pete's ship."

Neither have many other people in town, from blue bloods to blue-collars. Says Lazarus, "[Rose] was a terribly sorry idol for kids, and luckily he was punished. But he belonged to us. His mother was a clerk at Shillito's department store for years. People knew her. They were ashamed of him for her and ashamed of him for the city. But he was ours and we can't deny him."

Dave Schaffner, 49, a scanner at a local print-engraving firm, is a fierce sports fan who sometimes carries a Bengal football helmet when he goes out at night so he can have it autographed by pro football players he runs into. To Schaffner, though, baseball is the game and Rose is the name. "Pete was made an undying martyr," he says. "He is the greatest ballplayer who ever lived. He also gambled out of control. So what? His personal life had nothing to do with his greatness. I grew up in the same area. I knew where his house was. My feeling is that he probably bet against the Reds. So what? I put that out of my mind when I think about Pete Rose."

Reggie Williams, who played linebacker for the Bengals from 1976 to '89, was a member of the City Council from June 1988 until last week when he resigned to become general manager of the New York Knights of the World League of American Football. During his time in office Williams was often a gadfly on certain touchy issues—such as Pete Rose Way, the major thoroughfare from Interstate 75 to Riverfront Stadium. "I tried to get the council to talk about whether we should consider changing the name to something else," says Williams. "I didn't necessarily want to change it, but I thought we should at least talk about it, air both sides, and then make a decision. The council did not want to talk about it at all."

Schott won't talk about the Rose scandal, either, but she has her own version of Pete Rose Way—a 1988 Reds calendar in her office that features a picture of her Saint Bernard, Schottzie, for every month. Unfortunately, the December photo shows Schottzie and two big Christmas stockings, one labeled MARGE, the other PETE. "Isn't that too sad?" says Schott with tears in her eyes.

Says Mayor Luken, summing up the effect of the Rose scandal on Cincinnati, "It has shaken us a lot. One of the worst elements was the national media coverage. It wasn't fair. The media depicted us as if we were giving blind, unquestioning support to Pete. That wasn't true. There was lots of criticism of him here, even from diehard Reds fans. But Pete Rose was a Cincinnatian, and I'm not disappointed that people stood up for him. Loyalty is not a bad thing. But, oh, it was a shocking year. When I think of it—both Pete Rose and Charlie Keating going to prison. I never would have predicted that. Never."

Though Cincinnati has of late been shocked by the scandals and scoundrels in its midst, historically it has not been a city of embarrassed sissies. It was the nation's pig-butchering capital in the early 19th century, when it was jokingly called Porkopolis. In the early 20th century, Cincinnati was so awash in sin and sauce that when Carry Nation came to town with her temperance ax, she took one look at the line of 123 bars on Vine Street and left town, saying, "I would have dropped from exhaustion before I went a block."

Al Schottelkotte, 63, has witnessed much of what has gone on in Cincinnati over the last 50 years. He became a reporter for the Enquirer in 1943, at the age of 16, got his own column at 18—even reviewing nightclub acts before he was old enough to buy a drink—and then was the city's favorite TV anchorman from 1959 until 1986, when he quit to become president of the locally based Scripps-Howard Foundation. Schottelkotte recalls a surprisingly loose and glamorous city during the early years of his career:

"Illegal gambling was everywhere then, crap tables and handbooks in every saloon and grocery store in Hamilton County, glittering legal casinos across the river in Kentucky. I won my first car at a crap table. Nightclubs, big stars, big bands—some of the best musicians in America lived around here. Soap operas originated at WLW here. Top artists came—Sophie Tucker, Ted Lewis, the Mills Brothers. Miami, Philadelphia, even Chicago could hardly match our nightlife in those days. Las Vegas was a burg compared to Newport, Kentucky."

But the high rollers left Kentucky for Nevada, where gambling was legal, in the '50s, when the federal government passed laws requiring casinos to buy a federal gambling stamp and to pay a 10% tax on gross proceeds from gambling. "Now the biggest news in Newport is that Heinz Pet Foods is moving in," says Schottelkotte a bit sadly. "But, you know, we have stayed amazingly pure all these years in Cincinnati sports, despite all the gambling action. We had some great college basketball teams, but we missed the point-shaving scandals of the '50s that sent Kentucky down the drain. The Reds were always squeaky-clean—in 1919 we were the guys in the white hats. The Bengals, with the Paul Brown family here, are a conservative, honest operation. If people in other cities are worried about Cincinnati, they've got it wrong."

Squeaky-clean as it supposedly is, Cincinnati has attracted an extraordinary number of conservative crusader/watchdog groups. As a corporate attorney in Cincinnati 30 years ago, Keating founded the Citizens for Decent Literature, Inc. John Willke, head of the National Right to Life Committee, lives in Cincinnati, as does Jerry Kirk, president of the National Coalition Against Pornography. Over the years, these and other groups have spearheaded many attacks on indecency—real or perceived—in the city. These include an unsuccessful attempt to close a road-company production of Oh! Calcutta in 1977, a campaign that same year that led to the obscenity trial and conviction of Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt (the verdict was later overturned on appeal) and several dozen legal actions against X-rated theaters and bookstores in the 70s. Such efforts have effectively scrubbed the streets clean of pornography outlets.

Not much surprises Cincinnati when it comes to public acts of prudery, but there was a certain sense of shock when, just 14 days after the Lisa Olson-New England Patriots sexual-harassment incident, Sam Wyche decided to take a stand against women reporters in the locker room. "I am not doing that [letting them in] to these guys," said Wyche at the time. "I'm not doing it to their wives. Our guys don't want a woman to walk into a situation like that." Perhaps if he had chosen another time to make his point, neither the story's play in the media nor Wyche's fine would have been quite so large.

Apparently, Wyche couldn't stop himself. "Sam has a way of becoming the eye of any storm he is near," says Williams, who played for Wyche. "He is sincere, but he is compelled to act when issues arise."

Cris Collinsworth, the host of a sports talk show on WLW, also played for Wyche. "I was surprised Sam even noticed women were in the locker room," says Collinsworth. "I never saw anybody so focused on football as Sam is during the season. But he has always been a man of causes. Sam can never keep his mouth shut when Sam believes in a cause."

Says Springer, "Sam was dead wrong, and I said so in a tongue-in-cheek commentary pointing out that there is no constitutional guarantee that says that after a man plays football for three hours he has the right to take his pants off and go naked in front of other people. Well, the town went crazy. Everyone was in Sam's corner. I still say he was wrong, but Sam is one of my favorites here. He is always totally genuine. He wears his causes on his sleeve."

One cause Wyche avoided discussing in public was the Mapplethorpe show, but most everyone else in Cincinnati couldn't stop talking about it. For weeks before the exhibit opened, radio talk shows, newspaper editorials and columns, barrooms and dinner parties echoed with opinions about it. The show was open only to people 18 or older, and the first day about 4,000 attended, a CAC record. The second day the crowd was only slightly smaller—and then the lawmen arrived.

Recalls Barrie, a rumpled, easygoing fellow with prematurely white hair, "They came at the absolute prime time, when the museum was filled to capacity with 500 people and another 1,000 in lines outside winding around the block. In full dress uniforms, the officers served me with the indictment, then ordered everyone out. The officers were courteous, never rough, but the crowd was very angry, especially when the police shut the doors. I went to a balcony over the arcade, and maybe 2,000 people had gathered, yelling and chanting. The officers went through the museum videotaping the photographs. That took an hour and a half. Then we reopened, and the crowd came back, still angry. They knew this would not have happened anywhere else in the country. Only in Cincinnati."

The museum remained open under a U.S. district court order until the show closed six weeks later, on May 26. Total attendance was 81,003, nearly three times the figure for any previous CAC show. From Cincinnati, the Mapplethorpe photos moved to Boston, where they were displayed for nine weeks without attracting either a public outcry or particularly large crowds. Why had they caused such a ruckus in Cincinnati? "It was because of a few local law-enforcement people who made their reputations in antipornography cases," says Barrie. "They had to protect those reputations by indicting us and shutting us down."

Simon Leis is the sheriff of Hamilton County, and for years he has carried a reputation as Cincinnati's leading white knight in the war against smut. He is a tall ramrod of a man who played baseball and football at St. Xavier High and still lives within a block of the house in which he was born. He is a former Marine and former prosecutor (1971 until November 1982) who won many of Cincinnati's antipornography cases in the '70s.

"There were 11 adult bookstores, five adult movie houses, a massage parlor and a warehouse on the edge of town that was shipping pornography all over the country when I became prosecutor," recalls Leis. "It took six years, but none of them is left. I had never heard of Mapplethorpe before the show came to Cincinnati, but you could not mistake what those photos were. I would do the same thing again. I wish I had still been the prosecutor when that case went to court. In my opinion, the city fathers didn't want the case to be won. The prosecution was told it could only spend a limited amount of money, and it brought just one competent expert witness. I expressed my displeasure, but the city fathers had decided to back down on the case because of the national publicity it was getting."

Whether or not Leis's criticism of the prosecution is true, the Mapplethorpe jurors' verdict stunned a lot of people, both in and out of Cincinnati. Barrie, however, was not surprised when those eight Cincinnatians found him and the CAC innocent. "We could see during the selection process that they were tolerant people," he says. "They were worried about children seeing all this, but when the prosecutor began to rant about obscenity, they got quizzical looks on their faces. They were ordinary people, average, and that's what made the acquittal so satisfying. If they had been art experts, professors, scholars, some people might have said, 'So what?' "

Perhaps the most amazing result of the trial has been the change in Barrie's reputation around town. "I am now a local hero," he says in delighted disbelief. "People everywhere stop me and ask for my autograph. I heard a little boy tell his friends with real awe in his voice, 'There goes the art man!' "

Of course, the very idea that the art man—a liberal, sophisticated member of the art world—could become a hero in Cincinnati contradicts the media's perception of the town as being a backwater fortress of ultraconservatives. But that perception, it turns out, is probably wrong, too. Alfred Tuchfarber, a political scientist and director of the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati, has conducted polls on social issues over the years.

"Contrary to conventional wisdom," says Tuchfarber, "when we compared Greater Cincinnati to the nation as a whole, we found this is a moderate area politically. It is, in fact, identical to the rest of the country in all categories of social issues with one exception-civil rights and affirmative action. In those categories we were slightly more liberal than the rest of the country. The reason is that nationally the population is 11% black, while locally we have 19% blacks."

So Cincinnati turns out to be more normal than we thought. The art man is definitely not going to replace Charlie Hustle—or the Reds' Chris Sabo, or the Bengals' Boomer Esiason—in the local pantheon of heroes. Nevertheless, few people would deny that the Mapplethorpe verdict made a deeper impact on the city than the Reds' sweep of the World Series. As Tuchfarber points out, "This is a great sports town, but people don't live or die because the Bengals lose a Super Bowl or the Reds win a World Series. There was a brighter look in people's eyes after the Series, but it was much more important that the economy is good, that crime isn't a big problem and that the all-around quality of life is pretty good."

Well, maybe it wasn't a matter of life or death, but some people saw the quality of that Series blowout as being a hell of a lot better than pretty good. "It was redemption!" says Borgman. "It was justice! It was God reaching down through the clouds and handing us a golden moment! We had felt like the whole country was snickering at us—or worse—and then here came the World Series. David against Goliath, and the whole country was cheering for us. It didn't erase everything that had gone before, but it sure helped."

God's golden moment of redemption didn't last long, though. Cincinnati does not seem to be a town that enjoys enjoying itself. Too Teutonic, too self-conscious, too committed to soap and tools and a steady pulse. In the middle of the celebration, Reds leftfielder Eric Davis began complaining from his hospital bed in Oakland, where he had lain for five days after injuring a kidney in Game 4. He complained that Schott hadn't sent a Lear jet to bring him home. He complained that members of the team had paid less attention to him than they had to Schottzie. He complained and complained. Ultimately, even Borgman's limitless enthusiasm was smothered in Davis's complaints.

"He had a chance to be a martyr, a saint, a hero all at once," says Borgman. "But he couldn't let it drop. He had to be petty in public; he had to whine. He was unable to get any pleasure out of it, so he took ours away, too."

Davis and Schott eventually kissed and made up back in Cincinnati, but it was too late to regain the momentum of the miracle. Not surprisingly, Schott's review of what life is like at the climax of a wire-to-wire world championship is mixed, to say the least—just like Cincinnati's year.

"I'm from an old-fashioned Cincinnati family, honey," she says. "My dad used to ring a bell and my mom would come running. I went to a convent school—white gloves every day, and 12 years of French. I would like the security of having a man by my side, honey. The things I get blamed for, the grand old men of baseball are supposed to be handling for me.

"The doctors screwed up on Eric. It wasn't his fault. It wasn't my fault. None of us got to soak in the Series long enough. And if we don't win it again next year, it'll be, 'Marge did this, Marge didn't do that.' The dog gets more mail than I do. That will probably change if we don't win the Series next year. I didn't get to revel in the Series as much as I wanted. This really hasn't been the best year of my life, honey."