I had an idea last year that I would begin documenting America every 4th of July. I’d take a cultural snapshot, of the country, from the road, as it were. As I wrote last year, “..the idea for a project came to me a couple of days, or even just the day before the Fourth of July. As photography projects go, the idea was a simple one. I’d simply drive a predetermined route through America, on the Fourth, and document the state of our country on that day”
Last year, I wound through the heart of the Appalachians on what proved to be a cool and dreary, and at times, rain drenched initial adventure. You can read of my honest- and less than bombastic results- here.
The intervening year crept up on me. Obligations were long and cash was short, where should I go to chronicle the state of our country? I didn’t want to skip the piece but going out on an extended trip was out of the question.
Where, I thought, in these insane times can I go, within my temporal and economic budgets to showcase the howling madness that is America under the Trump circus?
It then occurred to me that there are few places as conflicted historically and presently as my home town. And why leave town especially on the Fourth of July if I could find what I needed right in my own hometown. Remember L Frank Baum’s words at the end of the Wizard of Oz? ““If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard…..”
And wasn’t the Wizard of Oz after all, a political allegory and didn’t my home town know a good political allegory when it saw one. Yep, it was right here in the big nasty that G.W. Bush, in a nationally televised speech, sold the lie that was the Second Gulf War which ultimately killed hundred’s of thousands. Baum sold the vision of a paradise over the rainbow; W sold the image of mushroom clouds…
Right here in my home town, Bush knowingly lied by telling the nation that, “The threat comes from Iraq. It arises directly from the Iraqi regime’s own actions — [t]e Iraqi regime has violated all of [its] obligations. It possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons…… .”
Those words could arguably be seen as the downfall of the American Republic. For in knowingly lying to the American people, and sanctifying the greed and bloodshed which flowed from those lies, Bush, and his handlers, made it possible for the rise of the current Trump kakistocracy.
Trump’s Presidency, of course, makes the Bush’s administration lies and deceit look like a suburban Kool Aid stand in comparison. He came here selling snake oil, a perfect reincarnation of your average 19th century huckster, setting up a Nazi circus, spreading his poison, preaching his own virulent and ignorant brand of misogyny, racism and homophobia.
Speaking to a crowd of rabid white trash, in my home town, Trump promised that once he was elected that he would, “ask my Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor to look into her (Hillary Clinton’s crimes, because what she did is a disgrace to the country…” Of course, as of this date, Poor Donny’s a little too busy to persecute Hillary, what with both he and his AG being on the run, trying to avoid impeachment and/or arrest and/or jail…. (And as of this date, Trump has also, predictably, turned on his AG saying, “he wished he never hired him,”).
And this is just the recent past. The truth is that this town has always been the whipping post for the Republican party. In this town rose the Mapplethorpe charade. Our history is littered with an endless parade of self styled bad ass Sheriffs and rosecutors- most notably Simon Leis and Joey TV Deters- who have beaten this town, over the decades, like an abused housewife. The list of petty little men who have beat their chest and made political hay by pissing on everyone who wasn’t white and republican is long and plenary.
Most recently Joey (TV) Deters declined to retry Ray Tensing, the UC cop who gunned down Cincinnati resident Sam DuBois. Tensing was white and DuBois was black.
Tensing had, in the past written 84% of his traffic tickets to minorities and was wearing a confederate flag T shirt under his uniform when he gunned down DuBois-really. I’m not making that up. Deters, who originally feigned outrage, then subjected the cop to a long slow half-assed prosecution which all but guaranteed Tensing’s freedom.
Deters, meanwhile went back to his full-time law practice while still collecting full pay from the Prosecutor’s office. Which only makes sense, justice in this town has always been a part time deal anyway. Besides, he earned his pay, it’s not easy to always say one thing and then do the other that’s sort of like two jobs anyway right?
Joey TV ultimately justified his decision by saying that Tensing remains subject to Federal prosecution. Federal as in tried by the Feds who are run by Donnie (grab her pussy) Trump and his his AG Jeff (“I thought those guys [the Ku Klux Klan] were OK until I learned they smoked pot).” Sessions.
I wonder if the fact that Tensing, Trump and Sessions all buy their white robes from the same retailer constitutes a conflict of Justice. Or maybe I heard that part wrong…..probably not.
And I won’t even start on the kangaroo courts in this town………except to say that as a third generation Attorney in this town, I walked these courthouse halls for fifteen years, watching people being bought and sold by the corporations which run this town……
My point being, that for far too long, this town has been- from my point of view -home to people with giant mouths and little brains. It’s been the nation’s living room for those who love to preach responsibility for others and greed for themselves.
Cincinnati has been a town that for hundreds of years has served as a mouthpiece for all that is crude and narrow-minded and uneducated about our country. As with most of Ohio, our favorite game has long been blame the victim.
For as long as I can recall- some fifty years- this town has lived under a dark cloud of racial oppression and monogamy. For as long as I can remember, this town has reveled being the home of The Man.
From 1995 to 2001 at least 15 black men were shot and killed under increasingly suspicious circumstances by police. By 2001, when Officer Roach killed an unarmed minor named Timothy Thomas, the city had had enough and a four-day riot arose. Eventually the city was placed under Martial Law. As if we were Berlin.
In the decade that followed, my home town very much became a ghost town.
Fortunately, my hometown is now – ever so slowly- turning the tide against such bigotry and ignorance.
Which brings us to Northside. Northside is a an urban neighborhood five miles due north of downtown. For a very long time it has been the perpetual island of misfit toys. A former industrial center along the Mill Creek- a tepid wastewater ditch that bisects the city’s north/south band of industrial production and which runs from north of town, some 30 miles south to just west of downtown . The Mill Creek has been variously claimed and named to be the most endangered river in North America and “a great open city sewer.”
It can be hard to remember, but Cincinnati was, in its day, as blue collar a town as Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Most of the factories which made this city were located along the Mill Creek. Powell Valve, Juergon’s, P&G and countless meat packing plants.
Many of the people who worked and lived in these factories and plants lived in Northside and its surrounding neighborhoods. In very unlike Cincinnati form, there were black and white, Appalachian,- and in time- Africans and Gays also called this neighborhood home.
They lived together in relative peace, though crime was always a problem. No one belonged to a country club. The racial tolerance which existed was not built so much on any high-minded idealism so much as it was cemented in poverty and safety. Everyone, or damn near, everyone was poor or scared. Northside became Cincinnati’s first urban gay enclave because gay residents needed a place to band together for safety.
Thus because they did not have a choice minorities in Northside- with many notable exceptions-learned to lived together. White and black alike ate in the cheap diners that lined Hamilton Ave. Places like Park Chili and the Blue Jay were not so much restaurants, but community living rooms. Everyone knew not just every’s name, but every’s business.
The houses were urban and modest and the traffic was loud and constant. The main street-Hamilton Ave- led to Pill Hill where the city’s hospitals are located, thus ambulance traffic and sirens were frequent.
In time the neighborhood changed. Artists came calling because old industrial space could be had cheap and converted to studios. Maureen Wood, more than anyone else initally made such space available to not just musicians but photographers, painters and writers, such as myself.
Shop by shop, stores opened. Stores which catered to the new customers from outside the neighborhood. Record stores, like Shake It Records, hair salons like Pinokio’s, cheap restaurants and, in time, several bars that featured local music, normally free, almost every night of the week.
The first of these places being The Comet- which served burritos as big as puppies- and the second being The Northside Tavern. Both have phenomenal juke boxes and helped Northside to developed a reputation for being a center for all arts and a rare island in the city. Am island which demonstrated racial and lifestyle tolerance. For many of us, Northside was the pacemaker which allowed us to live in this city of cynicism.
Restaurants like Slims, Bocca and others helped to bring cash from outside Northside into Northside while providing jobs and training not normally found in the neighborhood.
These NST and the Comet not only became important to the local scene, but served as incubators which gave rise to bands and a sound which spread nationally. Bands of every flavor have played , if not lived, in Northside and went on to achieve national renown, if not fame. The Afghan Whigs broke through signing with Sub Pop. The Ass Ponys followed. There have also been Over The Rhine, the Tigerlillies, The Greenhornes and The Heartless Bastards. More recently have been Wussy, The National and Walk The Moon. This is a very partial list.
I have not even touched upon the fact that Cincinnati is one of the founding city’s of rock and roll, nor the importance of King Records and of Herzog Recording studios to Cincinnati as a whole.
Slowly this town has crawled from its grave and opened it’s mind-mostly.
Over the years, artists and musicians have ceased migrating from Cincinnati, at the first sign of success, and now play and work here. Our music scene can hold its own with all but a very few cities in this country. Northside itself is in the midst of gentrification. Properties are selling like wildfire even as rents rise. But that’s another story for another day.
No, I realized that there wasn’t any reason to drive hundred’s of miles to explore the soul of America in 2017. I wouldn’t even need a car as the neighborhood of Northside is barely a mile and half, from the Comet at the top of the hill, passing NST, to Knowlton’s Corner where the main streets of Northside star cross just before crossing over the Mill Creek.
Which is also pretty much the route traced by one of the happiest and funkiest Fourth of July parades in America.
The upshot of the parade is that there is a community Fourth of July parade which kicks off at noon, on the Fourth, and which travels down Hamilton Ave from basically the Comet toJacob Hoffner Park- Northside’s primary park- located just south of Northside Tavern (NST). The parade also coincides with a very great three day music festival at the park.
The Parade is pretty much anything goes and anyone is welcome. In addition, therefore, to the usual politicians and marching bands, there are also various absurdist acts such as a men’s drill team which marches with- yes, you guessed it, power tools.
There are also free form surreal self contained universes sponsored by local stores. A There is a post 40 ‘s women’s drill team which marches and dances in sharp choreography, with lawn chairs. There are drag queens and children with puppies and floats advertising various small businesses. There was a single member of the Northside Air Guitar Society. There are processions of antique cars, there are firetrucks and people who walk with flags and marchers who wish to make a political statement.
This year one of the largest, vocal, and most diverse crowds- and most well received groups- was the Justice For Sam DuBois.
The largest float, ultimately, came last. A man and his wife and girlfriend drove a Tacoma pickup down the street.. They sat alone, save for a dog that sat between them. In the back was a generator, a sound board, a couple of loudspeakers and two guys with a mac book.
From my vantage point, at the bottom of the hill, about halfway down the festival route, it appeared that something strange was going on at the end of the parade. As the parade drew near it was possible to see that people who had been living the parade route, were coming off the sidewalk, on onto the street where they began to dance behind and around the truck.
By the time the truck reached my position, there were thousands of people dancing in the streets in a spontaneous free form rave to the sounds of REM, Marvin Gaye, U2 and the like. It was also clear from looking at people expressions, and their dancing, that people were seriously moved. They did not stop to consider that they had been sitting in the hot sun for over two hours, no they simply rose and joined, en mass, without thinking.
I joined in photographing the dancers. Black and gay; white and Latino; old and young: all were joining in equally. Dancers swarmed around the truck dancing hard to Marvin Gaye in the hot summer air. By the time that the truck reached the lower end of the parade five thousand people were dancing in the street. The people on the sidewalk looked on, not certain as to how to react. This sort of thing does not happen, on large public scale, in my conservative town. Especially during these dark days of Trump.
And more than anything, suddenly, and without warning, happiness was in the air. There was the feeling of being let outside on a warm spring day after a very brutal winter. There was a feeling of being 12 and let out of school for the year, there was a feeling of being let out of one’s cage.
There was a an inexplicable feeling which added up to something akin to freedom. Without anyone saying a word, it seemed as though five thousand people came to collectively recall that they need not suffer needlessly. It seemed, as if, people were recalling that freedom was possible. One hoped that this was the being of something. Something new. One had just a brief, but real vision and hope that collective love could vanquish mass ignorance and that love could dispel hatred.
Maybe if it only took one drunk hanging from a tank, with a bottle of vodka in his hand, to vanquish the USSR; then maybe it only takes one young happy couple, a dog, and a pair of large loudspeakers to push back the miasma of gloom which has fallen on this town.
As the truck reached the end of the parade route, Jimi Hendrick’s Star Spangled Banner cut through the afternoon.
I had the thought that what we needed was not a million people marching on Washington, but millions of people dancing upon the capital.
We need to drape the Mall with loudspeakers and fill the air with the best American music ever written-Louis, Ella, Petty and CCR and The Band. We need to drowned out our fake government with songs of courage and faith and protest: Who’ll Stop The Rain, Gypsy Biker and Strange Fruit. On Sunday, after we sleep in the mall, we’ll play A Love Supreme, from Vinyl on a turntable placed in the Lincoln Monument.
The current regime, may just have enough support and weapons to withstand wide scale marches, they don’t have a prayer against all of us united in love and the music of Coltrane and Miles. They can’t stop us from fucking dancing.
And if we could manage such a thing, how appropriate if it would start here. How good it would be.
And so it was this Fourth, a klusterfuck of sorrow, though, at the end of the day, there was a gleam of hope, enough to force a smile.
We move forward from here.