In 2009’s Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges won a well-deserved Oscar for playing Bad Blake, an aging country singer, failed father, drunk and poet. The film’s theme song, “The Weary Kind,” is playing in my office as I write this. Piercing the gravel-laden and unforgettable delivery of Ryan Bingham’s voice are the sounds of the neighborhood in which I work: police sirens, ambulances, shouting pedestrians and blaring car horns. The chorus of the song reflects the journey of the film’s protagonist, but it’s just as true of the neighborhood I’m in: “This ain’t no place for the weary kind.”
The offices of St. Anthony Messenger Press are in a Cincinnati district called Over-the-Rhine (OTR), a neighborhood both historically rich and socio-economically poor. This area of town, once the home of 19th-century German refugees who reaped the benefits of a booming economy, endured financial decline throughout the 20th century. Crime and poverty have had a chokehold on OTR ever since. The Cincinnati race riots of 2001 sullied its reputation even more.
Over-the-Rhine has a bruised but beating heart.
The doorstep of St. Francis Seraph Church is often the nightly bed of the city’s poorest. The Freestore Foodbank nourishes the hungry, many of whom are children with long faces and empty bellies. Drugs, gun violence, prostitution and perhaps OTR’s greatest adversary—indifference—plague the streets like a cancer with no remission. A few weeks ago, a pedestrian was stabbed and killed. Days later, a woman was shot a block from where we work. It isn’t easy working here, but it’s an honor.
I have grown to love OTR. Born and raised in an achingly dull neighborhood, I started coming here at 18 out of suburban rebellion. I spent long hours at Kaldi’s Coffee House, though I hate coffee. I danced at The Warehouse on Race Street, though I have no love for techno. And I’ve had many an imported draft beer in the bars along Main Street.
When I started working at St. Anthony Messenger Press in 2001, however, my investment in OTR took a deeper turn. Like St. Francis, the employees of this company do more than just work among the poor. We bear witness to their struggle. By being here, we heighten the dignity of poverty. Likewise, our own dignity is lifted. It is a partnership that has galvanized my otherwise safe, suburban life.
I’m proud to be, in a small way, a thread in the fabric of this neighborhood. I’m privileged to be here, but it can be a challenge.
As I look out the window just now, 8 squad cars surround an SUV pulled over in front of our building. Police inch closer to the vehicle with guns drawn. My eyes are glued to the event outside. Slowly, two passengers exit the vehicle as police handcuff and place them in custody. Fear grips the passengers’ faces. The adrenalin of the police officers can be felt from my third-floor office. I can barely move.
It’s never dull in Over-the-Rhine. And it’s no place for the weary kind.
Photo: Maggie Smith