I love wandering around cities I’ve never been to before, seeing what can I see, trying to get some sense of the place, of it’s history, of it’s beauty, of it’s struggles, past and present. A few days ago, I was one of a group who flew to Cincinnati to get a first hand look at the extraordinary Oyler Community Learning Center, in the hope of replicating something of the same in our schools in New York. Like all business trips, the excursion was a whiz bang affair: arriving Wednesday evening, meeting for a long dinner with our hosts, leaving our hotel at 8:30 Thursday morning for an almost crazily crammed day, flying back to New York that evening.
The schedule left precious little wriggle room to see much of anything at all but I was determined. After dinner, as my friends M. and A. searched for a place to sample the famous Cincinnati chili, I set out to see the Ohio River, and to explore as much of down town as time allowed and as remains in an increasingly corporatized America. As it happened I walked in exactly the opposite direction of the river , but my ignorance proved fortuitous as I wandered straight into a main thoroughfare where I saw the beautiful and historic Plum Street Synagogue of Rabbi Isaac Wise, once the center of American Jewry. Near there, on a very pleasant concourse named Garfield Place, I was met by the outstretched stone arms of Ohio born President James Garfield, he who was considered brilliant but who was fated to become the second of our four assassinated presidents, just four months after taking office. Beneath Garfield’s image were perhaps twenty of the homeless men I saw and was approached by, every one of them exceedingly civil. Indeed, during the entire length of that avenue and almost the entire length of my lengthy stroll, the homeless were the only people to be seen.
A few blocks down the same street stood an image of yet another child of Ohio and barely remembered president, William Henry Harrison, astride a stone horse. One of the wonderful things about travel is that it can make the abstract concrete. Until I saw their statues, I had no idea what part of the country these two presidents, obscure though they may be, were from.
When at length I finally figured out the way to the river, I came across the site of the Burnet House, once a prominent hotel. On a plaque marking the site of the hotel, I came across a revealing reminder of the inner journey taken by the greatest American president, facing the greatest of American sins, which led to the most horrific of American wars. The plaque read, in part, as follows:
When it opened May 30, 1850, the 340-room hotel located on this site
was considered one of the finest hotels in the world. Abraham Lincoln
stayed here on September 17-18, 1859, while campaigning for the Ohio
Republican Party. Lincoln also stayed at this hotel on February 12, 1861,
during his inaugural journey to Washington, D.C. to be sworn in as
the 16th president. His speech from the hotel balcony expressed his
desire to abide by the Constitution on the issue of slavery.
It was the last line that, even as I was aware of Lincoln’s initial position on slavery, sent a chill down my spine. It was nonetheless still jarring to read it, as it served as a reminder of both the gross contradictions in the original constitution as well as the spiritual degeneracy and slaughter that, in 1861, directly resulted from those contradictions. It was a reminder too of the political starting point of the inner journey of our most complex and transformative president, of whom Frederick Douglass wrote:
“Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined… taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considering the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.”
From the site of the Burnet House I could at last see the Ohio River and as I came closer I encountered a sight that surprised as much as it delighted me: the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge.
To my mind there is no more iconic symbol of New York City and no more majestic a structure in the city than the Brooklyn Bridge. It was therefore startling to come across a bridge in Cincinnati that, for all the world, appeared to be the Brooklyn Bridge’s smaller if older brother. And no wonder. John A. Roebling created them both, the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge in 1866 and the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883.
I sat beneath Roebling’s Cincinnati creation for a while, taking it in as riverboats sailed by. I knew that on the other side of that river lay Kentucky was once a slave state while Ohio was a free state. And I knew that for “travelers” on the Underground Railroad the earth on which I sat held a meaning that was beyond my powers of empathy to truly appreciate. I knew that for them the water that flowed before me might as well have been the River Jordan, and the grass on which I sat might as well have been the Promised Land. I tried my best to take that in as well.
I awoke early the following morning and lit out again to look at the river and the bridge at dawn and both were just as beautiful as they were at night. I would have loved to stroll over that bridge and look down on that water that carried so much of American history but alas, alas, it was time to go. Still, I felt grateful for those little glimpses of the vast canvas that is America.