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Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Calling Cincinnati back to the river


Tall Stacks 2003

There's a simple reason why Cincinnati's Tall Stacks festival has caught on to become one of the top-ranked special events in America:

It's the real deal.

The Tall Stacks 2003 Music, Arts & Heritage Festival, which opens today and runs through Sunday, will bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to the downtown riverfront for a rare look at 17 majestic river craft recalling the 19th century heyday of the steamboat.

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It's a unique blend of nostalgia, spectacle, music, river cruises, displays, food and entertainment - expanded this year to include a varied lineup of national headliners from B.B. King to Ricky Skaggs to Los Lobos.

The event, being mounted for the fifth time since 1988, succeeds because it recognizes and celebrates a central truth: Not only is Cincinnati's past connected to the Ohio River, but so is its future.

Tall Stacks taps deeply into the city's historical, economic and cultural roots. It draws on a rich tradition that few other American cities can match.

It is authentic in a most meaningful sense.

And it has captured the imagination of a national audience as virtually no other Cincinnati effort has.

That could provide an object lesson for those seeking to build new attractions to bring tourists to Cincinnati. They can't be generic or grafted on. They ought to be genuine, home-grown, organic.

Tall Stacks also succeeds because it has helped re-establish our ties to the riverfront.

We all know the history.

In the mid-19th century, Cincinnati flourished as a major port city and producer of riverboats.

"The river was the conduit and riverboats were the vehicles for the exchange of goods, people, music, food and ideas," Mike Smith, executive director of Tall Stacks, told the Enquirer's Cliff Radel.

With the decline of steamboats, that connection was lost in the last century. And with the advent of the freeways, the riverfront was isolated from downtown Cincinnati, choked off by bands of concrete.

It was as though Cincinnati spent decades making every effort to deny its own riverboat past as too low-class for a modern, high-tech society.

The first Tall Stacks, during the Cincinnati Bicentennial year of 1988, may mark the point at which the city began to rethink itself.

Paired with the just-opened Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point, a park that meandered gracefully along the river, the festival started to change people's vision of the riverfront.

In 1995, we noted in an editorial that Tall Stacks' call bringing Cincinnati back to the river was already starting to resonate.

Since then, reconfiguration of Fort Washington Way has eased the disconnect a bit.

The new Bengals and Reds stadiums, controversial though they may be, have brought a new focus and more visitors to the riverfront.

What's needed now is a neighborhood to bring life - literally - to the riverfront and connect it to the rest of downtown.

Tall Stacks is the kind of event that can bring the critical mass of attention and investment needed to complete the riverfront transformation.

The throaty hoot of the riverboat sings not only of our history, but of our destiny.

And so the question we asked back in 1995 - "Shall we gather at the river?" - is slowly but surely being answered, not just for five days every four years at Tall Stacks, but in the day-to-day life of this city.



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