Passegiatta in Washington Park

by Annette Januzzi Wick

(This article was written in response to a prompt, “Being Awake to Change” and recorded for WWfaC – The Podcast Edition)

In The Teachings of Rome[1], Jay Walljasper writes of architecture students learning about community building through the study of Roman piazzas. “Piazzas put us in the present moment,” says William McDonough, a theology professor. Why then, not see Washington Park in Cincinnati as a piazza? If any public space needed a present moment, Washington Park is it.

In the 1800’s, Cincinnati hosted expositions in Washington Park providing information on new machines being produced. By the late 1880’s, Washington Park was considered for the Romanesque Cincinnati Art Museum heralded as the Art Palace of the West, but because of one powerful donor, the museum was situated in Eden Park instead. Imagine had that museum been built along Washington Park, we would have had a palazzo on a piazza.

I have strolled through Rome’s Piazza Navona with my Italian-American parents and licked up the last drop of Tartufo dessert in that square with my kids. We have had the pleasure of stumbling upon a Greek band on that piazza and had the misfortune of witnessing a homeless man, sitting astride a fountain statue wearing only a diaper. Each square we roamed took on its own personality and led one astray to some other unexplored part of the city.

William H. Whyte, the urban sociologist, wrote, “The street is the river of life in the city.” Cincinnati developers and city officials have focused on the actual Ohio River banks. But the real flow of life comes from streets that lead to an experience, similar to the Italian tradition of passeggiata, a gentle stroll through a main street of an old town. The phrase is reminiscent of the word “passenger”, as in passengers being carried along in an experience.

Italians dress up for passeggiata. Older folks sit along the route, nursing a beer or a glass of wine, and gossip; la passeggiata is where new romances blossom and new shoes rule.

Consider what a passeggiata would feel like around Washington Park. In Illustrated Cincinnati, an 1875 book, the author writes, “Over-the-Rhine is where a visitor would go if “he is bent on pleasure and a holiday… The visitor leaves behind him at almost a single step the rigidity of the American, enters at once into the borders of people …far more closely wedded to music and the dance, to the song, and life in the bright, open air.”

Never is that experience more evident than within modernized Gothic Music Hall, first built as a choral hall, anchoring Washington Park. During the times of the expositions, the “back” of Music Hall sat up against the canal, which used floating gondolas to transport patrons. Inside Music hall, a large dome houses a painting by Arthur Thomas, The Allegory of the Arts, with figures representing Music, Science, History and Literature.

In 2010, the city and park will boast a new School for Creative and Performing Arts and offer residents a chance to revisit the use of Washington Park. Students should be encouraged not to rush home but rather to stroll, perhaps buy a gelato at Enzo’s across the street. While Music Hall represents the original Allegory of the Arts, the SCPA is a repository for youthful energy, a new metaphor for arts and community.

The Project for Public Spaces writes on their website, “Small steps to enliven streets, parks, and other public spaces are the building blocks of a thriving city.” Upon closer inspection, one would find these blocks in The Schickel Design Company at the north end. Martha Schickel manages the company rooted in her grandfather and father’s work of designing stained glass and creating architectural designs. Martha’s commitment to architecture and community were shown recently in her relocation to Over the Rhine, into a 19th century building which she redesigned and renovated.

Down the street is a three-story historic building, housing Azzi & Wolf, a luthier of well-crafted string instruments. Andy Wolf is the elder who was raised in OTR and as early as the 1990s was spending seed money to rehab properties in the area. Jules Azzi, the younger, is Lebanese, was schooled in France and had once established himself in New York.

Like the “city of 100 churches” in Lucca, Italy, OTR boasts numerous churches as well. I can feel the pulsating rhythms from the original pipe organ in First English Lutheran. From the end of Race Street, I hear the bells of Phillipus Kirche which long served the German population. Both worship spaces carry enough history to stand as pillars for a piazza.

Tender Mercies, a provider of housing for the homeless who are mentally ill, renovated a nearby 1870’s hotel. Its upgrades include green concepts as rain water retention and tankless water heaters. And while no one should promote homelessness, a parks employee explains in the Emeralds in the Crown documentary that, “In the 1900s, Washington Park was opened over night during the summer for residents of the tenements to sleep outdoors.” Parks were and will be a place to breathe fresh air.

The most recent proposal for the Washington Park upgrade shows a lawn larger than a football field facing Music Hall. Brick pavers will mark corners and pedestrian crossings. Game tables and benches will be conveniently situated. A concessions building will be housed along the east side which could showcase the city’s beer making and wine-producing history. There is even a promenade from which to begin a passeggiata.

In Teachings, Architecture Professor David Maynik tells his students, “Look for the connections that are not apparent at first.” When we look into Washington Park, we view the present in crime stats, homeless residents and closed swimming pools. From its outer rim, I also see the building blocks from the past – Gothic architecture, sleeping outdoors, and First Lutheran’s original organ. I observe real work in Tender Mercies, Martha Schickel, and Azzi & Wolf.

And I see a future filled with industrious young people who parade their SCPA portfolio or DAAP designs through the square while old men play chess and watch them stroll by. I see people sitting with a glass of Christian Moerlein beer or Burnett Ridge wine beneath strings of light hung from tress, or slowing down because they have found a place to breathe, a present moment.

[1] The Teachings of Rome, Jay Walljasper, Notre Dame Magazine, October, 2009.


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