King of the Queen City

Fox, John Hartley. King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records.  Urbana, Illinois; University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Somewhat overlooked along the great early independent labels – Sun, Chess, Dot, etc. – King Records from Cincinnati  has a long list of recognizable artists from the 1940s and 1950s in its catalog of “roots of rock” artists.  King was one of the few labels that released both “hillbilly” (county and bluegrass) and “race records” (blues, R&B, and gospel).  In the 1940s, Nashville and Memphis had not evolved into hubs of the music industry that they became, and there were mid-size labels in many cities, such as Cincinnati.  King Records success spread well beyond the Queen City.

Fox’s King of the Queen City attempts to capture the story of King Records from the its inception through the late 1960’s roughly following the time founder Syd Nathan ran the label.  One advantage Cincinnati had in developing such a prominent label, especially in its early years where it focused more on country music, was the presence of the 50,000 watts WLW radio station, open from coast to coast.  Continue reading

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Industrial Sunset

High, Steven. Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America’s Rust Belt, 1969-1984. Toronto; University of Toronto Press, 2003.

The emptying of the mythical heart of the United States — and the birth of the Rust Belt and Rust Belt labels — signalled the decrepitude of the heavily industrialized states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.  (192)

Somewhere between the terms Frost Belt and Sun Belt there was the Rust Belt.  The Rust Belt has been having a revival lately, with pretty much a weekly wire story about Detroit and its ailments.  Of course, Detroit and the “industrial heartland” that is often referred to as the Rust Belt has been taking hard knocks for decades. Though products of different diseases, the hard times of today has resonance with the Rust Belt saga.  On a similar note, the Great Depression is also appearing in the non-fiction section.

There are varying descriptions of what geography entails the rusted over country.  Some descriptions include mainly the Great Lakes region, while others include more of the mid-Atlantic states with cities such as Utica, Trenton, and Baltimore.  Either way, Ohio is firmly a part of the Rust Belt, though Cincinnati and Columbus may or may not make the cut.  (Cincinnati is sometimes too South and not automobile-and-steel-manufacturing centric enough, and Columbus is often included with the Sun Belt cities.)   Continue reading

Breweries of Dayton

Dalton, Curt. Breweries of Dayton: A Toast to Brewers from the Gem City: 1810-1961. 2nd Edition. Dayton, Ohio, 2002.

There has been increased interest in the 1920s and Prohibition.  So much so, that if it has not already happened, the major networks will start bringing out historic dramas set in the 1920s, similar to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.  From a history lesson approach, Ken Burn’s documentary Prohibition retells the story in pictures.  In literature, there has not been an explosion of Prohibition-based novels that I know of, but ex-pats living in Paris at the time is having a moment with Paula McLain’s Paris Wife and the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris. Paris at the time being the antithesis of Prohibition America. I thought I should jump into the conversation and talk about Ohio Breweries, again.  I know, always with the breweries, even when Ohio was the center of the Anti-Saloon League.  One day I will find the right book to talk about their story.

Prohibition is such a complex and odd issue.  The breweries were the evil big business with political clout, but at the same time the drys very much succeeded in much of the country running a KKK platform against immigrant, Catholics who were more prone to support the “wet” movement.   I find it hard to get my hands around it in a standard narrative.  But, one point that came up in Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition that I find fascinating is how undemocratic local government was at the time — even for white men.  In state government, there was no One Man One Vote.  Each county, regardless of population, had equal representation.  So, even though a majority of Ohio voters (white men at the time) rejected a referendum, the passage of the 18th Amendment steam-rolled through the statehouse (see Hawke v. Smith for the legalities – federal Constitution trumps state constitution in this case).  The ethnic, urban population, who was very wet, really didn’t have much say in the matter. Continue reading

Under Glass

Hirt, Jen. Under Glass: The Girl with a Thousand Christmas Trees. Akron, Ohio: Ringtaw Books, 2010.

Stongsville is a rapidly growing western suburb of Cleveland; a town of less than 10,000 residents in 1960 and now a city of over 44,000.  I have driven through Stongsville on several occasions and it feels much more like the modern suburb that it has become than the semi-rural town that Jen Hirt’s great-grandfather set up the family’s greenhouse in 1915.  Hirt’s collection of essays, Under Glass, is not directly about the changes that have occurred to Strongsville, but it deals with the gradual upheavals and endings that generally follows youth into adulthood.

Though Under Glass has an overarching theme covering four generations of greenhouse keepers and the eventual sale and demolition of the buildings, the writing is very accessible to non-greenthumbed reader.  Essays on greenhouse design seamlessly discuss divorce, religion, and death.

Most of the essays are good enough to stand by themselves, but Under Glass as a whole is much better.  Unlike a memoir collection by David Sedaris, where the stories can be read (or not read) in any order, Hirt’s selections have a natural flow to them.  Though the author states in the introduction that the essays are “each on a theme, not at all chronological’, there is a straight (though expansive) story from the family history and childhood memories told in ‘A Girl with a Thousand Christmas’ to the reflective ‘Near a Fine Woods’, where she completes her grandmothers history of their home; several years after the home has been demolished. Continue reading

Farm and Factory

Nelson, Daniel.  Farm and Factory: Workers in the Midwest 1880-1990.  Bloomington, Indiana; University of Indiana Press, 1995.

Farm and Factory by Daniel Nelson is a history of the work that was done in the Midwest from the 1880s to 1990 (as the title suggests).  Nelson’s definition of the Midwest is Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa; not including the Plain states and Missouri, which show up in some “Midwests”.   Ohio is well represented.  The book is full of tidbits about Ohio laborers, referring to the major industrial cities to Ohio from Shawnee and Mingo Junction.

Beyond Ohio, Farm and Factory does a wonderful job tying the situation of miners in Northern Minnesota with meatpacking workers in East St. Louis with rubber workers in Akron.  (Nelson, who was a professor at the University of Akron at the time of publication, has written specifically about the Rubber Industry and labor unions in Akron, which Farm and Factory discusses thoroughly.) Continue reading

Caught in the Middle

Longworth, Richard C. Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism.  New York; Bloomsbury, 2008.

Over the years, there have been many studies and books attempting to regionalize the United States.  In general, Ohio is usually lumped into the Midwest or sometimes the Great Lakes region.  This is traditionally the result of history, people, and geography.  The Midwest (existing west of the Appalachian Mountains) was created with the Northwest Ordinance, and went on to be initially settled by predominately German and Scandinavian settlers.  The Midwest history is agriculture and industry.

There have been variations on this  theme in placing Ohio amongst the nation.  In Joel Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America (1981), Ohio is completely in the The Foundry, lumping industrial Ohio with the northern Indiana and Illinois, Michigan, and southern Ontario with the mid-Atlantic states of New York, Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, and Maryland.

In Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City? (2008), he references the idea of coming mega-regions.  Ohio’s cities are in Chi-Pitts, which spans from Pittsburgh heading northwest through Chicago to Minneapolis.   Neither Chi-Pitts nor the Foundry are desired locations.  These regions had their best days in the past.

Caught in the Middle, Richard C. Longworth’s look at the Midwest in the age of globalization, takes a more traditional view of Ohio being in the Midwest, which he uses interchangeably with the Heartland.  His reasons are mainly agriculture, industry, and shared settlers.  That said, he has some caveats.  He does not consider southeast Ohio (or southern Indiana or Illinois) parts of the Midwest.  These regions are in the South, settled by religious individualists (more likely with ancestor’s from the British Isles).  The shared history of Ohio’s “Midwest” region is small to mid-size industrial cities dotting the landscape.  Continue reading

Broke, USA

Rivlin, Gary. Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.: How the Working Poor became big business.  New York; HarperCollins, 2010.

Though not about Ohio, much of Broke, USA‘s stories are about Ohio.  In Rivlin’s expose on the numerous businesses he terms the poverty industry (payday loans, rent-to-own, subprime mortgages, income tax return advancements, to the old-fashioned pawn brokers), he travels all over Ohio with extended stays in Dayton, Columbus, and Mansfield (along with other non-Ohio places).  I do not want to give away the ending, but Rivlin is not pro-poverty industry.  As James Baldwin is quoted, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”  Those making the money on the poor do not come across well.

There is a lot to be depressed about in Broke, USA.  But, looking beyond the individual stories, there is the landscape of Ohio that has formed around the industry.  In Cleveland (not covered much in this book), every old business intersection or strip-mall in the city is full of these businesses.  You kind of know that things will never get better (this does not even account for residential neighborhoods that took a hit from subprime/predatory lending).   From my experience, it is the pretty much the same story in all central cities and inner-ring suburbs.  From reading Broke, USA, you learn that there is science to locating these businesses.  Nothing happens by chance.

Though this book may be a kick in the shins, there are some nuggets of knowledge for the Ohio reader.  Rivlin has a great overview of the Issue 5 (remember to vote No for Yes or Yes for No) referendum from 2008, which was an attempt by payday lenders to overturn state legislation capping interest rates.  (In the end, even in defeat, payday-lending lives on in Ohio).  Broke, USA does a thorough job of tying this referendum in with the previous 20-years of the industry along with state and federal action/inaction.  Also, the individual stories of Ohio activists such as Bill Faith, of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO) and Dayton City Commissioner Dean Lovelace are worth reading.

And finally, the book ends with a detailed analysis of what Dayton is like today (or when the author wrote the book in 2008).  As Broke, USA is intended as a national publication, much of stories are place less (they could happen anywhere), but the last chapter, ‘Dayton after Dark’, looks at specific neighborhoods.  Not good news, but chronicling Ohio’s story.

If you don’t want to take the time to read the book, or on the fence, I would also recommend listening to the author’s October 29th discussion at the City Club of Cleveland.

For those who want to relive Issue 5, do check out this article.