Cincinnatians are basement people.
I grew up in an area where I can’t recall a house having anything better than a crawl space or cellar below ground.
Here? You better have a basement. And it better have a bar.
When we started the grand experiment that is “About Us,” I asked for your input. What are your burning questions about Greater Cincinnati?
And you guys did not disappoint. Barb is befuddled by how our recycling works. Connie is curious about the stairs in Mount Adams. And Dave is devastated that he can’t watch the Reds on YouTube TV. I have that same issue, Dave. We’ll get to the bottom of all of this.
But the number one question I got is about something that doesn’t exist.
See? Basement people. And a 2.2-mile long unfinished cellar makes no sense to basement people.
It’s not quite right to describe the Cincinnati subway system as abandoned. Like the stack of needlepoint and sewing projects in my craft room, the subway was simply never finished. But the evidence remains – and confounds.
Let’s rewind to 1917. Cincinnati voters approved a $6 million, 16-mile transit system that would be both above and below ground. The initial plan was to connect downtown and Over-the-Rhine with St. Bernard, Norwood, Oakley, Hyde Park and Walnut Hills.
But that same year, the United States became officially embroiled in World War I. The war delayed construction, and by the time things picked back up around 1920, inflation had doubled the cost of goods and services needed for the project.
Anyone trying to add on a deck, or worse, build an entire house, knows that struggle these days. The unassuming 2x4, which cost about $2 a year ago, is more than $6 this week (and luckily, those prices appear to be dropping).
Despite the price increase, construction began in 1920 on the Cincinnati subway. By 1927, seven10 miles of the loop, including two miles of tunnels underneath the brand new Central Parkway downtown, were complete. What used to be the Miami and Erie Canal was now home to subway tunnels and the promise of better, quicker public transportation.
But the budget had been bled dry. There was no more money, and the Great Depression was on the horizon. The city, amid political in-fighting, officially put the brakes on the project in 1928.
And so the half-finished subways of Cincinnati sat, half-finished, for decades. Frankly, they still sit, half-finished. For a while, there were attempts to get the project back on track – or used for some other purpose. Some suggested using it as an air raid shelter or military supply storage during World War II. There were discussions to make it a place to shop, eat and drink – or use as a wine cellar. But nothing stuck.
Today, behind brush, fences and locked doors, you can see the clues of what could have been; the subway stations that never welcomed cars nor passengers. The tunnels are deemed too dangerous now (officially) for tours and looky-loos. But as I sit in traffic on 1-71 from Norwood to downtown, I find myself thinking about how this could all be different. How this commute might be simpler and quicker in a subway car. But transportation is never simple in Cincinnati.
Inflation, recession, political division – and questions about mass transit. Cincinnati of 100 years ago doesn’t seem that far away.
When she’s not stuck in traffic, dreaming of a subway to take her to the nearest Target, Kathrine hosts Coffee Break with Kathrine on The Enquirer’s Facebook page, weekdays at 10 a.m. Sign up for her email newsletter at Cincinnati.com/newsletters.