Watching Bellevue Bloom: A Covid-Era Travelogue

Bellevue, KY: April, 2020

Is it a cruel irony or slight reprieve that we experienced the loveliest stretch of spring weather I can remember at a time when there is nowhere to go?

Bellevue clutches the Ohio River’s southern bank and works its way up the hills at the edge of the basin. With ten thousand people in less than a square mile, the city is dense by American standards, and at two miles from downtown Cincinnati, it is closer than most neighborhoods in the city proper. From our home in the Bonnie Leslie neighborhood about a hundred feet above the river, we are able see the Great American Building for about half the year, before the tallest maples fill in and obscure the view. Regardless of season, we can see into Ohio at Mt. Adams, its ample Victorian homes zigzagging their way up its cliffs, architecturally and topographically a San Francisco in the upper south. Walkable and a cheap rideshare from anything of interest in the Cincinnati metro, I had most often valued Bellevue for what it is near, not for what it is, but with wings clipped for the foreseeable future, the time had come to explore the city as I would if I were traveling.

Bonnie Leslie

Walkability is correlated to density but not perfectly, and a place like Bellevue, with tree-lined sidewalks, a dense entertainment district with relaxed open container laws, and several bikeshare stations, would score high for foot traffic in any study. But until the Covid-19 lockdown began, the streets were typically empty outside of the main avenue. That’s not to say there weren’t dog walkers or runners, or that the average block in Bellevue wasn’t more crowded than one in the exurbs, but the pedestrian traffic did not always match the infrastructure. When the cases of the virus began to rise exponentially, however, so did the number of people outside: walking for leisure, having safely distant porch to porch conversations with neighbors, kids chalking the sidewalks. It is peculiar yet unsurprising that as soon as technology is our only option for entertainment, people finally put down the phone.

Part of the outflow from Bellevue homes can be attributed to the idyllic early spring we have been enjoying in the Ohio valley. The season came on slowly, hovering in the pleasant middle-degrees and allowing each flower and creature proper time to show themselves off. Lauren and I frequently walk around the century-old Bonnie Leslie neighborhood, the newest in Bellevue, and watch nature awaken. Mushroom-like foxgloves watch over gardens like turrets, their grounds hemmed in by stone walls partially enveloped by drooping periwinkle. On the open portions, not yet subsumed by the flowering vines, lizards sunbathe themselves and are startled into action by our presence, fleeing into micro fractures in the stonework. Newly verdant lawns vary in shade, the dark green and consistently manicured turfgrass ones easily outnumbered by those made of a patchwork tapestry of crabgrasses and other yard invaders. The latter are beginning to burst with additional hues, filling with buttercup and broad strokes of tiny, sky blue dots as if they were the result of an incomplete spray paint. Violets, their eponymously colored pistols springing from a tangle of spade-like leaves, take over sizeable sections between sidewalk and home, spilling over garden edges and flirting with the foxgloves. At least in April, I prefer the unfertilized and flowered parcels. Even the pesky dandelion, useful antagonist of the herbicide industry adds a firework of color before turning to fluff and blowing off to copy itself. On one corner, a deciduous magnolia has already concluded its show, its nascent leaves pushing their floppy pink and white petal predecessors off of their perch, causing them to rain down like confetti after the curtain closes.

Grandview

Instead of walking up Taylor, we turn east up a staircase and through a city garden, paralleling the railroad, tulips unfurling just feet from the tracks, into the Grandview neighborhood. The grade rises abruptly and we walk sharply uphill past more sparkling pear trees, each street corner higher than the previous, with marked crosswalks painted in a blue gradient and trash cans with colorful cubist designs. We arrive at the home of our friend Alonso, but he is inside and we take time to admire one of the most unsung views of downtown Cincinnati, from the yards of modest ranch-style houses at the pinnacle of Grandview. A million dollar view nearly anywhere else in the developed world, the overlook in Bellevue is shared by those members of the middle class with either the foresight or fortune to buy in Bellevue when the town’s name was still spoken with a crinkled nose and raised eyebrows. Even today, the KY on the town’s postal code is enough to drive costs down, as Cincinnatians are paying nearly double for Bellevue-equivalents north of the river that are traffic-snared and miles further from the city center. From Alonso’s balcony, we watched the downtown fireworks show that those with Ohio plates travel hours and pay hundreds of dollars to see, with a cooler of beer and homemade tacos, a ten minute downhill walk to bed.

Last summer, I entered into a half mile race from the river up to the top of O’Fallon Avenue. The hill rises steadily at first, until a grade so severe that low-bottomed cars must take an alternate route. I ran uphill on the right sidewalk, hands practically pressing my knees down to help them work, as my primary competition did the same across the street. As we reached the point where the tops of the buildings in Cincinnati were at eye level, my fellow runner began to slow, leaving me the lead, though I too were beginning to fade as my heart beat warning drums. Finally, I reached the top, a chilled stein waiting atop a cooler acting as the finish line. To win, I had to take a drink of the beer, a tough task with lungs gasping, and shout “I am the O’Fallon Stallion.” The words came out creaking, but the beer quenched in the midsummer humidity as I waited for the second runner to arrive. Lauren and Alonso finished not too long afterward, and racers then walked back down to Fairfield Market for food and beverage. This event, though quirky and bizarre, was perfectly timed as we had recently moved in and had yet to meet most of our neighbors. It was the first time I had thought of Bellevue as homerather than conveniently located.

Taylor’s Daughters

Beyond Bonnie Leslie’s undulations and beneath the peaks of Grandview, heading toward the river along Taylor Avenue is another small hill, the street flanked by Gilded Age Italianate houses and Queen Annes, bricks painted white and federal blue or left a naked maroon. A church of the same vintage rises above the homes, the clock face on the steeple unchanged for a century and a half, covered now by cottony white Bradford Pear trees, who, alone in their flowering against a backdrop of maples, stand out like color on grayscale.

These trees were deliberately planted around the town and smell noxious to some, though I find their odor to straddle the line between neutral and fragrant, like an earthy lavender. Each year the neighborhood debates sawing them all to stump, but despite their invasiveness, their removal would render the streetscape listless unless replaced immediately by another tree. As they stand, their blossoming uniformity give Taylor the appearance of a grand avenue, the bright branches like runway lights in the vernal sunshine.

Taylor’s Daughters is the oldest neighborhood in Bellevue, and is so named because the city’s founder, Revolutionary War general James Taylor Jr. named some of the streets after the adopted surnames of his married daughters. The others (Washington, Lafayette) are named for fellow heroes of the revolution. Taylor Avenue and east between Fairfield Avenue and the railroad tracks is the most attractive part of Bellevue from an architectural and streetscape standpoint. No two buildings look alike, as sprawling mansions hide behind ancient twisting magnolias and abut row houses with front yards hardly large enough for a dog, while bars and corner stores lie on either side of a condominium that once was a church. Not every building in Bellevue is maintained or cared for, and some blocks can portray a hardscrabble appearance, but the tasteful randomness of the historic district works in the way that a place like Charleston’s does: unsystematic without appearing thrown together, not hodgepodge and cluttered but designed as such.

Property values in Bellevue have risen more in Bellevue during the previous decade than in any other neighborhood or suburb of Cincinnati, regardless of side of river, and much of this growth took place in Taylor’s Daughters, where there was admittedly more wiggle room as the state of repair had sunk further than in other parts of the city. Today, it is the most common area for young families to settle, and the place where the majority of active townspeople live. Proximity to the business district and renovated late-nineteenth century homes give it even more promise, though there is still some petty crime and it is not as quiet as Bonnie Leslie or Grandview.

We walk along Ward Avenue, which possesses the oldest and largest street trees in the city. We see a man reading on a wraparound porch with a cup of coffee, sipping slowly as if wanting to only take a drink once per page. A few houses down is a group of four middle aged people around a fire pit, lounging in Adirondack chairs, wine at the ready, in a courtyard between an immense brick home and a smaller cobalt-paneled one that Lauren and I looked at a few years ago when house hunting. Further down was a house flashing party lights and playing electronica with generous bass despite only one person occupying the porch, a responsible party in the days of quarantine.

Years ago, someone painted hundreds of polka dots along the concrete of a thin alley between Ward and Van Voast Avenues. Multicolored and varying in size, they were meant to beautify an area that is otherwise lined with trash bins and the unloved backsides of Victorian houses. I tell Lauren to pick a color. She selects blue, and we jumped from blue dot to blue dot, some large enough that we could share, others suitable for only one shoe, avoiding the greens and yellows, purples and reds. There is seemingly no pattern to the colored dots, the blues sometimes clustered to the point where we could walk normally, others so distant that it was necessary to swing arms and broad jump over a sea of yellow in order to remain true. Lauren wins this block-long game of hopscotch and we emerge on the far side near Fairfield Market.

The Avenue

The Avenue is called Fairfield but that name is usually ignored in favor of the generalization, and it is the main business district through Bellevue, running a block from the river for its duration. You can drink alcohol along The Avenue, provided the tipple is in an approved to-go cup from one of the bars along the street, and the first Friday of each month features a themed block party where the craft shops and vintage stores stay open late for a drink and shop night. The Avenue is quieter now, as the business are mostly closed, temporarily one hopes, and the first Friday of April is spent in solitude.

A few things along The Avenue, normalcy vs. now:

Fairfield Market opened its doors last summer on the first floor of an old bank. Surrounded by a minimalist motif, they serve coffee and brunch by day and cocktails at night, with a wine room inside the former vault and a market off to the side featuring takeout drinks and some hyperlocally made products. It has become the meet point for Bellevue’s young creatives, whose laptops flip open along the back wall, and whose wide mugs of coffee are sipped so slow that they become part of the décor. Fairfield Market decided to furlough its existence during the pandemic and shut its doors, not attempting to live off of takeout for months.

An old movie theater, closed well before this era, changes its marquee message to update Avenue walkers on town events. It now reads Andy Says Flatten the Curve referencing governor Andy Beshear, an early acting official who has become an internet star for clamping down on social activity at a time when most states south of the Ohio River were waffling in disbelief. A few eateries that remain open for takeout are a Thai restaurant, a pretzel shop, and a mid-century ice cream parlor. Those with a history of takeout appear to be muddling through the uncertainty better than those who were previously dine-in only.

Continuing westward along The Avenue is a building-side mural of William Shakespeare opening a curtain to a spring scene, two young darlings picnicking on a shared blanket. This overlooks an empty lot which, later this year unless the untimeliness of the lockdown disrupts plans, will be the location of an London double-decker tour bus refurbished into a doughnut shop, owned as a collective between several Bellevue business owners. Across the street is Darkness Brewing, which includes an open-front taproom inside an old repair garage, it’s vibe that of goth haphazardness, the charcoal gray walls covered in paintings: dinosaurs, Darth Vader, a jack-o-lantern on a throne, George Washington with googly eyes. We often play cards or Scrabble in a corner booth, old movies playing on the one TV above the bar, enjoying a white stout or a barleywine in a tulip glass. Near Halloween, and very much on brand, the brewery turns into a haunted house with a band playing music from the roof. A nano-operation, Darkness never bottled or canned their beer, but have had to start doing so within the last month, curbside pickup their only outlet as board games and Hitchcock movies are temporarily enjoyed at home.

Bellevue is the only unlevied of the major Southbank cities, its hills rising most of the city well above the line for even the most aggressive floods. As such, the few blocks north of The Avenue have unparalleled river access. A century ago, there was a massive sandy beach along the bank, spanning most of Bellevue’s riverfront, where locals spent hot July days lounged beneath parasols and watching paddlewheel boats churn upstream. The more intrepid swam in the shallows, the summer droughts mitigating the dangerous currents that the then undammed river typically experienced. River bathing is unthinkable today, though on the muggiest days, I still see boaters taking a quick cooling plunge in the murk. The beach is no longer, but a city park now goes right down to the banks, trees and basketball courts surround a large open lawn used for summer concerts. Dogwood trees vignette the cross-river view of downtown Cincinnati, quiet in quarantine save for the buzzing pollinators in the foreground.

Bellevue is blooming in two ways. The vernal reopening of trees and the reemergence of animals happens regardless of any world circumstance, unaffected by any virus or economic panic. The other bloom has happened gradually, and may become stunted. Bellevue is reasserting itself as an optimal place to live in the Cincinnati area – all the benefits at a fraction of the cost that plagues some of the city’s well known pet neighborhoods. There may no longer be a beach or a theater, but there remains walkability, niche shops, houses close enough together to be neighbors but far enough apart to have some green space. There are old homes and older trees, grand plans to redo the only parking lot choked part of town and to fill a vacancy with a double decker doughnut bus. After watching the people of Bellevue during the quarantine, it appears this bloom too will continue like nature through the trying times.

As we returned home from our walk, just one of many during this interesting time, we arrived to find six plastic flamingos planted on our front lawn, beaks to ground, surrounding a sign that read You’ve Been Flocked! A fundraiser for the band, the flamingo flock makes its rounds through the city during the spring, and even though schools have locked their doors and placed caution tape around the entrances, this year was no exception. The faux flamboyance came with a note explaining that we could ‘flock’ somebody else for a small donation to the band, or that we could call and have them removed. We decided to flock Alonso, and by the next day, the flamingos had flown their way up to Grandview, and were perched atop the hill enjoying the vista. Bellevue is going to be just fine.

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