Cincinnati, OH – February, 2020
The medium is the visible section of frothy milk resting atop the overflow, the mode is the barista’s deliberate wrist twisting, and the finished design reminds me of a hermit crab holding the string of a heart-shaped balloon. The drink is a khaki monochrome culminating in a half-inch head, rising above the rim in an impressively convex meniscus and the tiny bubbles on the effervescent coffee take on a rainbow sheen like they were waved from a plastic wand. The entire production is delicate enough that a quick boot tap of the otherwise secure table causes it to shake itself out of existence, and the art, by design temporary, doesn’t even make it to opening night.
It is a small space, longer than it is wide, a Victorian Era Italianate wedged in between another of the same vintage and a space where yet another was, making up in high ceilings for the fact that three people could hold hands and prevent others from entering. Exposed brick, rust-colored and pale as if sandblasted, climbs up unevenly to the top where it meets the equally exposed air pipes, along the way acting as an anchor for dangling Edison bulbs and canvasses of coffee carts. About two thirds of the way up are a series of cobwebbed notches that form a semicircle around the café where second floor support beams sat during a previous life, during which they likely acted as a boundary between a street-level business and upstairs tenement living. At about this height behind the bar is a shelf of helmets left over from the neighborhood’s big wheel bicycle rally that lie layered in dust, unable to be reached by anyone without a sliding library ladder. Brad and I sit at a long bench on the mezzanine, a skinny loft along the back wall high enough to overlook the tiny café, our heads through the floor of the now defunct second story.
The music oscillates quietly between electronica and subtler folk, as alternative playlists have done for the past dozen years. The server, a lanky postgrad who wears thick rimmed glasses and a sweater from Taft’s Brewery, sets the playlist from a tablet in the back, near the glass water pitcher and the Ethiopian blend. His name is Trent or Timmy or Ty, and mine is Thursday Cortado Guy. We have never properly introduced ourselves but have weekly discussions about neighborhood development, restaurants, or whatever other subjects two young semi-strangers use to fill the silence between the whistling of espresso steam. When our paths cross elsewhere, we exchange requisite head nods and it takes me a moment to recognize him without either a mug or a credit card in hand; it’s likely he doesn’t recognize me at all. Nobody stays behind the coffee counter for long in this neighborhood, changing with the regularity of seasons as jobs and locations often do for the urban creative. Before Trent, cortado day was brought to us by a blond pixie-haired girl who rode a bike to work or a guy who seemed to have his own Thursday tradition of wearing a Venezuelan National Soccer jersey.
Outside the window was a typically saturnine February morning, cool and moist but not frigid, accented by the thin kind of rain you feel but don’t see. If the drab air had a color it would be the gray-brown of an old manila folder. True cold fronts are meek and infrequent in this part of the state, especially so in the Ohio basin, and a blueprinted late winter day looks more like this one, soggy yet sanguine, than the claustrophobic claw trap of an archetypal northern winter. From Thanksgiving to the first of spring, Cincinnati tends to muddle around in perpetual March, the outdoors always seemingly on the cusp of delightfulness but never making the full commitment.
Through the drizzle and across the street are other recently rehabbed brick Italianates of varying height and occupation, though by now most contain upmarket apartments. The story was different just a few years prior, and though I cannot verify this, an acquaintance claimed that an acquaintance profited tenfold on a townhouse flip in this neighborhood somewhere up along 13th. I am not here to offer a discussion on gentrification as no cup of coffee is that bottomless, but these Gilded Age shells housing modern pearls are increasingly becoming symbols of that era’s redux.
In the distance, the uneven street grid provides a steeple-poached terminating vista of federally colored midrise row buildings, a look into how the city’s skyline must have appeared in its adolescence. This view, unlike any other in the Midwest, is more like Charleston from the sea than Cleveland from the lake if you block out the modern business district to the south and the hills to the north. The ‘sea’ in this case is temporary, one of only a few large open spaces in Over-The-Rhine, a block-wide parking lot is on its way to being infilled by a new apartment tower. During each walk to the coffee shop, we watch the hole growing deeper and wider at erosion pace, the fleet of backhoes slowed considerably by the tough rock walls beneath the surface that acted as a lagering chamber for a massive brewery. The only remains from the former building are on a far corner, where a modern day craft version has moved into the space that acted as stables for delivery horses. I’m not one to mourn the loss of a half-empty asphalt lot, but the only open space outside the window will be a pocket park with two oak trees and a bench covered in bumper stickers.
This building has lived many lives and will soon be reincarnated again, though this time not from the usual suspects but from the ashes of success. The upstart coffee shop is planning to move to a larger space a block north due to increased demand, and the cozy incubator will be left as a crib for another business to grow before either moving on or fading out. Each week, Brad and I walk by the new space to track progress and try to spot the change from the previous week through the big front window: PVC pipes suddenly piercing up through the floor like grass through weed-guard fabric; a formerly dusty countertop wiped clean; new art deco floor tiles with elaborate deep green right-angled patterns placed so randomly as to look like a losing game of Tetris. The last item indicates a transitioning of the café from the minimalist millennial motif of the recently retired decade to the darker, wallpapered throwback to a previous iteration of the twenties. We owe praise to the single-succulent-in-a-pot hygge design mavens for ushering out the overdone and shamelessly corporate décor we endured at the turn of the millennium, but this, as all styles do, will in time become comically associated with the decade of its zenith. Fortunately, it appears that the shift to local and human scale will age well, even if the exposed brick and chalkboard walls will be left to future period films.
As nothing is permanent, we are constantly on borrowed time: the café was set to move the previous autumn, but the transition was can-kicked into the first quarter of 2020. Now this time frame is rapidly becoming unlikely considering a toolbox makes an inconvenient laptop stand and a pipe ending in a downward facing elbow roasts a poor espresso. I hope they take all the time they need – one can enjoy change while still cherishing the familiar.
Brad is saying something about his trip to Philadelphia but I am only half listening. A dog walks in. Seconds later a young woman follows holding an unopened umbrella, and the server knows them both, handing the woman a cold brew and the dog a peanut butter biscuit the shape of a snowman. They consume their treats at a similar pace and head back out into the mist. Next to arrive is a bespectacled man carrying a large plastic sack of bagels, both his glasses and the bag fogged from the humidity. Each morning he bakes a small batch a few blocks away and delivers them by hand to the coffee shop, where they are cut and covered in eggs or avocados or sriracha sauce until the bag is empty. Sometimes he is followed by the milkman, who wheels in crates of clanking glass bottles, retrieving their empty counterparts from the corner for reuse before scooting back to his van. Neither departs without banter with the barista, and the hyper-local hand-delivery is a reminder that those who decry the disappearance of yesterday’s small-town culture could do well to look where they often do not. A daily breakfast of artisan bread and third wave coffee is certainly not economical, but ubiquity often begins with sparse success, and as shops like this become less restrictive, the small-town ideals can escape from gentrified confines of millennial dives and return to where it is missed the most.
There are some in the shop who remain: Several young remote workers toiling on keyboards within reach of long empty coffee-stained mugs; a man standing near the counter with an espresso shot on a plate, scribbling immaculate yet microscopic cursive sentences into a notepad so quickly that it had to be from memory; A distracted girl with a sleeping chocolate lab and a keto brownie, constantly glancing around the room and moving from her chair which partially blocked the exit to the unexpectedly popular outdoor courtyard; And of course Brad and I, sipping our drinks at unequal rates, discussing travel or city planning or people we know, his upcoming wedding, has it really been a week since we were here?
When time moves rapidly, not necessarily in the moment, but in retrospect, I find it valuable to periodically center myself, to imagine where I am on two planes: a top-down map and a left to right timeline. In this case, I am on the mezzanine of Café Urbana, in the Pendleton historic district of Over-the-Rhine, about a mile north and an easy walk from downtown Cincinnati, February 2020. The city is bursting with bright young minds who seek both cosmopolitanism and affordability, who love rideshare but hate the streetcar. The country is divided ideologically but people are friendlier to one another than they used to be unless they’re in a car or on the internet. Sights: See above. Sounds: Indie folk and idle chatter. Smells: Coffee and winter. It is raining on a Thursday, and right now I am drinking a cortado.