Love Letter to Cincinnati (#1)

Kevin Pogo Curtis

by Kevin Pogo Curtis

I’ve visited New York City more times than I care to remember—always for work. Sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes not. But I always know for sure: I’m not part of those who live and work in that city.

Living in Cincinnati these past 14 years means I’m invisible in most publishing industry circles—not so unlike the company I once worked at, deemed “The Midwest Publishing Empire” by my first boss. At first I thought the moniker was a charming endearment. Later I realized it was an underhanded compliment.

But my life as a Midwesterner has made me sympathetic to writers outside the NYC publishing gates, who wonder why they can’t break in. It made me a good publisher for Writer’s Digest … that plus my own natural tendency to encourage people.

It was never my intention to remain in the Midwest for as long as I have. In fact, I hated Cincinnati for nearly a decade, and couldn’t think of anything worse than being from Indiana and living not more than a few hundred miles from the place where I was born. It’s a peculiar disease for us Americans, to think it a failure not to move away from what we know. As a twentysomething, I wanted nothing more than to live in Europe—where I’d stayed 6 months during a study abroad—and to be done with the uncultured and ignorant USA.

It’s like all young people to think this way—to imagine that the place where we come from is stupid and beneath everything else. Eventually you realize that all places are rather the same. Or, people are the same. You just find the right circles where you can be accepted or make a difference. The rest is just details.

It took a long time to accept that I’m a Midwesterner at heart. I want to be friendly and helpful. I’m not eager to talk about myself. I prefer a laid-back, unpretentious lifestyle. While these are not qualities unique to the Midwest, I don’t reliably encounter those environments elsewhere.

Cincinnati has been an unintentional home for me. I never meant to stay here for long, and at first I was always in an apartment or neighborhood that I partially despised.

Eventually I corrected that. I have an apartment I consider the happiest place on earth, where I wake up in the morning and feel happy to exist in such a beautiful room, with wood rafters, tall windows, and cool air silence, the city alive in the distance.

At my lowest points, Cincinnati has provided a cure in its core infrastructure. I drive out to Interstate 71 or 75, where I can go north or south, and drive in a continuous loop, using the 275 city bypass, or a quick 4-lane lateral for shorter periods of despair.

I drive circles around the city for calm, for familiarity, to remember I’ve had bad times before, and always found a better time after.

It used to be that when I’d drive into the city on 74 East, or on 71/75 North, there was nothing worse than realizing I had come home to Cincinnati. But after I overcame the melodrama of youth (and the desire to throw away everything I knew—bad only because it was familiar), then greeting the city from 74 (the wooded hills) or 71/75 (the cut in the hill & the river) became magical.

A couple years ago, for the first time, I bought original artwork from a Cincinnati artist who was producing a variety of bridge images. They all could easily be interpreted as Cincinnati bridges over the Ohio River, but were not clearly symbolized as such. Yet in my heart, these bridges represent the ones I’ve crossed now hundreds of times while thinking about what has been, what is, and what will be. They remind me of transition—a period of growing up.

Cincinnati is currently undergoing its own “growing up”—a renaissance in its historic residential quarter, Over the Rhine, where I now live. It is gorgeous and mostly undiscovered by the greater public. Even the people who’ve lived in Cincinnati all their lives don’t clearly recognize what’s happening. Soon, the world will recognize it. Only I will have moved onto another place …

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Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
Posted in Cincinnati, Growing Up.


  1. I’m in that stage where I want to move away, especially for university once I’ve finished high-school. But I know that I’ll miss home too much to stay away forever. I just need to do some growing up myself before I’ll want to come back or stay. 

  2. The fact that you live in Cincy is what made it cool to me, Jane. Anywhere you are will be a happening place because of what you bring to all you do. I hope you can still get back to Muncie for Midwest Writers Workshop this summer. Happy trails!

  3. I’m %100 a midwestern girl–there’s no washing it out of me! I hope your move is full of joy. Charlottesville has such a beautiful countryside and a fun downtown. I just love Virginia!

  4. As a long-suffering Bengals fan (I grew up in West Virginia, but it’s a long story), I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Cincinnati.  Looking forward to reading the rest of your love letters to the city and best wishes for continued success and happiness in Charlottesville.

  5. “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in
    Cincinnati because it’s always twenty years behind the times.” This quote was attributed to Mark Twain, but  when I researched it I discovered that is is not necessarily authentic. Doesn’t matter. I’ve lived in Cincinnati most of my life. We have both art and opportunity. We have people who will greet you on the street and say hello. And I met this incredible woman named Jane Friedman here. Going to miss her. And so will lots of others in this fine place. 

  6. Jane, as a native but relocated Cincinnatian I know that drive from Northern Kentucky on 75.  As you approach the city around the cut out of the hillsides it’s as if the city founders knew there would be an interstate eventually created to display the compact but picturesque city skyline.  It’s quite someting to come “home” to. 

    Can’t wait to hear your reminiscences about Cincinnati chili, Graeters, etc.

    Charlottesville is fortunate to have you!

  7. I grew up in Richmond, IN and am now living in Columbus after graduating with a degree in English and writing furiously in the hopes of getting noticed and published some day. I love editing, and I knew that in order to have any hope of getting a job in the field, not in a newspaper (which I did in college and wasn’t fond of), I would have to move to New York or Chicago or something, which has always been my plan.

    Recently though, I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in an editing internship for a publishing house online. Nothing made me happier than getting up in the morning, fixing coffee, and sitting down to edit a book over hours that just flew by. I’m realizing that even though it may be a bit harder to “tap in” here in Ohio than in New York,  I can make connections online easier than ever and having just recently had a short story accepted for publication, I have a new sense of possibility and hope.

    • Sounds wonderful. I will say that making periodic trips to the coasts (whether NY, San Fran, DC, etc), whether to conferences or industry events, was immensely helpful in solidifying online connections with in-person contact. If you have the budget and time, I highly recommend.

  8. Jane:

    Thanks for posting this.  My daughter went to U Cinci and she introduced me to Chipotle Grill there, and now we have one in Raleigh. I watched the University campus transformed over the five years she went there in the Design school.  She received a great education and many good life lessons in Cinci. I always enjoyed driving over the “baby” Brooklyn Bridge prototype to Covington, KY whenever I was visiting. Lots of good blues music in that town.

  9. Jane, this is a poignant piece–lovely and bittersweet. I’m a big fan of the bridge to symbolize transition.

    The artwork is stunning, too. 

  10. This is a beautiful post, Jane. I too am a forever Midwesterner. I am from Northern Michigan, and although I haven’t lived there since the age of 20, it will always be where I am from and where a large part of my heart is.  I couldn’t wait to get out of there and now I’m sentimental when I go back.

  11. I grew up in Evansville, Indiana, which isn’t too far from a little town called Oakland City (I believe you know it, Jane). I’ve been living in San Diego for the last ten years and have found out the hard way that the grass is always greener, etc. I keep finding myself writing about the Midwest because I understand the people there so much more. Thanks for this post and I wish you all the best!

  12. Dear Jane, just discovered your wonderful writing here. We who grew up on the mighty rivers that brought so many races, at least three, downstream and up, received so much detritus, were loved by us so deeply, Ohio river, south bend of the St. Joe river, so many others in our home places in indian-a and ohi-o. Your thoughts here, so very Jane, so very river. Thank you.  Dr. clarissa pinkola estés, author women who run with the wolves. 145 weeks NYT. But in Indiana, my hometown, pop. 600,  the people of my childhood still walk in the dust in the air, never failing to make me weep with their travails and dreams. You too. Be well Jane.

  13. Pingback: Food for Thought and Wanderlust « marginfades

  14. Jane, I lived in Cinci just four years. It was the start of my serious writing – I met and joined up with Women Writing for (a) Change in 1994. And now, all those many years later, have my own WWf(a)C program in Vermont!

    I know those bridges, those roads, the drives and sense of familiarity. I still get a rush each summer when I return for annual retreats with my sister writers. Some places just get under your skin.  And thanks for sharing the painting – so evocative!

  15. I actually hate the whole mobility thing. I’d rather not move around. I’m currently living in a city I don’t much like, but I know that the long I stay, the harder it will be to leave. I’m a city person, not a suburbia person, and I want to get back to a big city. I never thought I’d want to move back to Wash, DC, where I’m from, but right now it looks great to me. I wish I’d never left. The more places you live, the more you miss.

  16. Thanks to everyone for your kind comments. I realized later there’s a rather unsolvable contradiction in (1) places/people are the same everywhere you go (2) I prefer Midwestern environments. Both somehow seem to be true. Certainly each place has its own energy and set of inclinations—and Cincinnati’s vibe has changed since 1998. 

    I’ve only been in Charlottesville for a handful of days at this point, but I was able to relax there even though I was engaged in rather stressful activities (e.g., house hunting).

    Well, in any case, more love letters and more contradictions are on their way.

  17. Just found this while noodling around on your FB page, Jane. I will post on my page as an answer to my own question, “how do you get ready to leave a place, and people, you love.” Leaving Brooklyn in thirteen days. Hope to see you in Virginia!

  18. Hey everyone, I’m a struggling writer myself and I’m try to gain support/some knowledgeable critics for a blog I’m writing. If you have time to check it out and offer some feedback or you just enjoy reading it, I’d appreciate it.     

  19. I loved Cincinnati after7 other cities. Sadly to leave. It was just the right size and so much to do without the crowds and traffic to make it impossible to enjoy. 

  20. Pingback: Love Letter to Cincinnati (#2) | Jane Friedman

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  22. Really enjoying your writing here!  This one resonated with me.  When I was young most of my extended family lived at least several hours away and I thought that all families were spread out like that.  I’ve lived in northern KY for 20 years now and at first was amazed at all the people I would meet who had lived here near their extended families their whole lives and never considered moving away from them.  I have come to appreciate living close to family and doubt that I will ever move away from the area unless my family does also!  

  23. As a “new” transplant into Ohio, I particularly loved your lyrical description of the Cinci area. I’m in Dayton & haven’t yet explored that direction. You make me want to expand beyond my circle of comfort.

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