When I say “downtown” I don’t mean downtown Los Angeles (although I have lived here for most of my life) nor am I referring to downtown Burbank, even though this is where I shop most often. “Downtown” to me is Cincinnati, the downtown of my childhood.
In the 1940s there were no malls!. To shop, you boarded a streetcar–later city buses–and went downtown. Ladies dressed in their Sunday best, with high heels, stockings, gloves, and hat–to shop downtown. When I was perhaps 8 years old, my mother entrusted me with $1.00 plus two nickels, once weekly, to go downtown and pay the dollar at Lerner’s for a coat she had in layaway. The two nickels got me downtown and back. If I were very lucky, I might have a nickel or dime to spend and I quickly discovered the 5&10 cent stores. There were Woolworth’s, Newberry’s, and Kresge’s – overflowing with trinkets and toys, little round candies in glass bottles shaped like telephones or automobiles, a food counter where the cheapest item on the menu was a grilled cheese sandwich, inexpensive colognes such as Midnight in Paris, bottles of nail polish with caps shaped like fingernails, little ceramic knickknacks with “Made in Occupied Japan” stamped on them, tiny rubber dolls and a million other things. The trips to Lerner’s turned me into a seasoned downtowner and by the time I was ten, I was taking my two younger brothers – then four and seven–along with me to do our Christmas shopping. Sometimes my girlfriend Carol accompanied us, always baffled that we would somehow manage to buy presents for everyone in the family (five children, two parents, grandparents) with perhaps a dollar each to spend. Billy carried his pennies in a small change-purse, gripped tightly in one fist (we knew about shoplifters and were constantly on guard against them).
We might buy our grandmothers hairnets or bobby pins, for mom, nail polish or a pretty handkerchief (or a small bottle of Midnight in Paris), for daddy a big white handkerchief or – one year – a small wax Santa’s boot filled with mints that my brother Biff gave him. After we found gifts for everyone–if there was any money left we might share a grilled cheese sandwich at the lunch counter in Woolworth’s. We also visited the major stores (Shillitos, Rollman’s, Pogue’s, McAlpin’s–to see the department store Santas – each was good for a peppermint stick. Back home, we wrapped presents with ironed-out old gift wrap and made our own tags. Going downtown was a Big Deal.
When I grew a little older (perhaps 12) I began discovering some of the thrift stores sandwiched here and there on the less-busy downtown streets and found I could almost always buy books for 25 cents each at these shops. Before long I graduated to the large used bookstores, such as Acres of Books; when my classmates were discovering boys and makeup, I was discovering bookstores in downtown Cincinnati.
When I began dating, it was another Big Deal for your date to take you downtown to one of the plush movie theatres, and have a sundae in one of the shops circling Fountain Square, before taking a bus back home.
A word about Fountain Square. The Tyler Davidson Fountain is a 43-foot tall fountain cast in bronze, dedicated in 1871, and the centerpiece of Fountain Square at the corner of 5th and Vine Streets. Its proper name is The Genius of Water and features a 9-ft tall bronze statue of a woman with outstretched hands out of which flow streams of water. Smaller human figures represent the practical uses of water and four outer figures with animals represent the pleasures of water. Five hundred gallons of water flow through it every minute. Fountain Square is perhaps all of Cincinnati’s most cherished monument, and the most identifiable by men, women, and children who live in greater Cincinnati.
As a very small child, I often accompanied my grandmother downtown to shop; no trip would be complete until we visited the Juice Bar on Fountain Square, where you could get grape or orange juice and a hot dog. We (my siblings and cousins) each thought we were Grandma’s favorite – because she would take one of us with her whenever she wanted to go downtown. (In later years, I suspected that Grandma had an ulterior motive – a child was another pair of hands to carry her filled oilcloth shopping bags). We also frequently visited nearby Findlay Market where Grandma bought fresh fruit and vegetables and, occasionally, a freshly-killed chicken. Various shops circled the open farmer’s market, several of which were butcher shops.
There is so much more I could tell you about my downtown. It has undergone many renovations but some things – such as gorgeous Art Deco designs in the CarewTower and the Tyler-Davidson Fountain still remain. It delights me to walk along the sidewalks of downtown Cincinnati and no trip back home is ever complete without one of these excursions.
It is enormously satisfying to me that I discovered downtown Cincinnati pretty much on my own, by walking from shop to shop, resting near Fountain Square, going to the new main branch library–and eventually getting my first full time job at Western-Southern Life Insurance Company….also located downtown. I dont think any place on earth can begin to compare with Cincinnati’s “Downtown”.