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NKU seniors unlock history of Cincinnati staircase

Very cool. From an NKU press release:

When Andrew Boehringer and Shane Winslow get to talking about their latest academic endeavor – writing a book that explores the history and cultural significance of the hundreds of stairways connecting the City of Cincinnati – it doesn’t take long to see their passion.

The two Northern Kentucky University seniors collectively spend about 80 hours per week reviewing and archiving centuries-old blueprints; working with the city’s transportation and engineering staff to fully understand the process of developing, building and maintaining the city’s stairways; and walking the beautiful, sometimes crumbling but always interesting stairs themselves. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’re kind of off the beaten path of normal students,” Winslow says. “A lot of times people block themselves in. They say, ‘That’d be a good idea.’ But then they never do it.” At this, Boehringer jumps in to complete Winslow’s thought – “We’re just crazy enough to do it.”

Boehringer and Winslow finish each other’s sentences a lot. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you’d assume they are lifelong friends. They share similar passions for history and anthropology, both double-majoring in those areas. And their personalities are perfect complements – Shane the outgoing, energetic one who focuses on the big picture; Andrew the quiet, reserved one who keeps track of the thousand little details that come with this type of project. Shane pulls Andrew out of his shell; Andrew reminds Shane to fold the maps correctly.

They only met earlier this year in a class called “world history in a dozen meals.” Boehringer was driving to work one day in April – he works 24-hour weekends at Christ Hospital – when he spotted a public staircase along the Western Hills Viaduct. It sparked his curiosity; there aren’t any staircases in the suburbs where he grew up.

He and Winslow met to discuss Cincinnati history in a single meal. As they ate their Dixie Chili they decided to explore the city’s stairways – their history and their influence on the quality of life, culture, economy, religion, education and mobility within the communities they serve. They thought it might make a nice article. It quickly become more.

“The study of history is great,” Winslow says, “but you kind of want to create something from it.” Their initial research revealed that no one had done what they wanted to do. “We kind of hit gold a little bit,” Winslow says. There was a book that highlighted stairways in Cincinnati, but it was basically a walking tour guide.

Their vision was much grander. They would tell the story of Cincinnati’s stairways. They would show how these critical pieces of often-ignored infrastructure brought people together, connected communities and helped the city expand from its early days as a relatively flat downtown into the seven hills for which it is now known. Their book is tentatively titled Descent: A History of the Cincinnati Steps.

With GPS in hand, they started walking. Everywhere. They trekked through Price Hill, Mount Auburn, Mount Adams. They set out to explore every staircase they could find. “We wanted to feel what it would have felt like,” Boehringer says. “We can’t go back in time, but we can retrace their steps, figuratively. Stairways aren’t just about stairs – they are a lens for looking at a city and how it changed over time.”

The two camped out in research rooms and rare books archives at local libraries, spending hours poring over documents such as public works meeting minutes from as early as 1850. They learned that early staircases were made of wood because it was cheaper. As the population grew and Cincinnati began annexing surrounding cities, it shifted to concrete and began keeping more detailed records. “It’s cool to look through those older records,” Boehringer says. “I really don’t think anyone has ever opened them before.”
Boehringer and Winslow spent hours in the city’s database of nearly 500 staircases – many public, some private and others the city isn’t sure who is responsible for. They studied countless blueprints.

It became a game – the search for what they call “secret keys” that unlock layers of history. “It’s fun,” Boehringer says. “It’s a discovery.”

Winslow says one of his favorite parts of their research is “when you find that small element, that clue that was completely untraceable until that moment.” They spent weeks trying to figure out the notation “RN” written on blueprints from the early 20th century. “I mean, what is that?” Winslow says. “Restricted neutrality? We had no idea and it was driving us crazy.” Satisfaction registers on both of their faces when they reveal that “RN” was inexplicable 1930s shorthand for an Ohio structural engineer named Armin.

Their project has been noticed by the city. They’ve been given work space in its Transportation and Engineering Structure Section and exclusive access to documents and software. With their camera and scanner, the two have created a digital archive of thousands of previously scattered city records.
They’re working to set up a formal internship so they’ll earn academic credit for their work. They are also developing a prospectus to present to publishers.

The two say they hope to serve as an example to other students. “If you work hard enough, you can do something out of the ordinary,” Boehringer says. “Find your own place.”

Winslow adds: “We’re defining ourselves and making ourselves unique and different. We’re not just writing about somebody else’s book.”

Both expect to graduate in 2013 – Winslow in June and Boehringer in December. Winslow says he will study nautical archeology in graduate school; Boehringer will study “history through an economic lens.”

For now, they’re happy directing their passion toward what Boehringer calls “the overlooked artifacts of history.”