Theo Erasmus: What we gather

Theo Erasmus
Theo Erasmus

Paris is one of my favorite cities.

I know it’s a cliche, one emphasized by the throngs of people in ill-fitting shorts and white trainers who slump through the city in summer, rubbernecking the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame.

But it’s not just the sights I love.

It’s the way of Paris. And a few things I think make the city great. Things I think make all cities great.

Strolling and sitting being foremost among them.

Parisians don’t just stroll, they promenade (although modern Parisians are unlikely to use the phrase). The difference, compared with just walking, is curiosity and care.

They care to notice things, and they care what others think.

For strolling to be this enjoyable, it requires a sense of the serendipitous, an unhurried air, being properly, even elegantly, dressed. And it needs an array of shared pleasures at eye level, ideally with wares spilling onto the street, or doors wide open. Bakeries, chocolatiers, tailors, cheese shops, butchers, markets, fortune tellers, barbers, gardens, parks, churches, museums, street painters, rivers, flower sellers …

Most importantly, it needs loungers at street cafes, and more strollers to pass on the sidewalks and boulevards.

Historically, the more bohemian practitioners have been called flâneurs – often seen as idle strollers without obvious purpose, but actually with deeper purpose.

Baudelaire captures this perfectly: “The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.”

Strolling and sitting make us fall in love with cities.

That’s a great loss for a culture that values cars, especially now that cars have become fortresses and cages. Raised off the ground, big hulking monsters jostling for space. With sealed cabins for cursing and stewing and drinking bad coffee.

The second is the “sitting” thing.

Parisians in cafes sit facing the street, watching the human parade saunter by.

Their gaze gathers the city together. Weaves it into a tapestry. It creates empathy and understanding. It makes a city vibrate.

Cincinnati is not Paris, but it has many similar spectacular things, and it’s of a size that this should be possible – but it doesn’t really happen.

Here and there, some seats venture onto the pavement, always facing each other.

But mostly the city is empty and car-clogged.

Yes, OTR looks like an exception, but most people stay in the bars and hurry down the street to shop and eat. After a certain hour it’s desolate.

The city’s gatherings could do with some love.

For a city to be truly great to live in, people need to care about gathering places.

The sidewalk cafes, the bistros, the bars, the dance halls, fresh food markets, gardens, parks, picnics, bandstands, the squares, the carnivals, the jazz joints …

But it can’t just be any place – because at first we define the places, then the places define us.

Cities of suburbs, highways and malls define our connections, or more accurately, the lack thereof.

We need places of love, warmth and intimacy.

You feel this in places where it exists in abundance.

I’ve been searching for these places. And found a few. (There might well be more, and please tell me if there are.)

I first met Dave Willocks and Wendy Braun at a farm breakfast somewhere in Kentucky. Dave was cooking eggs on the fire. They were the best eggs I have had in the city.

After that I attended Dave and Wendy’s pop-up dinners in Newport – wonderful, warm affairs that often ended with a sing-along.

So when Dave opened a restaurant on Monmouth in Newport, called The Baker’s Table, I knew it would be feeding people with the same love. It does that and more. It feels like home. It has character. It’s comfortable, it’s beautiful, and you can taste the love.

As Dave says: “Care is the first word I think of. Never the easy way. The willingness to do what it takes to do the best thing, even if it’s hard. It’s the willingness to dig deeper, be more ambitious. Not to settle for the obvious, the predictable, the convenient.”

Another place that exudes this love is Mom ’n ’em Coffee and Wine in Camp Washington.

Tony and Austin Ferrari (and their mom Theresa) saved me from coffee deprivation when they renovated the Ferrari Barbershop on Garfield Place and started making the best coffee around.

They also opened the previously mentioned coffee and wine bar in Camp Washington – another thoughtful beauty filled to the brim with love and care. And the best avocado toast in town.

As Tony says, “What matters is caring about everything. Everything needs meaning. That’s a true gift to community – to care enough that it’s obvious in the craft and the experience.”

They’re opening another place, called Fausto, in the Contemporary Arts Center. It likely will be wonderful.

Other gathering places that feel made of love are Brown Bear Bakery, Longfellow, Liberty’s Bar and Bottle, Salazar, Allez Bakery, Rheingeist, Memorial Hall and Collective Espresso.

We gather because we want to know each other. And when we know each other, we care.

And when we care, we make a city greater than the sum of its parts.

Theo Erasmus is founder at brand strategy consultancy Timbuctoo, a collective think tank committed to the art of business and the business of art.

He has worked in human rights activism, advertising, the original dot-com boom, innovation and as founder of three companies, along with forays into journalism, from the South African crime beat to NY culture.

He’s an adviser/supporter at Wave Pool Art Gallery, a trustee at the Contemporary Art Center, a committee member for This Time Tomorrow Performance Festival and resident of The House of Beautiful Business.

This essay is part of a series exploring the intersection of business, community and the arts. 

Discover more from Movers & Makers

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.