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Our Southgate House: An Essay on Looking Forward to Big Things

Filed in Cincinnati and Music News 6 comments

Last week I noticed an interesting tweet from our friend Margaret Darling of The Seedy Seeds regarding the recent news that The Southgate House was closing its doors. I could tell she had more on her mind than 140 characters would hold and invited her to put her thoughts down for more to see through ENS. She was gracious enough to do just that, read below.

I think discussion is always a healthy thing, and especially in the wake of such divisive news, I’m excited the subject of Southgate House’s present situation has prompted so many reports, reminiscences, and debates. The story, which is still developing, came out without cushioning. I’ve been following along; I’ve read a number of blog posts and news articles, and I’ve chatted with folks when I’ve been out and about. And perhaps it’s because of the stress from the shock of the announcement—or maybe for other reasons entirely—but I think there are some angles worth considering that so far are absent from the landscape of dialogue. I’d like to weigh in.

Before I launch into the points I’m so eager to make, the below paragraph is something of a preamble underlining why you should bother with anything that I express in the first place:
I’m not from Cincinnati, and none of my family grew up here either. I’m a transplant, but I have a very intimate relationship with the Southgate House. I’ve attended shows as a member of the audience. I’ve performed on each of the stages in various musical projects. I’ve served drinks from behind every bar. I’ve come in as a patron to enjoy its character as well as selections from its bourbon list. I’ve played probably 50 games of scrabble against Ross Raleigh over many an afternoon at the Lounge bar while practically playing out “Tennessee Waltz” by Les Paul & Mary Ford on the jukebox. I’ve personally witnessed some of the creepy activity that has led many to swear up and down that the place is haunted. I feel insanely fortunate to count many of its staff among my friends. I’ve had great nights there and I’ve had some pretty tough ones too. Like so many of you, this place—the business, the building, the people, the music—has been a big part of my life and my experiences; it means a lot to me in such a personal way on numerous levels. And while, like many Cincinnatians, I am a fiercely loyal person, I believe the perspective I’m presenting here is not shaped by my devotion. I have laid out my ties to Southgate House to prove I have reason to know what I know, but still I aim to be objective.

In retrospect, I think much of the initial reaction that poured from our community at large in response to the announcement last Monday—the anxiety, urgency, and frustration—was exacerbated by confusion from conflicting details and from a lack of information clearly missing in reported accounts. To be fair, and especially given how important Southgate House is to so many people, I think consistency in message coming from the SGH camp from the onset could have made the news easier to chew on. But things came out as they did in the order in which they did, and the overwhelming response seemed to be one of mourning—of deep sadness. I read things like “This can’t be!” and “What a loss for Cincinnati.” I read statements like “Some of the best shows I’ve ever seen were at Southgate House; there will never be another place like it.”

And we wondered, “Why?” Is it an economical issue? Is it a violation of building code? We now know things came to a head over a dispute between property owners. And to make matters worse, we know the discord occurred betwixt siblings. Family feuds are nasty business; the concept casts such an unpleasant spot on the Southgate saga. Because we aren’t always privy to what happens behind the scenes, we must acknowledge before drawing conclusions that we may be missing crucial information.

I don’t pretend to know a thing besides what’s been published this week, but what I do know is that one of the parties involved, Ross Raleigh, is fundamental to Southgate House being what it is today. It is undeniable how every staff member at SGH has shaped what it has become—among them, a few individuals have had profound effect on SGH’s music model and current shape—but first it was Ross who bought the building and who saw potential and who turned it into a music venue. Ross is a very modest and very humble person, and he would never think to try and make a big deal out of himself even for the sake of some positive PR in the midst of this debacle. The real shame of this is he defines in character exactly why people matter more in the case of what constitutes the Southgate House than its physical location.

The Raleigh clan (Ross plus daughter Morrella (SGH Manager) plus son Kevin) has, despite ups and downs, endeavored to keep the doors open, and still do. Over the years, they have assembled a very smart staff around them who love SGH so much, they put up with some of the most unsavory things one comes across in bar business in order to provide some of the best venue experiences a patron can have night after night. The SGH staff actively work hard to maintain this anchor that is absolutely crucial to the health of our scene.
It hasn’t only been about providing opportunities for local bands, though Southgate House has consistently been one of the most fervent supporters of local music we have; SGH has enriched our local culture by putting national acts in front of us and by striving to operate always as a quality destination. Now is the time they need us, the Cincinnati community—the musicians and the fans—to be there for them and give them our support.

No matter what the politics of the move, leaving a gem like the actual Southgate House building can not possibly be an easy decision. It is tough to lose; ours is not a culture that digests death easily. But this is not the end of the Southgate House. There’s certainly a valid argument to be made regarding the vacation of Richard Southgate’s home forcing a finish to it’s existing legacy, and to that I present the following idea: Southgate House is an amalgamation of a number of elements. It is the brand and the business model, the people who run it and those employed by them, the musicians who come through, the patrons who attend its events and the community that supports it. After all these things it is a building. The very same people who have been working for thirty years to build something of which we are all a part, are taking everything except the physical structure and continuing on in a new location. Without thinking, because it’s been there, we have trusted SGH & Co.’s direction for years. We should trust that these same people will now, with every bit of their energy and all of their resources, do whatever it takes to make the new location as amazing if not even more so that its present home.

And how about some what ifs? Like, what if the new location is actually better for seeing live music? What if structurally it presents fewer problems (SGH is presently patching a leak in the roof)? What if the sound is even better? We haven’t seen it yet, but what if the space is just as cool? It’s true it will not be the same as before—but really, should it be? Change is something we are confronted with in life, sometimes when we really could use consistency instead. What if, especially because it is happening whether we like it or not, we right now conceive of this change as full of possibility? I think we are evolved enough that we can hold something to be forever sacred as it was even while we embrace a new chapter. Furthermore, isn’t it exciting that we get to be a part of the next phase from the very beginning?

It is abundantly clear in reviewing even an iota of the personal responses to “the news”, that everyone has a Southgate story. The thing that is perhaps most beautiful is that we, as this community, can all take ownership of Southgate House. This is our beloved venue. It is we—we, who spent our nights there, who saw great music there, who met our husbands and wives there, who did stupid shots there, who always cared about it even when we moved out of town—who have, interwoven with all the other pieces that make the Southgate House a concept as much as a business and a location, built SGH into something we ache to lose. This is why the threat of Southgate House closing is such a sting.

I encourage everyone who has been touched by this place to continue to think fondly of it. I don’t believe what we each relate to that is deeply personal and what we all share in our collective community is at risk by the venue closing or changing. Not everything is permanent, and it is because of this that our past experiences at Southgate House can be more valuable as memories than projected upon our yet unvisited futures.

One piece I read highlighted input from scene juggernauts Chris Schadler and Dan McCabe, each of whom, having contributed significantly both to the history of Southgate House and to the Cincinnati music scene in general, can offer perspective we should consider. The article includes thoughts from McCabe in which he postulates how national acts might choose to play other cities instead of Cincinnati without SGH in operation. This is a very important notion and I’m glad that he was quoted. Sometimes I worry that even when a community understands to some degree how important a business can be when removed from cultural significance (i.e. in an economical sense), it doesn’t necessarily think of or fully realize what the repercussions of the absence of that business could be. The truth is that Southgate House won’t be gone for long. I’ve spoken with Morrella, Billy and Mike; the SGH office is already hard at work prepping the new location. They have every intention of relaunching as soon as possible, so the very bleak consequences of this venue closing for a long period of time—or for good—are thankfully not going to impact us.

I hope the overall public tone shifts soon to something that more closely resembles anticipation and excitement than brokenheartedness and abandonment. The visionaries behind my favorite venue in the world are promising big things, and I believe them.

Margaret Darling (@m_darling)

Posted by Joe Long   @   5 December 2011 6 comments


Dec 5, 2011
5:32 pm
#1 TheDude :

Good stuff, Margaret. Hey, if the Grand Ole Opry can move from the Ryman, SGH can find new digs too.

So, when will we learn the new location?

Dec 6, 2011
12:08 am
#2 ♠the⭕ther dude♣ :

Yeah, except when the Opry moved it was horrible. The Ryman sat empty and was almost destroyed but now that it’s back it still is home to the real soul of Nashville and American music. I feel like this essay sort of misses the point, ultimately, you just can’t make another Southgate house. My best wishes to the staff on a new endeavor though!

Dec 6, 2011
11:52 am
#3 Another ex-Cincinnatian :

I hope she’s right but my outlook is considerably less optimistic. The heritage and character of that building will be difficult to match, particularly in such a central and visible location – across the street from a popular mall, down the street from Hofbrahaus, within walking/shuttle distance of downtown, etc. Where else in Cincy could such a place exist? It’s the best venue in Cincinnati for many reasons, and finding an equal combination of qualities will be very difficult, if they move.

Dec 13, 2011
10:14 am
#4 euro60 :

Great article Margaret!

Can’t wait to find out where the new digs will be located and to check out live music there.

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