OTRVIEW: Levi Bethune of Simple Space
When I first got to know Levi Bethune, I asked him to describe the character of Cincinnati – a question that he answers fully in this OTRVIEW – and he answered the question along these lines: “Cincinnati is that guy with a secret history. He’s dope and has been around. He’s a no-drama, genuine every-man with secrets and stories and scars that he doesn’t show off.” His response is one of my favorite answers to that question that I’ve ever heard and I ask that question a lot.
Levi is moving with his wife Heather and four children from a house in Northern Kentucky to a mixed-use building at 16 E. 13th Street between Vine and Walnut Streets to live and operate an on-demand pop-up retail space called Simple Space. Today, Simple Space launched a fundraising campaign to raise $12,000. You can learn more and contribute to the campaign here.
You appreciate Over-the-Rhine. When did you first learn about and/or experience OTR?
“I really want to buy a huge plot of land in the country, build a yurt, and raise goats.” This is what my wife, Heather, said to me when I told her I wanted to move from our rental house in Bellevue, KY, to the urban neighborhood of Over The Rhine. We’ve both come a long way from that conversation.
I came to Cincinnati for work, but my job downtown at Epipheo is more than just “work.” That company is made up of people who care about each other and are deeply invested in the livelihoods of one another’s families. So, moving because of work was more like moving because of life. It was a whirlwind transition: one that had us sell our fenced-in, 3-bedroom, suburban house in Fredericksburg, VA–one we had bought not even a year earlier–and travel through the Blue Ridge Mountains with a moving truck and 3 kids into apartment life in the “Greater Cincinnati Area.” (And we all know that when someone says, “The Greater Cincinnati Area” they mean “Northern Kentucky.”)
It was my bus commute into, and through, downtown that sparked my love for the urban life I’d never known, but often envied. Before I owned my bike, I would get off the bus early in the morning on 4th and Vine St and take the long way to work by meandering through alleyways and across squares, filling up my Instagram feed as I went. I was romanced by Cincinnati, daily. I needed to live in the heart of it all, and I would settle for nothing less. It all made sense to me. I ignored the fact that my wife did not share that same privilege.
Heather wanted to “get away” and have a place for adventure and refreshment. I value those things as well, and I know they’re good for our family, but I couldn’t stand to live that far removed from other people. We both recognized that if we wanted to be a part of a growing and vibrant culture we had to be right in the middle of it, but we also loved the wilderness and the outdoors. We were torn.
It wasn’t until we had a series of conversations together about what we wanted to accomplish as a family–communicating and translating love to people–that we realized we would be most effective and alive as humans when we are around other humans. Not just goats. We realized that our previous life in the suburbs, with the fences and the long driveways, not only distanced us from our neighbors, but also separated us as family members. We dedicated to living in a space that pushed us. A space that pushed us closer together, as well as out into the world for adventure.
Maybe Over The Rhine isn’t the perfect place for us to fully live into our family vision, but we see the neighborhood in the middle of an exciting renaissance, and we want to be right in the middle of it all. The stalwart residents as well as the people who are flocking to OTR and Downtown are the folks that believe in streets made for people and cities made for families. That’s the kind of neighborhood I want to raise my kids in as I prepare them for the world.
Our family perspective is not unique, but it’s also not mainstream. I think that’s okay, and I believe Cincinnati embraces that sentiment. Now we just need to find a way to keep goats in our backyard.
How did you find your building?
With all the property being shuffled around in OTR, you’d think that it was through a network of connected people who knew a guy who knew a girl, but it wasn’t–it was Craigslist.
We were searching for a multi-family, mixed-use building south of Liberty that didn’t need huge structural changes. You roll your eyes. We did too. So, we broadened our search to include West End and Prospect Hill. We found houses in West End that met some of our criteria, but we felt like we were compromising. We also reminded ourselves that we didn’t have to move–this was a choice. We limited our search, once again, to South OTR.
And then she found it. Heather was skimming through Craigslist, found the listing, set up a time to look at it, and we made an offer. We weren’t the only ones. The seller had multiple offers, all of which were from investors. But we had the upper hand. We brought our adorable family to the showing. We also had him over our home for dinner, told him about what we wanted to do with the building, and how it fit into our plan as a family. We can neither confirm or deny that this affected his decision on who to sell to. 🙂
What are you doing to your building?
You know what they say, “Home is where the $85/mo parking space is.” Literally no one says that. But that’s our new reality.
Our building on 13th Street will be our home, except we haven’t moved yet. In fact, we haven’t even truly started the big renovations. We have been waiting on permits from the city for the past 5 months. It’s hard to be patient, and it’s hard not to feel like the city I want so desperately to be in, doesn’t want me.
We realize that being a family in Over The Rhine is not a common thing, and maybe that’s why it’s so alluring to us. I’m not ignorant to the fact that it’s going to be hard. Since announcing that we’re moving to OTR, other families have come out of the woodwork, and we’re thrilled to be living around the corner from some amazing people like the McEwans and the Morrows. We’re very excited to use the sidewalk as our front porch, Vine Street as our dining room (I’m looking at you Taste of Belgium), Washington Park as our backyard, and Coffee Emporium as… well, everything else. The thing I’m really looking forward to is having the opportunity to finally bring a dream of mine to OTR: Simple Space.
What is Simple Space? How do you see it adding to the life of the neighborhood?
Simple Space was born out of my love for the limited. I love when a product or an experience has a finite number or an expiration date. Simple Space is an empty box that will play host to such experiences.
I’ve been inspired by Final Friday, Second Sunday on Main, and of course, The City Flea. The way those platforms allow small-batch, single-run, limited-edition, unique humans to sell their wares is how I hope Simple Space will operate.
Every small vendor I talk to would love to have a storefront, “Someday,” they say. But, unanimously, the objection is long-term lease pricing. Simple Space will not be long-term, in fact, we won’t let you stay too long. We aim to provide a low-risk, high-reward, multi-use pop-up shop retail shell in order to show love to vendors, and the people of Cincinnati. For now, Simple Space is the venue for that.
Blink, and you’ll miss it. We want to keep the neighborhood on their toes, but honestly, I don’t think OTR has a problem with that as it is.
What’s the mural on the side of your building?
Funny story–if “funny” is the right word for it. I go one evening to check on the renovations of the building and see that someone had tagged our back wall. Bummer. Ever since the fence was torn down during the brush removal in the lot next door, people have been doing all manner of things in our backyard. Graffiti was the least of my worries, but it made me realize that this empty wall is an unintended public canvas. So I invited an artist.
I tossed out some feelers on the social network machine and got connected with Danny “Gamble” with Higher Level Art through a network of Instagram friends. Danny asked me what our family liked, and told him my kids’ favorite superhero was the Incredible Hulk. Not surprisingly, the Hulk is also the character my 3-year-old son involuntarily emulates when it’s time for naps.
The mural of “The Incredible Gamble” facing Vine Street next to the new Mercer Commons Garage was intended to be a gift to Cincinnati, much like the brilliant ArtWorks murals that decorate our city. However, a local development corporation must have felt a swelling sense of ownership on all they saw, because my friends caught them in the act of painting over Danny’s art with a thick layer of taupe-colored paint. Maybe they felt the “No Trespassing” signs flanking the artwork only applied to the hoodlums who painted it in the first place? Who knows? They aren’t returning my calls.
The irony here is that the development corporation felt they were doing the right thing by trespassing on my property and painting over commissioned artwork. The reality is that they were the vandals. It makes me sad of course, but it also makes me realize that my expression of love was not felt by everyone. Just because I loved it, and I believed others would, doesn’t mean that everyone did. There’s a lesson in there, I’m sure, but meanwhile, the visually-rich, masterfully painted Hulk on the 1300 block of Vine Street has a bland, stale, uninvited collaboration effort. There’s a lesson in there, as well.
What is the character of Cincinnati?
I really love this town and I love talking about how much I love this town. I’ve lived a few places, but Cincinnati feels like what a hometown should feel like.
My wife and I grew up in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, VA, moved to Charlotte, NC, then went up to the DC area, and finally landed here in The (real) Queen City. I’ve spent some time in New York City, LA, San Fransisco, San Diego, Dallas, Nashville, Indianapolis, and Salt Lake City as well, but never lived there with a wife and kids.
It’s stereotyping, sure, but I like to imagine cities as high school personalities. Each city has it’s own qualities–good and bad–that makes it a place people want to live in, or in this comparison, hang out with.
There’s the trust-fund brat who is more concerned their wardrobe than the fact that they smoke. The brash, street-smart, tattooed city clashes with the jock with the thick southern drawl. There’s the kid who is so talented and so ambitious, and is always telling everyone about it. And then there’s the really weird kid that is always into something different, and then abandoning it once someone else picks it up. There’s a city who wears the polo shirt and gets good grades, and a sunnier one who wears those same polos, but pops the collar and adds white-frame sunglasses to bring out their tan.
I love each of these cities because they are cities–places for humans to live and grow–and while I didn’t call them by the names I had in my head, I’m sure you can imagine what was intended.
Who is Cincinnati? They are the kid that no one picks first; the kid that packs their own lunch, works quietly on what will become the blue ribbon science fair project, knows all the teachers names, and has a mustard stain on their shirt, but doesn’t care. Cincinnati is the kid that has the ability to be friends with everyone, but doesn’t fake interest in order to be liked. Confident, but not arrogant. Awkward, but likeable. Behind the fashion and accessory trends, but they’re OK with it. That’s who you secretly wish you had the guts to be like.
That’s who I would want to hang out with.