Harvey J Graff

Part One

On Wednesday, September 28, after an early morning medical appointment, I planned a day of writing, punctuated by coffee with a friend and my daily walk. I have books and essays in progress. Instead, I spent most of the day emailing and responding to city staff—that minority with the courtesy even to acknowledge my communications—and talking on the phone with one department head who attempts to explain to a confused resident what specifically his neighborhoods department actually does.

I began with my regular requests/reminders to a long list of City Council legislative aides; members of the City Attorney’s office; and various department heads to respond, or at least confirm receipt, to a growing roster of basic City issues, City failures, and criminal offenses especially in my residentially-zoned University District. The University District is not unique.

The list ranges from the failures to police behavior, traffic, and parking; zoning code enforcement; conduct trash collection and preserve sanitation; regulate scooters and short-term lease vehicles; enforce noise ordinance; and respond according to the law to overflowing, out-of-control drunken parties on weekends and especially on OSU game days.

These issues fall between the cavernous cracks within the parts of the City government that lacks a whole or a center. The Columbus Way dictates that no one is in control, and that no one takes responsibility. Despite the efforts of a few excellent department heads, Columbus fails. In “real” cities, combination and coordination among city managers and mayors who actually lead with policy and oversight, not slogans without substance, is the expected practice.

In Columbus, only those who pay the off-tune pipers escape abandonment and expect legal, not extralegal treatments. They own the Short North, increasingly the banks of the once naturally-preserved banks of the Scioto River, and now grab land among the Metro Parks, and fantasize about a wholly fictitious dream of downtown that ignores the unplanned and inhumane street and parking lot anti-system.

Some call this pay for play, others point to systemic conflicts of interest; yet another point of view exposes practices that range from visible grifting to corruption, the 21st century Ohio Way. The non-daily, non-news-paper Columbus Dispatch permits only one reporter to actually report on the City. Many more business and political reporters reprint dishonest corporate, City Hall, and State government press releases as if they were accurate or honest.

Columbus’ for-profit (but rarely profiting) media and both public and private institutions are actively complicit in the abandonment of its taxpaying residents, subscribing, and commercial-viewing audience. There is no daily public-oriented journalism in Columbus. Ohio State University closed its reputable School of Journalism decades ago at the demands of the Dispatch owning Wolfe family.

My household, my neighbors—especially older long term homeowners, taxpayers, and voters--but also student tenants who are not told their rights or responsibilities and are systematically cheated by a number of landlords (about which OSU and the City Attorney are well informed)—are abandoned by the City of Columbus, Columbus Police Department (CPD), and OSU. The students and their long-term neighbors are also abandoned by many of the landlords whose properties and profits come solely from the City of Columbus’ granting variances to the zoning regulation of a historic, attractive, residential district.

We have no reliable public safety, law enforcement, traffic and parking regulation, reliable and knowledgeable responses to non-emergency but still serious calls to CPD, zoning or trash enforcement, or public investment in our infrastructure. Indianola and Lane Aves. are race tracks with nary an officer in sight. Respect for red lights, stop walks, and stop signs, as well as parking rules is worse than a crap shot. Personal crime and theft are rampant. OSU does next to nothing but sloganeer. Along with most of the city, the University District is dangerous and dirty. Both homeowners and students pay for their lack of privilege and abandonment.

During football season, my major focus is on landlords’ and CPD’s, along with too many but far from all of my student neighbor tenants’ conclusion—as stated explicitly to me by a CPD officer on Saturday  Sept. 24:” violating the law is ‘reasonable behavior’ for student tenants on weekends in general and particularly on football game days.” My complaint at that time centered on dozens of drunken students partying on a high roof top (illegal, against leases, and very dangerous); huge free-alcohol-serving party without permit; illegal structures and facilities without permit; and excessively loud violation of noise ordinances.

Neither CPD nor OSU’s far too few Buckeye Block Watches or joint patrols with CPD are pro-active or even visible. Although much-touted by OSU, I have never seen them near my mid-University District home. OSU’s Chief of Campus Safety promises to explain this to me.

Not surprisingly, this is a familiar story of tragic, sometimes life-threatening (or even life-taking) neglect, tolerated by the law, “public servants” and elected officials, and the university. For years, out-of-control, law-breaking NorthSteppe Realty properties on Indianola Avenue lead. NorthSteppe owner, Michael Stickney, his managers, and “attorney” all know this. So do CPD; City Attorney, City Zoning, City Refuse; and OSU Student Life. Year-in, year-out, student renters change. Nothing else changes, other than the fact that conditions worsen over my 18 years of living here.

OSU does nothing to protect students or other University District residents on football or any other weekends.

CPD, the property owners, Student Life, and the drunken students don’t care. They have abandoned those who pay their often inflated salaries and rents by taxes, tuition, and monthly payments.

Why should I care? I do. So do my neighbors and, increasingly, students with whom I speak almost daily. We join in the swelling ranks of the Columbus abandoned populations who are learning the terms and causes of their sometimes illegal abandonment and the profit-taking that underlies it.

Unlike too many 20-24 years and most of the largest landlords, CPD, OSU, and City Council, my concerns lie with both the well-being and safety of the young people and the older homeowners, as well as with violations of the law and collapse of orderliness, civility, and neighborliness in a historic area that is zoned residential, not Brutus Buckeye Land or Drunk and Destructive Noise World.

Some police know this; a number do not. Of course, even CPD leaders admit that officers are not well trained, the force is short-staffed (owing to the mayor’s and City Council president’s actions and inactions), ranks among the US’s worst forces for the low percentage of officers (along with City Hall staff) who live in the city they are paid to serve. Publically forgotten is the fact that CPD remains under active investigation for racial discrimination in policing by the US Department of Justice...

My former CPD district commander urged me to file internal affairs complaints about police failures. I did. I met at length with sympathetic, knowledgeable, and responsible officers in my dining room. (They all told me that they did not know when they might be transferred without explanation, another CPD feature). They filed reports and cautioned me that I might not have a response for as long as 9-10 months.

I received notices of dismissal without investigation or explanation for all complaints in less than one month. Abandoned by higher levels of my tax-supported public police force.

When I inquired to the internal affairs officers, they apologized and commented, “some are hearing you.” Who is that? Not the officers on the beat or their chiefs and assistant chiefs. I am not convinced, comforted, or relieved.

My home owning neighbors and I do not request or expect silence from the 20-24 year olds. We know their age and stage of growing up. We too once were college juniors and seniors. I politely but clearly and in person for moderation and respect for neighbors including fellow students who are studying rather than playing beer-pong and drunkenly running in and out of well-trafficked, unregulated streets.

I talk with them about having fun responsibly. They understand far better than CPD, Student Life, landlords, or their drunken parents on game days, parents’ weekends, or Homecoming. Recently I am learning that drunken fathers on game days are a much greater threat than their children. I have been verbally threatened recently not by young adults but my middle-aged drunks.

OSU Student Life’s division of Parent-Student Relations and Greek “Life” does nothing to discourage intergenerational drunkenness and out-of-control behavior. In my view, their events—and their timing--and silence in refusing to respond to my direct questions exacerbate matters.

Most student tenants to whom I speak directly, and respectfully, understand and make good faith efforts to comply with me and the law. Many of them appreciate our neighborliness and respect for them. Conditions have actually changed behaviorally and audibly on the several blocks that abut our corner house. They make it clear that no one else apprises them of either laws or expectations. No one.

Try as I do, and I am making more and more 20-24 year old friends, I cannot substitute for multi-million dollar Student Life with its 11 associate vice presidents and 30 departments, mostly without definitions or descriptions. Or OSU Campus Safety or CPD, let alone Columbus Zoning, Refuse, Private (aka Public) Services, or Neighborhoods Engagement.

Note: See my continuing series of Columbus Free Press essays especially on the University District, OSU, and the City of Columbus for background, details, and references.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author of many books, he writes about a variety of contemporary and historical topics for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current; Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies was published by Palgrave Macmillan in August. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.