Harvey J Graff

Part One (of Four)

Unlike those of any other U.S. city of its size, and certainly its slogan-dominated, boosterish aspirations, residents of Columbus have few legal rights and fewer ethical democratic rights. I write as a privileged member of the community, a homeowner, retired professional, taxpayer, and voter. Many others lack my privileges. They have even fewer rights. The City of Columbus has no inclusive urban vision, no focus on the public, especially those in need, other than private interests and developers.

The contradictions of Columbus past and present require a long book. I can only highlight some of the major ones here. Refer to my continuing series of Columbus Free Press columns (listed at end of this essay and available on the website) as well as Kevin Cox’s Boomtown Columbus (2021), the only documented, book-length study of the 220-year-old city. I ask rhetorically: Does the 14th largest city in the nation deserve to have a thoroughly researched, fact-based history—not the fictitious and trivial version expressed always without context in Columbus Dispatch and on WOSU?

A long view

Columbus’ denial of residents’ rights is historically founded and grounded. By explicit design of its elected, appointed, and corporate rulers, in 2022, it remains an unreformed, mid-19th-century city. Unlike any other U.S. city of its size and any significance, Columbus never had a representative city council. Closely interrelated, it has long been a “boomtown for sale” with an underdeveloped conception of “the public.”

The recent, tiny, side step for at-large elected members to be vaguely “responsible for communications” in arbitrarily defined “districts” that did not elect them is an insult to the electorate. Several councilors’ assertions that this meaningless dodge-and-feint makes the city “more democratic” should disqualify them from holding office.

Not only an undemocratic relic of two centuries ago, Columbus is committed to the denial of professionalism and expertise. As Cox and several journalists have documented, developers and large, corporate business interests rule the city, shaping it in countless ways. Their often unqualified, paid consultants substitute inadequately and partisanly for city planners and other research units and evaluators.

Traveling around the city provides confirmation, for example, in the lack of repaired streets, sidewalks, public and private structures, sanitation, public health, and public safety. Visitors to the city who venture beyond The Arnold Sports Classic, the Memorial Golf Tournament, or an Ohio State University home football game immediately comment on this failure. They see a dirty city in disrepair. Columbus is also marked by the plethora of too-narrow, two-way streets and race-course-busy avenues that should be one-way and controlled. It is unhealthy and dangerous. Note that construction sites in other cities, including New York City, are required to keep surrounding sidewalks and streets in repair. Not in Columbus.

Central to this issue, Columbus is the only city in its size range that does not employ a professional city manager. No one I have asked inside or outside City Hall can explain to me why this denial of reality persists in 2022. Internally and externally, disorganization and disconnection, unacceptably poor internal and external communications, and general isolation from its taxpaying constituents characterize the City. No policies or programs are systemic or systematic. Any doubters should begin with the website or try to have a question answered.

The problem entered the public sphere recently when the media exposed Mayor Ginther’s office unethically lobbying the body “studying” pay raises for the part-time City Councilors and the mayor when almost no city services operate functionally and the City cannot retain talented staff. When queried, the mayor’s office attempted to distract by commenting, after all, Columbus has no city manager. This is offensive to the public and misleading.  Andy Ginther makes no effort to “manage” the city. He repeatedly demonstrates his unfamiliarity with it. Weekly luxury lunches with his now-lobbyist predecessor, Michael Coleman, do not count as “managing.”

There is no recognition of how this looks and plays to the public at a time when urgent needs are not met throughout the city. These include police, welfare services, the schools, and the physical city and its infrastructure.

A few City Council legislative aides communicate with me professionally and civicly, along with some department representatives. One came to my home a year ago to explain to whom I should direct questions and comments, confirming that it is impossible to extract that information from the City’s website. Most in City government do not acknowledge my communications at all, including the mayor and his office.

Department heads in Public Safety and Public Service refuse to answer direct questions. They will not explain how their policies are developed and implemented without following written procedures including notice to City Hall departments, the police, and the public. The City Attorney’s office informs me that they may “at their discretion” ignore my direct questions about facts and practices that ignore established procedures, including seeking public input and review and publicizing actions not only to the public but also to City Council and Columbus Police.

These practices, admitted and secretive, uniformly favor private interests and undercut the public. That is unacceptable, indeed intolerable.

No one will address the near total lack of research and expertise throughout City Hall. There is no professional, knowledgeable city planning, or zoning, or code review and enforcement. Council and mayoral slogans and decisions are based on astonishingly little. The City displays this concretely in its artificially defined and contradictorily mapped-out “areas.”

Decades of nonresponsiveness

Over decades and especially the last few years, Columbus responds to some of these criticisms with incomplete and distracting substitutes for democratic institutions and public involvement. The major examples are the Area Commissions, which purport to substitute for representative city government at the level of artificially drawn “neighborhoods.” Commissions in turn appear in multiple, overlapping forms.

Supplementing them are periodic flurries of unclear, undefined, and never fully implemented plans, “districts,” and zones. The last 50 years of Franklinton’s history exemplify this chaotic and contradictory set of malpractices. This sometimes occurs with no coordination between City departments, Council, and Area Commissions.

None of these inconsistent actions and reactions meets the needs they pretend to address. They become arenas of distraction in a war of slogans where local personalities may act out while missing the major action on the ground. The University District, Franklinton, Linden, and Hilltop illustrate these patterns.

In the shadows of democracy

City governance

Contrary to written rules, City Council and committee meetings are not always announced in advance or open to public viewing or participation. The City Attorney recently ordered the City to clarify its actions on open and closed meetings and executive sessions.

Meeting notices do not include agendas, lists of issues or questions, or background. Calls for testimony or comment provide no information or organization. They are symbolic charade, a mascarade of politics. Council barely functions amid a maze of largely undefined and overlapping, even redundant committees. It is impossible to identify individual or multiple councilors’ specialties or responsibilities, if any. There is no place for expertise or a fusion of interests into a functional operation, let alone a vision or visions of the city as a whole.

Not quite “open” or “discussion” meetings with no agenda or organization are announced too many times. But summaries never appear. As a homeowning, taxpaying, voting citizen who is neither a campaign contributor, developer, nor corporation, I cannot speak to a councilor, only to those aides who care to respond to my communications.

Each Council member touts special projects from tens of thousands to millions of dollars. I have never seen statements of recipients’ qualifications; developed programs, budgets, or timetables; or conflicts of interest of either Council sponsors or beneficiaries. I cannot discern their connections or degree of success or failure. At the same time, typically with no explanation, Councilors and their agents routinely reject public initiative proposals that meet all stated legal requirements.

In the same vein, the mayor rambles on about his commitment to a never-defined “equity,” but does not join the national Mayors’ Committee on Racial Equity (MORE). Neither he nor his office responds to my question: Why? Columbus—public and private—is a buzzword and slogan city. I have argued that not only does the city have no overall, foundational, or recognized identity, but that it is not really a functional, capital-C city. No one has challenged me.

The taxpaying and (low turnout) voting “public” is never central to the conception or the operations of the City of Columbus. That is not the Columbus Way.

The lack of reliable city services ranges from 311 complaint reporting to zoning inspection and enforcement, trash, parking, police, and basic communications.

On the other hand, each City Councilor across their disconnected, overlapping, and uncoordinated rat’s nest of committees and subcommittees lacking relevant expertise awards grants and creates reduced-tax or tax-exempt status for both for-profit and nonprofit groups and large public and corporate private interests ranging in size from tens of thousands to $30-40 million. Never are these aspirational, slim prospectuses accompanied by detailed plans, firm budgets, and timetables. No periodic review and no established criteria exist by which projects may be assessed and held accountable.

Due diligence and close vetting do not occur. I call this business-as-usual practice by each Councilor and mayor “riding their own hobbyhorse.” It represents its own subheading of governing without responsibility or accountability. Although some legislative aides take issue with my choice of terms, none dispute the fundamentals of my argument.

This, once again, is the Columbus Way. The opportunity-for-the-few, minority rule, undemocratic city.

Area Commissions

Take as an example my neighborhood’s self-appointed, self-perpetuating University Area Commission and its collateral wings including design review boards and the like. Not once in almost 19 years of residence and homeownership have I been asked to vote on UAC representatives or leadership. I receive no communications.

The UAC did nothing to prevent or even slow what I have explained as the “destruction of the University District” by the City, Ohio State University, and the large developers; and zoning inspectors’, enforcement’s, and Columbus Police Department’s collusion and unresponsiveness. The UAC’s rare public utterances are uninformed. Long-time commission heads perpetuate myths of a “golden age” and “decline from utopia” (that never existed) in books published by vanity publishers.

The UAC also allowed OSU to paint a false public face of commitment to its adjacent off-campus district, historically home to leadership, faculty, staff, and students. At the same time, OSU’s nonprofit, private development arm actively facilitated the transformation of Weinland Park and High Street abutting campus to a developer’s haven. OSU and its Campus Partners abandoned the University District that it depends on for upper-division student housing with no oversight or safeguards of the students. Frankly, I have no idea what the UAC actually does or whom they profess to represent. It is certainly not older, long-persisting homeowners or younger student tenants.


My thanks to Kevin Cox, Bob Eckhart, Ed Efsic, Rebecca Hunley, Kay Bea Jones, Bill Lyons, Ellen Manovich, Joe Mas, Joe Motil, Michael Wilkos, and unnamed staff members of City of Columbus, CPD commanders, officers, and Internal Affairs inspectors.

Further reading

Columbus’ identity crisis and its media

The decline of a once vital neighborhood: Columbus’ University District

Notes on current politics in Columbus and Ohio: Thoughts in response to questions from my editor

OSU isn’t having a crime crisis; it’s having a leadership crisis

Response to Columbus Alive, ‘The list: Reasons that Columbus Underground opinion piece is trash,’ by Andy Downing and Joel Oliphint, Columbus Alive, July 26: A visit to journalism fantasy land

‘Update’ to Ohio State isn’t having a crime crisis

Columbus city government is undemocratic and disorganized: It’s 2021 and we need a revolution

Columbus searches for its Downtown with historical, urbanist, and developers’ blinders

Columbus, Ohio, searches to be a city: The myth of the Columbus Way

Ohio State versus ‘campus safety’

Is Columbus really a city?

Columbus isn’t Cowtown or Silicon Valley Heartland; it’s the lawless, wild-wild-Midwest

How Columbus, Ohio State University, and major developers destroyed a historic neighborhood, Part One

How Columbus, Ohio State University, and major developers destroyed a historic neighborhood, Part Two

How Columbus, Ohio State University, and major developers destroyed a historic neighborhood—A continuing saga

My short life as a ‘civic leader’ in the directionless maze called the City of Columbus, Part One

My short life as a ‘civic leader’ in the directionless maze called the City of Columbus, Part Two

Franklinton, 1797-2022 and Columbus’ Contradictions, Part 1

Franklinton, 1797-2022 and Columbus’ Contradictions, Part 2

How the Harvard Business School and the Columbus Way attempt to enrich each other: Lessons in the promiscuous relationships between Columbus’ private interests and an elite university’s profiteering,” with Bob Eckhart

An open letter to Kenny McDonald, new head of the ‘Columbus Partnership’


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 on social history, the history of literacy and education, and interdisciplinarity, he writes about the history and contemporary condition of higher education 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 is published by Palgrave Macmillan this summer.