Harvey J Graff

The city with no identity, no history, no leadership, and no expertise adds to its uniqueness—and lack of distinction—by its assault on most of its residents in most of it “neighborhoods.” Unlike most cities, Columbus seldom refers to itself as a “city of neighborhoods.” That is a clue to follow through the decaying broken streets and sidewalks, full of trash, zoning violations, and limited mass public transit. (See the Columbus Free Press website for my relevant essays.)

In my University District, fraternities that actively harm the area “adopt the area.”  That means paying a small fee to the for-profit/eering city departments to post a metal sign that further defaces the physical environment. “Area,” of course, is never defined. Where is the department of neighborhood protective services, like children or animals?

The sad slogan is “making Columbus beautiful.” Its parallel is city councilor-led very occasional “beautification” events of a few hours of individuals picking up trash. This substitutes for both funding and managing reliable recycling, trash collection, and inspection for violations. In others, slogans not public services.

On whom it the joke? Not the permanent residents, especially the taxpayers. Yet it replaces policy, action, funding, and accountability in a city operated by people who have no familiarity with it.

More than most US cities, Columbus’ avowed “neighborhoods” are a mélange of often contradictorily defined and zoned geographical districts; self-declared entities, some of them not “neighborhoods” by any accepted definition; a small number of blocks defending their private property-owning majority by petitioning successfully to be an undefined, nebulous, and undemocratic “area commission” with rights to restrict the area; or at worse the City of Columbus-Ohio State University public relations operation, called “University District Organization,” which is not a “district” at all but a jumble of thirteen “neighborhoods,” most of which do not meet any recognized definition of that rhetorical term. Similarly, the Short North is less a “neighborhood” each year with longer term residents forced out by developers working in collusion with the City.

Search the City’s websites; different “neighborhoods,” “areas,” and “commissions; and in some cases, Wikipedia for maps of boundaries and definitions. Very few agree. The City and the amateur, non- or anti-research self-described and self-published “historians” seldom are on the “same page.”

Is it an accident that the City’s tiny Neighborhood Engagement’s department “arranges meetings” and has difficulty stating its mission? Or that the Departments of Zoning and Neighborhoods, and Public Service refuse to enforce the written city code and therefore actively damage the areas that stand for neighborhoods in Columbus? No.

There’s no money in it for them or City Council and mayor. That’s the long-term Columbus Way, elevated by ex-mayor but now more powerful Michael Coleman and followed by his incumbent protégé Ginther, the master of conflict of interests who blames his own staff for any errors that fall within his responsibility.

Key factors that shape City government and leadership combine to demean, diminish, and damage neighborhoods and “neighborhoods.” At the largest level, Columbus’ more than century-and-a-half out-of-date at-large, unrepresentative and undemocratic City Council dictates that no geographic area can be heard directly. Speaking personally, I have no representation with seven at-large councilors.

The upcoming increase to nine members with seven districts and a superficial layering of pseudo-districts only for communications is a fraudulent insult to all residents of the city. The sitting councilors who wax on in purple rhetoric may be fooling themselves—but no one else. Are they simply dishonest? Take your pick. It really doesn’t matter. While developers and corporations purchase their hearing and influence, the public cannot.

Self-appointed and self-perpetuating, fraudulent pockets of naked self-interest called “area or district commissions” substitute undemocratically for representative urban governance. But these people only represent themselves, not their neighborhoods or “neighborhoods” of a few blocks.

The City’s neglect of neighborhoods, however defined, combines sins of omission and commission. In practice in such a disorganized city government that lacks expertise at all ranks especially in urban planners and traffic engineers, neglect and malfeasance are often hard to distinguish. Unless, that is, we identify conflict of interest, violation of the City’s own laws, and corruption.

On the one hand, there is the disorganized, mismanaged structure of City departments without leadership, expertise, resources, or communication, except perhaps for the illegal and extra-legal profiteering elements of the Public Service Division, which I renamed Private Service. From organizational structure to internal and external communications, the City of Columbus cannot be charted or diagrammed. It literally defies description. Senior and junior staff, elected and appointed, all agree but nothing is done.

On the other hand, there is the dysfunctionality and ignorance of the publics of City Council, led by Mayor, President (one of seven!), and Chief of Staff. In proposals and votes, they honor their silent or secret oath to the Columbus Way: private over public, and disregard and disrespect for the complicated multiple rights and needs of the publics in a city nearing one million in population.

Across the city, Columbus undermines most of its geographic areas by

1) neglecting its publics for sake of private corporations and developers who maintain their influence with contributions and other strategies (often in the form of paid advice aka consultants who are far from independent or impartial). There is no accountability;

2) refusal to fund city services adequately, and squandering tax, state, and federal funds with tax abatements, TIFs, and direct grants, never with measures of accountability, to their supporting private and pseudo-public interests;

3) refusal of city departments to enforce the laws and codes for which they are legally responsible;

4) radical neglect of the physical city especially streets, sidewalks, utilities, and required inspection of structures;

5) favoritism toward the undistinguished and declining Short North, much of Victorian and German Village(s), and the northern part of Clintonville (home of mayor, City Attorney, councilors);

6) active assault on historic neighborhoods by City, property owners, and in two areas Ohio State University—University District, Weinland Park, and Franklinton;

7) active neglect especially in minority majority Linden, Hilltop, Northland, among others.

Follow the city-wide physical clues, just as visitors to Columbus who venture beyond The Arnold Steroid Classic in the Convention Center and the suburban Jack Nicklaus promoted The Memorial golf tournament, or perhaps an OSU home football game, do regularly. Visitors consistently remark and ask questions about the state of the city. Our elected and appointed “leaders” do not.

  1. Severely cracked, broken, and dangerous streets and sidewalks, dangerous to all parties fill the city and especially its residential areas. Public Service does not inspect, enforce, or repair despite legal mandates. In my University District, both older homeowners and students regularly fall on broken pavement.
  2. Houses visibly broken or damaged, or with illegal signage in clearly visible violation of city codes are not inspected, fined, or ordered to make repairs even when they are reported to 311 and Zoning Enforcement. They mark and mar much of the city.
  3. Streets are filled with rampant illegally dangerous driving by cars, trucks, bicycles, and electric scooters with the latter two often on sidewalks despite city laws. Few laws are enforced by any agency in unsafe, dangerous Columbus. In an earlier essay, I referred to the “wild, wild Midwest” state capital, Columbus, Ohio. This is exacerbated by Amazon and FedEx (but not USPS or UPS) delivery trucks parking in the middle of streets or otherwise parking illegally with impunity even when there is space to park. When asked to move, drivers alternatively swear at residents and/or announce falsely that they have police permission.
  4. Inadequate, misleading, and sometime incorrect traffic, street signs, and directions promote confusion and accidents.
  5. Many streets are far too narrow for two-way driving and parking on both sides. Clintonville and Franklinton are major, dangerous examples. In Franklinton and downtown, streets stop, start, and actually move one block or more. There is no evidence of professional city planning or traffic engineering anywhere in the city.
  6. Incomplete bicycle lanes inconsistently stop and start; bicycles continue to compete with motor vehicles.
  7. Public mass transit remains inadequate for a city of Columbus’ size and economic-demographic diversity.
  8. Traffic regulation is regularly disobeyed: from red lights to stop lights to turn signals and pedestrian crosswalks. Disobedience seems to be all but a curricular requirement for OSU students in my neighborhood.
  9. There is a visible absence of police patrolling and supervision of traffic in any form, other than occasionally for OSU football games and The Arnold Body-Building Classic. Street clearance of illegal parking on game days has declined significantly in recent years.
  10. The visible frequency of vehicular crashes is not reported by City, CPD, or local media unless there are severe injuries, deaths, or stolen vehicles especially by teenagers.
  11. Police and OSU misrepresent and exaggerate their “regular patrolling” in neighborhoods. CPD-OSU’s much promoted “joint patrols” inexplicably ignore the most frequently reported violations of the law—noise, drunk and disorderliness, illegal structures, and the like. They are also not connected with the Non-Emergency reporting system.
  12. CPD neglects residential areas more generally. While hiding his badge, an officer told me in September 2022, “Breaking the law is reasonable behavior on game days.” His superiors merely nodded while fellow officers were shocked.
  13. Unlike their predecessors, my new CPD Zone commander and her community liaison in northeastern Zone 4 refuse to speak to me. They find my expectation that the laws be enforced to be inappropriate, and “see no need to speak with” me.
  14. Lack of and confusing parking, worsened by

a. Public Service’s removal of clearly designated parking spaces and meters, and replacement with confusing and difficult to use for-pay apps (that do not work in the private lots that dominate downtown), and reduction of handicapped and seniors parking in the process.

b. Replacement of clearly visible stickers on vehicles with apps to be purchased for permit parking with no public or police consultation. This makes it almost impossible for either police or residents to identify legal and illegally parked vehicles.

  1. Public Services’ decision to sell—without public input—City Council approval, or consultation with police—permission for short-term lease vehicles (Free2Drive or Free2Lease, for example) to leave vehicles like litter in the spaces already sold to residential permit parking permit purchasers.
  2. Relatedly, Public Services sells with no approval, public, or police notification of rights for short-term rented electric scooters to be left not on sidewalks blocking pedestrians, handicapped, strollers, and carriages. These City actions violate the City’s own legal codes. My formal and informal complaints are ignored at the department, council, and ethics office levels. The Council Chief of Staff orders councilors and legislative aides not to communicate with me. Is this legal? No one will say.
  3. The assistant city attorney who serves as liaison to Columbus Police misreads court cases and misadvises CPD not to chalk tires or windows so they can track the duration of illegal parking in order to enforce the law. Both residents and CPD officers find this unacceptable. The City Attorney’s Office has no problem with this.
  4. The same person tells CPD officers to lie about the impound lot being full when it is not. As a result, they cannot enforce the law by towing blatantly illegal vehicles.
  5. Almost all areas suffer from a severe shortage of affordable housing. Mayor and City Council proffer slogans but commit public funds and approve tax abatements for private developers to build complexes that include an insufficient number and percentage of truly affordable housing units. The definition of affordability is itself a political game with disregard to the human lives at stake. The City’s response is inadequate to a growing and unequal population’s needs.
  6. The “crisis” of homelessness is met only with slogans and scattered mainly non-governmental, temporary actions. A group of diverse homeless people live under the Indianola Avenue-Iuka Ravine bridge less than one block from my home. Efforts to get them the assistance they need are hit-or-miss, with City contracted services with either or both private for-profit and not-for-profit corporations always slow and less than needed. But peaceful protests in support of the homeless on public officials’ yards result immediately in arrests, jail time, and conviction. There is a massive contradiction here.
  7. Relatedly, the City permits developers in the Short North, for example, to convert long-standing senior citizens’ housing to more expensive, marketplace units for a more well-to-do population.
  8. With no sign of urban planning, the City allows its favored private developers to construct housing complexes too large, too high, and too close to the sidewalks and streets, thus blighting and overcrowding parts of the southern edge of Victorian Village, parts of Weinland Park, and one side of Franklinton. Ignoring both the remainder of the area and their physical impact on the environment, they are celebrated as “gentrification” in ignorance of the obvious damage they do and the inequalities they accentuate. The self-interested, pseudo-democratic area commissions are silent as long as their own blocks are not touched. They have no regard for their neighbors, another dimension of the Columbus Way.

Is it any wonder that almost all Columbus’ residential and commercial neighborhoods are in damaged and distressed condition?

Briefly consider major neighborhood examples. All call out for sustained research and interpretations, and no more amateur, undocumented, self-published and vanity publications. They serve no one other than the authors’ interests.

University District

I have written often in these pages about my own University District (see website). Its destructive transformation from a historically mixed homeowner and student area with public schools and other amenities, to the illegal and extra-legal creation of a class of large landlords who conduct their business knowingly in violation of the law, was a clear act of unstated but coordinated collusion between the City and the rising landlords with the quiet cooperation of Ohio State University. Large landlords represent a violation of the zoning code, a result of an almost fifty years of all but automatic zoning variances granted by the City’s inspections. We may assume that incentives changed hands frequently.

There is no regular zoning inspection despite the transformation of structures and residents. Clearly visible violations mark every block. Reporting them leads to automatic dismissals between Zoning Enforcement and Public Services. Neither OSU Student Life nor landlords tell the tenants relevant laws or their rights, or even that the UD is a residential district, not an on-campus playground, itself a contradiction in terms. No one tells the 20-somes that they live beside older homeowners or when to put their trash out or how to recycle.

The City-aided the downward trajectory by closing a good elementary school. The University Area Commission and the University District Organization stood silent \and against their own self-interests. OSU’s Campus Partners has done nothing in the UD despite many proposals to purchase for-sale houses for resale to university employees or for the theme houses that are so successful on campuses across the country. In action and inaction, OSU partners with the City and the large landlords who contribute millions of dollars to OSU. Yet another conflict of interests.

OSU ignores the very district that took its signature name and is home to most of its students. Over most of the university’s history, it was also home to most of its faculty and staff as well as its presidents.

Weinland Park

From the south-eastern edge of the UD toward downtown, Weinland Park is one Columbus’ largely unknown, largely attractive historical neighborhoods. It partly survived the city’s neglect and OSU’s Campus Partners collaboration with developers to level the area by adding multi-story apartment buildings.

I plan to write more about Weinland Park with a long-term resident who has walked me through its largely unknown attractions. Through the Columbus Foundation and United Way, he has expanded genuinely affordable single- and multi-family housing and facilitated long-overdue home improvements. At the same time, many residents were displaced and the once full store fronts along Fourth Street decay in their vacancy.

Long a fairly typical urban in-between space, Weinland Park combined a mixed population economically, ethnically, and racially. It spanned an old industrial area with a service area, and overlapped the university-related population with a Black population. That interaction latter contributed to a set of social and educational institutions and some OSU-related children’s research, in part publicly and in part privately funded, with mixed results.

Given its geographic location, it suffered from typical inner-city social problems. By the 1980s and especially 1990s, developers working with OSU—both Gordon Gee in his first coming as president and the misleadingly named Campus Partners for Urban Community Development—manipulated a student’s murder just south of campus into a radically-based and exaggerated characterization of a deadly distressed area in need of clearance, renewal, and revitalization, also known as slum clearance and replacement with a whiter, more middle class population.

Campus Partners debuted by beginning its continued partnership with large developers, and against long-term residents, and basic neighborhood history and identity, toward apartment complex development by private interests. The latter profited while Campus Partners began their parade of financial losses that continue with their facilitation of the corporate transformation of High Street and Lane Avenue in building a multi-story brick and concrete wall around the non-urban campus always separate from the city.


I have written about the historic tragedy of Columbus’ founding area in two essays in these pages (June 5 & 9, 2022). That is a bare beginning. To an urban historian, Franklinton stands out as the city’s greatest geographic and human tragedy. The combination of actions and inactions, environmental neglect, favoritism to private interests and neglect of the publics color the areas 225 years.

Like many inner-city areas, Franklinton transited from a mixed population settlement area that preceded downtown and state capital. It suffered from uncontrolled flooding throughout its history due to combined local, state, and federal neglect. From mid-nineteenth through second one-third of the twentieth century, it was one of the industrial centers of a non-industrial regional city. Its rises and falls directly reflect Columbus’s historical absence of urban planning and public service.

Since the final collapse of industry, its struggles accelerate. On one edge, downtown overflows as has the Scioto River. The streets are a maze of disrepair and misdirection. A diminishing long-term population’s needs are ignored, as is affordable housing, poverty, and lack of both food and medicine, in the periodic but never sustained largely empty promotion and unknowledgeable celebration of small bits of “gentrification” with no recognition of the costs and contradictions.

It is a Columbus, Ohio orphan area.

Linden, The Hilltop, and Northland

I combine these three neighborhoods with no disrespect but because of a lack of information. The Hilltop, Linden, and Northland are older transitional neighborhoods whose origins lie between different historical waves of immigration to the US and to the city, and different paths of economic development over time. With no professional, documented histories of the city and OSU’s historical neglect, we know far too little about this.

Linden and especially The Hilltop attract attention primarily for the tragic frequency of crime, violence, shootings, and murders—almost never solved by the Columbus or state police with “the help of the public” and tiny rewards offered.

These areas have undeserved reputation for majority-minority—now but not historically, poverty, and gang activity. The failure of the City to meet their needs is seldom acknowledged. Nor is their lack of representation.

Unnoticed by either the City or the media, southern Linden is gentrifying. Younger persons, couples, and families who until recently purchased “starter homes” in Clintonville, find themselves priced out of that market. The short- and longer-term effects on the present resident populations and affordable housing are not yet clear.

Northland makes the news now because of the early shuttering of the more than one-half century old Northland Mall due to water and plumbing problems As with Latitude Five25 and last year’s building collapse, the failures of Zoning Enforcement and Public Service to conduct regular inspections, accelerated closing and neighborhood disruption. With no urban planning or community (re)development departments or activities, the short- and long-term impacts on the area are unknown. The City has said little, other than awarding an undefined $300,000 grant to the unqualified Neighborhood Design Center to do “who knows what.”

This is the Columbus Way. The neighborhoods are only home to the publics.


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 2022. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.