The little big city that refuses to represent, serve, or respect its publics
Columbus City Hall

Both cause and consequence of Columbus as the “plague city” is City government’s—Council and paid staff including Columbus Police Department—rudeness. In ways that once surprised me, the City’s disrespect, dismissal, and incivility mirror the literal crudeness of the failing physical city, from filth to lack of sanitation, and endless broken streets and sidewalks. (See my “The plague city: Daily life in Columbus, Ohio,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Dec. 17, 2022.)

It is stunning how little attention mayor, city council, Zoning and Neighborhoods, and the Department of Public (aka Private) Services pay to “their” city. Instead, they cannot restrain the overflow of grants without accountability, tax abatements, and other incentives to developers which directly undercut the actual city’s well-being contradicting its charter-mandated services to its publics. The contradictions are incalculable.

My personal conversations with elected and often initially appointed councilors and their revolving-door staff confirm the impression that they give publicly: they are unfamiliar with the city they swear and are paid to serve, and have no interest in its residents as their public electors. (See “Mr. Mayor and City Council: May I introduce you to the city of Columbus? Beyond the Short North and the Scioto Riverbank, there is a diverse complicated city,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, July 31, 2022.)

This is only one of the rippling effects of a mid-19th-century, undemocratic and unrepresentative at-large electoral system. Our councilors are responsible to no one—certainly not any constituents, although perhaps special interests. It shows. (See “Columbus City Government is Undemocratic and Disorganized: It’s 2021 and we need a revolution in this city,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 20, 2021; “Remaking the City of Columbus for the 21st or is it the 20th century?” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, July 5, 2022.)

Shockingly at first, the same conversations simultaneously reveal a combined ignorance of both Columbus, Ohio itself and American cities, even Ohio, Pennsylvania, and midwestern cities. This admission comes in the form of repeatedly asking me: “what is a city manager”? and “what do they do,”? when I regularly underscore Columbus’ visible need for a highly qualified professional coordinator.

It follows, too, when I call attention to the city’s equally surprisingly lack of professional city planners and traffic engineers, and why it matters. (See my “The Columbus Way versus the rights of residents, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, June 21, 2022; “The Columbus Way versus the rights of residents, Part Two, Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, June 24, 2022; “The Columbus Way versus the rights of residents, Part Three,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, June 27, 2022; “The Columbus Way versus the rights of residents, Part Four,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, June 30, 2022.)

But the problem is not only ignorance, in fact disinterest. It is inseparable from a failure to accept responsibility. Collectively, these are synonymous with Columbus’ lack of history and identity. (See my “Columbus, Ohio, searches to be a city: The myth of the Columbus Way,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan. 9, 2022; “Is Columbus really a City?” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Apr. 7, 2022; “Columbus isn’t Cowtown or Silicon Valley Heartland; It’s the lawless wild-wild-Midwest,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, April 20, 2022.)

During a recent conversation in my dining room, I criticized the City’s almost inoperable communications systems across all media from website to 311, newsletters and announcements via email, to telephones. One councilor responded, yes, everyone knows that. When I asked: why is nothing done, he shrugged his shoulders.

This was demonstrated most graphically—all puns intended—when another councilor, barely a year in office—thought he could trap or trick me by asking if there are cities to which Columbus should pay attention. Unlike his legislative aide, he apparently did not read my essays that I asked him to look at before this meeting. (The aide, parenthetically, seldom wishes to admit that comparing Columbus with any other large city is valid at the same time his boss waxes on publicly with the council’s anvil chorus that “we’re a big city now.”) (See references above; “Columbus, meet a ‘real’ city: Toronto,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 1, 2022; “Columbus meet another ‘real’ city, nearby, smaller, but… Pittsburgh,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 30, 2022.)

I responded first by asking how many hours the councilors and their aides had to spend comparing Columbus to a range of possible peers. Then I launched into a first iteration: from Indianapolis, perhaps the Midwest’s leading current comeback city, also a state capital with nationally distinctive institutions; to Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Buffalo, and close to home Cleveland and Cincinnati, even Dayton and Toledo. The councilors and aides alternated nodding and showing surprise. This was news to them.

My 18 years in Columbus (following Pittsburgh, Chicago, Toronto, Dallas, and San Antonio), and both teaching and writing the history of cities) persuade me that Columbus acutely fears specific peer comparisons, resorting whenever it can to hiding behind often distracting or irrelevant rankings with no attention to context. This is a clear if unacceptable strategy of evasion, one of many signs of Columbus’ immaturity. Psychiatrists have names for this condition. So does popular culture. (See “Why won’t Columbus, Ohio, grow up?” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 22, 2022.)

The basic facts of the need to compare and learn from other urban places was completely novel to those who propose to lead the city. No one in Columbus City Hall or City government apparently completed a course in urban studies, urban history, urban planning, or urban geography, let alone the more specialized topics central to the work that the committees they purport to chair and supervise.

This sad fact mirrors the jaw-dropping lack of relevant professional expertise throughout the City’s structures and strictures. Collaterally, the Columbus Partnerships’ lovefests for fun and profit with the Harvard Business School have nothing to do with the realities of urban development or urban life. (See “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, Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, June 12, 2022.)

As a result, mayor, councilors, Columbus Partnerships, and especially the former mayor, ever more powerful out of office, wave banners with unusually poor slogans. We have Ginther’s trademark and endlessly self-referential “America’s Opportunity—for a few—City,” for example.

I was not surprised when after a period of silence, this councilor pivoted to attack me, seemingly for the sin of being knowledgeable. Without transition, he informed me that he did not care for the “tone” I occasionally employed in my emails to his aide and other unresponsive un“civil servants” all paid by our tax dollars. When I responded: you are referring to the sixth, seventh, or eighth time I asked the same question to multiple recipients in City Hall without receiving any response, not even acknowledgement of receipt, a minimal common courtesy and mark of civility, a tiny bit of embarrassment appeared on his face, but no apology followed. He also objected to my explicit reference to “illiterate” to refer specifically to a city staffer who clearly did not read.

The councilors commented to each other as well as to me that this encounter of two councilors with aides in the home of one constituent (who lacks his own representation, and who is not a campaign contributor), was highly unusual. My strong impression is that outside of required meetings, they do not talk much to each other, let along their so-called constituents. It was the work of their aides in response to prolonged conversations with me that them together with me.

Only one member of council speaks repeatedly and willingly—bringing coffee—to me at length personally. Of the sum-total of legislative aides who ever responded to my requests since 2020, four (two of them among the longest-serving) have left the revolving-door city without expertise or experience.

Both in general and specifically, my relationships with the City as resident of almost two decades, homeowner in a residentially-zoned historic district, taxpayer, voter, retired university professor, and active knowledgeable citizen are characterized by disrespect, irresponsibility, rudeness, repeated refusal to communicate with me including responding to specific direct questions on matters that often affect my daily life and well-being, dismissiveness, demeaning, and outright lies. These range from public safety and law enforcement to sidewalk and street repairs, trash and zoning enforcement, and scooters and short-term lease vehicles.

Try as I do to report these institutionalized and insulated patterns of misconduct, some of which violate laws as well as the City’s own thin and vapid codes of conduct and ethics, all complaints are rejected summarily without investigation or explanation. Typically, I have to ask multiple times in order to be told just that. This is rude and insulting. Mirroring a police force that lacks adequate funding, organization, and leadership, the city does not police itself. Pay-for-play, special interests, and conflicts of interest rule. This is the Columbus Way.

My active engagement with the City began in 2020-21 as I settled into retirement with combined deeper interest in the city I call home, along with the time to investigate and attempt to communicate. I began by emailing the seven city councilors and the mayor about several issues, principally the blight of electric scooters, the clear failings of the Columbus Police Department, and the combined City, large landlords, and OSU destruction of my own historic University District.

Of the eight, only three responded at all. They were prompt, engaging, and helpful. They welcomed my questions and perspectives and replied in kind. They forwarded some of my questions and comments to their peers, none of whom ever responded. They also expected City regulation of scooters very soon—that was more than 20 months ago.

Two came to my home with coffee for extended conversations. Memorably, the first aide sat down and stated: before we discuss issues, I must explain to you who to contact for what issues in the City of Columbus. It is impossible to tell from the website. How right she was.

As a preview of events to come, two of the three left City employment within a few months; the third left in November 2022 after seven years of acclaimed service. A fourth left in December, also after seven years. There is only one legislative aide, with a little more than a year’s experience, who occasionally responds to me. One other responds after repeated requests by both me and her peers and other councilors in an offensively limited, dismissive, and dishonest way. She alludes to orders from council’s chief of staff (whose experience is in tourism) not to communicate with me.

None share the qualities of the former aides. They have no conception of a public servant who by definition bears responsibility and owes respectful responses to the city’s residents regardless of the occasional “tone” of emails. Some need lessons in civility and courtesy. So do their superiors. There is no sign of training or a municipal “civil service.” I will return to that.

My contacts with City Hall expanded in September-October 2021 when City Attorney Zach Klein responded to my “urgent” communication regarding the OSU and City sanctioned incivility and illegally among many OSU students who live as tenants in corporate rental units during weekends, especially during football season and the annual Chittfest following the official spring practice game. (See “The decline of a once vital neighborhood: Columbus’ University District,” Columbus Free Press, Sept 14, 2021; “Columbus’ University District: Students and the Institutions that fail them,” Columbus Free Press, Oct. 8, 2021; “How Columbus, Ohio State University, and major developers destroyed a historic neighborhood,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Part One, Apr. 26, 2022; How Columbus, Ohio State University, and major developers destroyed a historic neighborhood,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Part Two, Apr. 29, 2022; “How Columbus, Ohio State University, and major developers destroyed a historic neighborhood—A continuing legacy,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, May 2, 2022; “The City of Columbus and The Ohio State University: Two peas in a pod, one bigger than the other, relatively speaking, but so much the same. Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 8, 2022; “The City of Columbus and The Ohio State University: Two peas in a pod, one bigger than the other, relatively speaking, but so much the same. Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 14, 2022.)

Living through conditions that worsen each year with OSU and CPD less and less responsive--both doing less in 2021 than they did in 2004, but refusing to admit to it despite the facts on the ground, my homeowning neighbors and I began to report offensives regularly, demanding but not securing enforcement of the laws, and also creating paper trails that one Assistant City Attorney—unlike OSU and CPD—did not ignore. This was also the time of a modest increase in reported crime, which OSU’s president exaggerated and then mismanaged. (See “OSU isn’t having a crime crisis; it’s having a leadership crisis,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov 2, 2021; “‘Update’ to Ohio State isn’t having a crime crisis,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 13, 2021; “Ohio State versus ‘campus safety,’” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Mar. 13, 2022.)

In early October 2021, Klein convened a Zoom meeting with me and about a dozen City department heads and other employees. For the City, and indirectly for me as (retired) professor, it was a learning experience. I did not realize how little relevant City officials—many of them OSU graduates but a number also living outside the city of Columbus--knew about the UD and the surrounding city.

At first, the group was respectful and seemed interested. Some were sincere. Others, I learned before long, were not.

A number followed up directly with me immediately. For example, the head of Zoning Enforcement, an office that is not open on weekends (and dependent on reports to 311 which is also closed on weekends) when its services are urgently needed (as CPD officers continue to tell me), was surprised to learn that other cities had specific policies and relationships with their universities and university districts. He asked about specific places and their policies.

Not an expert on other cities, I suggested several cities that he could investigate and referred him to studies and to relevant websites. He did nothing further. About a year later, he denied the actual letter of the zoning code—the unequivocal meaning of the words—to me regarding illegal banners. It took almost a month to have his supervisor overrule him and his three colleagues (I call them “the gang of four”) who colluded to deny reality. While I wait for my requested apology, one of them—a code enforcement officer who styles himself “CEO,” apparently ignorant about Chief Executive Officer--denies almost every complaint I file. This overarching example embraces far too many discreet issues.

Other than a handful of follow-up contacts, two threads followed from Klein’s meeting. First, the exceptionally well-managed Department of Refuge began a tiny number of Sunday morning inspections for illegal trash. This shifted to limited Monday morning perusals. My house sits on a corner lot that all but cries out to drunken students, this is your dump.

On a normal Sunday, I fill several large garage bags with beer cans and alcohol bottles, many of them not empty; dozens of masks; food containers and utensils; cups; and, yes, underwear of all sorts. I confront this as soon as I finish reading the morning newspapers and drink my first cutpof coffee.

One morning, I noticed the Refuse inspectors on the street. I went outside to tell them that I would clean my yard shortly. Before I could do that, however, they inexplicably taped a notice of violation to my front door that threatened both monetary fine and jail time. The department later apologized.

After a few weeks, inspections ceased. They made no records of regular violators. It was all an exercise in symbolic sloganeering.

At the same time, an OSU Associate Vice President of Student Life (one of 10 or 11, few with job descriptions on the website) for on- and off-campus residences and the manager of off-campus activities began coming to my dining room with coffee and sometimes cookies. They claimed to seek my advice as a retired professor who remained in regular communication with his student neighbors and was a spokesperson for his embattled historic neighborhood.

I lost track of the many promises made before and during that time—for example, providing students with information on applicable laws and tenants’ rights, and detailed information on landlords—all still unmet, as well as a curriculum in civic responsibilities and young adult democratic participation. We also talked about the imperative need to bring Student Life and academics closer together. (The new Dean of Students does not respond to messages from professors.)

A year later, nothing has happened except that with no warning or explanation, Student Life—apparently under orders from the senior administration—abruptly stopped all communication with me in March 2022. We are still waiting for the promised gluten-free chocolate cookies for my wife.

This was about one month after I personally connected OSU Student Life with a City Assistant City Attorney who Klein appointed in January 2022 to coordinate city services in the UD, after nothing concrete developed between October and year’s end. (See “How universities fail their students: The president may be ‘born to be a Buckeye,’ but the students are not. A call to eliminate Offices of Student Life and invest directly in students’ lives,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 10, 2022.)

While OSU froze me out for my sins of always documented constructive criticism and urging that OSU cease advertising worst-rated and most often-sued NorthSteppe Reality, as well as several others. It is not accidental that NorthSteppe’s Michael Stickney remains on the OSU website falsely claiming to be “OSU Student Housing” in return for donations of at least $5 million. (See “Columbus’ home-grown illegal landlords in a destroyed historic district,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Dec. 11, 2022.)

When I encountered her at a neighborhood free food give-a-way in October 2022, the manager of Off-Campus student life lied about this, while still promising gluten-free cookies for my wife. The City remains in contact on some UD issues while OSU fell flat on its legal when literally threatening me against further communications with Student Life, Human Resources, or Legal Affairs.

The Assistant City Attorney and Student Life’s relationships centered on a largely failed attempt to reach landlords in the University District. Never able to compile a complete list of those who should be involved, the scattered meetings were marked by boycotts of some of the worst lawbreaking landlords and loud vocal temper tantrums by at least one other (who without public notice subsequently sold his UD properties.)

For months, the City and Student Life attempted to draft and have landlords accept a letter urging cooperation and respect for both tenants’ rights and the law. Amid the largest landlords’ refusals, OSU Legal Affairs obstructed the effort for months. The result is muddled, weak, contradictory, and of no practical use to students or homeowners. The City’s often sincere efforts were stymied by OSU and the most powerful private interests. Here too is the Columbus Way versus the residents, young and older.


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.