Harvey J Graff

Part Four (of Four)

Residents’ lack of basic rights (cont’d.)

Public safety

The right to public health and a clean environment for healthy living, which I explored in Part Three, is inseparable from freedom from dangerous sidewalks and streets, and especially residents’ and visitors’ rights to public safety. Columbus is the state king and queen of homicides by guns, and (perversely) a national leader. The mayor and Columbus Public Health respond with little more than an unhelpful, inaccurate slogan: It is “a public health crisis.” Among a multitude of distractions and misunderstandings is the fundamental misconstrual of public health itself. They say little to nothing about broader social reforms including education, training, jobs, social supports, and accessible and affordable health care itself.

City leaders also say no more about re-staffing, reorganizing, and retraining the police department; and conducting proven gun buy-backs, among many other immediately needed actions. Their “declaration” translates into no more than limited, early evening basketball games for teens in minority neighborhoods and a revealing confusion across City Council about “prevention” and “intervention” programs, as if they were synonymous. Gun buy-back programs, very successful in other cities, are not enacted despite me and others proposing them with evidence to legislative aides.

Almost every intelligent person in the nation, led by law enforcement and the judiciary, knows that the incredible availability of firearms, with a ratio of about 120 guns for every 100 persons, is the single most important factor driving homicide. The Ohio legislature passes bills signed by the governor allowing permitless carry without license or training despite the facts and the deaths that surround them, as well as the opposition of most residents.

My former CPD district commander and I had a conversation one day that he began by saying, “I’m a Second Amendment guy.” I am not, so I asked: “What do you mean by that”? His answer revealed that we agree on all points, especially about gun control, limiting access, and gun safety.

The beleaguered Columbus Police Department, under federal Department of Justice investigation, is not only a state and national leader in shooting deaths by police. It is also a leader in the proportion of officers who live outside the city they are paid to protect. Officers are not trained to know the neighborhoods in which they serve. CPD is dominated by an uncooperative, self-protective, and public-disregarding chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. Local courts are loathe to rule against police regardless of the strength of the evidence or egregiousness of the charged offense.

CPD is hundreds of officers short, in part because of an illogical and wasteful buyout program to award retirement bonuses of $200,000 to each of 100 accepting officers. The City cannot afford this payoff, especially at a time of safety-threatening shortages. No one in City Hall seems to know simple arithmetic, from the mayor to the Public Safety Committee and Department to the new Chief of Police.

At the same time, the Department of Public Safety moves its 311 Non-emergency and 911 call centers farther away physically and organizationally from both the Fire Department and its own command. Dispatchers and officers who respond to complaints from the public—if the dispatcher deigns to consider a given complaint “a priority”—are too often ignorant of both the neighborhoods and the law itself.

A few officers who occasionally respond to our calls have told me that if I can’t tolerate being surrounded by students, I should not live in the University District. More often, I have to explain that OSU does not “own” the area and is therefore not responsible for it. My neighbor and I explain to officers the options legally available to them. More than once, a sincere officer or a pair have told us that they are afraid to approach a party of 50, 100, or more drunken students. When we ask: “Can’t you call for back-ups,” they laugh and shake their heads. On at least two occasions, I pushed, asking: “What if we were in Linden or the Hilltop?” They wink and reply: “I think you know the answer to that, sir.”

I have learned a great deal from my neighborhood experiences, my former district commander, both good and poor officers on the beat, and Internal Affairs investigators to whom the former district leader referred me. Knowledge of CPD does not boost my confidence in Columbus’ commitment to public safety. Multiple sources confirm that CPD struggles with its internal organization, communications, and coordination.

Too many CPD Non-emergency dispatchers and the officers who may or may not be sent are unresponsive or disrespectful to residents. They do not communicate how priorities are determined. They are not familiar with the city. Many do not know the law. Clearly, their basic training is insufficient to their responsibility to meet the needs of residents. Of course, there are outstanding officers.

There is drastically insufficient regular patrolling in problematic areas, including my off-campus neighborhood. Near-constant driving and parking violations are not enforced. Too many streets, some of them narrow, are used like raceways. This includes Indianola Avenue, on which my house sits, and Lane Avenue, a block away. Speeding is common; so are crashes, especially when alcohol is involved.

In my neighborhood too few students and others understand the meaning of a posted speed limit, marked crosswalk, stop sign or yellow light changing to red. Parking violations are rife, especially by Amazon, UPS, FedEx, and other delivery services, who feel empowered to leave their vans in the middle of a street directly beside an open space.

CPD is compromised in its ability to respond to parking violations internally. One astonishing case in point is the City Attorney’s Office police liaison’s willful misreading of a Michigan court case that declared that chalking tires or marking windows of vehicles to determine how long they are left in a restricted parking area is not an invasion of privacy. His drawing the opposite conclusion handicapped the force for months. When I questioned him, he insulted me and ridiculed my qualifications. His superiors refused to intervene.

CPD also tells officers in the field not to move illegally parked cars to city impound lots because they are full, when they are not. Upon questioning both by me and officers, the response: “We are reserving space.” When asked, for what or whom? A deafening silence follows.

CPD’s disorganization and lawlessness was dramatically exposed in 2021’s “ChittFest” riot. This predictably took place on the evening of OSU’s annual Spring Football practice game. It is a huge student and outsider event, well known to the authorities. That year’s crowds and festivities were larger than usual.

Despite dozens of 911 calls from UD residents about out-of-control partying, violations and violence, and several overturned vehicles, Columbus Police did not respond until more than five hours after the first requests for aid. Officers finally trickled in after the crowds began to disperse.

In lieu of the necessary investigation, the police cited a previously unannounced new policy of “non-aggressive response” after the outpouring of documented complaints and lawsuits that followed CPD’s response to lawful public protests of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. The Department never publically apologized.

OSU’s unhelpful contribution

As I have explored elsewhere, on balance, Ohio State has done more to harm to off-campus safety than meet needs. It ranges from exaggerating the rise in crime in August and September 2021 to responding with chaotic, rhetorical, and physical slogans about safety; bullying a City Public Safety staff member to ignore formal procedures and approve the installation of portable lamp posts; distributing free, tiny, handheld noise makers to protect against guns and gangs; temporarily introducing a part-time, directionless, effectively useless, but self-promoting Buckeye Block Watch that has disappeared without notice.

None of these actions induces confidence among students, their parents, or homeowners. OSU purchased a self-praising consultant’s report from an unqualified firm. Shortly thereafter, it stopped its long-standing, tardy, inaccurate, and incomplete Campus Safety Alerts. It still refused to admit its inability to maintain them. Repeatedly promised ten-year plans and private security officers have never appeared.

City planning and zoning in the public interest

If Columbus has professional city planners, they are in camouflage or hiding. Their absence is etched on the surface and the rooftops of the City. As a life-long city boy, born in Pittsburgh, educated in Chicago and Toronto, a professor successively in Dallas, San Antonio, and Columbus, I am also a professional student, teacher, and scholarly writer about urban places.

The first thing I see is approval and construction of new buildings that are inappropriate because of poor quality design, far too tall for the immediate vicinity, functionally unnecessary, and contributing to overbuilding and both vehicular and human traffic. Approval for new construction in Columbus follows no rules or reason. Zoning variances are always at the ready as the City fears firm talk and hard bargaining with either local or external developers. Money talks.

A drive through the central core—always in construction or reconstruction—exposes planning failures first in downtown, then in Franklinton, along the Scioto River, near OSU, and more haphazard acts of environmental and aesthetic damage in Linden and the Hilltop. Fifth Avenue from Neil Avenue to Highway 315 is another ragged edge.

Downtown is deeply damaged. There are literally no new buildings of noteworthy architectural design or aesthetic distinction. Unlike most other “cities on the make,” Columbus attracts or its developers buy no name architects. That is no sure path to greater distinction, but it can be one step.

No knowledgeable architect or planner has turned around in a circle with eyes wide open and examined the physical environment surrounding a proposed building. This is shockingly true for proposed skyscraper(s) for the Scioto River bank parkland as well as the under-construction, out-of-control, Gravity disconnection of apartment buildings. Inseparably associated with proposed designs and processes of approval—involving zoning, of course—is the system of streets and parking. Here too Columbus fails and violates the basic rights of its residents.

On occasion, the ideas floated are fictitious. The developer renovating the downtown PNC building proposes an “elevated, plant-covered walkway next to the tower.” The Edwards Company, which has already turned High Street beside OSU into an unaesthetic wall of apartment buildings with ridiculous names about nonexistent “views,” compares this walkway to New York City’s High Line. Clearly, neither the developers nor their architects have been to the High Line.

Equally ridiculous but much grander is the so-called Rapid 5 notion—I will not elevate it to the status of a proposal—to somehow link Franklin County “waterways” to turn Columbus into a fantasy likened to Amsterdam and Venice. Justified most recently with unexplained allusions to “public health,” supposedly it would allow someone to cycle or walk to work or kayak to dinner downtown. No, I am not making this up. Others are. These failures in realistic and responsible planning follow directly from the city’s mad grasp for an identity that it lacks. Southern California already has Disneyland Park; Florida has Walt Disney World.

Beginning downtown and continuing into adjacent Franklinton, the stopping and starting, name-changing, reversing-direction streets defy logic and challenge human navigation capabilities. No planner has overseen them, ever. Not only is there no attention to the physical relationship of new and old buildings, but there is also no consideration of the relationship of construction and size or direction of the roads. To call it a maze imputes a greater logic and degree of relationship than it bears.

We recently ventured to downtown and the downtown-Franklinton border. The first was on Earth Day. We joined in a public celebration in Genoa Park, now hidden by the new National Veterans Memorial Museum and the conversion of an old high school into the Center of Science and Industry (COSI).

Not well-publicized but a free event open to all with educational and activist booths, food trucks, and entertainment, the Earth Day fest was not organized with poorer or less-able residents in mind. Parking at the Veterans Museum cost $5.00 and required a credit card to pay. The park was a moderate walk away. There was no role for planning in the site or the event.

Less than two weeks later, we attended the opening of a new exhibit at the Columbus Cultural Arts Center because our 80-some-year-old friend and neighbor was among the selected exhibitors. The arts center is housed in a lovely, old, converted church near the center of downtown. It is surrounded by a mix of unaesthetic, poorly located, old and new structures and privately owned, space-taking parking lots.

The poorly laid-out lot across the street from the arts center, both surprisingly and not, did not accept Columbus’ own privately developed and downloadable parking app. It required use of a completely separate app, which led to a line of parkers waiting to scan and download with less or more skill. The inability to coordinate parking apps is a major planning and Department of Public Service error.

Both parking and street systems stand out among Columbus’ denial of basic rights. With no coordination with CPD, City Council and other departments, and the public, the department that I have renamed Private—rather than Public—Service is privatizing and selling public parking. First, it replaced easily visible permit stickers on vehicles with an app for a higher fee. It presumed that all persons with motor vehicles have cell phones and credit cards, and are knowledgeable about apps. That is not true.

Equally badly, neither the police nor residents can tell easily, or at all, if a vehicle is parked legally. The police in particular, who were not consulted on this change, are not happy.

Next, Private Service granted permission for out-of-state, for-profit, short-term car lease companies like Free2Drive to allow lessees to leave their cars like litter in the spaces allocated to residents who pay a fee for permit parking.

Unreasonably, and in my view illegally, Private Service granted this permission—presumably for an undisclosed payment—without public or City Council review or input, without following normal procedures, and, equally astonishingly, without informing CPD, City Council, or the public.

When I learned about this after encountering complete confusion by police responding to calls to ticket and/or tow vehicles left in paid permit parking areas, I was outraged and asked City Council aides and the City Attorney’s Office. No one had an answer. They referred me to the Department of Public Service. The latter responded by sending me an illogical and contradictory statement about “facilitating mobility” in Columbus. They misspelled my name and refused to answer any specific questions about payments to the city by private interests, whether they followed mandated procedures in their actions, and explain how and why they authorized private interests over public rights. It is their “discretion” not to answer you, says the Assistant City Attorney. The home-owning, taxpaying, voting senior citizen has no rights. This, of course, is the Columbus Way.

These shared cars resemble the urban plague of unregulated, rented, electronic motor scooters left like trash on sidewalks, lawns, and streets all over the University District and elsewhere. When I became aware of the new scooter litter problem almost 15 months ago, I contacted City Council aides. I was assured that “we’re working on that.” When I commented that I had knowledge about how cities from Seattle and Portland to Detroit and New York City handle their scooters, they asked me to share my information. I did.

More than a year later, no one will address the often dangerous and always inconvenient mess made by Columbus kowtowing to private businesses with no plans to serve and protect their public and no vision for their city. Of course, when Short North merchants complained, the City commanded that all scooters in that area be parked in one lot. For residential neighborhoods without a private economic interest, there is no accommodation months after initial assurances.

In a final recent change, also inexplicably, the City is converting street parking “in designated locations around the city,” previously paid by coins or credit cards, and then by payment on an app, now to payment at a kiosk. Operated by a private vendor with a parallel reduction in dedicated handicapped spaces I am told, ParkColumbus requires typing in one’s license plate number before paying by credit or debit card, or coins in so-far-unannounced locations. As in the other cases, the shift is to private auspices for public services. Neither the rationale nor the benefit to motorists makes sense.

Safe streets: speed limits and one-way streets

Another element of the intertwined problems of no planners or planning and no right to safety is the city’s sometimes deadly combination of unenforced speed limits that are too high in many residential areas with a crazy quilt of too-narrow, two-way streets. That also combines with street parking permitted on both sides of narrow roads. A logical transportation system requires a balance between one- and two-way passages.

Responsible management of life-sustaining electric power

I need not write in detail about American Electric Power’s unprecedented and still-unexplained power failures. Dominating the news on June 14, 15, and 16, but also occurring June 9 and May 26 at least, a substantial number of premium electric customers had their electricity cut off with no warning, planning, or explanation. AEP’s after-the-fact comments confuse and exaggerate storms, systems linkages, and their sudden need to shut down large areas and populations to “preserve the grid.” AEP contradicts itself at every turn. None of it makes factual or logical sense.

The City’s response is typically uninformed and irresponsible. First, Ginther comments unhelpfully: “The City is monitoring the situation.” This is typical leadership by empty slogan. Even worse, Councilor Rob Dorans, who heads the responsible Council Committee, sees no role for the City to speak or act. In this stance, the City government denies reality and the threatened welfare of its public. This is an issue for all public representatives and agencies.

Tangentially related, Columbus residents have no right to responsible reporting, investigative journalism, or fundamental truth-telling by any of the city’s major media whether in print or broadcast. Not even a daily newspaper. Not even proper grammar, pronunciation, or spelling. (No, I am not being reactionary, elitist, or racist. I am thinking in terms of context and communications.) Is there no connection to performance levels in many of the city’s schools? There is undeniably a direct relationship to popular and City government ignorance about the city and the City, and the issues.

Finally, Columbus’ residents have no right to historical or other self-knowledge. As I have observed, Columbus’ lack of any tradition of responsible self-study, documentary research, and serious history characterizes its uniqueness among cities nationally and internationally. It also underlies its lack of an identity and paralyzes its ability to move constructively.

At the end of the day, I ask: What do City Council, each Councilor, and the mayor do? Why do they know so little about the city? Why do they not study issues and demand responsible plans with accountability? Why do they ignore the city’s needs, their real public, and an inclusive urban vision? Can the separate strands ever meet?

These must be the questions not only for the 2023 elections, but also for today and tomorrow.


My thanks to Kevin Cox, Bob Eckhart, Rebecca Hunley, 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.