A City government that can’t and won’t govern. But it is for sale
Book with title Zoning

A council and mayor of anti-democratic, unrepresentative, unknowledgeable empty sloganeers is bad enough. But they oversee a City government uniquely lacking in both expertise and ethical concern for either residents or the laws. Walk or drive around the city. There is no evidence that the City employs a qualified, certified, experienced urban planner, traffic engineer, zoning inspector or enforcement officers, city attorney, or neighborhoods services. Columbus has none.

Trash, broken pavement, and out of control scooters and motor vehicles are the first things that visitors to the city notice. They rank high in framing Columbus’ identity and identification. That is, other than the many visitors who only see Ohio Stadium or the Convention Center for the illegal steroid spewing The Arnold.

In place of an attractive modern or historical city, we find a dirty city, broken streets and sidewalks, with pockets of uncoordinated unplanned private development with no regard for density, traffic, height, aesthetics, or safety. There is no planning, no coordination, no regulation. Private development rules regardless of its impact on the physical or human city and its peoples. No rational planner would approve a 32-story high rise beside the historic North Market with no regard for traffic, parking, aesthetics, or the remains from abandoned cemetery burials on the construction site. No traffic engineer would allow for two-way traffic with parking on both sides on such narrow streets.

Similarly, once attractive Fifth Ave. as well as campus area High Street, parts of Clintonville, Weinland Park, and Franklinton have been destroyed by private developers’ bulldozers and cranes with no regard for displaced people, history, or livability. Contradictorily, the city with no history destroys its few remains. The City’s Christopher Columbus’ likenesses sit in boxes, while arch-school segregationist and racist, former OSU president William Oxley Thompson stands threatening in front of the library named for him (despite more than a generation of strong demands that OSU remove the statue and rename its main library).

Many other neighborhoods never developed to the point from which they could be diminished. White middle and upper-middle class areas, some of them tiny, were allowed to organize undemocratic, unrepresentative, secretive area commissions to protect their own interests. Money changes hands. Private dominates public. The City and its officials are always for sale. That’s The Columbus Way. But today, even the diminishing Short North “Arts” District mainly of bars, Victorian Village, and German Village are threatened with destruction and decay working together. Downtown remains a physical wreck always in progress but never developing.

In fact, Columbus really has no functional neighborhoods. The City’s Neighborhood’s Committee cannot define its own function when asked directly. Its head Stanley Gates will not respond to questions and refuses to confirm a meeting date after months. In one of his last communications to me, he stated that he did not agree with all of my writings. When I asked for an example, he had none. He actually wrote to me that “our team is small but mighty,” but in response to a series of questions, he would only respond, “we have meetings.” I am uncertain if the problem is ignorance, incompetence, or dishonesty. But this group is not neighborly or engaged.

Neighborhoods are not well-defined geographically. There are four different maps of my own University District’s boundaries on City websites. The definition-less University District Organization combines about 15 areas, many of which are only a few blocks in size and not neighborhoods, and a number of which are not in the University District. Columbus is emphatically not a city of neighborhoods, as other more distinctive and much better-known cities present themselves. be.

The City is now littering my area with sidewalk blocking signs that announce fictional “historic districts.” No one accepts responsibility. So far, I have had no success in having one across the street from my house removed. For unknown, unstated reasons, the City of Columbus is physically and visually polluting its own streets and sidewalks. They parallel the more actively dangerous pollution of electric scooters. Who is getting paid off for this act of destruction?

Persisting, unsolved City and city problems: The absence of zoning, public services, policing

Columbus’s missing identity lies in its dysfunctionalism, disorganization, and mismanagement; anti-public service ethos; private interests over public welfare and rights; and corruption. Against the odds, the City makes little effort to address, explain, or resolve this. It does not respond honestly or fully to at least weekly exposes by the media, individuals or groups of residents, political candidates, or scholars like me. Neglect and silence are the City’s typical first—and often last--move. It has worked for more than 200 years regardless of dominant political parties.

The illusion of zoning, inspection, and enforcement

Practically speaking, Columbus has no zoning code when it comes to inspection and enforcement. First, the current code and set of laws with very slight revision and updating dates from 1912. For almost one-half century, the City proposes but does not review and revise the entire code. It serves private over public interests too well. Therein lies another element of Columbus’ identity in action.

Second, the century out of date code has seldom been enforced systematically. On one hand, the actual letter of the law does not matter. That’s The Columbus Way. On the other hand, both codes’ always highly selective, questionable, and biased use including regular practice of granting variances or exemption serve the City’s ruling private interests too well. As a historian, I advance the hypothesis that both the original construction of the code and the patterns of its use and neglect are inseparably imbedded into the practices of business as usual in the City. That perspective is consistent with the findings of the single reliable documented book on Columbus, geographer Kevin Cox’s Boomtown Columbus (2021) as well as direct observations of the physical city.

Ironically and contradictorily, we are now in another period of sloganeering slobbering about “Zoning Out,” to repeat City Council President Pro Tempore’s) Rob Dorans’ self-mocking empty slogan about an undefined ignorant effort to revise the zoning code to advance private developers and reduce the present minimal rights of the public. “Zoning Up” or “In” would be more appropriate.

In April and May, Dorans bombards subscribers to the City mailing lists with notices of “hearing” around town, never with agenda or content. When I published my own commentary on this effort in historical context (Columbus Free Press, Apr. 8, 2023), I emailed the councilor and his aide a copy with a request to confirm receipt and my willingness to discuss the issues. Of course, I never heard from either of them.

The red ink here: the dominant private interests are not satisfied with procedures that hypothetically might but seldom hinder them from almost always getting their way. Therein lies Columbus the private city and the secret, never democratic city.

This is precisely how Columbus over time destroyed its rich and sometimes foundational historical neighborhoods from Franklinton to the University District, Weinland Park, and Old East Columbus. And never fairly developed The Hilltop, Linden, Eastland, or Northland. And semi-protected the home bases of most councilors from North Clintonville to Victorian and German Villages, and the Short North. The selective, biased, public be damned use of zoning stretches before our eyes on any accurate map of the city.

In some cases, private developers and sometime utilities and manufacturers colluded with the City Council and Zoning inspection and enforcement. In Franklinton, hospital systems joined the mix. In the University District and Weinland Park, The Ohio State University especially through its failing, dishonest Campus Partners for Community Development played that role by action and inaction. They lost a fortune in university funds and much of the campus area’s character in the process, for one end only: the attempted but often so far unsuccessful enrichment of private developers.

Not surprisingly, the self-interested and self-protective area commissions did, and continue to do nothing to halt the ongoing destruction of their surrounding areas as long as their own small areas are not touched. For example, the University Area Commission votes for the replacement of campus-area landmarks by undistinguished, inappropriate, too high and large, overpriced, unneeded apartment buildings. They do not listen to their own neighbors or the students and alumni. They are led by anti-democratic self-appointed leaders who falsely pretend to write what only they describe as “history.”

As I documented in a series of essays, extra-legal and illegal collusion between private property-owners and landlords, City Zoning inspectors and enforcers, and OSU destroyed the historic richly mixed University District of homeowners, non-student renters, and student tenants living with families and in small, legal independent boarding houses. That set of relationships, in accord with City laws, held for more than 100 years and could have been maintained. But too much private profiteering was at stake. Campus Partners refused to buy properties for use as student theme houses despite many requests and their popularity across the U.S. Instead, purely for money-making, OSU requires two years of residence in dormitories instead of the usual one year.

Now, the City Division of Zoning and Neighborhoods under the direction of Scott Messer and in coordination with the City Attorney’s Office represented by Steve Dunbar secretly colludes with absentee private property owners not to enforce zoning laws. What my neighbors and I witnessed emerging was confirmed by code inspector, Jeremiah Evans, as quoted in the OSU student newspaper The Lantern, May 3, 2023. Evans “attributes the drop in violations to roundtable events Ohio State has hosted….”

What Evans speaks to is illegal collusion on the part of the City, OSU, and the participating landlords. It is a direct violation of a number of laws. It also denies the legal and civil rights of all those who live in the area.

These events actually began in Feb. 2022 when I personally introduced Dunbar (assigned to work on UD problems by City Attorney Zach Klein following my direct appeal to Klein the preceding September). OSU excluded me—apparently at the order of departed former President Johnson—from all discussions and dishonestly stopped its own communication and cooperation at that time. So-called “Student Life” broke more promises to me and to OSU students than I can enumerate. They have no interest in and only negative impacts on actual student lives.

Unknowingly and erroneously, Evans thinks that homeowners and “anyone else who is part of the campus area” are included. We are not.

My own and my neighbors’ relationships with both Messer and Dunbar began with the pretense of collegiality and cooperation. That seems to have been no more than a distracting veneer as the landlords and OSU were never confronted with enforcement of the law and recognizing the rights of either homeowners or student tenants.

Nothing fundamental changed for homeowners or student tenants since the “show and not tell” began with Klein in early October 2021 and Dunbar in January 2022. OSU’s Associate Provost T.J. Logan and Dilna Cama of Off-Campus Student Services [sic] are the City’s and landlords’ partners in the dishonest perpetuating of landlords’ power, sometimes criminally as complaints filed with Student Legal Services and an ongoing class action suit against NorthSteppe Realty demonstrate.

Messer’s inspectors and enforcement officers, led by Tony Celebreeze who is known among City staff for rudeness, do not know the law; disrespect homeowners, taxpayers, and voters whose taxes pay their salaries; ignore clear violations in front of their either closed or blinds eyes.

Available records indicate that they never warn or cite the most law-breaking and tenant-cheating large landlords, led by NorthSteppe Realty (who has given OSU more than $5 million), HomeTeam (whose owner sold all his UD properties in late 2022 because code enforcement was threatened), Buckeye Realty, and OSUlive. Code inspectors pass house after house whose zoning code violations are visible from their sidewalks. These law-breaking, technically illegitimate, larger corporate landlords invest in OSU, councilors, and mayor.

In fall 2022, Messer had to overrule four of his inspectors who repeatedly denied my complaint about a house across the street despite the complete agreement between visual evidence and the clear letter and unambiguous meaning of the City law. My request for an apology from Celebreeze’s rude and legally illiterate “gang of four” was ignored. Like bad juveniles, two of them retaliate by immediately dismissing all my subsequent reports without inspection or explanation. They continue to do so, making the all but useless 311 reporting system completely useless.

Finally, in February 2023, I led Messer on a one hour walking tour of only a few of the streets around my home. He immediately agreed with me on scores of clear violations that his “team” could not see. He promised action.

After 6 weeks of no words or actions, I demanded an explanation from Messer and Dunbar. I am still stunned by their offensive, dismissive, legally liable ,and self-incriminating responses. They crawled to the same beat. Dishonestly and contradicting his own words to my face in February, Messer attempted to minimize and then dismiss all my legal and completely clear concerns.

The problem, the two attorneys agreed--city staffers paid by my taxes and shorn to protect my rights--was not legal violations or their inspectors’ and their own refusal to act: it is me. I am “extreme”—their word, not mine--because I expect the law to be enforced, explicit promises to be honored, my civil and personal status to be recognized, and my city and civil rights to be respected. And because I dare to expect public employees to do their jobs as described.

I underscore that only in undemocratic, unrepresentative Columbus, I am declared an “extremist” because I ask that the laws be enforced, rights be honored, and paid jobs be performed.

Despite knowing better, Messer brazenly pretended that all the issues were minimal and “discretionary.” In point of fact, my complaints, all of which he accepted on sight, are led by an HomeTeam sign at the northwest corner of E. 18th Ave. at Summit Ave., that blocks a clear view of a busy intersection; and illegal, highly flammable upholstered furniture on the front porch or lawn of approximately one in every three houses. Not only is this illegal but students have died. There are also broken doors and windows; and much more. Messer also agreed that severely broken sidewalks and streets urgently needed repair, which the Division of Private Service ignores.

But in The Columbus Way, he either did not remember the sights before his eyes and his comments directly to me, or does not care, especially from his home outside the city in Westerville. Dunbar automatically concurred with his colleague, both declaring in effect that I have no legal or civil rights in their city and that absentee landlords and their tenants are free to threaten my own and all other residents’ well-being and personal safety.

Only in Columbus can I be branded me as “extreme” because I dare to expect enforcement of the basic laws and public “servants” to meet the stated requirements of their jobs. In Columbus, I have no rights because I do not represent private interests, lobby the City, and pay ….

My then new CPD zone commander and her community liaison officer similarly informed me that “you will never be satisfied” as they refused to meet with me or communicate with me in any way without even knowing my concerns. Contrasting with their predecessors, they informed me unmistakably that I am wrong to expect Columbus police to enforce the City’s laws or for CPD do its legally specified job.

Messer’s and Dunbar’s posturing and lying to me inally arrived just before I read Evans statement in The Lantern. The timing of the obvious decline in code enforcement, then Messer’s and Dunbar’s combined inactions and lies about it, and Evans’ explanation is not coincidental: it squares the proverbial and rhetorical circles.

I immediately wrote to Dunbar and Messer, copying Klein and the relevant city council committee chairs. After two weeks, no one replied. Do we need to ask why?

Unwilling to accept the illegal declarations that I have no rights and that I am “extreme,” I am contacting the American Civil Liberties Union, Franklin County Prosecutors office, and the Ohio Attorney General.

The City of Columbus lacks the legal power to dismiss my rights, and cannot ignore my direct questions without consequences. But this is the very city that declared that a voluntary member of its Civilian Police Review Committee has no First Amendment Constitutional rights, and whose City Attorney informed me that he “lacks jurisdiction” to confront AEP for its failures and both AEP and Columbia Gas for unreasonable price gouging, but then sues Hyundai and Kia, and the State of Ohio. Figure out those politics, if you can.

Meanwhile, Dunbar spends most of his time in courtrooms and negotiations with the owners and former residents of buildings that collapse or blow up because, for one reason or another, Zoning inspectors and enforcers do not do their jobs.


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. “Reconstructing the ‘uni-versity’ from the ashes of the ‘multi- and mega-versity’” is in progress.