Empty beer can on the ground outside at night

As I demonstrate in previous essays, the “city” of Columbus, Ohio and The Ohio State University are two peas in a decaying pod. (See references below.)The intertwined failings of the two disorganized, anti-constituent, private-profiteering, anti-public institutions are symbolically and practically encapsulated in the purposeless, falsely-named University District Organization. The UDO, as it calls itself (but does not pronounce out loud at least in my hearing), is the illegitimate creation of the two. It is  no more than an offense to members of both communities. 

Note to readers: I asked UDO Executive Director Nora Gerber, paid at least in part by public funds, to explain her organization’s purpose and actions to me. In several meetings and emails, she was never able to explain the UDO’s goals or functions. With regard to the issues that prompted this essay—a report in the OSU student The Lantern that interviewed Gerber about her offensively titled “Can Fairy” project, she would not even acknowledge my communications or answer any questions. (Reilly Ackerman, “University District ‘Can Fairies’ Project Encourages Students to Keep Community Clean,” Sept. 26, 2023) That is the Columbus, OSU, and UDO Way, we learn day after day. (See the decade out-of-date UDO “Plans” on their website)

Our first meeting quickly confirmed that Gerber, who grew up and resides in “The Circles” blocks in Victorian Village and holds two OSU degrees, did not know that there is actually a specified historic residentially zoned University  District within the both purposely and ignorantly named University District Organization of more than fifteen clusters of streets, few of which  are “neighborhoods,” as proclaimed, in any accepted sense of that word.

They derive from Columbus’ more than one half century old, long out of date, anachronistic, undemocratic, self-reproducing clusters of residential interest groups, formally named Area Commissions. The UDO is in fact an aggregation of unequal and uneven interest groups called Area Commissions. Gerber was unaware of the differences among the falsely labeled different “neighborhoods” and their histories. She has no interest in history, development or change over time, or actual living residents.

With no specific qualifications for her position as executive director or prior experience other than political patronage from a staff position in the definition- and leaderless City Neighborhoods, it never occurred to her ask about history, differences, or relationships. Not surprisingly, her UDO has no particular raison d’etre, stated purposes, or agendas. Review its website. It is one of Columbus’ and OSU’s weakest public relations and marketing units. It even lacks an encompassing slogan.

The UDO’s main contribution is visible pollution and defacement and distraction while it both overtly and covertly benefits private interests, few of them based in the University District proper or the random, anti-historical boundaries of the fictitious UDO. The UDO takes no active stands on neighborhood or architectural preservation, a revealing sign of its subservience to anti-historical and anti-neighborhood redevelopment over preservation. It is an agent of the City and OSU, not the actual neighborhood. None of my reports, concerns, or questions led Gerber to do more than “pass them along,” that is, when she deigned to respond at all.

“It isn’t magic that there are fewer beer cans to trip over each game day.

“It might be fairies” states OSU’s student news site The Lantern. This is wrong at every point.

The newly promoted “Can Fairy” Project is among the most offensive of UDO’s few initiatives. Begin with the name itself. It is 2023. To employ the word long used derogatorily to slur and ridicule gays, lesbians, and trans-persons indiscriminately to demarcate collectors of trash is unconscionably offensive and insensitive. Gerber and her UDO have no regard for other human beings and their differences. There is no awareness or respect of otherness.

If that were not sufficient, with no awareness or qualification, the ignorant self-promotion repeats the words “can fairy.” That phrase is almost universally used with specific reference to adults, often racial minorities, who trespass without residents’ or property owners’ permission to “collect” recyclable cans and bottles for resale.

On one hand, welcomed by ignorant young student tenants with scant regard for their safety, their landlords’ property, or the law; on the other hand, the “can fairies’” illegality is viewed by most others as a potentially dangerous threat to personal safety and security of property. In effect, Gerber’s UDO promotes ignorance and neglects physical danger. This is no “reclamation” of a simple descriptive term as Gerber and the undergraduate writer suggest.

(After two decades of promises, OSU’s Office of Student Life especially Off-Campus Student tell students almost nothing about the facts of the University District in which most will lives, the laws that they obligated to meet, and their rights. UDO partners with Student Life.)

Even more, the usage and the stated purpose of the “Can Fairies” Project are more than misguided. “Fairy” refers to a person. But in the UDO’s distorted vision of the world, a garbage container is somehow imagined also to be a “fairy,” as printed on the boxes. That is, when it is not a person, typicallyassociated with young women in Gerber’s lexicon, as represented by The Lantern.

Walking through the UD not only during and after a football game—but any Friday evening through Sunday morning when OSU is in session--contradicts all claims made by Gerber as well as OSU’s anti-student and anti-other residents Student Life and Upper Arlington realtor masquerading as Columbus city councilor Emmanul Remey’s ridiculously titled “Litter Leagues” Yes, that’s what he proudly calls them in offensive, technically illegal, no -bid contract ads shown on Channel 4 television. Student Life pays a handful of undergraduates to pick up trash on a public tract and some of their their own fraternity and sorority house lawns.

All the programs ignore trash-filled grounds of senior citizen, long-term homeowners. My wife and I live on a street corner four blocks north of Gerber’s miniature UD. Our lawn is a major trash dump, not only of half or more full beer and soda cans, and wine and whiskey bottles, but also food wrappers and plastic cutlery, all sorts of paper, many surgical masks since 2020, and articles of clothing especially undergarments.

Gerber, Student Life, and Remy are all aware of the situation with my own and my neighbors’ lawns.

Never once in almost 20 years has any designated student or city-related group picked up a single object. During the fall, I often fill 2 large plastic garbage bags, sorted by recyclable and ordinary trash by myself.

One Sunday, my front door was tagged by City Trash Inspection during a short symbolic period of inspections for a few weeks during football seasons just minutes after I told them I was just beginning to pick up marauding students’ refuge. That threat of fine or imprisonment was immediately rescinded upon my complaint. Nevertheless, it was made despite my own trash pickup.

I am not served by “can fairies,” “Litter Leaguers,” or Brutus Buckeye’s “Student Life Ambassadors” having their “Exceptional Student Experience “as they struggle to regain sobriety with no supervision on a handful of Sunday mornings each year.

In its second year, Gerber’s unadvertised project [sic] is limited to the relatively small part of the UD between Chittenden and 16th Avenue. Why such a small area? Why not the entire UD including the clusters of remaining older homeowners who pay city taxes and suffer OSU’s combined neglect and assaults? Why is their no relationship or coordination with the City’s Division of Refuse’s adding of additional dumpsters in the area? Why indeed? No one has answered that question when I ask. They do not know or care.

Let’s be factual for once: 1) there are no fewer cans as a result of the “project”; 2) cans are only one part of the every weekend—and every trash pickup day—problem; 3) only a small part of the area is served and inadequately; 4) Gerber’s undocumented claims of reducing street trash by 2,000 pounds or one ton, even if accurate, is a trivial amount of the whole.

How can she and the equally fabulous, wasteful, empty slogan “Keep Columbus (un)Clean” P.R. promotion be impressed with so little in return for expenditure of public funds? None of them are in touch with reality. None of them live in the actual University District. Not one can present a cost to benefit analysis. That matters. There are no metrics or message to determine success or its absence. These are self-promoting, distracting slogans not plans of actin to serve any publics.

Beyond that, the entire wasteful commitment to limited waste collection rests on a fundamentally false premise: every resident of the UD—and the city of Columbus—has by law access to regular recycling and trash removal since spring 2023 each week. Neither Gerber nor The Lantern reporter seems to know the facts of life in Columbus. Nor does Remy or other city councilors.

If tenants do not have direct access to collection, then their landlord should be reported and legally cited. Oh no, not in Columbus where the landlords give orders to the city and the university, and refuse to provide the simple necessary one regular and one recycle bin for every four or five residents. City Council—and OSU--are afraid to ask their benefactors NorthSteppe, HomeTeam, OSUlive, Buckeye Realty, and others to spend a few dollars for cleanliness, sanitation, and reduction of fire risk for all.

In contrast, my wife and I, two people, received one blue and one green bin when we purchased our house. We also receive regular updates on collection pick up schedules and what and how to recycle. Astonishingly, student tenants do not. Despite repeated requests from neighbors and the Division of Refuse, neither landlords nor OSU or UDO provide that basic service to student tenants. It is beyond the ability of “can fairies,” “little leaguers,” “Keep Columbus Cleaners,” “Ambassadors,” or Brutus itself. Cleanliness and sanitation, in fact, matter little.

To come full circle, why do 20-year-old and older students need “fairies” to collect their cans? The Lantern reporter quotes one “third-year in speech and hearing science,” apparently a female student, that “before using Can Fairy, she didn’t have access to recycling.” If true, that is illegal. Why cannot Student Life or UDO tell her that?

Do the student and Gerber help to answer that conundrum: “We had a 21st birthday party a couple weekends ago with a bunch of people here, and we destroyed the box, like it was just totally full of all the cans and everything that otherwise would have gone in the trash,” the student stated.

I can’t quite follow her, but perhaps Gerber can. She comments, “it’s important for students to participate in the project because it helps break the habit of leaving litter on lawns.” The student never mentions litter on lawns. What is Gerber imagining other than sloganeering and fictionalizing.

Illogically and out of context, Gerber continues, “I think that it [no antecedent] leads people to feel like we don’t care about our neighborhood. And so by having a way to really easily recycle and keep our lawns clean, I think it’ll show that we have a lot more pride in our University District.” Who is “our”? Gerber does not live in the UD.

Ms. Gerber: what about the majority of cans that aren’t “fairied,” all the trash other than recyclable cans, and larger expanse of the UD itself? How and when do they figure in? Or don’t they?

“Can Fairies” joins Student Life’s commitment to the infantilization—not maturation and education of OSU students. Instead of any education for life, the “Exceptional Student Experience” pivots on asking repeatedly “WWBD,” “What would Brutus do?” Brutus of course is a silent cartoon character.

Perhaps this is why Gerber’s UDO, along with her City bosses, is singularly committed to the visible and physical pollution of the UD in its entirety. In April 2023, they sponsored a fake competition to promote clear and clean passage of drain water from sewers to pipes to the Olentangy creek.

In my scholar’s and long-term resident’s view, the sidewalk paintings are environmentally defacing, often in multiple ways. Gerber disagrees with “my ‘opinion.’”. Regardless, the UDO was granted temporary permission to deface the public rights of way. The juvenile paintings remain  on North High Street sidewalks and street corners six months later.

The UDO does pay non-students and non-residents to pick up some trash on North High Street. But they are under orders not to touch any refuse on any side streets that intersect with High or do anything about the human and environmental plague of rental scooters. That is a uniquely Columbus and OSU problem, unlike any other city or campus. Both the City and OSU accept payments from the rental companies not to publicize or enforce the laws.

Gerber’s  UDO is also the scene of out-of-control physical pollution by signage, much of it historically and geographically inaccurate and/or out of date. On almost every street corner, often obstructing passage by a baby carriage,  stroller, wagon, or wheelchair, stands long out of date cheap metal, unattractive notices of “neighborhood adoption,” often by the very sororities and fraternities that fill their own lawns, sidewalks, and streets with trash, most of it not in the form of recyclable cans.

Other signs duplicatively announce fictitious “historical” and other “districts,” welcoming someone or other, in addition to repetitive, misleading, environmentally polluting city signs, many with former mayor Michael Coleman’s name on them accompanied by long out of date information. Requests to remove them are ignored by all parties.

Why don’t Gerber’s “can fairies” collect them for recycling. Reporting them to 311 and the Division of Public (aka Private) Service, as always, leads to no action. That is the same as reporting broken sidewalks on which pedestrians old as well as young, regularly trip, fall, and injure themselves. The same is true with Columbus’ trademark broken streets. They are noted by all visitors, and cause accidents by bicycles, ubiquitous rental scooters that plaque Columbus and the UD unlike any other city or campus area in the entire U.S., cars, and trucks.

The city is too busy profiteering from its expensive, often obstructive private and public parking payment systems, and payoffs from the scooter rental companies—as is OSU—to either repair and maintain its physical environment and serve its people.

“Can Fairies” appeal much more to Gerber’s UDO than the physical environment, safety, sanitation, and security. And to OSU and the City. Silly slogans and profiteering trump residents, including taxpayers’ lives. Residents’ lives and legal and civil rights do not matter. That’s the UDO, OSU, and the Columbus Way

Relevant essays by Harvey J. Graff

“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 saga,” 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

“Columbus’ anachronistic, private interest-dominated ‘area commissions’ and ‘neighborhood

organizations’ must go,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Dec. 3, 2022

“Columbus City Council muddies, no--defaces art in public: $250,000 in uninformed

 boosterism for the ‘little city that can’t,’” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Dec. 8, 2022 

“Columbus’ home grown illegal landlords in a destroyed historic district,” Busting Myths,

Columbus Free Press, Dec. 11, 2022

“The plague city: Daily life in Columbus, Ohio,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Dec.

 17, 2022

“Universities and cities often fail both homeowners and students,” Times Higher Education, Jan.

22, 2023

“A city versus its neighborhoods: Columbus, Ohio,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan.

25, 2023

J’accuse: The City of Columbus Division of Public (aka Private) Service,” Busting Myths,

Columbus Free Press, Mar. 3, 2023

“A call for reparations from the City of Columbus, the large corporate landlords, and The

Ohio State University for the destruction of neighborhoods with a focus on the

University District,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Apr. 1, 2023

“The plague of Columbus’ streets and sidewalks: Electric scooters illegally fueled by the

City’s Division of Public (aka Private) Services,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free

Press, Apr. 14, 2023

“Lawless, Unsafe, and Dirty: The Dying University District.” Busting Myths, Columbus Free

Press, May 2, 2023

“Ohio State University and its Dying University District: The Oval and the Campus

Beyond,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, May 5, 2023

“A week in the life of the failing City of Columbus: One weekend’s low lights,” Busting

Myths, Columbus Free Press, July 8, 2023

“The broken, no—the evil—triangle of the City of Columbus vs. its residents. Destroying the

physical city and the semblance of neighborhoods: Zoning (Un)enforcement, Public

(Private) Service, and 311, with the assistance of OSU, the City Attorney, CPD, City

Council, and Mayor, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 4, 2023

“The broken, no—the evil—triangle of the City of Columbus vs. its residents. Destroying the

physical city and the semblance of neighborhoods: Zoning (Un)enforcement, Public

(Private) Service, and 311, with the assistance of OSU, the City Attorney, CPD, City

Council, and Mayor, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 8, 202

“Emergency Bulletin: The City of Columbus, OSU, and landlords against student tenants and

homeowners—dramatic case in point,” Columbus Free Press, Aug. 21, 2023


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History, inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies, and Academy Professor, Ohio State University . Author of many books on social history, the history of literacy and education, and interdisciplinarity, he writes about social history and higher education for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, 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 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. He is now writing Reconstructing the “Uni-versity” from the Ashes of the “Mega- and Multi-Veristy.”