Harvey J Graff

I call for 19th-century urban reforms and an early 20th-century Progressive Era for Columbus, Ohio in 2022.

Columbus clamors for an unimaginable future alternatively as the Columbus Way or Opportunity City. But it has no sense of its past or even its present. If I turn to allegory for the city’s failing infrastructure, this is like building a 32-story skyscraper beside the historic North Market (once the home of city offices) or the ludicrously named Junto Hotel on the banks of the Scioto River without a foundation. Or, to turn to another relevant ecological metaphor, the City engages in slash-and-burn agriculture with no replanting.

We may combine these threads into a plea for sustained attention to the missing contexts of the city’s human and natural ecologies. We may then follow their intersections into the makings and breakings of the lives and the life chances of differently-situated Columbus residents.

The institutional City must take stock and confront its hidden facts. Columbus, Ohio, in 2022 is a failed city. In tandem with the City, the city of multiple publics, and Columbus’ self-appointed corporate and media boosters must join together in stock-taking and remaking.

Those qualities are Columbus’ genuine distinctions, exceptionalism, national status, and elusive identity. That is the Columbus Way and Mayor Ginther’s self-declared imaginary “Opportunity City”--for the few. All data demonstrate irrefutably that the City’s and Columbus’ exclusive—not diverse, inclusive, and equitable—self-conception never reflects but actually contradicts starkly the empty slogans.

As readers of even the non-daily, non-news but long-term city-boosting Columbus Dispatch know, these are the facts. They range from rates and numbers of murders including those by police; to mortality by race and ethnicity, maternal mortality, and infant mortality by race, income, and geography; hunger and poverty; food and health care deserts; unemployment and lack of livable wages; lack of childcare and equitable educational opportunities; inadequate numbers and conditions of affordable housing; public health and safety; broken infrastructure; and dangerous environment.

Uniting all of these facts of life on the unpaved or broken pavement of Columbus on the ground are the twin historical causes: 1) the City’s undemocratic polity; and 2) the dominance of private interests over the public. They are inseparable. The contours of Columbus’ past make its present all but inevitable. That is one of the reasons why the history remains unwritten, the documents uncollected, the interviews unconducted. How open is the question of the city’s future?

Understanding Columbus and moving for its change are also inseparable, in both theory and practice. That is the lesson of urban history and urban development.

Columbus cannot be allowed to continue to ignore, indeed suppress, its complicated history. Despite the actions and apparent beliefs of its movers and shakers, there cannot be either present or future without a documented, interpreted, and publically-aired history or histories. Columbus has only one documented embracing professional book. It is geographer Kevin Cox’s Boomtown Columbus (2021). There are none by urban historians. Scattered antiquarianism without context or consideration of meaning and significance is not history. Columbus’ universities, cultural institutions, media, and philanthropists share responsibility for this exceptional anachronism.

Reading past and present together as a comparative historian, an urbanist, and a lifelong resident of cities (from Pittsburgh to Chicago, Toronto, Dallas, San Antonio, and Columbus), I call for a revolution or if more moderate residents prefer a more than a century-late Progressive Era for the 220 year-old, now the US’s 14th largest city.

Action One. Admit that Columbus remains an unreformed mid-nineteenth century city with an unrepresentative, at-large elected. In practice, City Council members are selectively recruited within the ranks (that is, self-reproducing) and often appointed Council. Not long ago, it was majority Republican, more recently Democratic (but not progressive as sometimes claimed by either or both incumbents and critics). It masquerades as “nonpartisan.” That misleads the public.

The City must heed the deadly dangers of unwieldy superficial—rather than educational and experiential--qualifications for candidates for office, non-competitive races, very low electoral turnout, and too frequent appointments with minimal qualifications (500-word essay and resume, less than a college application). The voting public must demand more. Citizens’ groups, educational and cultural institutions, and the media must commit to truly public civic education.

The City must finally establish socially and demographically representative, equal districts and a larger, more informed, and able to meet real urban needs City Council. Fair districts elect, and are in turn democratically and reciprocally represented by their councilors. Nominations, elections, term specifications, and recall provisions must be popularly approved, widely publicized, and democratic. Compared to almost all American and many non-US cities, Columbus is more than a century-and-a-half out of date. One councilor recently commented to me that it resemble a 1980s city; I responded, no, the 1880s.

Action Two. Columbus City government must be completely reorganized. I am unaware of a single department that functions adequately. Public Service is a radical failure. Zoning is dramatically understaffed and internally disconnected. Along with other departments, they function much more as Private Service or Private Advancement than as public serving. 311 does not function. The number of inspection and enforcement officers for a city of almost one million is almost comical but in effect tragic.

The state of the Columbus Police Department demands sustained commentary by itself. The mayor has weakened it materially. Its rate of nonresident officers, murders of and violence toward residents, and lawsuits for illegal behavior are paralleled by the strength of its obstructionist Fraternal Order of Police and ongoing Department of Justice civil rights investigation.

Action Three. Hiring a well-qualified, professional, and experienced city manager—at long last—is a mandatory first step. The search must be national with finalists vetted by the public. Candidates must be made aware of the disconnection, disorganization, and lack of professional expertise that they will confront in Columbus city government.

Columbus’ historic lack of a professional city manager is inexplicable and one major symptom of its rejection of professionalism and expertise.

The city manager’s agenda might well begin with:

Action Four. City Council and mayor, in conjunction with residents, must engage in a truly open discussion of the city’s needs and missions (plural). I distinguish this from the past and present “leadership by slogans”—never with verifiable goals, programs, budgets, timetables, or standards for accountability, or the current mayor’s empty rhetoric of “aspirations,” few of which bear any relationship to Columbus as it actually exists. Mayor and City Council need to learn about the city that they purport to leading.

Action Five. That step is a prolegomenon to a thorough review and revision of the antiquated City Charter of 1914, not like today’s spotty patching at the demand of private, not public interests. A new charter must be the law of the land unlike the mayor’s, Council’s, Zoning’s, and private interests long-standing practices of ignoring it whenever it suits them.

Action Six. Remaking the city of Columbus must be driven by and committed to the city’s publics—plural--not by the private dominance of the self-appointed, undemocratic, and unaccountable Columbus Way, Columbus Partnership, and their alphabet soup of subgroups which often overlap with City committees, departments, and Area Commissions.

I call on and endorse the activation and activism of the whole city including all the people in all neighborhoods and the physical city as well. To amend the title of urban historian Thomas Bender’s prize-winning 1975 book: toward--a truly inclusive—an urban vision.

Can a 220-year-old, almost one-million person city begin to construct a representative and inclusive identity so late in its history? I do not know the answer. There are no comparable examples of cities past or present. Columbus’ failures to do over so long a time is exceptional. Given the wide range of its competing but never accurate labels and slogans, perhaps Columbus in search of renewal and inclusivity is an appropriate place to begin. Any answers (plural) must be complex.

But emphatically, Columbus must drop the panoply of monikers, most of which never functioned to mark it legitimately, from Crop to Cow Town, Cap City, Arch City, Tech City, Test City, Home of the Buckeyes, the Columbus Way, Site of the Memorial or The Arnold, Home of the Crew, Opportunity City, and so on.

If Columbus moves beyond Slogan City, and confronts its past and future together, that constitutes renewal, even revolution.

Action Seven. That set of actions must be accompanied by a thorough remaking of all internal and external communications systems, from website to telephone, and online access. All city business must be shared with its publics on a need-to-know basis, all of the time. This includes meeting notices with substantive agendas, full proposals, and detailed meeting reports. All meetings should be in person and live-streamed. Very few, only when absolutely necessary, with the concurrence of the City Attorney or a new Chief Ethics Officer, should be closed to the public. All meetings must be announced well in advance with rapid, detailed communications.

For example, just last week, City Council announced a series of four “Capital Improvement Budget Public Hearings” for the first half of July 2022. Linked to that notice on the City website is a 59 page budget documents with no discernable organization, no summary statement, no explanation, no narrative. Not only are none of the categories or monies explained but there is no glossary or translation of abbreviations. How can citizens be informed or respond? This is offensive to the public.

Action Eight. City Council committees must be reorganized for clarity, consistency, and workflow. At present, they constitute a contradictory, overlapping, and redundant maze of only two councilors per unit. That is insufficient for the conduct of important business. Committees must be staffed with professional experts. City Hall is alarmingly devoid of relevant expertise and a necessary research apparatus.

Action Nine. The incoherent substrata of departments and divisions also demand rethinking, redefinition, and reconstruction. There are far too few for a large, complex, and uneven-unequal city. Service to the public, professional expertise, integration, and both internal and external communications must assume priority at all levels.

At present, Zoning and Enforcement is far too small to meet its charges, yet the subdivisions (for example, trash, recycling, and pest control) do not communicate or coordinate. That must change. Not only must Zoning be dramatically expanded to meet its legal obligations but it must function in lock-step with an expanded 24/7 311 Complaint reporting system. With great fanfare, a new website was touted in Spring 2022 as solution to endemic problems. Unsurprisingly, it does not operate well.

In contrast, the contradictorily named Department of Public Service which functions for Private Advancement has more than 800 employees according to its website. There is no explanation for its size or of its functions.

What is clear that its occupation is selling the usage rights to public spaces and services to private out-of-city, out-of-state, and out-of-country corporations for their financial profit at the expense of Columbus residents. This ranges from parking spaces and parking lots to the disposal (i.e., littering) of short-term lease or rented cars, electric scooters, and bicycles in support of some never-defined fallacious “facilitating mobility.” (That translates into the movement of public and residents’ funds into private pockets.)

Action Ten. The City desperately needs a highly professional department of urban planning staffed with trained personnel familiar with cities comparatively and historically, design and functionality, distinctions between public and private, transit and mobility, urban ecology, and urban aesthetics. Columbus’ failing physical environment is characterized by the chaotic undistinguished downtown to too many too narrow two-way streets with parking on one or both sides, and race course-like thoroughfares. The city’s infrastructure cries out for rebuilding as do its transit, public health, education, and public safety systems.

Dirty, unhealthy Columbus also demands a separate department of sanitation as well as a more active, knowledgeable and activist Department of Public Health.

Columbus Police Department, with or despite new chief and assistant chief, also requires reorganization and reconstruction with the assistance rather than misdirection of council and especially the mayor.

Transcending but interconnecting all of these elements and their need to be constructed or reconstructed together is the imperative for Columbus to lift its gaze from its funhouse distorted mirrors to broader visions beyond its boundaries, literally and metaphorically. In a phrase, the city and the City must compare themselves with other actual cities in order to learn and to transform. Its long-delayed revolution, Progressive Era, and/or renewal urgently await.


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. Thanks to Tom Johnson for cogent comments.