“Breaking the law is reasonable behavior on a game day”
Harvey J Graff

I live in a 110-year-old house on a corner lot in the historic but public- and private-destroyed University District (UD) of Columbus. The area is unsafe, filthy, in disrepair, and unpoliced by the City of Columbus, Ohio State University (OSU) that depends on it for housing a majority of its students since its founding in 1870, large corporate property owners whose very existence is technically illegal, and many but not all student tenants.

The UD is a mix of incompatible ingredients simmering at high temperatures on a front burner with no one near the controls. It sometimes burns; lives are lost. Among historic university adjacent areas across the US, it is an extreme example of active and passive neglect.

Consider a telling incident from overnight March 27-28. Our OSU senior tenant neighbors laboriously dragged seven rental electronic scooters and one rental electronic bicycle nto our private property and left them in a jumbled pile blocking our double garage. These students, I note, are 21-22 years of age, university students, allowed to own guns, and vote. But they refuse to follow the law, breaking it more often and violently when asked to respect it.

On the next day, Saturday, 1980 Indianola Ave.’s numerous fraternity-escaping tenants violated City noise, alcohol, group behavior, and illegal structure laws from mid-morning through evening. This is one of NorthSteppe Realty’s most law-breaking rental properties. It is condoned by owner Michael Stickney and attorney Douglas Graff (no relationship) who assert publicly and in court that laws as written do not apply to their properties.

My neighbors and I called Columbus Police (CPD) at least six times. A single officer arrived in mid-afternoon, and gently cautioned the offenders. Minutes after he left, thenoise resumed even louder. When two more senior officers responded to our repeated calls, the lawbreakers had temporarily retreated to their fraternity houses.

In the Columbus Way, too many—but far from most—students revel in being rude and crude. The City, CPD, the landlords, and OSU support this by action and inaction, and by examples at all levels.

The unmistakable influence of the large corporate landlords and property managers is determinative. It is central to University District, and other Columbus areas’, property owners and managers “business model.” Tolerated by the City of Columbus and OSU, it is in the courts now. OSU Student Life refuses to warn students directly about these illegal practices. The understaffed and underfunded Student Legal Services is overwhelmed with complaints that Student Life does not report to prospective tenants. Requests to the City Attorney go unanswered.

Why? NorthSteppe Realty, for one, has given OSU at least $5 million while other major corporate landlords from HomeTeam to OSUlive and Buckeye, among others, also donate. They contribute to the mayor’s, city councilors’, and others’ campaigns, and almost certainly bribe Zoning Enforcement inspectors (who rarely inspect or enforce). This is the Columbus Way and the OSU Way in action.

Central to the territorial crisis of Columbus areas, neither OSU’s Office of Student Life and its Willie Young Center for Off-Campus Life—not lives, we notenor the landlords provide basic information on relevant laws, including tenants’ rights, despite decades of promises to do so. OSU websites for students are incomprehensible garble. It is impossible to discern what is unintentional and what is by design, malevolence or incompetence and ignorance. Despite listing at least eleven Associate and Assistant Vice Presidents and Directors, few with job descriptions, most of Student Life’s activity is done by undergraduate work study students. The Office could not produce a copy of its annual report when I asked directly.

Despite repeated requests from homeowners as well as students and their parents, Columbus Police, the City Attorney, Neighborhoods, and Zoning Enforcement officers have no interest in that.

In actuality, Columbus has no clearly defined, functioning neighborhoods. As for OSU and parts of the City, advancing students’ genuine interests and protecting the tuition- and fee-paying young people only reduces the profiteering of the large landlords who give handsomely above and below the real and metaphorical tables.

Students are not told that the UD is not part of campus. Nor, contradictorily, that City laws and codes do apply to the area and its residents—as they do on the dangerous campus itself. They are surprised that older homeowners live among them, many of us with long-term and/or continuing OSU affiliations.

In my twenty years of experience, most students are first surprised, then pleased to learn this. Most strive to moderate their 20–24-year olds’ behavior especially when they learn that the permanent residents understand that they are young people who will have fun. We ask that they conduct themselves with moderation and responsibility, not silence or inactivity.

For example, we first ask student neighbors to lower the volume of their music, and then call CPD only when we can hear the music and words in our thick-walled house with all doors and windows shut. That is well above the legal noise limits. We often have to explain the City’s noise ordinance to CPD officers if and when they respond to multiple calls.

A great many students consider this more than fair. They are pleased to cooperate and even establish neighborly, sometimes academic, cross-generational connections. For example, my wife and I have developed group of close student friends who we call “The Seniors at Harvey U.” We meet for coffee and conversation individually and collectively and enjoy potluck dinners. I assist with their writing and theses. They teach me about technical systems engineering and materials science for medicine, among other topics. We respectfully discuss age relationships, their cultures and ours, growing up today, and their possible futures. The group now has an international reputation.

But they do not represent all. Perhaps 5-10 per cent of students are genuinely what I would consider to be bad kids, typically escaping their fraternities and sororities to party, drink, haze, sexually assault, and rape more recklessly without even minimal moderation. They repeatedly violate dozens of laws, weekend in and weekend out.

Our neighbors and my household report the same houses, especially those owned by NorthSteppe Realty, multiple times almost every weekend. No one in authority pays attention despite the written record and our appeals, not the City, CPD, OSU, landlords.

After all, they are “just” white, middle class, college kids. “Only” 21 or older, allowed to drive, own guns, and vote.

NorthSteppe, HomeTeam, Buckeye, and OSUlive Realtors cater to, and exploit these students. Money changes hands around the square blocks, tables, and broken doors and windows, violating City Codes.

On the whole, CPD doesn’t care. With 80 per cent of officers living outside the city, they do not know the area or often the law. Their communications are poor; their organization and training worse. One told me, infamously, on a football Saturday, “breaking the law is reasonable behavior on a game day.”

Other officers who know the law admit to being afraid of 50-200 drunken students. They admit that with overwhelmingly middle-class white students, they do not get backups in racist Columbus. The “bad” students know this. They and their criminal landlords thrive on it, as they do with the City’s refusal to enforce zoning laws.

Another officer suggested, semi-seriously I think, that I invite the City Council to my house during football game time. Why not, I thought. So, I contacted their seven aides. Two informed me that their bosses “would be busy.” The others, as usual, did not reply. That’s the Columbus Way in our unrepresentative undemocratic city government.

Inexplicably, the much touted “joint” – one CPD and one Campus Safety officer – part-time patrols enforce almost no laws, especially those for which the greatest number of complaints are made. They are also not connected to CPD’s nonemergency reporting and complaint system.

OSU’s even more part-time Buckeye Block Watch is basically invisible and inactive. OSU Campus Safety refuses to answer any questions about this.

A larger but still minority group of students are the “hoodlums,” as in residents of the neighborhood.

Matters bottomed out from late fall 2022 over the Columbus plague of electronic rental scooters. In conflict with its own laws, and safety and neighborhood slogans, Columbus remains the largest US city that refuses to regulate scooters, and profiteers from them. I have written about the public endangering corruption of the Division of Public (aka Private) Service.

Despite the wording of the city’s laws, Private Service sold the rights to private out of state rental companies to have their vehicles left like dangerous litter blocking sidewalks and street corners with no regard for its effect on residents or appearance to visitors. They did the same with short-term rental vehicles whose corporate owners were based in Europe and who have now gone out of business.

Other cities require scooters, when permitted at all, to be placed in designated areas where they do not interfere with pedestrian, wheelchair, stroller, carriage, or other mobility. Last November, the first thing my wife and I saw in stepping out the door of our hotel on the University of Pittsburgh campus were requirements that scooters either be locked or placed in designated places. Since then, we find the same at Carnegie Mellon, Lehigh, Muhlenberg, Moravian, Penn, Temple, and Drexel, among other universities and colleges.

But for Columbus, that is only required – but poorly enforced – in the declining but favored, property developer dominated Short North. As in so much else, with no urban planners, traffic engineers, competence, concern for everyday citizens, or eyes and ears, Columbus is exceptional.

So, scooters literally litter the UD, like other areas. It is unsafe and illegal. When asked to move them from the middle of their sidewalks, the bad kids and the hoodlums join in outrage.

The sidewalks and streets are broken. Every student to whom I speak has tripped and fallen. The City does not enforce its own laws. There is no profit for Public (i.e., Private) Service in that.

It is impossible to walk a single block without seeing multiple clearly visible zoning, refuse, and parking  violations. They include dangerously unrepaired buildings. Illegal signage. Illegal objects on lawns. And especially, upholstered furniture on front porches. Does no one remember that these have burned as have entire houses, with students dying? Not the Zoning Inspectors, CPD, landlords, or Off-Campus Student Life….

City division directors in four or more departments and city council aides see this. Nothing happens. Residents do not matter. Lives do not matter. But private interests matter. That, we know well, is The Columbus Way.

My longtime homeowning neighbors are reaching a breaking point and considering moving from homes that we love and have occupied for decades.

The technically illegal corporate property owners can’t wait.

City and OSU don’t give a damn. So much for the mayor’s dishonest re-election slogans without substance about “neighborhoods.” There are really non inside the city limits.


Ellen Manovich, “‘Is This a Real Neighborhood’: Universities, Urban Development, and Neighborhood Change in the 20th Century United States,” unpublished Ph.D. Diss., University of Minnesota. 2016

_____,“‘Time and Change Will Surely Show’: Contested Urban Development in Ohio State’s University District, 1920-2015,” Journal of Social History 51(2018) , 1069-1099.

By Harvey J. Graff

“The decline of a once vital neighborhood: Columbus’ University District,” Columbus Free Press, Sept 14, 2021

“For Ohio State, bigger is not better,” Columbus Free Press, Sept. 16, 2021“Columbus’ University District: Students and the institutions that fail them,” Columbus Free Press, Oct. 8, 2021

“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

“The Ohio State University promotes public health crises,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Dec. 6, 2021

“OSU Falters Once Again, a continuing tragedy,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Feb. 28, 2022

“Ohio State versus ‘campus safety,’” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Mar. 13, 2022

“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

“Universities are not giving students the classes or support they need,” Times Higher Education, May 17, 2022

“How Young People Have Changed,” Letter to the Editor, Inside Higher Education, Aug. 4, 2022

“Recreating universities for the 21st century without repeating the errors and myths of the 20th century?” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 7, 2022

“The United States’ most disorganized university? Ohio State’s ‘5½ D’s’: Disorganization, dysfunction, disengagement, depression, dishonest, and undisciplined, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 28, 2022

“The United States’ most disorganized university? Ohio State’s ‘5½ D’s’: Disorganization, dysfunction, disengagement, depression, dishonest, and undisciplined, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 31, 2022

“Universities Must Help the New ‘Lost Generation,’” Academe Blog, Sept. 16, 2022

“Growing up was always hard to do. It’s getting harder, and universities are doing little to help,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Sept. 26, 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

“The OSU Way: Slogans over Truth and Honesty in Graduation Rates and Student Well-Being,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 27, 2022

“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

“University bragging rights: OSU whimpers but doesn’t bite or swallow,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 27, 2022

“Columbus’ home grown illegal landlords in a destroyed historic district,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Dec. 11, 2022

“I’m retired but I’ll still running my own unofficial university,” Times Higher Education, Dec 21, 2022

The Ohio State University: Not ‘a failed presidency,’ by itself, but a failing university, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan. 7, 2023

The Ohio State University: Not ‘a failed presidency,’ by itself, but a failing university, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan.  11, 2023

“Columbus, Ohio: Rude and Crude: The little big city that refuses to represent. serve, or respect its publics, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan. 15, 2022

“Columbus, Ohio: Rude and Crude: The little big city that refuses to represent. serve, or respect its publics, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan. 19, 2023

“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

“Unsafe at any speed: The unsafe city—from mayor to city council to CPD,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Feb. 16, 2023

“Kristina Johnson breaks her two-and-a-half months of silence and begins an anti-factual, myth-making campaign for rehabilitation,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Feb.  22, 2023

“Lessons from the 1960s: Paths to Rediscovering Universities,” Against the Current, 223, Mar.-Apr. 2023, 12-14

J’accuse: The City of Columbus Division of Public (aka Private) Service,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Mar. 3, 2023

The Ohio Student University vs. The Students, The Law, and The Truth. The Victims of Dr. Richard Strass and of OSU,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Mar. 14, 2023

How can a city with no history destroy its history? The Columbus Way,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Mar. 18, 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

“Living in a University District: How universities and their cities fail both homeowners and student renters,” forthcoming

“Disconnecting Gown and Town: Campus Partners for Urban Community Development, Ohio State University,” forthcoming

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.