Welcome to Columbus sign

This essay grows from an informal conversation over coffee with a friend. As I criticized the former mayor, but far more influential chair of the self-appointed and uncontrolled Downtown Development Commission’s unembarrassed promotion of an imaginary non-plan for a fictional downtown in 2040, they looked at me and asked: why can’t this city accept itself and build on what it is?

Columbus, Ohio, is more than 200 years old. But it won’t grow up. Immaturity characterizes every dimension including its illogical obsession with size. Today, this overflows in the pseudo-celebration of a convention center hotel new tower—too tall for the area—making it “the largest hotel in Ohio.”

Despite its age, the city functions like an awkward, sometimes self-destructive child. For clues, watch the mayor sputter and inarticulately blurt out meaningless slogans never associated with proposals, let alone policies. Councilors and department heads chime in. What has happened to speech classes?

The question is simultaneously obvious and stunning, revealing in either dimension. Why indeed? At the most general—and further question-provoking—level, it is Columbus, Ohio’s reflexive, but unreflecting response to its lack of a serious documented history and inseparably interrelated lack of an identity. Think, for a minute or two: why is it always enunciated Columbus, Ohio (with its statues of its namesake in a warehouse)? Imagine “Ohio’s biggest hotel” on a t-shirt.

The number of serious, researched books on the city occupies less than one half of a small book shelf. What the non-daily, unedited, non-news, and unread Columbus Dispatch includes as history—by either an amateur local historian or its former librarian—ranges from the trivial to the false, never with concern for historical context or significance.

WOSU falls into line with Curious C-bus for the incurious. “Why does Columbus not have a Chinatown?” Duh. How about “what does C-bus itself signify: a lost COTA route?”

Curious C-bus competes with Columbus on the Record that has no record. There is no expertise, little familiarity with the city itself. That mirrors City Hall. There is no ongoing professional historical study, or for that matter, other professional sets of inquiries, other than isolated OSU social science theses. Publishers assure me that there is no market for Columbus history, not even children’s books.

This reflects on the local mega-university’s own immaturity and failure to develop ongoing relationships with the city that grew to surround it. Instead, OSU assists private developers in building a wall between its campus and the city. Over time, it obstructed the city’s search for professional football, basketball, and baseball teams in order to maintain its own sense of importance and qualified profitability.

I have written about Columbus, Ohio’s lack of identity and history in other essays, especially  “Columbus searches for its Downtown with historical, urbanist, and developers’ blinders,” Busting Myths      , Columbus Free Press, Dec. 22, 2021; “Columbus, Ohio, searches to be a city: The myth of the Columbus Way,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan. 9, 2022; “Columbus’ major ‘news media’ against democratic politics and the public,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Mar. 10, 2022;“Is Columbus really a City?” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Apr.7, 2022, all available on the Columbus Free Press website.


The 14th largest city in the United States has no identity, try as The Ohio State University’s Buckeyes and Brutus, the illegal steroid-spewing The Arnold Classic, and the Columbus Crew—the City’s step-child--failingly compete for that. Curiously and contradictorily, they are all supported by the City. This is the children’s excessive allowance. They have no required chores in return. The Crew failed to pay its joke $10 rent until one Columbus Dispatch reporter told the principal, oh, I mean the taxpaying public. This arrangement is like putting money under its pillow for losing teeth, oh, I mean games.

There is no Columbus Way other than the city’s regular purchase and profit-taking by private capital, inseparable from its history and development. Crawling awkwardly toward adolescence, this is the major function of the largest City department. It masquerades—like Trick or Treat—as Public Service when it is devoted to Private Advancement. Like a child, the City has no respect for anyone other than itself and its godfathers. This excludes peers, seniors, and neighbors of difference.

Only Andy Ginther dishonestly and gushingly talks up “America’s Opportunity—for a few—City.” Contrary to a 1990s mayor, Columbus, Ohio, was never “cow town,” which the Dispatch confuses with “crop town.” “Arch City” illuminates very few blocks on two streets.”

Senior City staff struggle with basic reading and writing. In response to my queries and especially my formal complaints, responses are not in Standard English even from one major staffer who claims a degree in journalism from a major university. At least one assistant city attorney cannot (or will not) read highly relevant court cases.

The entire City, led by the Mayor and City Council President (why not chair with only seven members?) is arithmetically challenged. They don’t understand the obvious consequences of overly large, completely indiscriminate retirement bonuses for police retirements on the twin-demic of an already short-staffed force and out of control crime and violence. Basic arithmetic is inseparable from simple logic.

Similar problems spill over into City Council spending on private and piecemeal rather than citywide and coordinated programs, affordable housing units, taxes, crime prevention and safety, and much more.

Inseparable is basic honesty and what was once called “truth in advertising.” In an elementary school setting, many in the City would be ordered to sit in the corner or the cloakroom if paddling were prohibited. Time on the unpaved, unmaintained school yard would be limited.

The Mayor, his office, Councilors and senior staff, the Department of Public (aka Private) Service can neither express themselves clearly nor read and understand conflict of interest laws. Like the private interests into which they invest scarce public resources without accountability, they do not understand either texts or public service. My second grader friends know more about social justice and respect than these anti-public servants.

City Communications are uncontrolled by any editing, self-discipline, or concern with responsible exchange—let alone relevant content. They spam their subscribers uncontrollably. Can we send them to a good elementary or middle school?

Like the anachronism that it is, its periodic report cards should include self-discipline, comportment, ability to get along another with others, and both self- and other-respect. Both standardized and individual testing orally and verbally should be required.

In the best book on the city, geographer Kevin Cox dubs Columbus, Boomtown. I have a historian’s hesitation in accepting that analogy. Perhaps “boom or bust”? Regardless, the city is unstable on its feet and urgently needs physical education for stability and agility, safety, and protection for itself and those close to it. Self-control, self-discipline, and respect for others stand out as urgently “needing improvement.”

Correspondingly, but never enunciated in public or print, there are almost no peer relationships or ability to imitate—that is, to learn from—other cities for healthy growth and development.

Columbus, Ohio, lacks the distinctive cultural and historical institutions of its in-state rivals Cleveland and Cincinnati, or even Toledo. They do not require “Ohio” after their names to be recognized. Columbus, Ohio, also lacks the prominent, professionally-designed public places that mark those cities.

Coleman, Ginther, the endorsing City Council, the Columbus Partnership (whose president lives in New Albany along with still powerful Leslie Wexner), the Columbus Dispatch, and others obsess ignorantly over an undefined, small, jagged piece of ragged land they call “downtown” and its “growth” which they cannot define. That awkward space has no old or new architecturally- distinctive buildings and no boundary lines.

It sits uncomfortably as an unplanned, chaotic space. Private parking lots that do not accept the City’s own over-priced public parking app (with service charges) are its most distinctive feature along with broken sidewalks and lack of basic retail services. With the city’s trademark broken pavement and salad dressing of trash, Columbus has no art or cultural centers of recognized distinction. Ask any visitor.

The more I learn about Columbus, Ohio’s undemocratic, private capital-dominated, for-sale, inexpert and unprofessional, and inadequate City government, the more I understand the entire city’s lack of professional city planning and glaring absence of a qualified city manager, organized expert-led departments, and representative accountable city councilors.

Fantasies of an imaginary Downtown lead to wild guestimates—based on nothing at all--of 120,000 workers and 40,000 residents by 2040. They rest on the thinnest air (that would sink in the Scioto or the equally fantastic Rapid Five). Any specific, possible structures that would have relationships to each other are missing.

Like a child, the city cannot look in the mirror and either or both groom itself or improve on its basics. There is no ability to self-criticize or learn from experiences, its successes and especially its failings. Those are the marks of maturity.

There is no “plan” or “proposal,” no budget or timetable for downtown or anything else. What is proposed to CDDC and endorsed by City Council is less than what could be jotted on the back of an envelope when Ginther gets his orders at the weekly expensive lunch from his predecessor, sponsor, and, in effect, godfather.

Turning to faint specifics, the non-plan presumes the continuing destruction of one of the city’s few sights of natural riverfront beauty along the Scioto. It pays no attention to the physical streets. The fiction-writers imagine two-way streets where the width of the passage ways are too narrow, let alone without adding bike lanes and public transit that they are unable to develop across the city. If Indianola Avenue merchants do not want bike lanes, why will downtown’s?

The City employs no reputable traffic engineers. Drive from “downtown” to the fantasized Short North and Clintonville’s impassible narrow corridors with two-way driving and parking on both sides. Unsafe and unclean is the Columbus Way.

Downtown is Columbus, Ohio’s fantasy land. It is much like its now favored child, the undistinguished Short North, dominated by large developers. In taking no public responsibility, they too “won’t grow up.”

Obsession with size and lack of literal or metaphorical vision dominates the CDDC’s fictions. We see this in approving construction of a more than 30 story building beside the historic North Market where city offices once occupied the second floor. No qualified planner ever stood on the street corner and viewed the scene before approving that inappropriate action on downtown’s edge.

The Edwards Corporation, fresh from building an OSU-underwritten wall of unattractive, over-priced, and significantly under-occupied apartment buildings along OSU’s east side, now proposes to redevelop the PNC building’s self-contained walkway to its parking garage by claiming to imitate New York City’s High Line. The actual High Line links no buildings, is not downtown, and is not part of a high rise. The business reporter of the Columbus Dispatch approved the notion despite admitting to me that he had walked the original High Line the week before. Like the City, he has no vision, literal or metaphorical.

The CDDC also promotes a thoroughly unaesthetic large piece of “street art” that is almost certain to kill birds. A “real” downtown must have “public art,” regardless of …. At the same time, the City rushes to demolish rather than reuse its few rarely distinguished “landmark” buildings.

With no evidence of qualified city planners, other than developers’ paid “consultants,” I ask if anyone in the DCCD, Columbus Partners, City Hall, City Council, or the Mayor has ever viewed, walked in, or otherwise experienced a distinctive city” even if only in the United States: New York? Philadelphia? Boston? Chicago? Atlanta? San Francisco? Toronto? Or Milwaukee? Raleigh? San Antonio? Pittsburgh? Indianapolis? Or closer to home: Cincinnati? Cleveland? Evidently not.

Stepping back from Downtown, I return to my initial question about growing up. Columbus, Ohio, remains an immature child among cities and city builders. Despite its founding at the end of the 18th century, Columbus did not experience the urban reforms of the second half of the 19th or the 20th century.

Columbus, Ohio, is the oldest and largest US city that continues to be governed by an undemocratic, unreformed at-large elected city council. Like a child, it pretends a tiny shift to districts for communication somehow compensates for fundamental lack of representation. Is this a charade or hide and seek? Or Halloween trick but no treat No, it is “I won’t grow up.”

Other cities transitioned to districts or wards during the second half of the 19th century. 19th century. More than 150 years later, childlike Columbus, Ohio, lacks any awareness of its anachronistic, anti-public deformity.

When its long out-of-date, unworkable (but often ignored), and never seriously revised 1914 City Charter and various sets of laws and codes are examined, it is also clear that Columbus, Ohio, did not experience the early 20th century Progressive Era of public-serving reforms, many of which continue in most cities.

Childlike Columbus, Ohio, has no self-awareness, self-consciousness, ability to learn or criticize itself, or self-control. It cannot compare itself to significant others and learn from them. It cannot speak clearly or communicate well. It is civically and urbanely illiterate. It has no learning curve or even awareness that it lacks these absolutely necessary attributes of maturity if it is to grow up and actually grow into and as a city. It does not realize its need for education and reformation.

To mention only the most glaring, shameful, and defining problems, Columbus, Ohio has no awareness that it is failing as a city: no city services work; there is no leadership; there is no accountability; there is no learning curve.

City Council undercuts its public schools, police, and transit through tax-giveaways to large private interests, that is, when it is not awarding grants from 10s of thousands to 10s of millions of dollars to private and occasionally public special interest groups in a piecemeal, never coordinated, citywide vision. No one knows how to navigate and negotiate city-wide.

The City has no urban vision, a theme that unites the elements of this essay. In addition, funded proposals are not carefully reviewed. Far too many lack developed proposals, timetables, and budgets, and any measure of accountability—or proof of recipients’ qualifications.

Given the lack of an urban vision, it is clear that the childlike Columbus, Ohio, has never had its eyes examined. Is there a pediatric urban opthalmologist at large insurance corporation’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital?

Look around. The city is unsafe, dirty, deteriorating, unsanitary and unhealthy, unplanned, out of control, with severe racial, gender, social class, and ethnic inequalities. Health and food deserts abound. Inequality is etched visibly into its failing streets, sidewalks, housing, and schools. No one polices the playgrounds or anywhere else.

Like a child, Columbus, Ohio, lacks self-control, self-government, and self-policing. Conflicts of interest crisscross all levels of city government. Not only does the city not police itself, but efforts by a number of residents never get a hearing. I have filed formal complaints against city departments and an assistant city attorney twice this year and also filed Internal Affairs complaints with the police department.

Regardless of importance or documentation, not one received a hearing. No explanations are offered. Lies and excuses from City Council and City Attorney’s Office substitute. There is neither process nor honesty. That, too, is the Columbus Way.

The Columbus Police Department is ruled by the strongest self-protecting chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. It is the City’s and city’s bully. Under US Department of Justice investigation for racism, it leads the US in shootings of unarmed young black men and levels of officers living outside the city. Many officers do not know the law. Slogan-based, reckless actions by the mayor and City Council president reduce an already short-staffed force.

City and public health leaders, like children at a playground, think that “declaring violence and homicide a public health crisis” with no policy or actions magically solves overwhelming problems. The mayor vows to “spend whatever it takes to make Columbus safe,” but has no resources, let alone a plan or a budget.

Like a tired child outside its crib or playpen, Columbus, Ohio, does not know what or how to do. It has no parents or guardians, no mother or father figures. Perhaps a handful of godfather as well as an anti-urban, bullying state government

Refusal to grow up is simply too enriching for the few who dominate. Is calling them the city’s/City’s bullies or juvenile gang too kind? They are the controlling bad parents. That has been and continues to be The Columbus, Ohio, Way. The childlike entity has not developed compassion or self-awareness, certainly not transference or human sympathies.


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 August. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.