"Columbus in 1978 might best be defined as a good, solid average city ... populated by malcontents with aspirations toward superstar city status.”
Editor’s note: Columbus can’t claim to have rid itself completely of its cowtown self doubts, but it certainly has grown in confidence in recent years, especially when compared with what it was like in 1978, when Columbus Monthly did a 10,000-word cover story on the city’s inferiority complex.
Oh, you will find little pockets of boosterism. You'll find it in official places, of course, like the Chamber of Commerce and various business and civic organizations ... and you'll find it in private places, like a small but-comfortable living room in Wyandotte North Apartments on the far north side where a middle-aged man is saying, “Sure I like Columbus. It's an easy city to live in. It's easy to go out and eat, easy to go to a movie, easy to get to the airport. There's no hassle here." Or the younger man, sitting in a large, sunlit study in a Sessions Village home: "Columbus is a terrific place to be right now. Ten years from now, it's going to be one of the really great cities in the country. People are doing things here. The economy is stable, the racial situation has always been good, politics and government are clean, there's a tremendous amount of building going on Downtown.”
There is an old parody of an old saying, though, which a lot of Columbus people seem to believe fits this city unusually well: "It's a great place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit here."
Much is implied. That old wisecrack seems to acknowledge all the frequently-heard comments about Columbus being an easy place to live. It says, too, that the city is a safe place to live—physically and mentally. But the point of it is that Columbus is also a ... well, a blah city. That nothing ever really happens here. That we have nothing to be famous for—no Superdome, no Guggenheim Museum, no Golden Gate Bridge, no Disney World, no White House, no San Andreas Fault ... not even the Cincinnati Reds, Kings Island, Maisonette Restaurant, Cleveland Browns or Cleveland Orchestra. John Denver has never sung the praises of our terrain. We host a big tennis tournament and the stands sink into the mud, and the only way Columbus (that's "Columbus, Ohio") gets mentioned by David Brinkley is if the city gets hit by a foot and a half of snow... at the same time everybody else gets hit.
These are some of the things that prey heavily upon people's minds as they gaze out the windows of their homes and offices and think to themselves, “God, what a hick town." Some of them substitute "one-horse town" for "hick town.” Some of them substitute a one-word expletive for the whole thing.
The simple fact is that Columbusites have a whopping inferiority complex. One Clintonville woman, who has lived and worked here for some 30 years, said the other day: “I just told Tom that when I die, I want him to take me back to the hills and bury me there. I've lived in this place 30 years, and to be buried here too would be just too much.” That's a bit extreme, perhaps... but telling, nonetheless. More indicative of the general mood are the comments by a Bexley resident, a woman who moved here 20 years ago from New York: "If I were single, on the make and very ambitious, I'd want to go someplace else. That's because if you were going to do something significant, you'd want to do it in Washington or New York or some place where it matters. I like Columbus, but I have a feeling everything here is average.”
Some people have given a great deal of thought to the subject; they are beyond arguing about whether or not it is dull and have moved right ahead to discussions of why it is dull. "There is no sizable blue-collar population here," one Columbus native says. Most of the city is middle class whites, and middle-class whites are dull." Another resident says, “The town tends to be very homogeneous, and therefore tends not to have the kinds of excitement and variety you have, say, in Cleveland - Columbus doesn't have the great ethnic populations. It's a very WASP-y town—pleasant, reserved, privacy-conscious, a don't-rock-the boat kind of town.”
An east-sider says, "I don't think Columbus has its share of characters, of great personalities. ... The blood doesn't rush in Columbus.”
Now, all this is fairly depressing to the boosters, because a determined feeling that the city is dull is a very hard thing to defend against.
People do have a tendency in everyday conversation to make some devastating but illogical comparisons: They will say that Columbus doesn't have the art galleries and intellectual climate of Boston, that it doesn't have the availability of theater and movies and restaurants that New York has, that it doesn't have the fashion-consciousness of Chicago. Well, no, it doesn't. But those are big metropolises, old cities that were hustling and bustling when Columbus was a baby. Among other things, they are historic ports, old melting pot cities with character and élan.
Stacked up against comparably-sized cities in middle America, there are some areas in which Columbus positively glows: The city has an almost amazingly strong economy, steps are being taken to revitalize the Downtown even before real urban blight sets in, business leadership seems to be stirring and some healthy power struggles are taking place. You may still argue that we're a cultural zero, and you may ask why everybody else has six major league teams and we have none, you may complain that you have to travel to Cincinnati for even a four-star restaurant meal. Most of these complaints could be silenced by vast doses of money, and whether and in what areas such bucks may be forthcoming are questions for the rest of this decade and the next.
Such grumblings and grousings touch on some of the dozen or so topics popular for cocktail-party conversational floggings of the city: culture, sports, restaurants, media, fashion, money, government, recreation, beauty, society and sin. These are the sexy topics. Columbusites lay them out, do some verbal masticating and then snarl that their city is average.
The big problem is that the city has more than its share of dreamers, people who sense just enough here that they hunger after more, more, more. Those people who talk grandly—and perhaps rightly—of Columbus being a great city in 10 or 15 years have made everybody miserable the city wants it now. Columbus in 1978 might best be defined as a good, solid average city ... populated by malcontents with aspirations toward superstar city status.
Don't try to measure Columbus's fashion sense by its store window displays, its racks full of hot new designs, the looks featured in local fashion columns. The woman with a teased, bouffant hairdo and short short skirt can ignore this year's anklets and billowy separates—just as she ignored last year's blouson and the man-tailored suit from two years ago, and the midi before that...
And fashion trends are passing lots of Columbus women by. Watch Columbus street scenes. Look at the middle-class working women, the bank tellers, secretaries, waitresses, salespeople in department stores. See what women wear, how they look when they go out to dinner, to a concert, to a play. It's not hard to believe estimates made by some observers of the city's fashion scene that fewer than 3 percent of the city's women have a true fashion sense. They say only very few make a conscious effort to keep up with trends, to wear important new looks, to combine and vary and accessorize correctly—and would walk down High Street in this season's voluminous top, skinny pants and high sandals.
Perhaps another 15 percent are at least somewhat fashion-conscious—including many of the younger customers buying junior styles. They buy some of the newest items each year, wearing lower-priced adaptations of the new designs. But many of the rest of Columbus women are still wearing shorter skirts or double knit pantsuits, chunky, low shoes and a smattering of tailored jewelry, each week having their hair re-set and re-teased into a style they've worn for years.
"Oh, Columbus is better than some places," says one clothing store executive who has worked here and in other cities and now owns his own store in the South. "It has more fashion sense than most of the smaller cities in the Midwest. But it can't compare with Cleveland, or even Cincinnati. And some cities on the East Coast that are much smaller than Columbus have a fashion sense that's 10 times better."
There is an argument that the department stores and specialty shops are to blame for the city's lack of fashion sense, that they don't stock important new designs. "We have some of the fashions here, but we don't have all the lines," says one woman. "We may have Anne and Calvin Klein, Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Cardin and a few others, but there are important designers that aren't represented here at all.” Ask her what she would do if someone told her that from now on she must buy all her clothes in Columbus and she answers, “I gotta kill myself."
But this can't be the major source of the city's fashion problem. Some Lazarus executives say their departments stock almost all the items one could find in parallel departments at Bloomingdale's, the Federated sister store in New York—albeit in smaller quantities. Montaldo's executives say they sell the same things in the Columbus store they sell in Denver and St. Louis. Some women are happy to find the newest fashions by haunting Schottenstein's and combing through its regular buy-outs. Others study the designer looks and re-create them through selective shopping. "No, I won't have the designer labels, but I can put together looks just like the latest Paris designs from items available in Columbus," says one woman. "You just have to be willing to devote some time to it."
No, the problem is not unavailability as much as it is lack of awareness—or lack of concern—among Columbus women. A lot of women don't realize they're out of fashion, They can still find the color-coordinated-print-blouse-and-polyester pantsuit sets in every store, and they see lots of other people wearing them. So they keep buying, oblivious to current styles in store windows and on mannequins. Some start out well-intentioned by buying a new fashion look, then proceed to wear it exactly the wrong way. Scarves are tied with mussy little granny knots, shawls draped in ways befitting Whistler's mother, hats meant to come to the eyebrows are perched on top of the head.”
Many others view changing fashions with amusement or disdain, an "I'm too old for that" attitude. These are the women who will sit politely through a fashion show, cheerfully applauding the models, then leave and immediately buy a dress and shoes identical to ones they've bought the past 10 years.
An even bigger problem is fear: fear of change, fear of embarrassment, fear of individuality. There's a lot of security in looking the same over the years—and the same as everyone else.
The attitudes of local women have made Columbus a fashion follower, moving at a pretty slow pace. There are a few who dress, as they would in New York or Europe; a large number of them are high-level department store executives, who feel they must wear fashion to sell it—and who spend a lot of time out of Columbus. A few others are proud to be individualists. "I've been dressing the way I want to for 20 years," says one woman as she tucks her brown cord Levi's into a pair of $200 Yves St. Laurent two-tone suede boots. “And I've got nothing but compliments. I have to wear clothes, so I may as well enjoy what I'm wearing.”
But more women are stifled by what they feel is the city's attitude toward fashion. They don't buy certain items, or wear certain things together. One says she doesn't invest in flashy and unusual fashion accessories, trend-setting styles of hats, belts, scarves and shawls because it's not worth the trouble. People would look at me as if they're think ing, "Who does she think she is?!”
Others are frustrated. "Several years ago, when it was first in to go braless, I wore a relatively conservative dress to a party—but I didn't wear a bra under it," says one woman. "In a city where people were aware of fashion, no one would have said anything—but I knew it was pretty daring for Columbus. Well, people were gaga all night. I finally felt like saying, “You yokels!' " She adds that she's still likely to wear clothes that express her individuality, “that make me happy, that make me feel good—but I'm more likely to do it out of town.”
And some women have resigned themselves to the city's general attitude toward fashion—now viewing it as an attribute. One woman who divides her time between Columbus and several larger cities says, “I have to worry a lot less about what I'm wearing when I'm in Columbus. Things that would never do in other places are just fine here—and every thing's in style a lot longer.”
There's a lot to be said for Columbus restaurants. For one thing, there are a lot of them. Some are well known throughout the city, a comfortable number are strong financial successes. Many serve perfectly acceptable food, have pleasant atmospheres, charge reasonable prices. If you have guests from out-of-town, say, or a special occasion to celebrate, it's likely you'll have no trouble thinking of a place to go and be satisfied.
But while you'll have a nice enough time, and you won't run up a three-figure bill, you shouldn't expect to discover the perfect piquant sauce or the ultimate poached pear at any of Columbus' restaurants. For the basics of a majority of menus come from sides of beef—not from gourmet cookbooks. It is predictable that Midwestern restaurants specialize in beef items—just as those in New England and Florida feature seafood, those in the bayou country, creole specialties—but here the concentration of if-it-came-from-a-cow-we serve-it places seems especially high.
"If you call a Columbus restaurant ‘good,' that means it broils a nice steak," says one man who frequently eats out. "Steak is the dish here," says another. "If you want something else for dinner, it's hard to find a good place."
The city's restaurateurs blame much of this beef concentration on the market itself, saying they are giving the people exactly what they want. One of the city's largest restaurants has figures showing a dramatic increase in the amount of beef products sold in the past two years, a far greater increase than in its sales of seafood and other items. Another restaurant manager has recipes available for 4,000 or so items, but says he would never think of trying many of them in Columbus. "People in Columbus are generally afraid to order anything that's new and different,” he says. “You have to prove it's good," by featuring it, explaining how it's made, serving it attractively. While some of the city's restaurants have attempted to do just that—Clyde's and Le Cafe with crepes, Se Va and Rosie's with vegetarian cookery, for example—it's a lot easier and a lot safer simply to feature steaks.
The overabundance of steak houses in the city would not be as gustatorily frustrating if Columbus did not have an underabundance of so many other types of restaurants. One kind of place you'll have difficulty finding is a good ethnic restaurant. The city has a reasonable offering of quality Chinese, southern Italian and German dining spots, with a few other geographic areas represented—but the selection of foreign foods is very limited. Columbus lacks the true melting-pot variety of restaurants with exotic meats, vegetables and seasonings served in unfamiliar but intriguing ways.
Aficionados of Cleveland delicatessens say there's nothing like them here. There are few storefront or back-room operations, tiny places with simple but superb menus, places with only fondue or with only soup and homemade bread. There are few restaurants with a past, a history beginning several generations ago, giving them character, pride and a longtime reputation to uphold.
There are some encouraging signs that the city's restaurant scene is changing. Some point to several restaurants opened within the last few years (A Matter of Taste, Engine House No. 5, L'Armagnac, for example), are pleased with the alternatives they provide, and predict more diversity in the future.
And even while the steakhouse glut persists, there are other solutions. One man staunchly maintains his favorite local restaurant is Cincinnati's Maisonette. "It's really very close,” he says. He and a generous number of others from Columbus think nothing of driving there for dinner.
Still others have simply decided to do it themselves. "I'm never organized enough to know what I'm going to be doing several weeks from now, in order to make reservations at L'Armagnąc,” says one woman as she takes a minute away from stuffing an artichoke. “So when I want a really good meal, I usually cook." And another woman says, “Dozens of my friends are serving things at home that aren't available in any of the city's restaurants.”
Is Columbus a major league sports town? There are two ways to look at it. If you're an optimist, you point out that every major metropolitan area larger than Columbus has at least one major league team, and often more. If you're a pessimist, you note that no city, smaller than Columbus—except San Antonio and Hartford, which are just below us and growing—has a major league team of any sort.
It is easy to look at Ohio State's constantly high attendance in football and recently-revived attendance in basketball, the initial success of the Columbus Clippers and the thousands of signatures on petitions to build a sports arena, and decide Columbus is ready for the big time. It also is probably unrealistic.
There are those who claim otherwise. Clippers general manager George Sisler and County Commissioner Harold Cooper—both experienced baseball men—believe Columbus could have a major league baseball team within a decade. And of all the speculation about major league status for Columbus, theirs has the strongest ring of authority.
Then there's Jack Gibbs, who intends to ask the voters to approve a bond issue calling for construction of a 20,000-seat sports arena, despite a professional consulting firm's report that such a facility would require up to $2 million a year in subsidies from the city or county just to break even.
Is Gibbs a visionary genius? Or is he just crazy? To be realistic, you have to look at the record.
For one thing, Columbus is sandwiched by Cleveland and Detroit on the north, Cincinnati on the south, Pittsburgh on the east and Indianapolis on the west; among them, those cities have four pro football teams, four major league baseball teams, five hockey teams and three National Basketball Association entries.
And those five cities have something else Columbus thus far has lacked—men with big money who have demonstrated a commitment to spending that money on a home town sports team.
Columbus has people with that kind of money, but they're investing it out of town. The Galbreaths own controlling interest in the Pittsburgh Pirates; businessman Dutch Knowlton is a major shareholder in the Cincinnati Bengals.
You'd think that if anyone was truly interested in making that kind of commitment to Columbus, he or she would have come forth during all the sports arena debate, or would have stepped in to save the Columbus Owls when owner Al Savill fled the city. No one did.
Beyond that, an awful lot of people doubt that Columbus has the capacity for the kind of chauvinistic municipal insanity that seems to sustain so many pro franchises.
Sure, Ohio State football generates the kind of enthusiasm that leads radio stations to bombard us with “Buckeye Battle Cry" dozens of times a day before each OSU-Michigan contest, but that fervor has always been reserved for Woody Hayes' minions and occasionally for an exceptional OSU basketball team. It was duly noted by local sports journalists that after this year's OSU cagers lost a couple of Big Ten games, the grumblers were already being heard.
But it is difficult—given Columbus’ basic conservatism and, some say, civic apathy—to imagine anything resembling Denver’s “Broncomania” in our city.
Sports, it seems, is one of those areas in which Columbus has a superiority complex rather than any inferiority complex. We think we’re better than we really are.
We may well prove that if and when the sports arena reaches the ballot. Many Columbus residents—having refused to vote more money for their flat-broke school system—will probably get themselves puffed up with civic pride and pull the lever they think will bring major league hockey and basketball to Columbus overnight.
They will forget that the Bengals and Browns played to diminishing houses when they staged a series of exhibition games here a few years ago. They will forget the experience of the Owls, who played pretty good hockey—albeit in a terrible facility—and couldn’t generate enough attendance to stay alive.
Columbus may well wind up with some expensive plans for an arena that is never built … or even worse, with a fabulously expensive 20,000 seat arena that sits empty two-thirds of the year.
There seems to be two exceptions to this rather gloomy forecast. Because of the single-minded commitment of Jack Nicklaus, the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield looks to be perennial winner. And if they can do something about the mud and conflicts in Grand Prix tour dates, the Wendy’s Tennis Classic may someday be able to reach true bigtime standing.
But if you are sitting check in hand, waiting to buy season tickets for Columbus’ first major league season in anything, you might be better off to mail that check to the Reds or the Bengals or the Browns or the Indians or the Stingers or the Cavaliers.
Or to stick to TV. There’s plenty of major league action there. It just doesn’t come to you “live from Columbus, Ohio.”
Columbus is about 500 miles from the nearest ocean, and is just about smack dab in the middle of one of the flattest states in the Union. Our only geographic distinction is being located where the sluggish, mud-colored Olentangy River joins the sluggish, mud-colored Scioto River.
This uninspiring location means that Columbusites have to travel long distances to reach more than pale versions of such glamour recreation activities as skiing, mountain-climbing, skin-diving, fishing, boating and backpacking. Comparably-sized cities like Denver, San Jose, Seattle, Portland, Tampa, Miami and San Francisco are a lot luckier. Even Pittsburgh has some swift rivers nearby for white-whater canoeing and rafting.
Columbus’ climate isn’t any bonus either. We certainly aren’t blessed with eternal summer. But the winters are too erratic for good outdoor ice rinks and tobaggan runs that cold-weather cities like Milwaukee and Minneapolis have.
What’s more, Columbus lacks its fair share of special attractions. King’s Island is the nearest big amusement park. In other cities where Anheuser-Busch brews beer, like St. Louis and Tampa, the firm has built scenic Busch Gardens. Here, we once had buffalo thundering around near the brewery, but the herds were removed several years ago.
The Columbus Zoo does have the world’s best collection of gorillas born in captivity, and is expecting another rarity, a pregnant elephant. Assistant director Mike July says the zoo is upgrading its carnivore facilities and that many zoo directors envy the Columbus Zoo’s rural setting. But the zoo needs, among other things, a new ape house, and the consensus is that both Cincinnati and Cleveland have better zoos.
What does Columbus have? Well, as Tom Brokaw keeps reminding us, we have the Park of Roses, which the World Almanac lists as the world’s largest. And we have more than 200 other parks, and We have Ohio State, which offers a wide variety of college-credit courses under its Continuing Education program. OSU also has a Creative Arts Program where extensive noncredit classes in skills like Volkswagen repair, wine-tasting and Chinese cooking are offered at bargain prices.
For a large university, OSU used to have just about the worst indoor athletic facilities in the nation. But within the last couple of years, Larkins Hall has become a top-notch facility with the addition of modern weight rooms, 20 racquetball courts and three big gyms. There are also three recently-built Quonset-style recreation buildings located throughout campus. They house basketball, volleyball and tennis courts. Most of OSU’s new facilities are restricted to students, faculty and staff -a sizable chunk of the city, after all. But some of the courts, like the excellent hard-court Wirthwein tennis facility and four new platform tennis courts are at times open to the general public.
Columbus also has a glut of indoor tennis clubs and a fair number of free outdoor courts. But then Columbus is a town where for many, the term recreation” is synonomous with sports and games.
For die-hard jocks, preppies and hard drinkers there are two rugby clubs, both of which are among the very best in the Midwest. Columbus is also a hotbed for flag and touch football, with Four Seasons Nursery being two-time national touch champs.
For the more leisurely athlete, innumerable softball teams are organized every summer. And for golfers with either memberships or good connections, the city can be an absolute paradise, with such tournament-quality courses as Muirfield Village, Scioto Country Club, The Golf Club, Brookside Country Club, Columbus Country Club and OSU's: Scarlet course. There also are a good number of public courses near every part of town. The fourth hole at Raymond Memorial golf course rates as the habitual slicer's dream hole.
Jim Starr is a salesman who, in addition to golfing, plays on rugby, football and basketball teams. He also plays duplicate bridge, is feared on the tennis court and is one-half of the championship platform tennis doubles team of Clintonville. He says that "the main thing I like about Columbus is that if I want to play something I don't have to make a big production out of it. I can just go do it."
The easy accessibility of facilities is Columbus's saving grace and is the reason it scores slightly better than average, even in the land of the flat and the home of the drear.
The trouble with trying to rate Columbus's cultural life is that some spoilsport always asks: “Compared to what?"
There's the rub. Do we really want to measure the Columbus Symphony against Cleveland's? Most people who have heard both will tell you Evan Whallon and his mostly part-time musicians aren't in the same league. Compared to the Licking County Symphony, on the other hand, Columbus sounds pretty good.
But both are apples-to-oranges comparisons. How much sense does it make to pit Cleveland's $100,000 conductor and an orchestra full of $25,000 musicians against Columbus's $35,000 conductor and our mostly part-time musicians? Or to pit Licking County's amateur orchestra against Columbus' $500,000-plus symphony budget?
Other comparisons are equally easy and equally specious. Does the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts compare with the best galleries in New York and Chicago? No contest. Is Players Theatre the equal of the Guthrie Repertory in Minneapolis? Not a chance. Ballet? Modern dance? Jazz? The list goes on, and the comparisons are no more helpful.
The fact is: Columbus doesn't have a single cultural institution that ranks with the very best in the country—much less the world—in its field.
The local artists and culture buffs who attended the Cultural Explorations workshops a year ago spent a lot of time and a little Battelle money talking about Columbus' lack of national-caliber culture and what ought to be done about it.
In the end they decided, by no means wholeheartedly, that Columbus ought to pursue “a level of professional excellence in the arts and arts education at least the equal of other metropolitan areas of similar size."
And there things sit. The Greater Columbus Arts Council, which was to be the seedbed for the new pursuit of excellence, listened to the Cultural Explorations recommendations and rather firmly kissed them off.
The symphony, after resolving some personnel and management problems, is artistically about where it was two or three years ago. Good enough to produce an enjoyable Friday or Saturday evening, certainly, but nowhere close to a national ranking.
The art gallery, under Budd Bishop's aggressive and sometimes abrasive leadership, has completed a successful half-million-dollar fund drive and convinced Battelle to finance a major building expansion and renovation. But the Schumacher collection, the backbone of the gallery's permanent collection, won't draw flies from Chicago and New
York. And as far as those outside the gallery's tight-lipped board of trustees know, there's no sugar daddy on the horizon, panting to finance the acquisition of more real masterpieces.
Angela d'Ambrosia's attempt to launch a local repertory company was quickly aborted, partly because of her selection of the depressing “When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?” as a fund-raising "showcase" production.
Players Theatre continues to produce the best amateur drama in town, but after losing its artistic director to Broadway, it has backed off from some tentative discussions of creating a full-time nucleus of professional actors.
The myriad cultural activities at Ohio State University continue to produce their normal mix of triumphs and disasters, but precious few people outside the campus community are exposed to either—largely because few Columbus people make the effort to keep up with what's going on at OSU on the 359 days each year that the football team doesn't play in Ohio Stadium.
The Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA) has hired professional partygiver Clive David to produce a gala on March 17, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Ohio Theatre. But, almost as if Columbus' national image as a cultural backwater has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, David quickly ran into trouble attracting national talent. Bob Hope, who turns out almost annually to make big bucks at the Ohio State Fair, turned down Columbus and CAPA for a tour in Australia, effectively smashing CAPA's hopes for a live network television special from the stage of the Ohio.
By mid-February, David was still struggling to pull together an attractive package for, holders of the $100 and $50 gala tickets. But responsibilities for television production and talent had been partly turned over to Qube and Warner Communications, and the ultimate quality of the show remained in doubt.
Could Columbus have a nationally known symphony, or art gallery, or dance company? Most of the city's cultural leaders will smile and say, "Of course we could!” And there's no great secret about the missing ingredient—it's money. Lots of money. Because, with the exception of rock concerts and topless go-go joints, very few local cultural events anywhere are even intended to break even, much less make a profit.
And in culture as in lots of other commodities, you generally get about what you pay for.
If someone decides to stop by the Columbus Symphony's offices tomorrow and drop off a check for $5 million, the new "Columbus Symphony” might well rate a story in Time magazine in a couple of years. But in the absence of such largesse ... well, at least we're ahead of Licking County.
Nothing—except, perhaps, the weather—pervades our everyday lives as much as the media.
We wake up to the newspaper hitting the porch and Jane and Tom and Gene staring at us from the tube or Jack and Dick or J. Parker or John and Bill or O'Malley and Rizzo talking to us from the little pictureless box.
The radio is with us every moment we're in our automobiles; the evening paper gets in the way of dinnertime conversation; television practically controls our evenings at home; and before we turn in for the night we feel compelled to find out what happened that day from Hugh, Leon, Jerry, Jimmy and Marty or Lou, Dave, Joe and Lee or I.J., Jan, Teri and Jim.
We know we're getting quantity. But are we getting any quality?
It's a mixed bag. "The media in this town stinks," says an attorney who recently moved to Columbus from Cleveland. But a local advertising man, who's kept a close eye on the local media scene for a decade, says, "As far as I'm concerned, everything in Columbus—the newspapers, radio and television—is getting better every year.”
There is some reason to think or at least fervently hope that the latter view is more realistic.
Ten years ago, Columbus clearly deserved the sobriquet of "media jerktown."
The newspapers were stodgy to a fault. The radio stations—with the notable exception of WCOL—sounded like leftovers from the 1940s. Television news was mediocre at best and amateurish at worst.
In the past year or two, some of that seems to be changing—not at a revolutionary pace, but changing nonetheless.
That premise, it must be said, is difficult to sell. Media is one of those areas in which Columbus has been inferior, and that has led to the perception of inferiority. Now, even if things improve, many of us simply refuse to admit it.
Simply and unpleasantly put, Columbus' news media fit the lyrics of an old blues song that began, “Been down so long, seems like up to me.” One local media executive says much of what passes for news in Columbus “is downright embarrassing.” Nevertheless, there are signs things are getting better.
It's hard to pinpoint reasons. With the exception of Channel 4, none of the major media outlets in the city have changed ownership in the past decade.
In the case of television and radio, the changes may be attributable to the growing influence of outside consultants, who bring to the city those trends which are being set in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago.
And in the case of the newspapers, it is probably a combination of the nationwide trend toward "new journalism” coupled with new blood at the top. The Citizen-Journal now is under the editorial control of an aggressive new man—Dick Campbell—and despite its mechanical and financial limitations, it is noticeably brighter than it was 12 months ago.
Even more surprising is the gradual but perceptible change in the Dispatch, which for years has been the butt of endless jokes from both city residents and out-of-towners—and which seemed to ignore all criticism as it plowed ahead on an ultra-conservative and often boring course.
Some speculate that the Dispatch is seeing the light and moving to emulate the major papers elsewhere in the nation. Others believe that young publisher John F. Wolfe is exerting some quiet influence. Whatever the reason, the paper has moved gingerly into more in-depth coverage of government, of sports, of radio and television.
The trouble is that so many people have been so critical of the Dispatch for so long that even when the paper jumps on a good local story, there is instant suspicion of its motives. In late 1977, for example, when the Dispatch ran a series of stories critical of Clyde Tipton's management of the Ohio Center project, there was more talk around town about John W. Wolfe "going after Tipton” than there was about the actual convention center controversy.
What appeared to be happening, in fact, was that the Dispatch was covering a story the way a newspaper should always cover major local stories. But no one here is used to that. They are accustomed, instead, to too many editorial cartoons that insult their intelligence by labeling everything ... sort of like a first-grade reader.
The same attitude infects Columbusites' discussions of the local TV news operations. There is a sort of "they're all rum-dums" attitude afoot among knowledgeable local residents—particularly those in other areas of the news business.
Former Dispatch TV columnist Cynthia Robins did much to foster that view when she reported on the vast superiority of weekend news programs in Chicago over weekday prime-time newscasts in Columbus. Never mind that Chicago is the nation's second-largest market and Columbus isn't even in the top 30.
But make a direct comparison to other medium-sized cities—Cleveland or Cincinnati, to take two close to home—and you may come back to Columbus with a greater appreciation for our local newscasts, or at least the feeling that they are, at the very worst, run-of-the-mill.
Local TV people will argue that—at least as far as news is concerned—they have moved forward in quantum leaps. All three commercial stations are heavily into "new wave" electronic news gathering. New news anchorpeople abound. TV news in Columbus now looks like the big time, even if $2,000 house fires with no injuries still make the lead of the 11 o'clock news all too often.
And despite the constant rumblings that “we never get any decent reporters on the air here," the track record is beginning to say otherwise. In the past few years, Columbus TV reporters have been moving up to major markets with increasing rapidity—Donna Hanover and Marlynn Singleton to Pittsburgh, Mona Scott and Roger Morris to Cleveland, Gerald Harrington, first to CBS, then to NBC in New York.
Not that Columbus is about to become a major television center. There is almost no local entertainment programming to speak of, outside of "The Judge" and "In the Know." Except for the Qube experiment—which is seen by a relatively small number of people and is of more importance nationally than it is locally—there are no showcases for local or regional talent.
As for radio, it is going through an unprecedented period of intense competition—a full-scale ratings war that has prompted the major stations to revise their formats constantly to try to get a leg up in the ratings. They are trying to project a big-city image—despite the insistence of one popular radio disc jockey on saying “Ohio" every time he mentions “Columbus," a sure sign of rampant small-townism.
But given the fact that Columbus is, after all, only the 22nd largest city in the nation and not even among the top 30 media markets, the quality of what we're reading and watching and listening to is pretty much what we ought to expect ... no worse, particularly, but not a helluva lot better, either.
Looking for real wealth in Columbus reminds one a bit of a sardonic verse in "Fortunate Son," a Creedence Clearwater song a few years back:
Some folks are born silver spoon in hand
Lord, don't they help themselves!
But when the taxman comes to the door
The house looks like a rummage sale!
It isn't so much that there's no real money in Columbus. It's just that, no matter whom you talk to, the other guy has it all. Poormouthing among the local rich has become almost a reflex response.
"You'd be surprised how little there is left after the tax collectors and the lawyers and the insurance people get through with you," even the richest of the rich may tell you. Oh, there are a few local people who flaunt their money. Larry Flynt would bathe in his if he could figure out a way to liquify it. And Dave Thomas likes to order fifteen or twenty $250 suits at a time. But such monetary exhibitionists are usually those whose businesses—Hustler for Flynt, Wendy's for Thomas—keep them in the public eye anyway.
Most of the rest of Columbus' rich, including some a good deal richer than Flynt or Thomas, do their utmost to maintain the lowest possible profile. They are rich, but they certainly don't act rich.
And that may be why Columbus, which probably has more than its share of millionaires, has a reputation locally as a minor league money town. The money is here, but if it's not in circulation, if it's not out there buying and building and funding, it might as well not exist.
Some families, of course, bespeak wealth simply because of the institutions that bear their names: Galbreath, Wolfe, Lazarus, Jeffrey. But how many millions is John Galbreath really worth? Or John W. Wolfe? Charles Lazarus? Tad Jeffrey? Only their accountants know for sure, and accountants never tell.
Nor do most of us know much about what our wealthier neighbors do with all that money. Every so often a John Galbreath will buy the city a Downtown park site. Or a Paul Schoedinger will die and leave most of his $2 million-plus estate as an endowment for the Columbus Academy. Or a Meshulam Riklis will cough up $600,000 or so to finance a professorship at Ohio State.
But such major, publicly announced disbursements of wealth seem far less frequent—and generally smaller—in Columbus than in some not-much-bigger cities where a family or two or three seems to dominate the town's civic and philanthropic life.
There simply aren't any Columbus families who have had the enormous influence of the Mellons in Pittsburgh, the Fords in Detroit, the Hunts in Dallas, the duPonts in Wilmington, the Fields and McCormicks in Chicago. Not to mention the eastern families who trace their vast fortunes almost from the days of the industrial revolution: Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, Guggenheim, Vanderbilt.
The problem—if indeed it is a problem—is that Columbus is too young a city to have gotten its fair share of the 19th-century robber barons. Most of Columbus' current wealthiest families were barely getting started in the early years of this century, so their fortunes have been amassed in just three generations, in the face of increasingly confiscatory tax rates.
Even the Wolfe family, whose dominance of local banking, broker age and media operations remains substantial, seems no longer able to outmuscle every potential adversary. In 1977 John W. Wolfe lashed out at first Clyde Tipton and the Ohio Center, then Kline Roberts and the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce. But despite intensive behind-the-scenes lobbying and later public howitzer blasts from the Dispatch, both Tipton and Roberts apparently survived. The Wolfes collectively are probably worth well over $100 million, but even that much money no longer commands the kind of control it once might have.
Indeed much of the financial power in Columbus, as in other cities, seems to have shifted in the past two or three decades from individual families to corporations. Locally, Nationwide Insurance, Battelle Memorial Institute and Borden Inc. probably wield the most dollar power. But Borden, whose size makes it potentially the most powerful of all, typifies a problem which increasingly irritates local leaders—the absentee landlord. Although Borden keeps some divisional presidents and most of its middle management here, all major corporate decisions are made by chief executive Gus Marusi, who remains based in New York.
The result, say Borden's critics, is that the $3 billion firm has never truly considered itself a corporate citizen of Columbus. Like Western Electric, Fisher Body, Anheuser Busch, and more recently Ross Laboratories and the Jeffrey companies, Borden at times seems to think of its local headquarters as little more than a giant branch office.
Such a heavy concentration of absentee management among Columbus' larger industrial firms is at least partly responsible for the weakness of the local Chamber of
Commerce and United Way organizations. Cincinnati, with an economy not much stronger than Columbus', has nearly three times the Columbus chamber's budget. And despite two consecutive successful campaigns, the local United Way still ranks last among major Ohio cities in per capita fund raising.
If Columbus is to become, as one local executive is fond of predicting, "the Atlanta of the Midwest," it will take some concentrated doses of money. But those few families whose assets might let them make a major impact seem mostly content to play a passive role, contributing their "fair share,” but seldom stepping out front with a major investment. And with the exceptions of Battelle's forced divestiture of $80 million in 1974 and Nationwide's major commitment to revitalizing the northern edge of Downtown, the biggest local corporations seem like wise largely content to play a waiting game.
Columbus has at least its share of money—both personal and corporate. But as long as so much of that money remains socked away in municipal bonds, mutual funds and corporate reserves, Central Ohio is likely to retain its solid, but distinctly unspectacular image. Atlanta we're not.
"Anyone who describes society in Columbus with a capital 'S’ would be making a mistake,” says one observer of social scenes around the country. “It just isn't in the social big leagues."
And she's right. It isn't the folks from Columbus who make up W's SST set, flinging eternally-packed Vuitton over eternally-tan shoulders and flitting to anywhere even rumored to be chic and trendy. They aren't the ones hobbing and nobbing with errant princes and the sexy new hat and cane courtesy Kampmann Costume Works
stars, their every move reported by the national gossip columns. And they aren't having the debuts or birthdays or weddings or bar mitzvahs or welcome-to-spring or thank-God-it's-polo-season bashes cum 45-piece orchestras and floral banks and swans carved from ice, parties that bring Warren Beatty and Jackie Onassis to the city for a fun-filled weekend.
No, our rich are different. Dozens of families here would race quite nicely on the fast track of international society's infrastructure. But they don't want to. The conservatism common in other aspects of the city is present among its rich as well. (Perhaps the city is thought of as conservative in large part because its rich are.) With only a few exceptions (see "Money"), they are reluctant to spend their money in any way that will bring (unseemly?) public attention to their names. “I know several heirs to great fortunes who live absolutely anonymously in Columbus," one woman says.
So the names one does hear, the names important on the city's social scene, are the ones which are known anyway through their corporations. "You see all the Borden executives at what seem to be all the right places to be seen," one woman says. "And at big events, dinners and such, it's corporations who take tables, who buy blocks of tickets. It's not individuals. That's entirely different from anything in the East." The Galbreaths are important to the city's society . . . so are the Jeffreys, the Kesslers, the Lazaruses, the Schottensteins, the Wolfes—all names linked with commercial operations.
They and the others who would be listed in a Columbus Blue Book live quietly, at least to the outside observer. (They live so quietly neither daily paper bothers to run a regular society/gossip column.) “So much in Columbus is oriented to the home and the country club. We never see our society cavorting," one man who's part of it all says. If pressed, they'll admit there are some scheduled events they usually attend—the Symphony Ball, the Mid-Winter at Rocky Fork Hunt and Country Club, the tennis tournament benefiting Buckeye Boys' Ranch—but ask them to name the most important event they've been to in the past five years, a local function where it was imperative to see and be seen, and they'll answer, “I really can't think of any."
And while it means you've at least begun to arrive when your name starts to show up with increasing regularity on their guest lists (or else you're the city's only reasonably intelligent single male over 40), if you cruise up that winding drive expecting anything more than a good hot meal, you'll probably be disappointed. For those high in the city's society think the best evening is "a quiet dinner party, either a sit-down dinner or a buffet, with just a few other couples. The highest compliment you can pay someone is to invite them to that kind of party," one woman who's attended dozens says.
But that doesn't mean the most scintillating activity at all of the city's parties is wondering who will clean up that last bit of Chicken Kiev or watching the ferns grow. Among the city's nouveau riche, and others who don't quite make the upper echelons of city society—or don't aspire to you may find some pretty gala affairs. One woman described a party given by the owner of a local ad agency last summer: "It had to cost $5,000 if it cost a penny. You were greeted by a tux edoed doorman, who led you to the patio out back. A full staff circulated through the crowd, and we were served tenderloin, scampi, wine, fruit and cheese, with hot crépes for dessert. Everyone's pictures were taken and given to them as souvenirs. It was all very beautiful and really quite a party.” Another spectacular is Dutch Knowlton's annual Little Brown Jug party, held at his farm near Delaware, which begins with a Texas-style barbecue. Then guests are bused to the racetrack, and return for an evening dinner dance.
Some of the biggest events held by Columbus residents aren't even held in the city. “So many of the old guard spend winters in Florida and summers in Michigan that they plan their parties there—they don't have enough time when they're in Columbus," one woman says.
All in all, Columbus social activity seems pretty meager compared even with some other, much smaller cities. Those participating in it, though, seem almost uniformly content and have little interest in major change. "I love my time in Columbus," sums up one woman who travels extensively, “I can stay home in the evenings and know I'm not missing a thing."
You can blame it on the glacier, of course.
A legal secretary says that when she shows an out-of-towner around Columbus, "the first comment I get from people is, 'It's so flat.' People are disappointed that there aren't hills."
Jot Carpenter, chairman of the Landscape Architecture department at Ohio State, explains, "This whole area was glaciated -we tend to stand on a moraine. Between here and Lancaster you start to pick up the terminal moraine, where you get little hills and tiny vales."
To the secretary, though, the question is, "Why didn't it stop here instead of down in southern Ohio?”
But what does a long-departed glacier have to do with the state of local architecture? A Washington, D.C., real estate man who grew up in Columbus says, “I think the flat terrain stops people from doing anything interesting. You can't have a house on stilts or built on a hillside or coming out of the rocks ... Usually the first person who's innovative in a market like Columbus loses his shirt."
Stephen Schwartz, a local architect, says, “There's a great resistance here to modern architecture. I have a very small piece of the market." Schwartz is the in house architect for the downtown IBM building and finds that even in a modernistic building the tenants opt for the traditional. “There's really no interest in extending the art of architecture in that building," he says.
But most Columbusites are happy enough with the downtown architecture they're getting. It's true that the new buildings still emphasize solidity rather than the big-city daring and panache of a project like Detroit's Renaissance Center, but that is not often cited as a problem.
As one Bexley housewife says, "I think Columbus is going in the right direction -- keeping Trinity Church and the Columbus Club and building lovely buildings around them. You have to keep some of the old or otherwise you have a planned Downtown, which isn't any better than a planned suburb."
And the new design offered for the convention center hotel in the Hyatt mode promises to yield an exciting building. There's more promise in the Capitol South project, particularly in terms of attracting people downtown. So Columbus architecture echoes the old line about Columbus weather—if you don't like it now, wait a while and it will be different.
And most observers have high praise for some recent projects Bicentennial Park, Franklin Commons (the park with the Henry Moore sculpture), the Pearl and Lynn streets mall. And the real estate man from Washington cites German Village as "something that lifts Columbus above its peer cities like Indianapolis."
Now, about that topography, which, short of importing hills from West Virginia, is going to stay flat. "I think we need to turn people on to the value of the landscape,” Carpenter says. "It's a neat landscape if people understand it.” But he adds that the heavy cultivation of the land has meant that "the vast majority of the original vegetation no longer exists. What you see are woods that are 40, 50 or 70 years old. Everything from the ground up is really man-made."
But there will always be those who feel that flat land of any sort just doesn't make it. A woman originally from the San Francisco Bay area asks pointedly, “Do we have a terrain?”
Of course, you can always drive up to Highbanks Metropolitan Park in southern Delaware County, look out from one of Central Ohio's few scenic bluffs—and watch them building the new sewage treatment plant.
This is a bad winter to talk to people about the quality of government in Columbus. The big snows in January drove people crazy—and the city's inability to handle the weather made them mad, plain mad. Calls poured into City Hall, and radio stations and other news media reported an unprecedented number of complaints.
It finally led Mayor Tom Moody to observe: "It must be some sort of compliment to the city that this problem would cause all these complaints."
What he was implying, obviously, was that the city normally runs so smoothly that local citizens haven't built up a tolerance for an occasional inconvenience or sloppy performance by public officials. And actually Moody was right. Government here works so efficiently most of the time that there are seldom any real sources of major irritation to the public. The garbage gets picked up (except when it snows), the grass in the parks gets mowed, the umpires show up on time for the city-sponsored softball games. In an era when there is unchecked urban decay and deterioration in cities all around the country, Columbus has been spared, amazingly, from the now-almost-expected collapse of city services.
One reason is evident, Columbus has been—and still is—free of major labor problems. We've had no police strikes, no walkouts by firemen, no long-running sanitation workers' strike where garbage piles up in the streets as it seems to do regularly in places like New York.
"I don't know what people in this city would do if the garbagemen went on strike," observes one local citizen. "They almost went crazy when the teachers struck a couple years ago. We just aren't used to having to deal with those confrontation-type situations."
Columbus gets high marks in most other areas of government, too. For one, the quality of our elected officials is generally high -- at least in comparison to many other major cities. Tom Moody, bland though he may seem to us local folks, is certainly preferable to people like Philadelphia's Frank Rizzo or Cleveland's enfant terrible, Dennis Kucinich. And as president of the National League of Cities, Moody is evidently held in some esteem by his mayoral colleagues.
Some people insist that the quality of elected officials falls off at the county level—but no one says that there are wholesale incompetents running local government anywhere around here.
The city's financial condition remains stable, too, another rarity in municipal governments today. "How many major cities currently have an AA bond rating? Not many!" says M. D. Portman, City Council president.
One historic reason for Columbus' good condition is undoubtedly the annexation program which the city undertook in the last two decades a period when Columbus gobbled up huge unincorporated areas and made them part of the city. “Our annexation program has been one of the best in the country," says Portman. “It has decreased the potential for inner-city deterioration and aided economic development."
That view is echoed in other circles.
"Our annexation policies of the past will serve this city clear till the year 2000," says a private citizen, one who believes strongly that Columbus is destined to become one of the great cities in the Midwest. "It's prevented white flight to the suburbs, and a shrinking tax base—both of which have plagued other cities."
People and businesses still flee outward from the inner city, of course, but now their flight often still leaves them within the city boundaries, still on the tax rolls.
Even politics, an integral part of any government structure, also gets high marks in Columbus. It's good, relatively clean, and, most importantly, responsive. At least that's what local politicos claim, while admitting that local politics is often dull and uninteresting, generally lacking much drama.
“But politics here is still fresh ... not riddled with venereal disease like it is in other older cities," says one local man active in the Democratic Party. "You look at other places like Cleveland or Youngstown, and every vein, every artery in both the Republican and Democratic parties is rotting ... they're full of corruption. Not so here."
All this is not to say that government in Columbus is without problems.
The city is growing, and demands and pressures on government services are sure to increase. One businessman in Columbus—a man who is still angry over the city's failure to clean the snow off the streets in front of his store—insists that public services are seriously on the decline here.
"I've lived in Columbus all my life," he says, "and I can tell you that everything here is rock-bottom minimum. Look at it! Garbage ... police ... fire protection ... street maintenance. Everything is pared down as far as it can go to save money. And it's only gonna get worse."
Perhaps so. But the plain fact is that in 1978, things still work . , and you can't say that about too many cities across the country.
If government in Columbus has a real and immediate problem, it is that common complaint heard about everything here; it's bland, dull, lacking in charismatic leader ship, devoid of people who will solve the complex urban problems that are bound to arise in the 1980s.
“Government is boring around here," says one citizen who watches such things. "We don't even have good, juicy political scandals. When other cities have a scandal involving a public official, it's about money, or conflicts of interest, or sex, or power. The only thing we've had recently was when an official was accused of accepting a stolen piece of farm equipment."
And that, perhaps, does say something about our government. It usually works ... but it ain't flashy.
“This is really a damned cowtown." You're liable to hear that—or something like it—at any gathering of Columbus's so-called upper class. "I can't buy any decent clothes here" or“We have to go to Cincinnati to get a decent meal" or "We simply have to go to New York twice a year to see some decent shows."
"So why don't you move?”
"Oh, heavens, no! I wouldn't want to bring my kids up in New York or Chicago or someplace like that.”
And there, in a nutshell, may be what Columbus is all about.
Taken individually, the things that make a city great—the four- or five-star restaurants, the superb selection of shops, the great cultural institutions, major league sports—aren't here. But when it gets down to just plain livability, somehow the whole is considerably greater than the sum of the parts.
Livability. It is a difficult thing to define, tough to put your finger on.
It is knowing that you can walk around at night in most parts of town and not worry about being mugged.
It is being able to drive to work—under normal conditions—from virtually anywhere in the city in not much more than half an hour.
It is being able to plan an impromptu evening out with friends and getting into and out of a restaurant or a movie in reasonable time without destroying the family budget for a month.
It is a feeling that things are in a proper scale, that the city is never going to overwhelm you with its big ness or loudness or coldness.
It is going through a crisis—like January's blizzard—and discovering that people are willing to help each other out, rather than barricading themselves in their own little enclaves until the danger passes.
All of this is almost entirely intangible. There is no way to quantify it; in most normal categories in which experts rate the quality of urban living, Columbus falls short of greatness.
And yet even those people who criticize Columbus the most will...if pressed-admit they'd rather be living here than almost anywhere else.
For lack of a better term, let's call it the "intangible" category. And put Columbus at the very top of the scale.
This story originally appeared in the March 1978 issue of Columbus Monthly.