A journey to the center of the city
Editor’s note: With the coronavirus outbreak emptying the city, High Street feels different at the moment. But it still remains Columbus’ most lively and diverse crossroads, and back in 1994, Ray Paprocki explored the contrasts of the city’s best street.
It's been a major Columbus traffic artery since the fledgling capital city needed a wide path for its carriages in 1812.
But it's much more than 25.5 miles of practical pavement bisecting Franklin County north to south. It's Columbus'best street, a lively, quirky, revealing mosaic. For Ohio State students current and past, High Street is a mecca of hell-raising, a larger-than life way station to Adulthood. For the politicians, lobbyists and career bureaucrats, High Street is the center of the universe, where democracy is practiced and corrupted, at the Statehouse and the Riffe State Office Tower. For white-collar go-getters, High Street is a road paved with gold, the scene of million-dollar deals and high-stakes legal cases.
Like any good piece of art, High Street is provocative, meaningful and complex. And it's full of rich contrasts. High Street is home to the city's Appalachianroots and its suburban smugness, from the varied sprawl of the blue-collar South Side to the prim façades of affluent Worthington. It's as comfortably ordinary as hot apple pie at Nancy's diner in Clintonville and as jarringly unconventional as the avant-garde architecture of the Wexner and Convention centers. It embraces the vast wealth of Nationwide Insurance and the vast poverty of the homeless begging for quarters. It's as elegant as the bell tower at the Pontifical College Josephinum, which rises above the cookie-cutter brown brick buildings of the far north side, and it's as seedy as the Gentlemen's Book Store Downtown, with its selection of rubber sex toys, both Caucasian and African-American models, and magazines titled Hung Honeys and She-Studs in Action.
Go to High Street to find the serious matter of economicvitality: the Huntington National Bank, with assetsof $17 billion, and Weldon Inc., which makes 80 percent of all of the lighting seen on school buses. And go to High Street to find the splendor of pure lunacy: the annual Norwich "Marathon,” which involves Dick's Den bar, a double shot of whiskey, two drafts and a pitcher of beer and a run to the Graceland Shopping Center state liquor store. Conveniently, there are 12 funeral homes on High Street for anyone overcome by the requirements.
In many ways, High Street is a microcosm of the city, perhaps even the city defined. Strip away everything east and west, and the elements that shape Columbus remain.
What follows is a travelogue: Call it A Journey to the Center of Columbus.
The business of democracy takes place inside the Statehouse. But the spirit of democracy is found outside on the lawn. It is the city's village green, a gathering place of lunch-goers in warm weather, pamphleteers and protesters always. Sometimes, it's the site of an intellectual collision, a bare-knuckled exchange of ideas, beliefs and attitudes.
The scene in front of the Statehouse one crisp Octoberafternoon is a jumble of mixed messages. A woman with a loudspeaker, addressing 100 or so people, condemns the evils of big government's plan to infiltrate the schools with outcome-basededucation. Christian groups pass out literature. Fringe political candidates the smiling—Billy Inmon, for one, revisiting his self-imposed death camp—press flesh. In the middle, in a tight circle, stand about 20 young gays and lesbians in silent confrontation. One girl, her hair a patchwork of reds, greens and blues, holds a sign with two messages, at once sacrilegious and sexually revolting. Nearby, several tables from area hospitals are set up for MammographyDay; a couple of mobile mammography units await customers on the sidewalk. Then a stream of small schoolchildren, all carrying plastic pumpkins, walks past in single file.
When the rally ends, the debates begin. The homosexuals and the born-agains square off, one on one. “I don't believe in your version of a patriarchal God," says a lesbian. A young boy, maybe 10, speaks loudly, clearly: “I've been saved. I believe that." A bearded biker stops to listen. “I used to live that lifestyle,” he says. Based on his appearance, it's hard to know which group he's referring to. “I'm a preacher now," he says, removing all doubt. He yells, “Cast no pearl before swine!"
The TV cameras flit from one spokesperson to the next, like moths to light bulbs. A few feet away is a statueof President McKinley, with an inscription that begins: “Let us remember that our interest is in concord, not conflict."
On a High Street morning, the extremes of the hospitality industry can be found doing what they do best.
At 8:30 am in Rigsby's, hours before the lunch crowd arrives, chef Bruce Mohr and his crew of four are prepping behind closed blinds and locked doors inside oneof the city's best restaurants. The clang of a pan colliding with the tile floor echoes through the dark dining room. Seven other pots are on gas burners simmering; there's a lemon-dill sauce for poached salmon, a polenta to go with roast duck, a turnip-celery root mix for a purée. A few feet away is Reggie Cook kneading dough. Fresh baguettes are warm to the touch, 24 loaves of tomato focaccia and whole wheat are resting nearby and 36 loaves of French bread are either baking or waiting their turns.
Rigsby's has to deliveron its five-star reputation every day. “One person gets a bad meal, you know they go off and say, 'Rigsby's sucks,' and it spreads all over the place,” says Mohr. “Our attitude toward food and customers has to be consistent. It's about quality and standards. People in the kitchen who can't understand, well, they can't be around here for too long."
Mohr and the others continue to chop, wash and mix—quietly, quickly—racing the clock until the blinds are drawn and the doors unlocked, when the eerie emptiness of High Street in the morning has been replaced with the buzz of midday.
Several miles north, the regulars at the Ruckmoor Lounge, a beer-and-a-shot joint on the far north side, already are being served. The building, looking like one mobile home stacked on top of another, has been around as a bar or part of a motel since this stretch of High Street was populated by grazing cows and ears of corn. For a long time, it was about the only thing north of I-270, the object of obscene rhymes by teen-agers driving past.
The Ruckmoor starts early—specifically, 5:30 a.m. At 10 a.m, a dozen or so cars and pickups are in the parkinglot, one with a bumper sticker: “Don't Tailgate Me, or I'll Flick a Booger on Your Windshield.” Inside, the regulars, many third-shifters, belly up to the bar; no one sits at the nearby tables. Cans of Bud are in hand. The atmosphere is relaxed and casual, like a gathering around somebody's kitchen table.
A visitor asking questions is greeted warily. The friendly chatter stops. Then Ricky starts to talk. Or at least he says his name is Ricky. He also says he's in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Soon, cracks are flying like beer caps at a fraternity party. “You know where the nonsmoking section is? Next to your car." “My beer tab makes the Fortune 500 list."
Then Ricky walks toward the front door and pulls up a rope that lifts a section of the floor, revealing steps leading to a basement. Ricky disappears for a moment and then emerges with a black plastic key tag from the now-defunct Ruckmoor Lodge. He hands it to the visitor. “Here, now you're one of the gang."
Broad and High at noon. It's the center of the city, the epicenter of power and money. Sounds swirl like newspapers in the wind: car brakes squealing, COTA buses belching, indecipherable conversation buzzing, police horses clopping.
Overlooking this scene, more than 400 feet above, is the best office on High Street, on the 33rd floor of the Huntington Center—command central for Huntington National Bank. This is the business home of Frank Wobst, the bank's top honcho and one of the city's kings of industry.
The office matches Wobst's demeanor, cool and subdued. His desk is cluttered with various bank work, a copy of the Wall Street Journal, a newsletter in German, How to Understand and Listen to Great Music and the current bible of Harvey Penick's Little Red Book. Artwork hangs on walls or rests on pedestals, including a sculpture by his wife.
Wobst stands inches from a pane of glass that runs floor to ceiling. “You can see the Hocking Hills from here,” he says. From another angle, the intricate details on the gargoyles and angels near the top of the LeVeque Tower are clearly visible. Asked how he would mold the city, he begs off, then comments on the view below,,“You can't have a vibrant city if you have a large percentage of parking lots.”
Far below Wobst, under the Marshall Field's and Jacobson's signs on the wall of the Columbus City Center mall, Arthur Glover sits on the sidewalk.Like the banker, he plies his trade. Glover, 44, is in the self-preservation business. His tools are a 32-ounce Pizza Hut cup and a sign asking for money. “I'm no panhandler,” he says, “not like those guys in New York you read about in the news earning a couple of hundred dollars a day. Over five or six hours, I make about $20, $25 tops.”
Glover doesn't like shelters, so he sleeps under bridges. “All I own is in that bag,” he says. He complains about the COTA schedule and all the jobs moving to the suburbs. He's routinely hassled, sometimes robbed. Other beggars steal his money. He's articulate and polite. Glover, who says he earned a degree from an Indiana trade school, tells a story about a divorce in Texas, a lost job in Akron and an uncaring family in Cleve land. There's also an alcoholism thing.“Got into trouble with it once,” he says. He's been homeless for more than five years.
A woman approaches him. "I'll give you a job at a BP station in Reynoldsburg," she says. He nods, but later says it depends on the hours and the COTA bus routes.
He says, “When people talk to me they see that I'm capable, so they don't think I need help. It is a deep pain in my heart. They think you don't need tender loving care. That's a lie. We all need it.”
Tom “Moon” Mullins, a retired railroader, and Mark Fitzharris, an OSU student, trade licks on a guitar in Bluegrass Musicians Supply, the only store in the city specializing in the sounds of Bill Monroe or Earl Scruggs. “I love this guitar," says Mark. “This thing just rips, don't it,” says Moon, whose hair is fluffy and white, like down. Both hang out at the store, as do other bluegrass players. Moon had a chance to play professionally long ago, he says, “but there was no money in it." So he joins the Saturday jam sessions in the basement, when the pro and amateur pickers unwind on their banjos, fiddles, guitars, basses and mandolins, and a crowd squeezes in on the steps to watch and listen. “You ought to stop in, any Saturday; you'll hear some great bluegrass,” says Moon, pulling a pack of smokes out of his T-shirt pocket.
Halfway between Ohio State and Downtown is the Short North. Once the home of blue-collar workers and numerous car dealers, it went into decline in the 1930s and '40s and turned into a slum until gentrification in the 1980s. Now, it's a hip-hop happening haven for the black-booted, purple-haired, tattooed crowd that cruises the trendy restaurants and art galleries. It's SoHo, Columbus-style—the city's defense against charges of being White Bread, U.S.A.
Patrick McCarthy looks like the boy next door. But the stereotypical boy next door doesn't wear jewelry where McCarthy does—the places you can't see when he's fully clothed. McCarthy owns Outfitters Body Piercing. He uses a clamp and different gauge needles to poke people's bodies, making holes for gold rings, diamond studs and so forth. Ten bucks for ears, $25 for nipples, navels, noses and eyebrows and $30 for tongues, genitalia and septums. Over five years, he's pierced 3,000 body parts, mostly navels. Half of his clients are OSU or Columbus College of Art and Design students. He's done a tongue and a septum in the past hour.
“It's just a way to express yourself," he says. “But there is some head time involved in this. People have to think about it for a while. Any facial is nine months to a year; navel, six months, and genitalia, one month. The time is tied into how society accepts this."
You won't find anything that pushes society to the edge at the Clarmont restaurant, a German Village institution frequented by Downtown business types. New management came in some years back and gave it a facelift, as well as some lighter menu items, but you still feel naked here without a cigar after a steak dinner. No problem if you don't have one; the humidor at the cash register stocks a variety.
Nieda Blann and Virginia Miller have waited tables at the Clarmont for a combined 35 years. They understand their customers. “I've waited on four generations of one family," says Nieda. “We know what people want," says Virginia. “You know who wants a scotch on the rocks.”
As a Midwestern burg, Columbus is a bedrock, in many ways, of old-fashioned, conservative, God-and country patriotism. And nowhere is that more evident than at a storefront in Beechwold. Welcome to the Flag Lady's Flag Store, and prepare to salute.
The Flag Lady is Mary Eckert, who grew up being dressed in red, white and blue, whose grandmother carried a flag in her purse, who sold flags door-to-door during the Iranian hostage crisis, who gives six speeches a month on American history and who once chose to live in Libertyville, Illinois, because of its name.
The Flag Lady, the three Flag Lady offspring and the Flag Lady's husband all work in the store, which has nine seamstresses stitching 150 flags during a good week—only a few of which are American flags that they repair or make by special order. They do all the flags for Polaris Amphitheater and the Memorial Tournament. The flag Brutus the Buckeye carries across Ohio Stadium during home games comes from the Flag Lady. And just try squeezing in during the Fourth of July and rubbing shoulders with Buck Rinehart, Mayor Greg Lashutka and a judge or two. “It's God and country all the way here,” says Eckert. “It's my other heartbeat.”
People make a buck any way they can. For Mary Eckert, it's the offshoot of a passion. For James Besmertnuk, it's doing what you gotta do. And what he does is oversee the Gentlemen's Book Store, across the street from the well-scrubbed prosperity of City Center and the Great Southern Hotel. The porn shop is not hard to miss, thanks to its large, flashing neon sign.
Inside, about six guys, mostly middle-age and casually dressed, mill around, checking out the plastic wrapped merchandise. This is hard-core, making Penthouse or Hustler look like National Geographic. There are hundreds of magazines, videos, books and pictures; there's even the John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut X-rated video. A young man in a ball cap buys two videos for $42.20, including tax.
Besmertnuk's 25, a four-year veteran as an adult bookstore manager. “I started out of curiosity,” he says, “but the novelty wore off pretty fast—although I was pretty popular with my friends for a while.” Now it's just a career. He's learned to deal with the young kids who burst in and yell obscenities and the street preachers who condemn him to hell. "I've had to Mace a few, the young kids who wouldn't leave. And I get tired of being asked about swinger bars, gay bars or topless bars. Hell, I'm no referral service, you know.”
Just south of Lane Avenue, High Street passes a city within a city. The Ohio State University,home of 50,000 students and 16,000 employees. It's a swarm of jeans and bookbags, Rollerblades and bikes. Except for OSU football, campus is best known in Columbus for the stretch of High Street on the university's eastern boundary, where a string of bars creates a ghetto of thin beer, hyped hormones, fake IDs and drink-till-you drown mentality.
Scenes from a Saturday night: a mosh-pit crowd filling into the Newport MusicHall to see Pigface; a man drinking a Bud Light while pushing a woman in a wheelbarrow; steel rope strung along the street to stop drunks from stumbling in front of cars; an awning vibrating so severely from the loud music that it's humming; shots of whiskey set afire and then dropped into plastic cups of beer before being chugged.
The scene has changed, though, since the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21, and the city has tried to crack down on pervasive violent crime. In the past, the streets overflowed at dusk and a cop was about as common as a sober journalism student. Now the streets are practically empty until after 10:30 p.m. and cops are as noticeable as long lines outside Papa Joe's.
By day, the strip is grungy, filthy and funky. Music blares from some of the city's best record shops, reggae competing with rock. Wannabe poets sip espresso at Insomnia. Jim and Melanie perch on some steps selling bracelets and anklets made of hemp. How long does it take to make one? "We don't wear watches," says Jim, distinguished by a beard that hangs to mid chest. "We don't live in a linear way.” Where do you live? "We live in our bodies," he says. Take your picture? “No, we don't believe in that. But thanks for asking.”
Since the go-go '80s, Columbus has been pulling at the pant leg of the world looking for attention. There was Son of Heaven, AmeriFlora and now the United Nations trade summit, on High Street at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
The idea was to sell the delegates from many countries on Columbus as a major-league city in which to do future business. On a misty night, Mayor Greg Lashutka led the delegates down HighStreet into the Short North, with U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who had made a speech earlier in the day at the conference, and a 40-member version of the OSU marching band. A Columbus woman watching from the sidewalk yelled out, apologetically, “We have a bigger band." The delegates seemed bemused, trailing behind the brass; they didn't spontaneously start to form Script Ohio, but neither did they elect to stay dry in the convention center.
Columbus put on a decent show, blocking off High Street, opening the galleries and bars and funky shops. Delegates shook their booty to the various musical groups, including Columbus's house band, Arnett Howard. A couple of delegates tried to get some booty outside a girlie bar, waving and talking to the red-dressed woman sitting in the window display. Mostly, they sucked down a lot of free food and booze.
The whole scene of global harmony on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, touched a Short North local, who stepped out of Mike's bar to watch the march of the trade ministers. The middle-aged man, in his flannel and work boots, remarked, “This is a wonderful thing. That guy right there, see him, you say a word to him and he wouldn't understand a thing you say. A wonderful thing. Help the world a bit, huh?"
Several miles south, on another day, Wayne Rayburn has a different idea about how to attract attention and jobs to Columbus. And it's about as down-to-earth as you can get: gravel and sand.
Rayburn is in charge at the Olen Corp., a gravel and sand mining company in southern Franklin County. Thanks to the Ice Age, Columbus is a dream land for those in the aggregates business. The city is built on one primo gravel and sand pit. He says with regret, “With all the building going on, we can't get to it. That's a real shame."
Olen sits atop 150 million tons of gravel and sand, 75 feet deep by 560 acres. The sand and the 17 different sizes of gravel are used to build homes and make concrete, among other things. The mining is automated; an $8 million, 1,153-ton, 160-foot-long dredger floats on a 110-acre pond. Looking like a huge Tonka toy, it has 60 buckets that dig into the bank, then dump their loads on to a series of conveyor belts, resembling the water-tube rides at Wyandot Lake amusement park. The cleaned and sorted gravel and sand eventually end up in piles or storage tanks.
“It's not something the city people get real excited about, but when companies are moving here, like the developers at Rickenbacker ,that's something they want to know about. We've got it,” Rayburn proudly points out.
For most people, the Franklin County Courthouse falls into focus only during high-profile, sensational cases reported by the press. But high drama in fact is played out every week, with thousands of lives being changed subtly or drastically. Divorces, traffic tickets, child abuse cases, property disputes, murder charges and rape allegations all end being tried, settled or dismissed here. Some people leave with small fines, others get life imprisonment.
Walk into any courtroom on any day. For example, in courtroom 6D, where Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Tommy L. Thompson presides, the future of Eddy Griffin III is on the line. He's charged with two counts of receiving stolen property.
The trial begins today, but before a jury is chosen, Thompson has to rule on whether a vital piece of evidence should be dismissed. Thompson signals he's ready to hear arguments when he says to Griffin's court-appointed attorney, Steve Mathless, "OK, Steve-o, you're on the grill.”
Griffin and a friend were arrested after Upper Arlington police stopped the friend's car and found 19 pieces of stolen clothing from the Limited and Limited Express at Kingsdale Shopping Center. Griffin says he didn't know the stuff had been lifted.
Mathless wants the judge to throw out the evidence. He argues the Upper Arlington police became suspiciousof Griffin and his companion only because they are black, that no one saw either one of them steal anything. County assistant prosecutor Dick Termuhlen, however, argues that the cops, who had been investigating a series of thefts at the mall by young black males, acted reasonably. While Griffin sits impassively, Thompson rules that the evidence stays. Griffin's future looks bleak. Two days later, Griffin is found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison.
Columbus is segregated into quadrants. East, west, north and south. Each has its own distinct reputation, and none are more different than north and south. The distance between the two is measured in something other than mileage markers on High Street. North-siders are snobs; south-siders are hillbillies. About the only thing the north and south have in common is the stretch of road that connects them. Or so the stereotypes go.
The north is a snapshot of Columbus' runaway growth, exploding like popcorn from I-270 north to the Delaware County line. Pop! A Wendy's here. Pop! A Blockbuster Video there. Pop! An office park about everywhere. Practically any open land prominently displays a "Sale or Build to Suit” sign.
Worthington, which at one time truly could claim it was a village tucked away in a metropolitan area—a quiet, quaint collection of Victorian homes and big trees—is now a sprawling city of its own, crowded with new homes and heavy traffic. The suburb, among the wealthiest areas in Central Ohio with its median family income of $47,000, glistens with affluence, symbolized by the Worthington Mall. But the burb still has its charms, with a downtown merchant district of little shops, including a real hardware store with wood floors and screws by bulk, and the Worthington Inn, an antique-filled hotel and restaurant housed in a 160-year old building. In flower seasons, there are even huge hanging baskets on poles along High.
The south, on the other hand, has been a dumping ground. Got something nobody else wants? Like, say, a trash burning power plant or a wastewater treatment facility? Plunk it down in the South Side. A good stretch of South High Street is a hodgepodge of things. Mobile home dealers, an old drive-in theater (flea markets on Saturdays) and a truck stop.
But just north of I-270, South High Street takes on a different, more spruced-up look. In recent years, the street has been repaved, the Great Southern Shopping Center renovated, a branch library opened. The corporate headquarters of Bob Evans Farms, which first located on this strip in 1963 and expanded in 1986, also has bought most of the nearby Southland Mall to convert it to office space.
And barely in view from the street is South Fork Acres, a 50-acre farm owned by Ron and Barb Sams for the past 10 years. “It's our little farm in the city," says Barb. Ron grows corn and soybeans and raises horses; he's also the minister at Eastland Christian Church. They own a private early education school, Children's Academy, locations in Columbus and Circleville. Barb ran an Amish furniture store on the farmland until this month—she plans to lease it for office space. Barb says that Ron, who ran for Columbus City Council last election, helped get a church, some streets and an apartment complex built in the area.
Ron and Barb Sams have made a sizable investment in the South Side. And they're not done. Barb says they might put in senior citizen housing on part of the farm. “A lot of people who came here, they're salt of the earth people, and they don't want to leave the South Side when they retire.They like it here."
Barb knows the South Side has been snubbed, ridiculed or forgotten. “As Ron would say, 'We pay taxes, but you act as if we're not here." She adds, "When people think of 23 and 270, they always think of Worthington. Well, there is another 23 and 270."
Thousands of Appalachians have used High Street as an escape route. It was said in West Virginia that school kids were taught the three Rs: Reading, 'Riting and Route 23. Many came here over the past decades to try to get a shot at a better life, working in the factories and settling at first on the South Side or Short North before assimilating throughout the city.
They knew, like everybody else who has lived in the city, that there's only one road that leads to the heart of Columbus.
This story originally appeared in the December 1994 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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