Best Transplant: Saeed Jones

Brittany Moseley
Saeed Jones

Saeed Jones moved to Columbus for a number of practical reasons. Among them: affordable housing, a diverse queer community, a group of talented writer friends, cheap flights to New York and an aunt who lives in Cincinnati. He also moved here because of Toni Morrison and old black men at McDonalds and because “black people have been happy here for quite some time.” But above all, he moved here because his life in New York had become too much. “The city was wearing me out; my job was wearing me out; America was wearing me out,” he wrote.

Jones outlined his reasons for moving here in his newsletter,The Intelligence of Honey, last October. His need to justify his choice of home won’t surprise anyone who lives in Columbus — or Ohio for that matter. No matter how much its citizens brag about it, the city is still one of those places that, as Jones writes, will lead people to inevitably ask, “Why Columbus?”

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Jones arrived in Columbus on Labor Day weekend, about a month before the release of his memoir,How We Fight for Our Lives. (The book would go on to win the2019 Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction.) He’s been here for almost seven months, enough time to fall in love with the city but also enough time to notice its darker side. But like any good Midwesterner, his love for his new home remains strong.

“I've found that since I've gotten here, I was more right than I expected,” Jones said. “I'm meeting queer black people, and I have those friendships, which I didn't expect necessarily coming in. ... I'm happier in my neighborhood than I think I expected. I was kind of like, 'This will be a good, sustainable, practical decision.' And instead I'm like, 'Oh, this is a home.'”

Specifically, Jones’ new home is the Short North. When the conversation moves to the varying opinions people have about the neighborhood, Jones proclaims, “Yes that’s the tea!” before elaborating.

“I think a lot about being a black gentrifier, as someone who lived in Bed-Stuy and lived in Harlem at different times on and off for a decade and seeing that,” said Jones, who grew up in north Texas and attended Western Kentucky University and Rutgers University – Newark before moving to New York. "I feel like Columbus is doing really well, obviously, overall, but the challenge is, who's benefiting from this boom?”

Much of Jones' writing — he has also published two poetry collections, including 2014’sPrelude to Bruise — centers around his life experiences as a black, queer man. So it’s not surprising when the conversation moves from the killing ofJulius Tate Jr. to theColumbus March for Black Trans Women to theMartin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast protest.

These stories are all unique to Columbus, but the larger issue of inequality was just as prevalent in Jones’ former home of New York City. The difference is the ability to fix those larger issues. For example, when the Linden neighborhood comes up, I mention that one of the criticisms of the city’s ongoing plans to “revitalize” the area is that the same people are always at the table. In New York, Jones said he wouldn’t even be able to find the table, let alone a seat at it.

“It feels like, if you have the desire, you could  reach the table [here],” he said. “It does feel fraught. I mean, activists are being arrested, so clearly, it's tense, but it feels like having the conversation, it feels accessible. And I want to do that work.”