The Other Columbus: Now is the time to uncover real Columbus culture

Our city has the seeds to grow a unique and identifiable culture, argues columnist Scott Woods, but not enough support to develop those seeds

Scott Woods
Pedal Wagons in the Short North

An observation: Columbus doesn’t care about culture.

You do, of course. You’ve made it past the headline (which is half the battle) and that challenging first sentence, so congratulations: You are at least culture-curious. But the operative word in that charge is “Columbus,” and once we start the head count outside of your feelings, the math starts to add up pretty quickly. You realize that, yes, most people are doing good to just make it through their day, and so deconstructions on culture aren’t typical conversation starters. Driving past the former Mapfre Stadium on even a slow Columbus Crew match day used to yield stands filled with more people than you would ever likely engage on the topic. Even city leadership doesn’t refer to life here as culture. “Development,” yes. “Growth,” sure. But “culture?” Almost never.

My saying Columbus doesn’t care about culture comes off as a loaded statement until you unpack the math of the idea. Most people aren’t walking around the Short North (which has completely sprung back from being a quarantine ghost town, even as the pandemic rages on) citing how cultural the scene is. It’s fun and loud and busy and you can’t find parking, but those are signs of growth, not culture. And so conversations about what all that social and capitalistic engagement means doesn’t get much beyond, “It was fun.”

And look: Fun can be a culture. Disney World has the critical mass of a small town, and its existence is predicated on the value of good times. Fun is its culture. The rides are fun. The food is fun. The random drive-by princess sightings are fun. The restrooms are decorated in fun ways. It’s right there in the name: an amusement park. The park is literally selling fun.

I have nothing against fun. I have the video games and comic book collection to prove it. I like hanging out in a hip watering hole as much as the next barfly. But Columbus’ bar-to-gallery ratio is way out of whack. Replace “gallery” with “theater company.” Replace it with “independent coffee shop” or “bookstore.” Replace it with “art festival” or “live performance venue” or “specialized museum.” In fact, replace “gallery” with all of those things combined and the formula is still wildly imbalanced in favor of bars. There simply aren’t enough places here to do something that doesn’t involve bad parking, drinking and half a paycheck.

Someone fought the good fight once and attempted to argue with me that maybe Columbus just isn’t one of those cities that has culture as I define it. I pointed out that the flaw in their idea was the presumption that these things don’t exist here. My math isn’t based solely on the absence of such things, but on the level of engagement the examples that do exist receive. If they didn’t exist, my opening line would be, “Columbus doesn’t have any culture.” (Admittedly, I say something very close to this regularly, but usually only around people who respect my shorthand.) No, the issue is that Columbus has the seeds to grow a unique and identifiable culture, but not enough support to develop those seeds. Columbus is a city comprising a lot of cultural Almost-Theres.

Perhaps drinking is our culture. Or bar-hopping. OSU football is as solid a candidate as any for the cultural crown. That’s a terrifying thought, but when you consider how culture operates, it’s not that far off. OSU football has a history, a lineage, a value system, a fashion, a language, numerous rituals, and it crosses communities generationally. And when a game is happening the experience for those in attendance borders on religious. In fact, little can compete with OSU football culturally, which is why the streets become deserted whenever there’s a kickoff. Raising a family under the banner of OSU football isn’t impossible. Plenty of families have done it for decades. But it’s like eating hot dogs every day: You can live off of it, but do you want to? Any culture that cannot feed its participants is doomed to failure. Also, relish is an inadequate vegetable serving.

Columbus has lots of institutions that are trying very hard to put a dent in the cultural bandwidth of its citizens. The Ohio History Center reopened recently, and the attached Ohio Village has new onsite touring features, including a truly committed African-American house and reenactors. The Columbus Museum of Art has been pushing into the community despite enormous budget and staff cuts. Even the Columbus Symphony has finally gotten the memo and launched a campaign to do more in the community over the next three years.

Those are all the safe bets, the ones that will be there next week and 10 years from now. But there are a lot of venues trying to make the city come off as more than a limb of OSU. Maybe next time I’ll run that list, too. I can do that, but really, I promise you: If you’re already here, you already know a lot of them. All of them would love to see you right now. The fake-post-pandemic rush is in full effect. Most of the bars and restaurants are going to make out fine, financially speaking. Now is the time to show the Columbus cultural entities (ones that aren't just commodities) that you actually care. Let’s see if we can get some of these Almost-Theres across the finish line to Genuinely Engaging.