The Other Columbus: The Columbus identity crisis

Scott Woods
Photo by Doral Chenowith III

For Columbus to continue growing as a city and not a commodity aquarium, it requires an identity with which to entice new residents. To acquire identity with lasting impact, it needs culture. Identity you can fake, and we're pretty good at that shell game now. Culture, however, is a thing you must possess. Not borrow or purchase, but reflect.

I'm not talking about mainstream cultural staples here. With all due respect, nobody is moving here specifically for the symphony or ballet. People do, however, use markers like orchestras and ballets to determine if we are a city worth moving to — a place that values culture — the thinking being that if you're a real city you have to have certain cultural prerequisites. If you wish to invest in people as city fuel, you need culture in the sell.

Columbus has struggled with identity. There isn't much here that consistently distinguishes us. There are flashes of originality, but it's not culture you can count on. You can go long stretches between attempts that reflect the actual range of residents here. For a city that's only 61 percent white, its cultural offerings are about 90 percent white-facing.

Twenty-five years ago Columbus had one of everything a growing city needs: one decadent old-school restaurant (RIP Morton's), one reggae club (RIP Skankland), a few genre specific record stores (RIP Groove Shack, Roots, RTO), one bar where the good bands go (RIP Stache's, Little Brothers). In some areas Columbus has expanded the menu, but in many others it has done away with certain dishes entirely.

Having one of everything isn't good, but it's a good place from which to start building. Unfortunately, Columbus became a kingdom of land barons instead. Now that it needs to sell how cool it is to the next generation of tax payers, it requires those things again. But you can't fake those things. People from places that also have museums and festivals know when you're faking culture with trends like microbrew culture and coffee culture and art-hop culture (all of which are everywhere). I don't even know if New Orleans has microbrew culture because it has so much New Orleans culture, and that's in a city that lost half of its residents after Hurricane Katrina. I wouldn't mind an arts district that didn't look focus grouped within an inch of its creativity.

Culture isn't a priority here, not the organic kind. Authentic culture has to be seeded, nurtured with ample doses of history, and allowed to run a little wild before being harvested for its fruits. And it wouldn't hurt if the people who planted those seeds were the first to reap its benefits instead of city developers and politicians.