The Other Columbus: “Columbus isn't as bad as…” is not a defense

Scott Woods
The sun sets behind the backdrop of the Columbus skyline on Tuesday. Due to western wildfires, the sky has appeared hazier this week at sunrise and sunset.

I get tired of people telling me Columbus isn’t so bad whenever I criticize it.

I’d feel differently if the retort were based on demonstrable progress, like, “Our public schools are vastly improved from where they were ten years ago,” or, “We’ve better aligned the definition of ‘affordable housing’ to include people who have been living here and not simply those who we’re attempting to attract.” 

But that’s not from where these kinds of statements come. They’re based on useless things like the navel-gazing of personal experience, or worse, opinion. 

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The balance of a Columbus existence may not be bad compared to, say, a war-torn enclave. Contrary to the city’s recent declarations to mobilize against violence itself by taking up arms against bands of roving youths, we don’t gauge things like well-being and justice by arsenal counts (though we might gauge them by state sanctioned declarations). We gauge them with indicators like wealth gaps, graduation rolls, health statistics and financial girth. And while Columbus knocks it out the park on some factors (no city will sell your recently deceased grandmother’s home faster), there are other dips below the bar that offset such quality of life measures. You can only tout the strength of the local market so much before another police shooting resets your civic priorities. 

Historically, Americans label lots of things with debatable outcomes as great. That’s because greatness has never meant goodness. It is a measure of impact, not righteousness. Alexander the Great was a savage. The greatest city in the world (trademark pending), New York, is frequently as horrible as it is inspiring, arguably sparking more nationally distressing instances of police abuse than any other city in the country. And if America has been made great again in recent years, it has done so while increasing the world’s largest incarcerated population, further investing in what is already the largest military in the history of the planet and wielding a ranking on the Global Peace index that’s been dropping like a rock. 

Part of the schism in perception here is that for any of my criticisms of Columbus to stand, someone has to be the bad guy. We’re not paving the Oregon Trail here, so you can’t blame it on the dangers of the plains. Someone is making life untenable for others on a massive scale. Depending on what the issue of the day is, that target is constantly rotating. Some days it’s the police. Some days it’s the school board. Some days it’s City Hall. Sometimes it’s a good ol’ boy tired of watching his assault rifle collect dust in his gun safe who realizes he hasn’t been down to the Statehouse since a fifth grade class trip. Most days it’s naked capitalism. 

All of this is happening at the same time all of the awesome things some of you like are happening. But rather than rolling with my learned observations, some of you would rather stick such disparities on disenfranchised voters, or single parents having to contend with two-parent-sized bills, or generations of youth made apathetic by the American core value of individual comfort above all else. What you really mean is that “Columbus does OK by me.”

Quit telling me it’s not so bad here because you’re able to have a good time. Despite the fact that our police force is inundated with thugs and our schools are literally falling apart, even I can take the time out to enjoy a good restaurant. Being able to find solace doesn’t mean your city isn’t busted. It just means you’re able to survive the damage it wrecks on your neighbors.

Columbus isn’t great, nor is it fine across the board. It simply isn’t hurting everybody in the same ways. The measure of its harm isn’t the person who walks around unmolested by its systemic blades, but whoever still suffers against their will after all of its supposed advancements. The math goes like this: If you live somewhere that has abundant amenities, a serviceable nightlife scene, safe and beautiful parks, and enough eateries to choke Tarrare, yet still manage to have crumbling schools, a brutal police force and inequitable living conditions for at least a quarter of its citizens, you don’t get to defend a city like that. 

I need you to understand how selfish that position is, how relentlessly inhumane it sits on the heart. It’s clearly too much to ask in a climate when people won’t even wear a piece of cloth for several minutes for fear of seeming conformist (as opposed to unsympathetic or miseducated). I can, however, at least hit someone set on diffusing a valid criticism with the lazy and utterly unproductive bon mot of “it could be worse.”