The Other Columbus: If you value history, prove it

The city has repeatedly shown that preservation is not a priority

Scott Woods
Main Bar, 16 W. Main St., on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 in Columbus, Ohio. The bar is closing its doors.

Between early morning errands last week, I chanced upon the in-progress destruction of The Main Bar, a 130-year-old watering hole. I pulled over just in time to witness the bucket of a front loader smashing down onto an old overhang, driving it to the sidewalk in a puff of dust and history.

By contrast, the former stadium of the Columbus Crew soccer team, Mapfre Stadium, is now being referred to as "Historic Crew Stadium." Built in 1999, it is a whopping 22 years old. While a number of historic things have taken place in the stadium, I can’t think of anything else that’s only 22 years old and is referred to with the honorific of “Historic.” Google was founded in 1998. No one considers that company historical in the sense that labeling a defunct stadium implies. Maybe things must pass on to be eligible for historic status. There are plans to keep using the not-old stadium, so it’s not exactly closed for business. But this is Columbus. Nothing with a footprint that size will be allowed to sit idle for too long. 

And so, after watching the city-approved destruction of a 130-year-old building in the middle of Downtown, I think most of us can agree that Columbus has an ironic notion of what “historic” means.

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A common criticism of the city is that it “doesn’t respect history,” by which its critics often mean new development and demolition outstrips the preservation of historical buildings and features. 

If you ever wondered if that was a real thing supported by more than nostalgia, consider this statistic, courtesy of Becky West, Executive Director of Columbus Landmarks: “Older buildings are finite and dwindling resources in Columbus, where fewer than 25 percent of buildings date to pre-1945 compared to a 50-city average of 38 percent.” So yes, Columbus tears down historical structures, spaces and features at a higher rate than a lot of notable cities. (Also note that 1945 was an historic 76 years ago, not 22.) 

Columbus Landmarks submitted the above statistic, and more, in aid of preserving the South Dormitory on the Columbus Public Health Campus (240 Parsons Ave., where the Hot Times Festival makes camp annually), which is currently marked for demolition. It is a building originally designed to function as a dormitory and is currently vacant. Considering the number of people who are homeless in the vicinity, one has to wonder what it says about your civic agenda that despite what you preach about housing, your actions find parking spaces more valuable than putting a building designed to house people to use. Considering it sits next to buildings that provide very necessary public health services, the ironies compound.  

Imagine a Columbus without the Ohio Theatre. That cultural institution was almost leveled in 1969. It was saved by a group purchase of $1.75 million ($13,080,177.11 today). And despite a campaign to raise public awareness of its impending demolition, it was eventually saved by private money, not civic vision or historical significance. Now? You can’t imagine a Downtown without The Ohio. You don’t even have a Columbus brochure unless The Ohio is on the cover.

More:'Forgotten Landmarks of Columbus' book recounts what was saved and what was lost

Here is a popular misconception about historic buildings: being labeled historical means they’re safe. An historical marker does not, in fact, mean a building cannot be demolished or gutted or remodeled. Some buildings may have more hoops to jump through, but that’s largely dependent on who owns them and how much advocacy can be generated to save them. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw a historical marker go up in front of artist Aminah Robinson’s East Side house recently, but let’s be clear: That space is always going to have to be protected. It is already a very different space than when Robinson lived there. Historical, as it turns out, is mad relative.

I frequently engage the topic of Columbus culture, and more specifically, how that culture has come to exist. Most of the conversations I have with people about the matter boil down to how we define culture, which is important to clarify regardless of what side you come down on in any given example. Defining culture is easy: It is the customs, arts, social institutions and achievements of a particular nation, people or other social group. Uncovering how that word and its implications apply to Columbus is where the greatest challenges to social, political and individual improvement exist. Without an interrogation of how we got to the Columbus that we have, we cannot hope to address its problems or needs in a balanced and just way.  

And we cannot do that without acknowledging that a lack of preservation in the city landscape is tied to a value. Or rather, the absence of one.

History is as much narrative as it is things, and that’s not always an act of erasure. Sometimes that’s an additive (let us not forget the Great Bronzeville Mural War of 2020), sometimes that’s an unaccounted understanding. We can debate about whether or not Columbus is a great place to live or if it is a to-scale diorama of Goya’s "Saturn Devouring His Son," a political machine that chews unprotected citizens up in its desire to sate rampant capitalism. We can debate if Columbus culture is OSU football or art or neither. 

But what we cannot debate is whether or not preservation is a Columbus value. It is not, and that is not up for debate. So any discussion you wish to have about what Columbus culture is must first take into account that history — its preservation, acknowledgement and interpretation — is a thing Columbus struggles with, to the point that a case can be made that it does not care at all most days.  Don’t argue with me about it. Take it up with the institutions whose missions are to preserve such things.

Because that is how we determine priority in this city: budgets and bank statements. If history and preservation are indeed important — if it is in fact a value that defines our city and not just our speeches — let the proof stand in what we save and pay for. Otherwise, keep them off the list of cultural ingredients and let’s focus on what you really care about as a city.