What Columbus Needs: Poverty and inequality

Dave Ghose
Mustafaa Shabazz, president of the Livingston Avenue Business Association

Mustafaa Shabazz empathizes with the dozen or so drug addicts mulling about on East Livingston Avenue. Some pace along the sidewalk, seemingly looking for their next score. Others sit in front of a boarded-up home covered in graffiti, a tapestry of profanity, inscrutable scribbles and makeshift memorials. “They're using drugs to deal with poverty,” says Shabazz, the president of the Livingston Avenue Business Association, driving along the road on a late March afternoon.

Columbus has been on a roll in recent years. Property values have soared, while the region's economy—a rare bright spot in Ohio and the Midwest—has pumped out new jobs at a steady clip. But not everyone has benefited from the surge. “Columbus is a tale of two cities and is perhaps more so now than at any other time in the 30 years I have lived here,” wrote Columbus Board of Education president Gary Baker in his response to our What Columbus Needs survey, echoing the concerns of many other respondents. “As we hear more and more about how great our city is, the gap seems to widen between those who enjoy success in our city and those who struggle to make ends meet.”

Several statistics highlight the divide. Columbus' poverty rate—higher than most other comparable cities, according to a 2016 Columbus Foundation study—has changed little despite the overall job growth of recent years. What's more, a 2015 University of Toronto report identified Columbus as the second-most economically segregated city in the U.S., while a 2013 study indicated it was one of the least promising places for low-income children to climb out of poverty in the country.

Meanwhile, the area's economically vulnerable residents are isolated in neighborhoods such as Linden, the Hilltop and the South Side, as the Dispatch detailed recently in its Dividing Lines series about inequality in Columbus. And those depressed areas often abut thriving neighborhoods and communities, showing the economic divide in stark relief. You don't need to drive far from the blighted East Livingston Avenue area—which includes the neighborhoods of Driving Park, Hanford Village and Old Oaks—to find yourself amid the million-dollar homes, trendy restaurants and fashionable boutiques of Bexley, German Village and Downtown. The divide transcends money. Nationwide Children's Hospital boasts one of the world's most sophisticated medical towers, but in its shadow are children suffering among the worst infant mortality rates in the nation, living in the struggling South Side (including the Livingston Avenue area).

Many survey respondents called for more investment in these often ignored sections of the city, a goal seemingly shared by Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther, who's said he's focused on revitalizing Linden and the Hilltop. Shabazz, the owner of Ujamaa Bookstore on East Livingston Avenue, thinks housing is the key. “If you continue to work on home ownership in the impoverished community, then everybody has a road to success,” says Shabazz, who praises city officials for supporting the $1.5 million Kent Place Homes affordable housing project in Driving Park and the proposed redevelopment of the abandoned Livingston Theater into housing for low-income seniors.

For David Brown, however, the first step is this: increase cross-cultural interactions between the haves and have-nots. That's been his mission since 2009, when he founded the Harmony Project, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing about social change through song. Brown isn't naïve. He knows music and hand-holding alone can't change the deep-rooted inequality found in Columbus and other cities. But without empathy and understanding, “then I just don't think we're going to make a dent in this gap that is getting wider and wider and wider,” Brown says.

Other Voices

More survey participants on poverty and inequality:

“Columbus has a stubbornly high poverty rate and reducing it has to be a top priority.”

Kermit Whitfield, director of communications, United Way of Central Ohio

“Residents of at-risk neighborhoods need more employment opportunities and a greater commitment from the community at large to address social and family issues that make it difficult for these residents to thrive.”

Patrick Losinski, Columbus Metropolitan Library CEO

“Drive east on East Main Street, drive south on South High Street, drive north on North Cassady. Empty storefronts and boarded-up homes and apartments are eyesores and are dangers to the community. What are plans for those areas?”

Carol Luper, retired TV reporter

“Columbus must make a concerted effort to make sure that struggling neighborhoods begin to grow alongside the neighborhoods that are thriving.”

Sean Walton, partner, Walton + Brown

“More voices from neighborhoods across Columbus need to be invited to the discussion and given a sincere ear.”

Jim Coe, business development and community outreach, WCBE-FM

“There are several federally designated food deserts in Central Ohio, so grocery store/access to fresh produce is a need.”

Jessica Martin, member, North Central Area Commission

“For Columbus to thrive, we need to focus on increasing the skills and wages of the working poor.”

Sheri Chaney Jones, president, Measurement Resources Company

“The remedy for the self-inflicted wound of segregation is simple: fellowship.”

Clarence Mingo, Franklin County auditor

Big Idea

A Columbus landmark

“We need to build a large, beautiful building/monument, which can have more than one purpose, and it can become a landmark. My only stipulation is that the monument should not be about the past. If we want to be a city of the future, we need to look toward the future.”

Jeff Excell, owner, Fox in the Snow Café

Reality check: Remember the “Columbiad,” the proposed six-story steel riverfront monument that looked like a nuclear cooling tower? That didn't go well.