From the Archives: How to be a Big City

Emily Foster and Ray Paprocki
The October 1990 issue of Columbus Monthly

Editor’s note: Back in 1990, Columbus Monthly took a tongue-in-cheek look at what makes a real BIG city (and why Columbus isn’t one). Take a look at our nearly 30-year-old list and decide whether we’re still coming up short.

In the go-go years of the Rinehart administration, Goal Number One was to kick Columbus in the butt and make it more than a white-milk kind of place. The idea was to turn our town into a big-league player, a city without a comma followed by “Ohio." It was about time we grew up into a brawny, broad-shouldered city. A BIG city, if you will, along the lines of Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Miami, Philadelphia.

Huge steps have been taken. New skyscrapers grace the Downtown horizon. The Short North developed into an arts enclave. City Center has opened. The Wexner Center was built. There are plans for a new convention center, the AmeriFlora festival, a sports arena (someday). The national press has bit the bait cast by the city's marketing whizzes and hailed us as a hot city, a city on the move, a city of the future. All the tumblers are clicking into place as we evolve into a legitimate BIG city. 

Think again.

A few essential factors have been overlooked—the ingredients that make the difference between a big city (namely, such friendly and comfortable places as Indianapolis, Charlotte and, yes, Columbus) and a BIG city. Columbus needs more, much more. Like what, you say? Read on. Here's our Guide to Making Columbus BIG—the 20 things that distinguish big cities from BIG cities. 

1. Filth. L.A.'s got smog. Philadelphia's streets look like the bottom of an old garbage can. New York is, well, New York. When we asked one person what makes a BIG city, she immediately replied, "Dog crap.” On the Downtown sidewalks, in the parks, on the bottom of your shoe. The volume of dog crap per square foot separates a big city from a BIG city; and Columbus doesn't have enough. 

2. Traffic. You think the rush hour tie-ups on I-71 because of road construction are bad? Ha! Have you seen the 24-hour gridlock in Boston or Chicago? We're talking average round trip commutes of more than an hour. We're talking more honking, a lot more honking. Why do you think there's a horn in your car? It's to use, especially as soon as the light turns from red to green. In fact, BIG cities have constant honking. Drivers get so tense they flip you off or, as in LA. a couple of years ago, aim a .45 at your temple. 

3. Street life. BIG city downtowns snap with energy. Dense hordes move along sidewalks. There are bag people, with shopping carts. Wannabe Madonnas. Mimes accost you on street corners, along with magicians, saxophonists or three-piece folk bands singing about world peace. If Columbus is going to be a BIG city, celebrities (see "Colorful personalities") must emerge fromlimousines surrounded by bodyguards and duck into the Hyatt on Capitol Square. 

4. Diversity. We're not called Mayonnaise Land for nothing. Even if we have an inordinate number of Asianrestaurants, we don't approach the thick, rich stew of humanity found in a BIG city. For example, take Chicago, with the largest Polish population in the world outside of Poland. Or take Cleveland. On any weekend there, you can go to at least six ethnic festivals—full of authentic costumes and music and food, from Egyptian to Hispanic to Greek to Slovak to Polish to German to... Cleveland even has a publication called the Ethnic Directory—218 pages of groups and officers. Go to St. Vitus Catholic Church on a Sunday morning and you'll see old women in babushkas.

There's the Karamu, the oldest black theater in America, and real soul food restaurants. Or, there's the 32-seat John's Cafe where you can sample Czech duck and dumplings. Our Oktoberfest pales in comparison.

5. Taxicabs. And not just at the airport. BIG city cabs cruise the streets, and people stand on the corners to hail them. Fisticuffs ensue over who rides in them. The drivers don't speak English because they just arrived from Colombia, Nigeria or Laos, but that's all right, because they don't know how to get where you want to go anyway. 

6. Vibrant newspapers. Most BIG cities have two dailies. A traditional broadsheet that wins lots of Pulitzers for exposing the judges bought off by the unions and the cops on the take from drug lords. And a tabloid with an attitude. Big, screaming headlines, like “DEATH BED, Hotel guest crushed when ceiling caves in." You must have a caustic, cynical columnist, such as Chicago's Mike Royko or New York's JimmyBreslin—someone who is the personification of the BIG city. 

7. Hideous crime. Sure, Columbus has a bunch of bank robberies and plenty of murders. That's page 8D in BIG city papers, because BIG cities have the truly bizarre and horrifying. Serial killers, such as New York's Son of Sam or L.A.'s Hillside Strangler (except we haven't got hills). Or, Dart Man, the guy in New York who shot women in the buttocks with a blowgun. Or, arsonists in Detroit, where during an average 24-hour period, 50 fires are reported, not including Devil's Night in October, when up to 800 fires are set. Or, Howard Beach. Or, Bensonhurst. The kinds of crimes that make three-inch headlines in the tabloids (see "Vibrant newspapers”).

8. Raw fear. See “Hideous crime.” Also, there's a sense that unimaginably wicked things will happen if you venture anywhere after dark. The Philadelphia police commissioner says that citizens there live in “a climate of fear” because, as the city attorney confirms, the justice system is "on the verge of collapse." A climate of fear in Columbus? No, that constriction in your chest is just the high pollen count. 

9. Rudeness. BIG city folk call it "moxie," and they're proud of it. Friendly chats across the counter at the hardware store are Out. Elevator conversations are Out. In fact, BIG. city elevator riders press the “Door Close” button when they see you coming. Waiters and store clerks ignore or abuse you, panhandlers threaten. People shout obscenities at strangers. Push comes to shove, every day, and your adrenalin surges. New Yorkers talk about becoming kinder and gentler, but they keep patronizing the delis where the waiters tyrannize the clientele.

 10. Controversial architecture. In a BIG city theWexner Center would be controversial for about, say, 60 seconds. If Columbus were a BIG city, architects would want to replace the Statehouse with a glass trapezoid and put Downtown under a dome, or Cristo would wrap Central High. Instead, the proposed Galbreath-Wolfe CapitolTower is described by its own architect as "spectacularly conservative."  

11. Lively social scene. Society won't have arrived until Columbus parties are visited by photographers from W, the women wear haute couture and Vanity Fair prints a feature on our social X-rays. Parties must be attended by contessas and principesas and their American counterparts, Buffy, Bianca and Bunny. The women wear Christian Lacroix. Party guests arrive by private jet. The men are old and short, the women young and tall. Audrey Hepburn and Pat Buckley show up with Jack Kessler. The newspaper has a real gossip column with real gossip. Everyone talks to the media, on the record about their decorators and charities, and off the record about their friends. 

12. Underground social scene. First, BIG cities have enough artists to have an exotic and funky social scene, and they move there to live in lofts and try to get their pictures shown at the galleries. There are happenings and performances. (Oh, yes, there was a happening in the Short North once—two years ago.) And nightclubs—where you have to be somebodyto get in—that become the rage for a month or two, like Arena in New York, then disappear. The minute they resemble R'n'R, they're dead. The children of the old, short men in the mainstream social scene make the underground scene on weekends home from college. The parties are covered by Interview magazine. 

13.Political mayhem. A BIG city has nasty politics. Forget government by consensus; we're talking power blocs, political infighters, backstabbing and greased palms. Don't think Hugh Dorrian and Arlene Shoemaker; think George Forbes, Ed Koch and Coleman Young. City council members run investigations of each other, and campaigns are fueled by allegations of wife-beating and graft. The charges usually are true. Here, rival politicians shudder delicately at the idea of using embarrassing incidents against each other because their mothers told them not to say anything if they couldn't say something nice.

14. Outrageous cost of living. In New York, a cup of coffee can cost up to $6. In Boston, the median sales price of a home is $186,200. In San Francisco, best-seat ballet tickets go for $70. If you want a BIG city, you gotta pay for it.

15. World-class arts scene. A BIG city has world-renowned arts institutions, such as the Cleveland Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera or Alvin Ailey dance company. Not the kinds of companies that play on tour in small college auditoriums or Third World countries, but the ones that fill London's Royal Festival Hall or play at Lincoln Center. The ClevelandOrchestra releases about nine compact disc recordings a year, the Columbus Symphony has released two recordings and is working on three more—that's in its entire history.

16. Population density. In a BIG city, people are crammed together like circuits on a computer chip. There's high-rise living and urban sprawl for 40 miles. The kids have to go to the zoo to see grass.

17. Colorful personalities. Buster Douglas is the heavyweight boxing champ. Jack Hanna gets plenty of pub on David Letterman. Les Wexner's listed in Forbes. Not bad, but not good enough. What's missing here is a little outrageousness on a grand scale. The Donald, Zsa Zsa, Leona; people who are splashed across the National Enquirer. Buck Rinehart tries—God knows he tries—to be a contender, but he's moving on. Now, for controversy and boat rocking on the civic and political scene, we're left with the likes of Ed Armentrout, Dorothy Teater, Mel Schottenstein, Cindy Lazzz-z-z-z…

Also, world leaders—Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev—should visit after summiting with thepresident. And a BIG city is home to spitting, scratching sports figures, such as Daryl Strawberry or Tommy Lasorda, which leads us to:

18. Big-league sports. The Columbus Yankees?

19. A song. Imagine if all these years Tony Bennett had been crooning that he had left his heart in Columbus or Frank Sinatra had beensinging, "Columbus, Columbus, that  toddlin' town..." BIG cities at least have a TV show named after them, such as "L.A. Law" or "Miami Vice."However, if there were a TV programabout us, it probably would be  "Columbus Actuaries."

20. Interesting natural features. BIG cities need Nature's help. The beaches of Miami, the SanFrancisco bay with its bridges, the ocean ports of New York and Boston, they all add up to BIG city ambiance. But landscape isn’t just for looking at. Where would San Francisco run its trolley if it didn’t have hills? Where would bodies wearing cement shoes go if New York didn’t have the East River? How would we have Valley Girls without the San Fernando Valley? Where would surfers surf in L.A. without the Pacific? How would Chicagoans complain about the lake effect without Lake Michigan? For that matter, what would become famous for bursting into flames if it weren’t the Cuyahoga in Cleveland?

The Scioto? Dredge it till the cows come home (no pun intended), and it still isn’t a deep-water harbor. Columbus has no beaches, no bays, no lakes, no hills. A few ravines, but who ever heard of a Walhalla Girl?

This story originally appeared in the October 1990 issue of Columbus Monthly.


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