Lessons Learned From Growing up in Southfield
Memories of my Columbus neighborhood: a street fight, an out at second and the resilience that comes with defying expectations
Columbus may have many interpretations of the South Side, but there’s only one Southfield.
It isn’t terribly official, as district names go. Its western border stops around Lockbourne or Champion, depending on who moved into the predominantly Black and working class area the previous year. The eastern cutoff is marked by the train tracks winding down the side of Driving Park to Groveport Road.
The northern border is less defined. Some place it at Frebis Avenue, which is so far south of the action, it feels like another time zone. If you base it on the next major bus line, it’s East Whittier. If your measure is how much of the area is used by Southfield residents, you can draw your line as far north as Livingston Avenue.
I draw my line at a Sunoco station on a street where I grew up but did not live, and where certain values I’ve used all my life were born.
I lost my first real street fight at the Sunoco station three blocks north of Golden Donuts (which is one of the few places that hasn’t changed, probably because there is nowhere else like it). I lived just outside of Southfield, but my mother—divorced and working two jobs—was constantly picking me up in the area, where I went to be watched by family friends after school, or participate in any extracurricular activity she could find to distract me. Free babysitting was how I ended up playing Pony League baseball, practicing every day behind what was then Southmoor Middle School.
I was waiting for my mother in a Burger King with a few of my teammates after practice, dusty and bored. Everything was fine until members of a nearby gang came in, perhaps as bored as I was, but resolved to filling the emptiness of a lazy afternoon with something. We were all around the same age, but they were wiser, deeper boys. There was no poetry or care in them, and they were not tired from throwing baseballs and swinging bats all afternoon. They knew my teammates from around the way, but not me, and that made me an interloper and, soon after, a target. They teased me, and when fear seized my tongue, the teasing turned to threats. I want to say I was the bigger person by walking away, but I was really headed across the street to the Sunoco station, where the nearest public phone was, and I intended to call my mother. Instead, I was forced to square off with one of the boys.
It was a terrifying moment, having to fight someone in the street over nothing, surrounded by their friends cheering them on. Things came to blows, but not blood. The maxim about standing up to a bully is actually true sometimes, even if your punches are more like caresses. The standoff was over almost before it began.
Betrayal was a lesson on the syllabus that day as well, as my teammates offered no protection. Here I must tell you that I was never good at baseball. I lived in constant fear of being hit by the ball, and in every position: at bat, in the outfield, standing on a base. I could only function at all through constant reassurance by the other players that no one was actually aiming for my head. Yet how could I trust them when a game was at stake if they would not protect my person when it truly mattered?
In a game not long after that fight, with the sun starting to dip under the trees lining Sills Ballpark, I stepped up to home plate and actually caught a piece of the ball. I had only ever gotten to bat a handful of times, striking out every time, my fear a better pitcher than any opponent I ever faced. My hitting a ball at all was a bench-clearing development. Running for my life, I made it to first base, the only time I had ever touched that rubber pillow outside of practice. When the batter after me popped what looked like another single, I sprinted to second, already imagining my slide into home. Unfortunately, the single was caught and I didn’t realize that I needed to run back to first. I was tagged out by the second baseman, and I had to trot off the diamond and back to the dugout. I didn’t know how the outs system worked because no one had prepared me for success in baseball. There was no expectation that I would ever need such knowledge.
And yet, the Sunoco station fight had somehow prepared me for that moment. It was a moment of dashed hopes, but also fulfillment. My teammates, who had not long before watched me lose a street fight, cheered me on, even after my walk of shame. I had stood up for myself when it mattered, and conversely, what was a baseball to the head? Swing back at the punch, at the bully, at the low expectations of your existence.
Much of what remains in Southfield echoes its past in a way that exposes something like a value system. There are almost no social services there, so everyone must know how far away a thing you need is. Businesses in Southfield don’t get gentrified; they just get tired and become something else residents need. Sills’ baseball diamonds now belong to Columbus Recreation & Parks. The fresh food market on Frebis is now a tire shop. Boyd’s Barbershop has been replaced three times since I last had my hair cut in its chairs. Through all of its ghosts I still love it, not for nostalgic reasons, but because it feels about itself the way I do: Southfield knows itself, is fiercely independent, and does not really care what you think of it. It is a place that swings at whatever you throw at it. That is a strength you must be taught, and I have carried that teaching with me ever since.