Scott Woods: Feeling Like Your City Has It Out For You
Why a collapsed building on the Near East Side of Columbus has inspired so many conspiracy theories
Editor's note: After a long run with our former sister publication Columbus Alive, Scott Woods is now writing a weekly column for Columbus Monthly. His essays will appear every Wednesday on columbusmonthly.com.
On Monday, a building at 1032 E. Long Street caved in on itself. It was the location of the Long & 20th Carryout, but like most buildings that cross the century mark on the East Side, it’s been lots of things in its lifetime.
Reactions to its demise are typical of the Columbus version of the internet. Some are mourning a building they likely never used, but that is perceived to have historic value. Some fondly remember when the building was something else—a grocery store, a live performance space—anything but what it was before the collapse, which was a rundown carryout. Some are using the opportunity to sharpen their racist comedy chops, musing that they have never heard of the “Bronzeville” area, or wondering where area residents will get their malt liquor now. Like I said, it’s a stew of opinions.
The segment of reactions I find most interesting in this particular case come from people who see a conspiracy in its destruction. They look at the fact that the store was closed that day, then look at where it’s located. They note that it’s in a Black neighborhood. They calculate the distance that the decrepit building is from a run of rampant new development a handful of blocks away. They look up on real estate sites to see what the building might have been valued at or if it was for sale, and for how much. Finally, they run all of that through a lens mindful of the gentrification that Columbus has become known for. It is a dynamic so clear at this point that even City Council is allowed to speak of it out loud, as if they have had no hand in it. A conclusion is reached: Someone “did something” to the building, presumably to make it easier to sell off to some shady developer.
I’m not prone to conspiracy theories, mostly because we live in a world in which no one appears to be hiding much of anything. There doesn’t appear to be much X-Files-inspired covering up by organizations or governments that do inhumane things these days. Most just ignore their critics and keep pushing because, really, what are the critics going to do? What’s interesting about this particular theory is that, while it has no basis in facts, there is enough wrong with Columbus that it makes it feel plausible.
The city of Columbus doesn’t do regularly scheduled building inspections outside of Downtown, and the process city officials do have doesn’t check for structural integrity, according to a Columbus Dispatch story. They mostly make sure stuff isn’t falling off the outside of buildings and onto pedestrians. Columbus takes a states-rights approach to building safety, in that the owners of buildings are responsible for scheduling such inspections. Once you know that about Columbus, it’s easy to feel like it doesn’t care. I’m sure if asked, city officials would state that safety is a priority, but you can’t have a priority you don’t actually enforce. And Columbus relishes tearing down old things.
When you feel like your city doesn’t care about people or history—that it instead cares only about capital—it’s not hard to see why criminal theories like this crop up. Buildings aren’t just falling in the street every day here, so when one does, it sparks the imagination. But then, Columbus doesn’t make it hard for such seeds to take root. City Council members are routinely installed, not voted in. On-the-ground needs like schools languish for funding while the city throws tax money away to attract more and more corporations for peanuts in social impact. The very definition of “affordable housing” has shifted upward, as if the people below the moving line don’t still live here. In the end, it’s not hard to see why some might think their city has it in for them. It isn’t doing much to suggest it doesn’t.
Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.