Scott Woods: Talking About Columbus Behind its Back
If you refuse to acknowledge the shortcomings of the city, how can you help it grow?
I used to write a column called “The Other Columbus.” It was basically what I do here every week, but with a title. The perception of a column with a title like that is that it will delve into subjects and issues that mainstream dialectics about the city, either by choice or ignorance, don’t discuss. That’s a fancy way of saying I criticize the city a lot. Most of my columns did that directly (and a smaller percentage by osmosis), and at the base of that body of work was a question: Can Columbus be two cities at once? Can it be a great place to raise a family and have incredible people and fun things to do, while at the same time being robustly corrupt, politically insufferable and culturally suspect?
Of course it can. In fact, Columbus can be a hundred cities, depending on who you ask, each of which is valid to the respondent based on their experience. Because what we, as good neighbors and better citizens, should not be doing is discounting people’s experience. That said, willful ignorance in the face of new information is wrong, and if you’re still in debates about what Columbus is with people like that, I envy how much life you must have left to live. What the question really means is, can those two (or more) things exist in one person at the same time?
If my social media feeds are any indication, absolutely. I know hundreds of people who almost never post anything critical about Columbus but will go rounds in person. And I get it. It’s why I get asked to do lots of speeches and lectures and invited to very few dinner parties.
If it sometimes feels like we’re in a culture war in this town—an actual war of cultural manifestations and values, not the marketing campaigns for capitalist power grabs we hear about from political pundits every day—that’s one of several reasons why. The view that Columbus is awesome sans critique delivers the kind of cognitive dissonance usually equated with a swift kick to the head. It’s hard to parse out all of the barhopping against a backdrop of thoroughly documented police brutality and crumbling schools.
A not-bad argument can be made that some of these fights should occur in the interest of nurturing productive citizenship. If you refuse to acknowledge the shortcomings of your city, how can you help it grow? I mean besides adding the pointless caveat of “There’s always room for improvement” to all your presentations?
I don’t have any easy answers, but I do have homework. When it comes to how you talk about Columbus—what you like, what you don’t, what you’re willing to defend—how would you answer the following: Do you feel like a liar when you describe Columbus? Do you pivot and focus on the good intentionally? Are you pretending to focus on the good or are you simply acknowledging that what’s bad doesn’t affect you? And does that make you a good citizen and neighbor?
Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.