Why one local book publisher thinks the Midwest could be the country’s next great artistic frontier

From the April 3, 2014 edition

Editor’s note: During an interview way back in October with the Two Dollar Radio folks, Eric spoke, unprompted, about this idea that the Midwest could be a new frontier for artists. That sparked the idea for this cover story, so it seemed a no-brainer to ask the Clintonville small press publisher to write a little something special as a sidebar. And so here we are.

Here is tough to pin down. I lived in San Diego. There, you have feet-bottoms stained from wearing flipflops. There, you have reggae and Mexican folk trumpeting through screen-doors that haven’t been able to close completely for years. There, you have gaudy tattoos and oval-shaped sunglasses.

I lived in New York City. There, you have the deluge of people. And pizza joints with wobbly tables. There, you have the well-planned street grid and efficient public transport. There, you have the grizzle of street litter and Puerto Rican hip-hop thumping through a teenager’s headphones.

Frank Sinatra’s character coolly states in the original film adaptation of “The Manchurian Candidate” that “Columbus is a tremendous football town.” Yeah, sure. Whatever. And since 1962, when that film was made, college football has been the one prevailing constant.

In his new book, “The Hard Way On Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt,” author David Giffels discusses how his hometown of Akron has struggled with identity since the tire manufacturers left the region in the ’70s. In an interview with National Public Radio, when asked whether Akron has managed to discover a new contemporary identity, Giffels replies in the affirmative, saying “that identity is reinvention.”

While the narrative of larger metropolises — like San Diego or New York — are more linear and consistent, Akron, Columbus, Detroit and other similarly-sized, previously dismissed cities possess a greater potential to surprise and evolve.

Due to the number of talented authors and the substantial uptick in credible presses based in the region, a recent article in Flavorwire suggests the “Midwest is the future of American Literature.” I’m not sure many folks without a ground-floor view of the publishing industry would have seen that coming.

Here, the story is still being written.

What there is in Columbus, certainly, and in superabundance, is opportunity. The opportunity for affordable housing. The opportunity to experiment with new business models. The possibility to shirk its reputation as a test-market for chain restaurants. The opportunity to re-appropriate some of the neglected urban areas and cast a new flag and really get funky.

Here, there is space to launch a locally-focused festival — like Independents’ Day — and grow it to attract more than 12,000 people. There is space to communally gather with more than 100 artists, shop for locally-sourced goods and learn aerial dance or tai chi in a dynamic, grungy setting like 400 West Rich. The landscape is permeable and rich, a place where you can really put the rubber to the road.

It’s never been hip for New Yorkers to wear an ‘I <3 NY’ shirt. Here, local-pride is chic. It’s the source for an entire boutique clothing industry, spearheaded by Alison Rose and Homage’s ‘Glory to Columbus’ line of the Crew. Here, it’s OK to love your town.

Giffels also states in “The Hard Way on Purpose” that “I have spent my whole life watching people leave.” Financial concerns coupled with a lack of job opportunities have nixed the possibility for recent younger generations to abscond to the coasts. This gravity, while undoubtedly unwelcome to those concerned, is keeping many creative talents around, forcing them to apply their ambitions locally.

When we informed our friends we were moving to Ohio, it was as though we were conceding defeat. This is a place you move away from, not to; not a destination, a fly-over state. Nationally, the state’s reputation must be wildly muddled. Ohio hosted two of the most sensational news dramas of the recent past, in the case of the Steubenville High School rape case and the Ariel Castro kidnappings.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a profile of Dave Chappelle published last fall in The Believer heralded Yellow Springs as an off-beat racial utopia, while in Columbus, the story of the homophobe being turned away at Mikey’s Late Night Slice went viral.

From the horrific to the heroic, things happen here. It’s not perfect, nor will it ever be.

The Midwest is the New West, a reimagined American frontier. Here, in Columbus, it’s happening. There’s a beat, a pulse. If you listen, you hear it. It’s not obtrusive or condescending, and if you want you can dance to it.

There is a fresh conversation occurring about what this place means. And perhaps most importantly, here you can be a part of that conversation rather than have it dictated to you by developers or Blue-bloods. And that’s something special. That’s Real American.

We aren’t there yet, but this town possesses the swagger to become some place exceptional.