'Hip Columbus' can keep its hands off H. Johnson Restaurant & Dairy and other local institutions like it
One of my favorite holes in the wall sits at the corner of Whittier Street and Lockbourne Avenue: H. Johnson Restaurant & Dairy. Everything about it is ancient: the defunct video game arcade, the distressed wooden '70s decor that earned all of its scratches, the yellowing menu signs. The food is a cuisine of circumstance, a no-airs experience in an unapologetically casual space that demands honesty of its patrons. The restaurant holds court in a neighborhood where the gig economy bows to the religions of the hook-up, hollering gossip and side hustles.
Food is my religion, but as much as I love chopping up dining experiences with people, I rarely mention H. Johnson. It is the kind of place guaranteed to disappear once it is discovered by Hip Columbus, swallowed in the wave of gentrification that has consumed the city for decades. H. Johnson has so far been spared by being the right number of miles away from Downtown. It doesn't sit in a developing Smart City corridor, or have a taproom for a neighbor. No one will care that its entrance is plastered with years of funeral programs and obituaries of people from the neighborhood — a wailing wall tacky from grease fumes. No one will care that when Yelp reviews call it “scary,” they mean to an outsider no one is thinking about. The people who will eventually overtake Southfield will only know that its painted signs are demode and that its ribs never appear on any Best Of lists.
Saying you have a problem with gentrification here can feel like howling into the wind. As cities go, Columbus is extremely comfortable. If you don't live in one of the quickly dwindling areas of town not yet developed, you can forget it has big city problems; that police abuse is real; and we sometimes close schools because they don't have cooling systems. You can set aside the knowledge that we have prioritized the appearance of social justice over its reality. You can have a good life here if you ignore what's not working.
I want to tell you about the things I learn in places like H. Johnson, and institutions like it. I want to tell you where the booths that used to line Larry's Bar on campus went to die. I want to share all of the places I go to savor honest things, but fear that doing so makes them places Hip Columbus will train their hungry eye of appropriation upon, or worse, conquer. Holes in the wall are places where culture can happen because they are where community can be built. Where community exists, culture can occur. Where it does not, I suppose another peel-off mural will do.