When a restaurant delivers more history than your schools

I recently tried brunch at the new Hang Over Easy restaurant that opened up on Parsons Avenue in Olde Towne East. The original campus location was a spot I would hit once in a while — not in my regular rotation, but not an uncommon hit. Menu-wise, I knew what I was getting into: A carb-heavy roster that never met an egg concoction it didn’t like. The Parsons location is a nicer joint, and the Campus Casualati clientele have been swapped out for the dandelion sub-specie that is Hip Columbus.

They’ve also swapped décor, a notable move considering the campus location already scrubbed its traditional dorm room chic for a cleaner, pre-OSU game palate. The Parsons spot is an even more spartan affair. The front is all business: diner chrome and window lighting and T-shirts for sale. By contrast, the back wall, at first glance, has a bit of the old spirit: a conglomeration of old photographs and signs, a virtual mullet of design.

I was seated next to a wall plastered with old pictures of East High School athletes, all black, as I recall, and jazz musicians associated directly or obliquely with Columbus, also all black. Jazz legend Rahsaan Roland Kirk, some Central Ohio Tuskegee Airman and so on. Even the late Bill Moss grinned from a high perch in the back, the picture taken from an old campaign for mayor like a mugshot. There were a few non-athletes and musicians sprinkled around, but overwhelmingly it was a yearbook designed by the basketball team and a few kids in band class who knew how to work the photo lab.

This is the point where my breakfast pretty much went south.

Such a display shouldn’t be a cause for distress. In fact, one might argue that the pictures were a cause of celebration. A business moved into a gentrified neighborhood that had turned over its base so many times that it was now just development, and it was paying respect to the roots of the area. Except, as a member of Black Columbus, it didn’t feel like a win to me. It felt like a concession, like the contributions of my community to the city were relegated to basketball and jazz, and not business or the arts or civic duty, all of which I knew had happened.

A few blocks away sits the Long Street Bridge, depicting similar black bonafides, though the timeline is a little more contemporary. There are actually people pictured on the bridge who are still alive, though the number is on the low end. And they’re not all athletes or jazz musicians; some of them are, in fact, politicians and celebrities and artists. And yet, much of the work of the people represented on even that monument is impossible to find. Where can the pieces of music by the originators of the creative class be found? What library houses the plays they wrote? Or the dances they choreographed? Much of what we have of their legacies resides in the basements of people’s homes, if we’re lucky.

Obviously, the places where such culture was born and thrived have been demolished, refurbished or otherwise obliterated. Where did all of their work go? Where can the work they created continue to inspire or educate? And why is Hang Over Easy doing more than most schools at sharing even this meager version of local history?

The feeling sitting next to the Hang Over Easy “Black History Wall” was akin to stepping into Picasso’s slippers as he tooled about a museum exhibiting his work, only to discover that half of the paintings were hung upside down. The work is there, but the narrative is all wrong, and the display cards tell a story that doesn’t reflect the craft that went into the work. And because the context has been manipulated, the impact of the work is changed.

I get that this is a lot to put on a wall of old pictures. This is the kind of display that people often paint as mindful. Best case scenario, this is someone’s idea of doing better, maybe even of giving back. And look: The food is delicious, which only aggravates the situation. I like a good breakfast taco as much as the next person. In fact, people who end up losing arguments with people like me about gentrification usually do so because they argue that we somehow don’t like nice and delicious things, which is ridiculous. And yet, such walls feel more like tombstones than parades, more like warnings than lessons.

It is as if this is how they like their East Side black history: quiet, harmless, at arms-length. In a city whose very values and sensibilities are changing drastically by the year, I get it. History can’t hurt you. And gentrification never tasted so good.