Is Columbus barhopping its way to Thunderdome?
In a recent interview covering the wide swath of things I create in the name of interrogating life in Columbus, I was asked if I thought the city did anything right. After a longer-than-comfortable silence in which I was processing all of the professional relationships I was about to torpedo by omission, I gave a few admittedly hedged answers.
The implication of the question is that I may be someone who cannot be satisfied on the subject of Columbus. This is, of course, not true. I have the means to leave this city. I can do what I do almost anywhere. I choose to do it here. I mention this as someone featured on billboards as part of a campaign to show how hip Columbus is (an irony not lost on me or any regular reader of this column).
There is a cognitive dissonance that consumes me when I am faced with a marketing machine shouting at me from the top of the North Market telling me how awesome Columbus is as far as the eye can see, and then reading a three-day spread of stories in the paper about the horrific decline of Sullivant Avenue. Or seeing the longstanding destitution marking the Linden Corridor. Or the pitiable level of resources dedicated to the health, safety and education of lower- and mid-income residents here being touted as great strides of anything more than political cache. For a moment, I freeze up, not knowing what city they’re referring to. The one that killed Tyre King? Or the one that won a National Championship? The one that has made brewing a subculture? Or the one touting a premiere educational experience in a building with bats in the hallways?
I am able to break from my paralysis and move my limbs again by reminding myself that Columbus is not one or two cities, but several. I’m not willing to go so far as to say there are as many Columbuses as there are people, but everyone who lives here can be put in several cultural baskets at once. The financial, ethnic and gender baskets are obvious enough, but there are variations across the board.
Yet, while we can recognize that these classifications and intersections exist, it’s a different thing to care. And as someone who can traverse a number of baskets with some ease, I will say that it is the caring part that determines whether or not a resident is living in the city well.
At the risk of coming off like an artificial intelligence glitch about to destroy mankind, I must admit that I’m all for a live and let live ethos. I don’t want to be bothered with most people on most days. At the same time, I possess something akin to a Roman idea of citizenship, yet find myself living in a city with a Greek sense of governance. I believe people should be free to do what they want, but also maintain that somewhere in the course of a day one should make time to contribute in a productive or charitable way to society. That should be part of the definition of what it means to be a citizen. There will always be people who rebel against any grain they find, but this isn’t an edict so much as a speck of DNA I’d like to introduce into our communal helix. Contrary to my reputation, I guess a part of me wants to be kind.
It occurs to me that all debates about the city are really debates about citizenship. If at the end of the day you’re the cat who just wants to gallery hop, hit festivals and take selfies in bar bathrooms, that has to be OK. It’s not freedom if you don’t get to do that stuff when you want. But I also want to live in a more balanced republic, at least locally. (Nationally, we have proven ridiculous on this count for at least the next several years, if not forever.)
If you are someone who sees a statement like this and your first reaction is to roll your eyes or fire off a race card/snowflake line under your breath, then know that you’re not being a good citizen. You’re probably happy or well-off or OK with whatever your weekends tend to look like. But I don’t make this stuff up. The streets in these stories are real. The people who have died and will die this year are real. And if your only contribution to addressing those real things is to respond to a call like this instead of dealing with the reason why the call exists, you’re the problem.
An inability to hold more than one Columbus in your heart transforms the concept of “live and let live” to “every man for himself.” And, look, if you desire to live in a city where survival of the fittest is the moral mean, relax: Nothing I write is going to change that for you. I, too, witnessed a couple of scenes in “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” that I thought might be cool to visit. But I wouldn’t want to live there.