The Other Columbus: Can a city care?

Is it possible for Columbus to become a more humane place?

Scott Woods
A view of the downtown Columbus skyline along the Scioto River looking southeast from the North Bank Condominiums in the Arena District on Wednesday, Sept. 29th, 2021.

America’s greatest playwright, August Wilson, penned a famous scene in “Fences” in which Troy, an emotionally abusive father with a chip on his shoulder the size of the world, demands that his son, Cory, turn down a life-changing opportunity as a football player and get a job. After a gut-wrenching denial from his father, Cory musters enough mettle to ask Troy, “How come you ain’t never liked me?” His father responds with some jaw-dropping accounting in response:

“Liked you? Who the hell say I got to like you? What law is there say I got to like you? Wanna stand up in my face and ask a damn fool ass question like that. Talking about liking somebody. Come here boy, when I talk to you. Straighten up dammit! I asked you a question… what law is there say I got to like you?”

Troy continues to drill into Cory’s esteem, listing the things that he provides for him: food, clothing, shelter, a place to rest his head… up to and including his very existence. He makes exceedingly clear that these are not things he does because he likes Cory, but out of a sense of responsibility for him; that he must do right by Cory because his son exists, not as a vessel for his love, but as an inescapable responsibility in his life. Conversely, he does not have to like him so long as he ensures his well-being (albeit only in the ways that Troy’s own traumas see fit or allow). 

In essence, Troy’s progenitorship can best be summed up by the great postmodern American poet Marshawn Lynch: “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”

This scene and its many implications almost always come to mind whenever I am asked what I think about living in Columbus. I have lived my whole life here, and while that relationship has changed for better and worse over the years, it has largely maintained a general downward trajectory. I gather the data — Black in Columbus, educated in Columbus, (now) middle class in Columbus, working in Columbus, creating in Columbus, seeking a better Columbus in Columbus — and math does all the work. Turns out, we don’t always get along.

Columbus is a great place to live so long as certain immutable realities are acknowledged and the things that can be denied stay that way. You have to give up a long list of brutal realities to be able to make a statement like “Columbus is a great place to live” with no qualifiers. In light of our crumbling education system, our lawless law enforcement, our self-serving political machine and our dearth of diversity in our news outlets, it’s a lot like living in a Popeyes commercial. The big band jazz is playing in the background, all of the counters are clean, the food is visibly steaming with freshness and the employees are all ecstatic to see you coming in the door. But everyone who has ever been to a Popeyes knows every second of that commercial is a ruse. Columbus is more aspirational than real, and your willingness to succumb, contribute or dent the caprice defines how your life is likely to go here.

I would never ask this city the question Cory poses to his father because I already know the answers, and yes, there are several. But I do ask it rhetorically, usually accompanied by an academic sigh. I run the math constantly, checking to see if something has improved or degraded. I sometimes allow hope to creep in, if for no other reason than the alternative isn’t something I can do. I have lived a lot of years unaware of where I was and how it worked. Columbus is great at making really comfortable social and political bubbles, and I have lived in several of them in the past. But you cannot make a city better in a bubble; you can only improve the lot of those in the bubble. And I have long since become tired of seeing my city as a series of bubbles.

I don’t normally predict what will appear in this column, but I can tell you that in the coming weeks here and there I will be interrogating the question of what it means to live in a city that possibly doesn’t care about you. I know I do that a lot, but now I’m telling you I’m doing it because I want to see as many of those people who actually care genuinely wrestle with the concept of a city that is less machine and more humane. 

Can Columbus be more like a person — with a mind, a heart, a set of values, a personality — and less a machine? Can a city prove it cares? It may turn out that the answer is that Columbus is incapable of caring about its citizens as a whole. That will be good information to have, too. Then I can stop writing about the city and spend that time playing all of the board games piling up in my basement. 

Either way, I see it as both my responsibility and my love language. I don’t want to just point to the taxes I pay, the annual votes I make and the dollars I circulate with local businesses and call it love. Asking the question with certain givens baked into it — “How come Columbus don’t like me?” — is how I prove I care about it. Let’s find out if it can return the sentiment.