‘Surprise! It’s Columbus!!’

‘October 12, 1492.   A giant seabird sails into a harbor in the Bahamas.  The tour director, dressed in a uniform with velvet pantaloons and puff top, steps off a skiff and greets the crowd of sunbathers, :”Surprise!  It’s Columbus!!”’

          When I read that punch line – a failed slogan for Columbus, Ohio – I could hear Stan Freberg or Mel Brooks do that routine in one of their historical spoofs.  It has been Columbus’s fate to be the butt of jokes – and the New York Times very slow summer newsday pieces – largely thanks to its boosters’ highly public desperation.  It’s captured by a slogan ‘one wag proposed’ to a civic organization: ‘Columbus: We Are So Not Ohio.’

          That’s probably the slogan that would have captured civic-leader sentiment during my seven years in Columbus.


           The Times samples the list of pathetic mottos Columbus adopted over the years, e.g., ‘There’s no better place.’  The accompanying photo gives this desperation for distinction a visual reality.  It shows a replica of Christopher Columbus’s ship, the Santa Maria, against the city’s downtown.  Tied up sailless in the shallow Olentangy River, a low bridge perhaps 50 yards downstream assures the sanitized Santa Maria will not make the Bahamas any time soon.

          The best advice I could give Columbus boosters came in words John Prine put in the mouth of the late Columbus Dispatch (among many papers) advice columnist, ‘Dear Abby’:

Bewildered, Bewildered,

You have no complaint.

You are what your are and you ain’t what you ain’t.

So listen up, Buster, and listen up good….

And, what you ain’t, Columbus, is ‘not Ohio’.


          Columbus from 1970 to 1973 was not a fun place to go to law school.  Almost no place can mitigate law school’s discontents.  But the not-so-sweet smell of tear gas in the evening air added little to the grubby ambience of the Ohio State Campus area.

          Those looking for a cheap hassle-free, after 11 p.m., dining experience had only the White Castle north of Campus.  In this uneasy demilitarized zone, the stoned stood in line with the pigs awaiting alike their bags of onion-covered Whities.

           The hot war between students and the OSU administration aided by various law enforcement agencies had begun a month before the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970.  Cambodia and Vietnam, of course, fed the Ohio State disturbances.

          But local campus issues – many academic in nature – caused them.  For at least one student, the university’s administration was epitomized in the name of its president: Novice G. Fawcett.  My years at Ohio State gave me life lessons in the consequences of out-of-touch management.

           Coming from an elite eastern high school and university, I learned, too, how serious a matter education – a public education — was for most at OSU.  The image of effete, selfish students which drove the conservative reaction and still survives in drug legislation and student loan policies captured very few at Ohio State.  But it cost them dearly.

           In this, Ohio State and Columbus were at the center of Ohio.


          Slowly, the rage died on campus.  But the helicopters with search lights and the cameras along High Street remained.  In surveillance as in many other ways, Columbus foretold the American future.

           In 1971 a massive voter registration drive in the Campus area denied a fourth full term to Mayor M.E. (Jack) Sensenbrenner, the uncritical supporter of the local constabulary.  His Republican successor, Tom Moody, changed little but the tone of mayoral pronouncements.

          Sensenbrenner, a sharp-faced, harsh-voiced man, came from the German lower middle class.  His Wikipedia article linked above contains some things that don’t fit my memories.  Describing him, for instance, as a ‘populist’ makes sense only in the modern sense of being bigoted, authoritarian and thuggish. 

           The German neighborhoods stood on the southern and western perimeter of the city center.  The lovely red-brick district south of the center called ‘German Village’, we sophisticates dubbed ‘Nazi Village’ largely in his honor.


          Getting to know Columbus in the seventies meant learning the Interstates.  As in every other major American city, multi-laned highways separated neighborhoods and redefined living patterns.  One passed from downtown to German Village by one of two bridges over a six lane highway constructed in the late fifties.

          In many ways, Columbus suffered – or benefitted, if you were into real estate – more than most cities.  Six lanes of I-70 divided the city on an east-west axis, while I-71 ran northeast to southwest.  Girdling the city ten miles from Broad & High is ‘the Outer Belt’, I-270.  An ‘inner belt’ (built after I left) running from downtown to the airport, Port Columbus International (can’t make these up!), and Olentangy River Road subdivided the city.

           Shopping centers were springing up on rich farmland accessed by the interstates.  Huge subdivisions and apartment complexes accompanied them.  Villages, such as Reynoldsburg at the eastern junction of I-270 and I-70, became cities in their own right.

          The once and future governor, James A. Rhodes, proposed in his 1974 campaign turning the state into a waffle iron, its lines marked by limited access highways.  Over his four administrations, he came close to his objective.


          The vast gashes in the cityscape with only bridges and underpasses allowing connections between the redefined neighborhoods created ghettos – some ethnic, some economic but usually a defining mixture of the two.  Columbus gave proof to the island theory of biogeography.

           Long before I heard that concept, I knew the narrow bridge sidewalks and the forbidding, dangerous underpasses were ghetto gates.  They limited communication, cross-fertilization.  They identified the migrants to Columbus: hillbillies on the southeast, blacks on the east….

           Like Ohio itself for 170 years, immigrants defined Columbus.  Its stolid German and Scots-Irish majority gave it the boring, safe nature the boosters have tried to conceal for as long as I’ve known the city.

           Later migrants with names like Lazarus, Wexner and Galbreath left their marks on charities, parks and civic life.  A slogan common in the seventies ran, ‘Columbus:  a great place to raise a family’.  It was true.


          Few slogans better suited the parents of the Baby Boom Generation.  But why Columbus? 

          To me its great strength was one it shared with the rest of Ohio: a multitude of higher education institutions coupled with job opportunities.  State government, the banking, insurance and law businesses, defense supply industry, and light industry flourished.  Columbus was, in short, a vision of American post-industrial life. 

         And so was it perceived by the Ohioans who voted with their cars, swelling the commuting streams on the Columbus Interstates.


          In June 1970 I drove straight from my college graduation in New Jersey to Columbus, arriving at the western edge of the eastern time zone well before sundown.  I found myself – and only myself – at the corner of Broad and High gazing at the state capital, the city’s deserted center.

          A few days later, after several crossings of the Highway Patrol police lines around the Ohio State campus area, I found a furnished basement apartment on Chittenden Ave., a street I later learned was called ‘The ***hole of the Campus’.  Justly.

          When I moved my stuff in, I found stuck in the bathroom mirror an unattributed ‘quote of the day’ from the Ohio State student paper, The Lantern: ‘Committing suicide in Columbus, Ohio, is redundant.’  For five years or so, I wanted it stitched into a sampler I’d mount over a fireplace far from Columbus.

          I changed my mind.


           My writing time is up.  I’ve missed by a wide margin the point I’d intended to make with all of Columbus’s slogans.  I will stop with this.

           I love the Anglophone part of Canada because, for one thing, it is so like Columbus.

The truth is Canada is a cloud-cuckoo land, an insufferably rich country governed by idiots, its self-made problems offering comic relief to the ills of the real world out there where famine and racial strife and vandals in office are the unhappy rule. [Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), pp. 329-330.]

           In the middle of World War II, John Maynard Keynes said of Canada, ‘If one ever had to emigrate, this should be the destination, not the USA.’  [Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes: Fighting For Britain 1937-1946 [2000] (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), p. 360.]  One could say the same of Columbus.


          Note: The links in this piece illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia.  The strengths are in its coverage.  Its weaknesses are the semi-illiteracy and sloppy research of some of its contributors.  The article on ‘Jim Rhodes’ is an example of a very weak Wiki article.  Rhodes certainly was known as ‘Jim’, but unlike President Clinton, he never affected a folksy first name.  This son of a coal miner was James A. Rhodes.