I was chatting with someone outside a cafe in Antwerp who couldn’t put her finger on where she’d heard of Columbus, Ohio.
“Was there a mass shooting there in the 90s?”
“No, that was Columbine.”
“I’ve heard that combination of words before: Columbus, Ohio. Columbus, Ohio…”
“Let’s see, we have Ohio State University, Les Wexner… Was it Epstein?”
I often assume the metropolitan inhabitants of the ancient continent of Europe don’t know about my little city or our heart-shaped state, but I’m always more than surprised when the response from Europeans is mixed between “Is your family okay?” – referencing the East Palestine disaster, abortion access or other current unfortunate events – and reciting the viral bop “Swag Like Ohio,” by rapper Lil B. This might infuriate many Columbus residents, but these Europeans' honest responses are worth noting as debate rages surrounding the identity of our city and its rare trajectory of growth in an otherwise decaying Midwest, driven most recently by a readers what the city’s identity should be.
Our state’s current reputation on the world stage, far from being intentionally devised by a PR team in the back room of the Rhodes State Tower, sways stoutly between industrial disasters, reactionary politics, and existing as the temporary home to the notoriously un-alived human trafficker, Jeffrey Epstein. But Columbus’ lack of a coherent, commodified, conscious identity isn’t random. Our identity-less identity is an organic result of the city’s unique economic development. We already have an identity; it’s just not very pretty.
The Post-industrial City
It’s often touted that Columbus is the only city growing in the Midwest, but it’s not as common to ask why. Columbus wasn’t always a beacon of population and economic growth. In fact, for much of the 20th century, it lived in the shadow of its industrial big brothers, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Because of its land-locked geography and other factors, Columbus’ economy ran mostly on insurance, banking and state jobs. The geography-driven economy allowed the city to weather globalization and deindustrialization while Cleveland and Cincinnati lost their major industries. This combination of factors also allowed for the city to commodify white flight. Where other cities lost their tax base to the suburbs, Columbus’ monopoly on water and the lack of early expansion out of the city meant that the city could annex the suburbs in exchange for water access, creating a growing, suburbanized city.
“Columbus is a city of the electricity age,” the Marxist geographer Kevin Cox argues in his book, Boomtown Columbus. “Columbus is an anomaly,” he writes. The city “has more in common with Austin and Denver than with Cleveland or Cincinnati.” Columbus has evolved out of this history as a direct manifestation of its post-industrial development. It has literally been shaped by private forces – and public forces at the direction of private forces – to become what it is today. The streets are paved by a marriage between ideology and capital, one that is specific to our region. And that trajectory has had consequences in the domain of identity and reputation.
The Place of Non-Place and the Anxious City
While Columbus offers an interesting case-study on the urban survival of deindustrialization, the result, or the current state of our city, is not always the most enjoyable in which to live. Our most essential public-owned spaces are privatized and strictly policed. Nationwide Arena and the Convention Center, for instance, are both publicly owned. Public transit and other public institutions are overshadowed by the police budget and tax abatements. Most notably, the landscape of the city is dominated by car-centered non-places: highways, banks, parking lots, strip malls.
“If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity,” the French philosopher Marc Augé argued, “then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.”
The curious are always questioning why Columbus doesn’t have an identity, but the city’s identity lies within its very lack of one. Columbus is the ultimate city of the non-place, its overarching mood shaped not by boredom but anxiety and uncertainty. The city’s residents are constantly insecure, but pacified; distracted, but busy.
“Instead of absorbing us, it distracts us from the boring,” the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher wrote in an essay titled “No One is Bored, Everything is Boring.” He argued that boredom was in the past, tied to factory work and waiting on public transit, while today’s privatized online culture has “neutralized boredom” in favor of anxiety. “We endlessly move among the boring, but our nervous systems are so overstimulated that we never have the luxury of feeling bored.” But this anxiety also transcends tech and politics. It’s something ingrained in the city’s design. It’s in the grid. It’s in the geography.
Part of the identity confusion also stems from a debate that raged in the early 20th century when the Midwest was abandoned as a beacon of the future. Once predicted to be “the dominant culture of the United States,” the Midwest was previously smiled upon. But industrialization and the rise of the city, accompanied by a cultural movement in the 1920s known as the “revolt from the village” that stigmatized and satirized provincialism and small-town Midwesternism, the region was painted as a rural wasteland of naive simpletons. The Midwest never recovered in reputation, optimism or placeness.
“In the early years of the 19th century Columbus won out, as state capital, by one vote over Lancaster, and ever since then has had the hallucination that it is being followed, a curious municipal state of mind which affects, in some way or other, all those who live there,” famous Columbus-based humorist James Thurber wrote.
Columbus is a city that is historically as unsure of itself as its residents are of Columbus. While other Ohio cities have an identity – Cleveland and Cincinnati have rich cultural histories – their futures are not as promising as that of Columbus. The city has transcended its past to arrive as the poster child for post-industrialism in the Midwest, and now its future identity has to be fought for in the present.