The week before Christmas, I walked by Mary Catherine’s Antiques on High Street in the Short North. You know the one. It’s been there forever but rarely seems to be open. In the display window sat a painting of the Columbus skyline on a beautiful Autumn day: a train comes along the tracks; an airplane sits fat and prosperous in the sky; and a blonde family stands in the foreground to the West of the city. The painting is called “Columbus of the Future,” and was painted in the Depression era.
Retrofuturism usually blends a combination of dated aesthetics with wild imagination. “Blade Runner” is such a delicious film because it’s so clearly couching a 1980s aesthetic in an imagined future; “The Matrix” does the same thing with the burgeoning tech of the ’90s. I think it can be so charming because storytellers take the future and make it a fad. It’s fun to see how they got it wrong, and chilling to see what they got right.
Columbus in the 1930s had one skyscraper – what is now the LeVeque Tower – no major airport and no interstate. The interurban train tracks that spiraled all around the city were beginning to fall into disrepair. And yet, this painting is almost identical to the modern Columbus skyline. It depicts a Huntington Center and a number of other skyscrapers that weren't realized until the ’70s and ’80s.
The airplane indicates a robust airport that we eventually did build, and centering on a white family is almost prophetic – to get the airport and interstate we paved over thriving Black neighborhoods such as Bronzeville, Flytown and Hansford Village. This imagined family can live comfortably distant from a city that they can now access through our interstate system. I am thinking of a quote by Adrienne Maree Brown: “Organizing is science fiction – that we are shaping the future we long for and have not yet experienced.” She tells us we have to practice our futures.
Indulge me while I pick up a brush; I am out of practice. Columbus of the future will have streetcars along High Street again, and the buses will run so consistently that everyone can depend on them to get to work on time, even people who live in the suburbs. Every street will have protected bike lanes. Columbus of the future will no longer have a corrupt police force but rather a robust social support system and resources that we don’t recognize as law enforcement at all. There will be enough housing for everyone, and everyone can look forward to owning their own homes one day.
I feel silly and idealistic writing this. But the painter who painted that possible skyline only saw one tall building when they looked at Columbus. Cities change, and ours will again. I encourage us all to strive for a better Columbus of the future.