It was only this past May when I first became aware of Colin Gawel.
I’d already missed some of his most celebrated musical endeavors. As the frontman for Watershed, the 1990s rock band made up of three Worthington grads, he toured with acts ranging from the Smithereens to the Insane Clown Posse. Later, Gawel, a Cheap Trick superfan, fronted a band called Why Isn't Cheap Trick in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Shortly after the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Cheap Trick in 2016, the group disbanded.
Gawel is a staple of what little canonical lore Columbus possesses, and despite the distance from his youth, he maintains unflagging vitality. It used to be common to find Gawel in his coffee shop, Colin’s Coffee, as he worked throughout the day. But then he could also be found there in the after hours, writing for his website, . When Republicans attempted to strip voters of the right to amend the state’s constitution, one of his bands, The League Bowlers, played a “Vote No Show” at Woodlands Tavern. “Come down to Woodlands to help us to day drink for democracy!” Gawel on his website.
I first met Gawel while he was writing one of these articles in his cafe. We chatted about Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and he told me about the pro-working-class themes in Bruce Springsteen’s music, those radical EPs and albums that only true fans like Gawel know. “‘Born in the USA’ was a commercial gimmick for his label,” he told me in the supervisory tone of an expert. “You have to listen to his real stuff.”
When he found out that I was a writer, Gawel was quick to tell me that his coffee shop, along with the entire shopping center it was nestled within, Upper Arlington’s aging Golden Bear Center, was soon to be demolished and replaced with private luxury condos that, as it happens, taxpayers would be partially paying for, thanks to the lucrative developer and agreeable politicians. While the country and Columbus face a growing housing crisis, the response of lawmakers has been to mercilessly subsidize the construction of luxury apartments and demolish the very buildings and establishments that make the city what it is.
The Need for Aged Buildings
Colin’s Coffee is just the latest in Columbus’ decades-long onslaught on aged buildings and small businesses, and by extension the city's culture. With the privatization of public space and suburbanization of the city, small businesses like coffee shops and bars have become the new town centers for the urban working-class, these private spaces serving as the epicenter for many of Columbus’ cultural, political and economic meetings and happenings. “‘[T]oday,” the philosopher Fredric Jameson wrote, “all politics is about real estate.”
In Jane Jacobs’ pivotal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she argued that aged buildings are required to produce culture, entrepreneurship and liveliness in cities. She points out that the aged building in New York City in which she was writing the book hosts a variety of establishments including a gym, a music society, a union local, and a Haitian dance troupe, along with a dozen other groups, artists and businesses. “There is,” however, “no place for the likes of us in new construction,” she wrote.
Jacobs points out that these cultural hubs and small businesses that rely on cheap rent often grow. They grow into entities that can afford newer buildings and rehabilitation of aged ones. But not without their genesis. Not without “that low-yield space in the right place, in which to start.”
On the other hand, “new” buildings are only new for a limited time. So many of Columbus’ “luxury” apartment buildings are actually flimsy, flammable and cheap. Their lifespans are as long as their architectural aesthetic is fashionable. “Newness,” Jacobs wrote, “is a very perishable commodity.”
The limits of newness are highlighted by suburban shopping plazas such as the Golden Bear Center. Once new structures in the mid to late 20th century, they replaced the aged buildings of their time. But suburban shopping centers have now become aged buildings themselves, hosting diverse groups and businesses that could potentially incubate the next Jane Jacobs.
Locals in Columbus maintain that the best food in the city can be found in these very shopping centers – some of the last vestiges where lower-income and immigrant families can afford to start their own restaurants. It’s where Half Price Books stores are located, where obscure pet shops sit and where small businesses attempt to fend off corporate groceries and pharmacies. If any remnants of the “American Dream” remain, they’re to be found sparingly in the country's aging suburban shopping centers.
Dirty Dungarees is a dingy venue ridden with gaping holes in the drywall and a gruesome tile floor that lines the laundromat to which it’s attached. It is as heinous as it is necessary, perhaps my favorite venue. It’s not a shopping center, but it rests in an aged building on High Street and it is without a doubt the best location for the city’s young musicians and experimental noise bands to get their start; the best place to catch a sweaty teenage elbow to the diaphragm in the pit. There’s no better dive bar at Ohio State than the Bier Stube, where middle-aged and older regulars play cards and slow dance while underage students get their fake IDs confiscated. And yet both Dirty Dungarees and Bier Stube risk similar fates to Colin’s Coffee: demolition by developers.
Postscript: Ode to Colin’s
Baristas at Colin’s Coffee are nothing but fond of Gawel, who acted both as a mentor and a humorist. He’s known for delivering, among other eccentricities, such abrupt and brilliant one-liner quotes that the baristas felt inclined to collect them in a book. “My life is me saying, ‘I’ll do things,’ then forgetting,” he once said. “And when I remember, I choose not to do them.” He doesn’t shy away from posing some of the most pressing philosophical meditations of our time: “What would you do if scissors were the only utensil left to eat with?” he asks. Then there are the simple observations that contain all of the complexities and intricacies of the world. “There is something deeply wrong with Harvard and its students,” he once remarked. “There’s a darkness to the whole thing.” The book of quotes was presented to Gawel by baristas at the closing event in late August.
Attendees at the closing included: regulars from Upper Arlington; former regulars who’d moved away or took to homebrewing; baristas and former baristas; band members from Watershed and former band members; friends and family; and former friends and family. They gathered to reminisce, and to inquire as to whether Colin’s would soon be operating in the Daily Growler.
“When will it be opening back up?” someone will ask, “I hear a couple of weeks,” someone will respond. “Did you hear about what’s-his-name?” someone will ask. “He’s going to Zimbabwe to deal with bank accounts,” someone will respond. “He told me he’s going to Hamburg to handle the arrest of the CEO of Deutsche Bank.”
Such are the conversations overheard in the aged suburban shopping center of the Golden Bear Center, a “cultural hub,” or what was one.