There’s a great David Foster Wallace short story called “The Soul is Not a Smithy” that is set in Columbus, Ohio, 1960. I love DFW for many reasons, but one of them is that although he never lived in Columbus, Ohio, and wasn’t even alive in 1960, his story rang so true that I shook my head in disbelief.I was alive in 1960, and living in Columbus, Ohio, in fact. And the world that Foster portrayed was precisely the world I knew; insular, solidly and stolidly Midwestern, where not much good or bad ever happened, safe, predictable, and boring. They called Columbus “Cowtown” when I was growing up, and for a lot of years you could buy a poster showing a herd of cattle lounging in a field, with the “skyline” of Columbus, such as it was, in the background. It was a real photo, taken in the days before Photoshop. Columbus was a small city surrounded by farmland, and the photo told a true story.
My, how times have changed. The Rust Belt imploded, the factories shut down, and cities like Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Detroit, and Buffalo started hemorrhaging people. Some of them ended up moving to Columbus. Columbus was never really a blue collar town, but big corporations moved here, universities grew, government (of which there are multiple versions of the city, county, and state varieties within the city limits) expanded, people coming out of the universities stuck around and started their own companies, and immigrants started moving to, of all places, whitebread Columbus, Ohio. Astoundingly, within a few decades Columbus went from a sleepy burg of 300,000 to something like a big, cosmopolitan city of 2,000,000 people.
It’s been fascinating to watch it happen. It’s home – mostly for better, but sometimes for worse – and yes, the crime rates have gone up, the traffic has increased, and so have the taxes. And the weather is still crappy four or five months per year. But Columbus is a better place to live in almost every way. There are the usual mega-malls and big box establishments, but Columbus is a hotbed of locally-owned activity, from restaurants and coffee shops to art galleries, furniture stores, bike and scooter shops, record stores, comic book stores, tattoo parlors, neighborhood theaters, bars, concert venues, and philanthropic ventures by the dozens. Columbus is a big-hearted and good-hearted city, and there are countless organizations that have been established to simply help other people. There’s a thriving art scene. There’s a thriving music scene, and if you don’t believe me, just check out the bands and performers the national music critics are writing about these days, and where they live. There’s a thriving foodie scene and Columbus, once the tried-and-true home of the Porterhouse steak and baked potato, can now boast some of the best and most innovative international cuisine to be found in any city in America.
And then there are those immigrants. 50,000 of them are from Somalia, the second largest community of Somalians in the U.S. Tens of thousands more are from Mexico. There are sizable contingents from India, China, Vietnam, Nepal, and Bhutan. Columbus is not San Francisco, and no one would pretend that it is. But Columbus is a far more diverse city than it was a few decades ago, and I’m so thankful for the presence of neighbors from all over the world. I haven’t been able to visit everyplace I’d like to see, and there are still many countries and several continents on my bucket list. But the world has come to me.
It’s a wonderful city; imperfect, with unresolved growing pains, and too damned cold. But I’m so happy to be here, right in the middle of it. And look: no cows.