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The Most Normal City in America

The making of Columbus, Ohio.

 

Coming down on Columbus from mid-air, at first all you see is green, green and green. There are no mountains this far inland, and not much in the way of hills; the lakes are further north, so, no water. All you see is a wide, flat blanket of something growing, resolving in time into a patchwork of farmland, a few small forests dropped in between plots. Further in, the city takes shape: a ring of suburbs, the sort of little towns that seem to have been ordered from catalogues, white and off-white houses that all come from the same collection of five basic frames. The buildings get denser and older moving in, until you reach the tiny nucleus of downtown, a few blocks where things finally spike above residential height.

There are no landmarks here, nothing historic that you can see from above. The pilot doesn’t take an extra spin to show off the skyline, or tell you to look out your window to spot the famous Something. He just announces the city’s name, and down you go, into a place that’s big but not all that big, small but not all that small. Rural, but not anyone’s idea of the country; a city, but not anyone’s idea of the big city; Midwestern, but, when you think about it, not really that far west.

When you hit the airport — moderately sized, moderately old, moderate in just about any way you can name — you walk out, over standard industrial blue carpet and standard industrial-grey painted walls, past a Starbucks, a Burger King, a Coldstone Creamery, a Tim Horton’s. All of the signs are signs you’ve seen. All of the food is food you’ve had somewhere else. The first thing you see in Columbus is that Columbus looks like you’ve seen it before.

So out you go, through the airport’s doors, into the parking garage and the open air. And there you stand. Smack in the middle of the most normal city in America.

It will take a while for this to feel strange.

The first thing you see in Columbus is that Columbus looks like you’ve seen it before.

I grew up in Columbus; from the time I was three until I was twenty, I lived either in the suburbs or in the city itself. It’s a strange place to be from; describing it, identifying any particular, definite quality that is Columbus and nowhere else, feels oddly impossible, like describing the color of air, or the taste of water. It feels, more often than not, like not actually being from anywhere at all. Southerners have Southern manners. California kids have odd slang and water paranoia. My Jersey friends warn you not to “bust their balls” with an unmistakable, Goodfellas-ian swoop in the vowels. My most distinctive regional trait is a tendency to believe that fashionable things are silly, and to declare, when provoked, that people are Making a Fuss About Something or Getting Carried Away. It’s an imprint that’s about not making an imprint — a culture of the average, the unexceptional, the (let’s just say it) boring.

The odd thing is, this may be the intended outcome. From the very moment of its founding, Columbus was a city built in a quest for the American center. It’s a place where the average is not just the norm or the muddy middle, but an actual ideal.

The story of Ohio’s capital is a long and silly one. To this day, the town of Chillicothe (in the southwest of the state) calls itself the “first and third capital,” having been granted that distinction when the state was founded in 1803, and holding it for all of eight years, before losing it to Zanesville (to the north and east), as part of a concession to get a bill passed. Two years later, Zanesville lost the capital, and passed it back to Chillicothe again. Yet, in the intervening time, everyone but Chillicothe had decided it couldn’t stay there, and an assortment of new towns began to press their case.

The story of post-Revolutionary America is littered with these arguments — the national capital was also re-located several times before settling on DC — but apparently, in Ohio, having three state capitals in ten years, two of which were actually the same town, was just too much. And thus, in 1812, rather than deal with the question of the Magical Bouncing Legislature even one more time, a pre-emptive compromise was proposed: just stick the damn thing in the middle, and get it over with.

Thus, Columbus: a city that was planned and built for no other reason but that it is, in fact, located at the exact center of the state. By this time, at least five towns were in contention for the capital, including the actual town — Franklinton, a settlement on the bank of the Scioto River that gave its name to Franklin County — that already occupied some of the required space. But Columbus was created fresh, as a blank slate; it was supposed to belong to everyone, which meant that it could not belong to anyone. It was a city of convenience; the territory was accessible by river, it was easy to reach, and no-one had to travel too far to reach it. Columbus was a city as conciliatory statement, a compromise that became a home.

This story, to my mind, is about more than bureaucracy or territory. It’s also about a set of values — a certain underlying vision of what the world, or human beings, ought to be. Columbus is about reasonableness, practicality. It’s about a commitment to finding the most logical solution, even if following a strictly logical thought process leads to a solution — an entire city! Built from scratch! On top of another city, which was already there! — that is not, in fact, reasonable at all. The story also speaks to an underlying, profoundly Midwestern politeness and conflict aversion; a willingness on behalf of all concerned to do vast, expensive, improbable things, simply to end a fight, or prevent a new fight from starting.

In other words: it’s a story about centrism, in the most literal sense of the word. It’s about principles that require everyone to give way at once; in order for everyone to get what they want, no-one can get exactly what they wanted. Columbus is a living embodiment of the idea that, when faced with two opposed and mutually exclusive choices, sometimes your only hope is to create a tolerable third option.

But before we start singing hymns to the noble spirit of American compromise, we should note that this is also a story with a warning in it. Pity the people of Franklinton; the town that would be capital did, technically, become the capital in the end. But only through being swallowed alive. As Columbus steadily expanded, it hit the borders of Franklinton, and simply built around them; the town still exists, at the dead center of the city, but for generations it’s been known as “The Bottoms,” the poorest and most run-down neighborhood in town. Franklinton flooded, again and again, until FEMA declared it too dangerous for anyone to build there. It had a highway knocked through it; residents fled, and buildings stood empty. As Columbus grew, Franklinton drained and rotted; it wasn’t until 1993, over a decade after the FEMA ruling, that the city even considered building a floodwall. But by then, the damage was done.

Which is to say, the philosophy of Columbus — the perfect compromise, the logical solution, the tolerable third option — can also be a philosophy of obliteration. It’s a system with a built-in disadvantage for the Franklintons of the world, for everything small and strange and disregarded; it reaches a compromise, finds or invents the perfect center, and, in the act of building on it, paves right over what was already on the ground.

 

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Identifying the reality on the ground is something Columbus is supposed to be good at. This is the other hope embedded in its creation: that the center, the place in the middle where everything meets, is not just tolerable, but representative. The point where all trajectories converge is a microcosm that contains the whole.

For many years, this was literally true. Consider: for decades, Columbus has been one of the chief testing grounds for American capitalism. This is a place where, to quote one article, “companies believe its residents typify U.S. consumer behavior.” Put more bluntly, the people of Columbus are average. If you can sell something to them, it will sell. Starbucks puts new drinks on the menu in Columbus first; McDonalds offers outlandish sandwiches, just to see if we’ll eat them. (You can blame us for the McRib.) And Columbus doesn’t just road-test chains, it exports them: Wendy’s and White Castle are both headquartered there, along with several other fast-food joints. The town’s eccentric local billionaire, Les Wexner, owns a fistful of retail brands you’ll see in every mall: Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, Lane Bryant, Abercrombie & Fitch.

Fast food and mall chains are not a glorious legacy; it’s easy to sneer at them, or see them as American consumerism at its tackiest. But they speak to something about the soul of the place. Columbus doesn’t just look like anywhere else — it actually creates the places that “anywhere else” looks like. The City of the Center invents restaurants and shops that can be picked up and dropped down anywhere in the country, without standing out or attracting a second glance — which is to say, it has an uncommon talent for creating things that most of America finds acceptable, if not glamorous or fascinating. And if Columbus is responsible for predicting America’s tastes in underwear and milkshakes, it also identifies the acceptable for a more serious purpose: Predicting the President.

No Republican candidate has ever become President without winning Ohio. No Democratic candidate has won the nation and lost the state since 1964. This is a deep purple state; it genuinely can go either way, and it’s just big enough that the way it goes matters. And Columbus, in particular, has certain qualities that make it a bellwether. Not only is it the largest city in the state by a wide margin, its demographics — median income of $40,000; a racial demographic spread that roughly mirrors the national averages; a big university, with a substantial youth population, and an active GLBT community (Jim Obergefell, the defendant in the Obergefell v. Hodges marriage equality ruling, is from Columbus) that holds at about 4.7% of the population, just slightly higher than the national percentage of 3.8% — have looked, for much of its history, like a miniature version of the nation itself.

Which is to say: you could tell how the nation would vote, or buy, looking at Columbus, because it looked like the nation was voting and shopping there. Columbus, Ohio isn’t like anything; it’s like everything, or at least like America. If you could compress the American “everywhere” into one smallish place, this is what it would be. No one can describe the color of air, or the taste of water. But you know what air is. It’s what you’re breathing.

If Columbus is responsible for predicting America’s tastes in underwear and milkshakes, it also identifies the acceptable for a more serious purpose: Predicting the President.

So, when the Ohio primary came around this year, Columbus did what it was built to do: it swung to the center. For Democrats, front-runner Hillary Clinton. For Republicans, “moderate” hometown boy John Kasich, the governor of the state.

The most common narrative of America in 2016 is not of the center, but of a nation that has lost it; where the political discourse has spun, and spun, like a centrifuge, leaving all the constituent elements thoroughly separated, flattened, and smeared against one or another extreme. The outcome of Ohio was, on the one hand, entirely predictable: governors take their own home states. Clinton was ahead of her nearest competition by a mile. But it was also a moment — maybe the first moment — when Columbus’s centrism, its habit of identifying the acceptable average, felt not representative, but oddly out of step.

In this unusually toxic election year, there has been no more surreal grace note than the rise of John Kasich.

He’s a neighbor. Not in a general, brotherhood-of-man sense, or in the sense that he shared a city with me. He literally lived, for some time, directly across the street from one of my grandmothers. I wasn’t in touch with her at the time — she’s my step-grandmother; I came along too late in the game — and I never knew him, and at the request of people (my family) who do not want to be known for leaking personal details of failed Republican Presidential candidate John Kasich’s life to the merciless liberal press (me), I will just leave it there, and note only that my grandmother always had Kasich signs in her yard.

These sorts of connections aren’t uncommon in what is both a state capital and still a fairly small town; due to what seems like some sort of supremely complicated extended-family childcare-swapping arrangement, progressive icon Sherrod Brown apparently used to take me to Chuck E. Cheese with his daughters. But knowing that I’ve walked by Kasich’s house a few times isn’t the surprising part; it feels to me as if I’ve known his face all my life. The shock comes from the fact that I never suspected anyone outside Ohio would see it. I spent most of this year seeing that face take up space in the most important argument in the country, spread all over TV, getting endorsements in the New York goddamn Times. He was – on a supreme technicality; he got almost no votes, but waited the longest to drop out of the race – the one person who came closest to getting the Republican nomination, other than the actual winner, the apparently unstoppable Donald Trump. Two men were left standing, on a sixteen-person field, and one of them was the guy who lived next to gramma. “Strange” doesn’t begin to cover it.

Kasich, even more so than Hillary Clinton, became the candidate invoked to summon the pure and noble spirit of Centrism in this race. While the other candidates shouted at each other and got into public spats about dick size, Kasich stood to the side, a grandfatherly, sweater-clad figure who punctuated his statements with “gee” and “darn,” and whose proposed remedy for healing the deep ideological divides in American society was to “look ‘em in the eye. Give ‘em a hug.” Kasich didn’t call all Mexicans rapists, or demand an immigration ban for Muslims, or even (as Ted Cruz has done) declare that our country is in a “time of crisis” because same-sex marriage is legal; when you hear about Kasich getting worked up over something, it’s about the time he had to throw a Roots CD out of his car for having foul language, or tried to get the movie Fargo banned from his local Blockbuster. He’ll go to a same-sex wedding, no problem, but he just thinks it’s wrong to watch movies where people get shot and say the word “fuck.”

 

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Kasich won Columbus. Of course he did. He would have won Columbus even if he weren’t from Columbus. John Kasich practically is Columbus. If you could cram the entire town’s personality into one baggy, middle-aged, human-shaped, sweater-wearing vessel — the archaic Midwestern politeness, the clinical mildness, the terminal lack of cool — it would look like him. Kasich is approachable; he’s likable. (In his own home town, of course, he’s known for being an imperious jerk with a hair-trigger temper; but, then, the strictures of central Ohioan manners are such that most residents’ emotions can only be detected via electron microscope.) At his worst, Kasich seems like a Sunday-school teacher, not a dictator. And so, even Democrats — some of whom reportedly crossed party lines to vote for him, in the hopes that he could stop or slow down Trump — feel real warmth toward the guy.

He hates women. It’s not a thing you can put politely, so I won’t try: John Kasich, on a very profound level, does not seem to like, or respect, female people. He talks down to them publicly, and conveys an enduring belief that they are stupid. (The most recent example, as I write this, is of Kasich responding to a woman’s question about social security with “did somebody tell you to ask that question?” Previously, he’d laughed off a woman raising her hand at a town hall by telling her “I don’t have any Taylor Swift tickets.”) He defunded Planned Parenthood in his state. He is, in fact, arguably the worst candidate in the race on the matter of abortion; it is under his watch that Ohio has been subject to wave upon demoralizing wave of cartoonish and openly punitive legislation aimed, not so much at preventing abortions, but at punishing women for having them, including, most recently and gruesomely, a proposed bill that would force any woman who aborted a fetus in the state of Ohio to bury it at her own expense.

It drives me into a rage, how this man treats women. How he feels about them, thinks about them, speaks to them. More than that, it drives me to a rage that so many people do not notice how he treats women; that his misogyny, no less dangerous than Trump’s, and no harder to perceive if you’re genuinely paying attention, has not prevented him from being liked, or even cheered on, by so many supposedly sophisticated and liberal commentators. I go to ridiculous, un-Ohioan lengths of emotion and stubbornness, thinking about Kasich. On some level, I simply can’t accept it: that, faced with an utter disregard for female humanity, people can look at it and call it moderate. Not great, but not the worst thing in the world. An acceptable compromise; a thing that you have to look past, or give up, if you want to find the center.

Everyone can understand the value of compromise, at least in theory. But no one wants to actually be the compromise. Everyone wants to find the perfect center, the place where all points converge, where every irreconcilable want and need touches together and finally ends the fighting. But when they find it, you’d better hope that you don’t live in Franklinton. You’d better hope that, of all the perspectives being considered, yours is not the acceptable loss, the one obstacle that everyone else can just build around or smooth away. This is the one problem the centrifuge spin of partisan bickering and polarization actually eliminates. No matter how chaotic it is in there, with everyone screaming and fighting and sticking to principle, no one ever has to let go of that one essential thing — the one point they just can’t give up, even at the cost of peace or sanity. The problem they can never not see.

This is a city created in the pursuit of a center that may never have existed, a set of ideals that are both soothing in their civility and profoundly disquieting in their implications.

So there you are. In the most normal city in America. Big but not big, small but not small. Neither Eastern nor Southern nor really all that Midwestern; in the middle of the middle of the United States. A city that has existed, from its first day until this one, to provide a happy medium; a center to the turning world.

It doesn’t feel strange, at first. Then, it feels stranger than anything else. This is a city created in the pursuit of a center that may never have existed, a set of ideals that are both soothing in their civility and profoundly disquieting in their implications. The city of the Center is both literally representative and, in some ways, a total fiction. It has less to do with America than with what we were taught America ought to be, in some distant time, when we were less able to hear each other, and more able to ignore or suppress the unruly voices. The more we look at American history, the more we realize that a time of greater peace, or civility, or quiet, never actually existed; there were only the problems that the people in charge were allowed to ignore, only the protests they didn’t hear, as one more non-negotiable right was paved over in the name of finding common ground.

But Columbus stands. It has for centuries. It likely always will. Columbus, like everything else, is changing; in the past ten years alone, it has gotten bigger, younger, richer, more liberal (60% of residents voted Democratic in 2012; in 2000, that number was a tie) and meaningfully more diverse, beginning to look and act like an actual big city, rather than an abstract concept with a freeway attached. But then, the actual country is bigger and younger and meaningfully more diverse than it used to be; possibly more liberal, too. “Normal” shifts, just like everything else. This is what normal looks like today. The center holds, for the time being.