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Decade in Review: Community

Jeni Ruisch

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Decade of Change: Downtown’s Development

Cover image: Sarah Moore

Scrolling through social media rarely turns up much intellectual fuel. But clickbait articles can be so tempting. Especially when you see yourself in them. That’s why, if you’re anything like me, you nearly always click on the titles naming or alluding to our dear capital city.

“Why Columbus, Ohio is one of the top places to live in 2020.”

“This hidden Midwestern gem might be a place you’d like to call home.”

Digital junk food presented coyly to play (prey) on your sense of self and place. Gets me every time.

Photo: Brian Kaiser

As someone who has lived here nearly my entire life, I have a sense of obstinate pride about Columbus. I’m quick to point out that we have huge hubs of industry and business, teaching and research juggernauts, beautiful parks, a rich history, and an insistence that we DO have a fashion scene, if you’d only look for it.

But the truth is, Columbus is an established city that is still groping for something that would make us memorable to the rest of the country. This city is nothing if not in flux. Constant construction, new restaurants by the day, new events planned and held with the hope of becoming an annual tradition. And some changes are more physical than temporal, with no place seeing more renaissance than the heart of the downtown area.

When I was a kid, downtown equaled ghost town. Before the cap was built over 670, that space separated the Short North from the barren wasteland of What Came South. There was only a bridge with a tiny strip of concrete on either side for foot traffic. Now there is a seamless continuity to High Street, and you can window shop and eat your way from Worthington to German Village.

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The downtown core used to be devoid of life after the 9 to 5 workers went home. Cramped and crowded during the bookends of rush hour, with only a quick bustle of lunch between, and then the sidewalks seemingly rolled up, and out went the lights. Restaurants in this part of town were unheard of in the dinner hour, save for a few ancient stalwarts. There was no music or other entertainment. And certainly no one lived there.

In the open void of space between the time City Center closed, and the drums of revitalization began to beat, there were only little pockets of life and commerce.

But now.

Oh, now every inch is established. Buildings are shooting up into the sky like the old part of the city once called “Flytown”—so named because the buildings seemed to fly up over night. Anything not already built up seems to be in planning stages. But this isn’t a brand new circumstance. The last decade has seen a wave of change wash over Columbus.

In 2011, while the water in the rivers still ran swift and muddy, the city opened the Scioto Mile in anticipation of huge changes to the river itself that would take years to engineer and complete. After a restructuring of the physical bed, the flow of the river is now widened and slowed, with habitat for wildlife, and space for recreation under the skyline. Now kayakers dot the glassy summer surface of the water, and once-disappeared animals like otters and rainbow darters have returned to the renewed ecosystem.

That same year saw the completion of the Columbus Commons, a now-staple performance and gathering place in walking distance for not only the commuters to the big corporations downtown, but those that have chosen to dwell there.

The Metro Parks continued their upgrade with the 2013 expansion of Scioto Audubon. The former police impound lot now boasts a boat dock, climbing wall, paved greenways, maintained ponds, event spaces, dog parks, sand volleyball, and more. There is no shortage of outdoor adventure available here, even if you live in a luxury highrise.

In 2015 and 2016, Columbus saw advancement on the intellectual front with the new wing of the Columbus Museum of Art, and renovations to the historic downtown library. Last year, the new Vets Memorial rose from the ashes where its predecessor once stood. Our historic and beloved LeVeque Tower now houses apartments, a luxury hotel, and one of the best bar/restaurants in the whole city.

“Progress” is a fickle word when rising housing prices push out established low income communities. But the area west of 315 is seeing hopeful change coming down the line after the dissolution of the city’s flawed vice unit, and plans for a safe house for sex workers along the Sullivant corridor. Progress giveth, and progress taketh away.

The area around COSI is slated for a huge upheaval in the next several years, as the long-empty lots and lawns there will soon house (even more) luxury housing, and walkable shops.

Long time residents have seen head-spinning changes happen in the last decade that simply are not possible in longer-established metro areas. Columbus continues to evolve at a rapid pace, simply put, because it has the room to grow.

Like a middle schooler trying on ridiculous hairdos, searching for their signature style, Columbus has a chip on its shoulder about establishing a widely recognized identity.

But the truth is, we’re a work in progress.
And progress is something we have in spades.

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Arts & Culture

Now Streaming: Columbus entertainers find virtual ways to perform

Mitch Hooper

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As Columbus entertainers prepared for warm weather and folks returning to the bars, COVID-19 came in and put it to a halt. The bars being closed indefinitely not only impacts owners, servers, and bartenders, it impacts the performers who rely on these places as a platform to showcase their talents. When folks can't come support local entertainers, what can they do?

What if they bring their talents to them? That's what many Columbus entertainers are doing during social distancing. While "work from home" wasn't much an option before this, comedians such as Amber Falter and Ian Miller are taking to Instagram Live and other streaming platforms to perform.

The first virtual show the two did was with Alexis Nelson of BarkBox, and admittedly, they were a little nervous about not having an audience for feedback.

"I was actually scared to start," Miller said. "Jokes don’t have what I call 'standalone timing.' You need a give and take with the audience, you build it into your jokes. The thought of telling jokes without immediate feedback was terrifying."

The two said the show went great and it didn't take long for both of them to enjoy streaming their comedy. Falter quickly did another virtual show, A Hamantha and Brisket Comedy Hours, with Samantha Sizemore and Bridjet Mendy themed around dating stories via Zoom. Miller, on the other hand, started a weekly story telling show on his Twitch channel Glass Cannon Comedy.

Falter, co-host of ACLU Stand-Up For Choice, says there's even been some silver linings to streaming her comedy.

"I was joking with one of my friends that is always like, 'Hey, I'm going to make it to the show! Can't wait to see you at the show!' and then they never make it out," Falter laughed. "Now you have no excuse, honey!"

As for the future ACLU Stand-Up For Choice comedy events, Falter said she and others involved, such as co-host Pat Deering, are figuring out how to do so through streaming.

Miller said he has seen many of his shows canceled due to the Coronavirus outbreak. He had six shows slated across 13 days, all of which have been canceled. Additionally, his monthly story telling show as well as Glass Cannon's quarterly-themed shows are suspended.

"It’s been rough. There may not have been of ton of Columbus comics “paying the bills” with comedy, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t felt the impact," Miller said "Times are tough, and it’s really hard to have a side hustle of any kind when you know leaving your house could put yourself and other in danger."

And that's why he believes it's so important to support entertainers in anyway you can. Whether that be through a share or follow on social media, every little bit helps grow their platform.

Falter echoed this sentiment, too.

"I want this to become a source of income and I've been extremely, extremely grateful for the people that have even sent like $2," she said. "Or not even that, if they just followed me on Instagram or told me I had a good set. [By just] saying, "Hey that was really fun, thanks so much," that alone is making me super emotional."

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Community

Gallery: ‘Thank You’ to the Heroes of (614)

614Now

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The kids and families of Columbus have been busy creating some of the cutest 'Thank You' cards for you, the superheroes of our community helping out in this critical time. We thank you and your families for everything you're doing to help keep Columbus safe.For more information (or to contribute) click here. 
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We Will Do It: Dr. Amy Acton is determined, not afraid

J.R. McMillan

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The announcement was shocking, even to the pool of hardened reporters gathered in anxious anticipation. On March 12, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ordered the closure of all schools in the state for at least three weeks to hopefully halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

Illustration by Sarah Moore

With only a handful of confirmed cases, based largely on statistical models and patterns emerging from cities and countries around the world, Ohio was among the first to signal, almost prophetically, that life as we all knew it was about to change dramatically, perhaps forever.

Then skepticism suddenly turned to stunned silence as Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton stepped forward to reveal the possibility that more than 100,000 Ohioans were already carrying the virus.

But this dire presumption wasn’t delivered with cold calculation by a career bureaucrat who dithers or withers in front of the cameras. Instead, Acton did something remarkable, in real time. In her signature white coat and without a whiff of wonk, she calmly and confidently broke down the math behind the decision and the prediction, at one point comparing the delay in reliable data to the light of a distant star whose brightness we can only see long after the moment has passed.

And with that, Ohioans discovered the light of a different kind of star, and her moment is now.

Even before Acton was a household name, she was already an unlikely hero. A physician since 1994, she honed both her approachable bedside manner and public policy persona at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and as an assistant professor at Ohio State. During her brief tenure at The Columbus Foundation, Acton was instrumental in raising nearly $2.5 million in just six weeks to combat youth homelessness, blowing past every expectation. It was a philanthropic success that was also hauntingly personal.

It isn’t without irony that as Ohio businesses close their doors, many for the last time, that Youngstown’s venerated daily newspaper, The Vindicator, published its final edition this past August with an intimate portrait of Acton. Then, she was still the local homecoming queen who had beaten the odds, gone on to college, ultimately becoming the top public health official in the state.

The “grit and grace” we see today, so noted by Doug Kridler, President and CEO of The Columbus Foundation, was undeniably born of a chaotic, often tragic, childhood. Acton’s parents separated when she was just three, and in the decade that followed before reuniting with her father, she lived in a constant state of uncertainty. This included living in more than a dozen places in as many years across the country, some less desirable than others; she lived once in an unfinished basement, and even spent a winter in a tent. Only after abuse at the hands of one of her mother’s string of boyfriends did life for Acton finally start to turn around. Her father was granted full custody, and she’s never seen her mother again.

But even this backstory only surfaced in retrospect. The newspaper’s website also shut down a day after the final edition hit the streets. No likes, shares, or tweets. Only later were the archives posted online, with that closing interview receiving overdue attention in recent weeks, much like Acton herself.

“Lots of powerful souls walk among us,” noted Todd Franko, former Editor in Chief of The Vindicator. “Last August, she walked in and walked out of our office, and no one knew her. They know her now.”

Yet in darkness, there is still light, with dutiful denizens across the state tuning in daily for afternoon “Wine with DeWine.” But even that fierce following may pale in comparison to the more than 50,000 members of Acton’s entirely unofficial Facebook fan club. The conversation waxes and wanes from harrowing accounts to rays of revelry, from the testimonials of healthcare providers on the frontline of the crisis to heated debate about which actress should portray Acton in some future Hollywood feature. (For those keeping score, Allison Janney, Dana Delany, and Anne Hathaway are currently the top casting contenders.) Local apparel company Homage also honored her with a t-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Not all heroes wear capes.”

Even Acton herself is not above public levity amid unprecedented circumstances. A photo from a recent morning meeting in the lower level of the statehouse went viral, with staffers seemingly orbiting a laughing Acton from a safe social distance. It was a rare and candid glimpse of the loyalty she fosters among the small army she inspires, no longer
in anonymity.

Her candor coupled with compassion is at the heart of her appeal. The mother of six, one of whom offers her his own daily briefings on her online following from his home in Menlo Park, has been called “Ohio’s Mom” for the tough love that belies every escalating restriction that unfolds aimed at minimizing the worst case scenarios.

It’s the same honesty tempered with hope that won DeWine over barely a year ago. Acton neither sought nor expected to become the governor’s final, perhaps his most crucial, cabinet selection. In discussing the role with him, she offered an unvarnished, apolitical assessment of Ohio’s challenges and opportunities to improve public health, and prepare for unforeseen threats to it.

Thankfully, he hired her anyway.

The hasty cancellation of in-person voting the day before the state’s primary and extension of absentee voting by mail was deemed politically untenable, until it wasn’t. After what was expected to be an uncontested delay erupted into a last-minute legal reversal, Acton’s authority to protect citizens in the midst of a public health emergency found precedent in an obscure provision of the Ohio Revised Code from 1886 in response to an outbreak of tuberculosis. 

Now, Ohio leads the country in its response, with fellow states following suit, though not without criticism. The impact on businesses directly and indirectly is as controversial as it is unavoidable. DeWine is charged with an impossible task, desperately trying to land a plane safely, despite the fact that it’s coming apart in the air. There will be casualties, actual and economic. But reducing the former requires increasing the latter. Acton is not only his copilot, but is additionally charged with assuring passengers that they are doing everything they can just
to survive.

This is why we need Acton right now—she’s a guiding star in what often seems like an endless night. When human nature and history tend to suggest turning on each other, she’s quick to remind us that we’re all in this together. She’s the hero we didn’t know was in our midst, the same powerful soul who walked up to a podium and into our lives barely a month ago practically unknown, but who is now a part of our daily routine. When all of this is behind us, we’re going to look back on how we have changed. And when that day comes, we will surely have Acton to thank for telling us exactly what we needed to hear, when we needed to hear it, just to get through another day. We should all be forever grateful for her words.

“I don’t want you to be afraid. I’m not afraid. I am determined,” Acton famously confessed. “All of us are going to have to sacrifice. And I know someday, we’ll be looking back and wondering what was it we did in
this moment.”

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