I grabbed a quick breakfast and set out in search of the real Columbus. Turns out it’s a fairly nice place. It reads a little like a cross between Richmond, Minneapolis, and Sacramento. In other words, there’s sort of a state-subsidized vitality about the place, which makes you think there might not be much of a city there if it weren’t for the presence of the state capital and a big university or two. It’s distinctly urban, but not overwhelmingly so.
I did the obligatory Highway 40 tour, from one end of town to the other. I’ve driven many chunks of US 40 between Baltimore and San Francisco, and I think I’ve decided that I like this historic road better than Route 66.
On the southern and eastern edges of downtown, I found myself in some surprisingly scary neighborhoods. I shouldn’t have been surprised; if there’s a scary neighborhood, I’ll generally find it. But for some reason, I didn’t think Columbus had a lot of ghetto of the boarded-up buildings and drug dealers on street corners variety. I was wrong.
I was also shocked by the white trash. I’m from North Carolina. I know white trash. But central Ohio seems to have produced a hardcore, super hearty, antibiotic-resistant strain of white trash. I’m not sure if it’s transplanted farm-grown stock or a breed native to the city, but it was some scary stuff, this central Ohio white trash. Maybe it has something to do with all the asbestos siding.
North of downtown along High Street, there was a “midtown” fringe area full of old buildings that would have been lost to urban renewal in almost any other city. I’m glad they made it through the 1950s and 1960s here, especially since they managed to pick up some of the more interesting aspects of subsequent decades as well. There’s creeping cutesiness and gentrification, but it’s not quite nauseating just yet.
An area called Victorian Village is adjacent to this strip, and I can only imagine that it looks very much like Brush Park in Detroit must have before the decay set in, with blocks and blocks of heavy, dark brick and stone Gothic architecture. Farther north is the OSU campus.
And then there’s Michael’s Goody Boy with its pork tenderloin sandwiches. My friend Bob in Indianapolis taught me to love this deep-fried and flattened midwestern bun full of joy, and I’m glad they have them in Ohio too.
Downtown Columbus is a bit pockmarked. It seems that it may once have been much more dense, but that it lost an inordinate number of buildings to the twin demons of urban renewal and surface parking. I was somewhat obsessed with the carcass of the Lazarus store, which closed a few years ago and is now apparently being converted into some sort of educational complex. I’m surprised, frankly, that the store lasted as long as it did; it doesn’t look like the creepy ghost mall across the street was much help.
A lot of the remaining buildings are very interesting, and I was amused to see one of the last surviving Planter’s Peanuts stores in the world, complete with a neon Mr. Peanut. I amused myself for a couple of hours walking around downtown.
And then there was the pilgrimage to the very first Wendy’s. It was entertaining, if not a real religious experience or anything. The staff was surly as hell, but the museum display was fun. I, of course, sat in the section that was decked out like an original 1960s-1970s Wendy’s.
Evening brought dinner at the MCL Cafeteria. I realized as soon as I saw it that visiting the place was a necessity. I knew I’d be disappointed (and I was) because midwesterners just don’t quite get the concept of a cafeteria like southerners do. The entrees were just sort of bland and boring, and the vegetables were just sort of, well, not vegetables, but things like baked beans and assorted starches under cheese. The desserts just looked scary. But new cafeterias must be visited, as I said, even when okra is not on the menu.
I drove around a bit more, and finished the evening with a snack from White Castle and a Diet Coke nightcap from the convenience store where the clerk (who was surprisingly geeky white trash) really liked my iMac t-shirt.