Columbus – Image and Imagination

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Cities are made up of people as well as the streets and buildings they create. And as people develop personalities all their own, cities come to have an image and style of their own as well.

New York is the “Big Apple” and New Orleans is the “Big Easy.” Chicago is the “Windy City” and Denver is the “Mile High City.”

Ohio cities are no exception to this tendency to try to identify themselves with a simple phrase from the past the town has shared or the future it would like to see. Cincinnati is the “Queen City.” Cleveland is the “Forest City” and, of course, Columbus is the “Capital City.”

All of these nicknames conjure up a certain image of the place they describe. When I think of New York, I think of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. When I think of Cincinnati, Fountain Square comes to mind as does the Terminal Tower when Cleveland is considered. And of course, in Columbus, there is always the Statehouse.

Every city has an image – both to the people who live there and to the people who see it from a distance. And that image is often more than a single building or person or place.

Consider Columbus. Ohio’s Capital City is not only the home of the Statehouse. The Ohio State University is here and is actually something of a city in its own right. Its sports teams have an international reputation as does the Memorial Tournament in Dublin. Central Ohio has produced a number of notable people and enterprises and shows every sign of continuing to do so.

But what sometimes is not remembered is that as cities grow and change, so too do their images. The Columbus of today is certainly a far cry from what it was in 1812 when a tiny village came into being to be the capital of one of America’s newer states.

Over those almost two hundred years, Columbus has had a variety of nicknames and presented itself to the world in a variety of ways.

It might be instructive to look back at a few of them.

When Columbus was brought into being by the Ohio Legislature in 1812, the place where it was platted was called “The High Banks” or Wolf’s Ridge” because wolves serenaded early settlers in the area. Frontier Franklinton had been founded across the Scioto River in 1797 and was actually larger than Columbus until well after the end of the War of 1812.

James Monroe was the first President to visit Columbus. When he passed through in 1816, he called the village of several hundred people an “infant city.”

Over the next several decades, Columbus became a center of transportation and trade. Occasionally called the “Metropolis of central Ohio”, it was more often referred to simply as the “capital city.”

The late 1800′s were a time of rapid change in Columbus and indeed across most of the Midwest as the Industrial Revolution transformed America. In this age of immigration and urbanization, cities vied with each other for new businesses, new residents and for larger and large pieces of the prosperity pie.

It was in this era that Columbus became the “Arch City.” During an 1888 convention of Union Army veterans in Columbus, elaborate wooden arches lit by gaslights had been built through the downtown. Eventually they would be replaced by metal arches lit by electricity. The arches provided street lighting and power to a new generation of electrified streetcars and lasted until the early part of the Twentieth Century.

In more recent years, Columbus has had a number of other nicknames.

In the years after World War II, it was briefly called the “Col-Met” or “Columbus Metropolitan” area.

In 1958, the city won a prestigious “All-America City” award from the then-popular Look Magazine. The name caught on and Columbus called itself an “All- America” city for quite some time.

One nickname that is tried with almost predictable regularity is the “Discovery City”. Attempts to link central Ohio with new world explorer Christopher Columbus have never been all that successful.

In recent years, the City has tried of a number of different approaches to image and identity, but none have caught on as well or lasted as long as “Arch City” did a century ago.

With new arches marching up High Street in the Short North and scattered elsewhere around the city as well, perhaps we should simply start calling Columbus the “Arch City” once again.

It might be intriguing to see if it catches on.

Ed Lentz is a historical consultant. He lives in Delaware. We welcome your thoughts. Please e-mail them to feedback at wosu.org.

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