Opinion: Columbus Deserves Nice Things

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Opinion: Columbus Deserves Nice ThingsPhoto via #SaveTheCrew.
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Well. Didn’t see that one coming.  

The Columbus Crew is officially staying in Columbus in a deal that transfers team ownership to “Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, along with a local ownership group involving the Columbus Partnership and Pete Edwards Jr.” It’s a solution to a year-and-a-half long ordeal for Columbus soccer fans that depends on a new $230 million stadium in the Arena District.

It’s impossible to overstate how unlikely this outcome was just a year ago. Crew owner Anthony Precourt seemed determined to take the team to Austin, Texas. The soccer fan base is bigger there, we were told. Mapfre Stadium, the first soccer-specific stadium in America, is inconveniently located. Attendance at Crew games is lacking. Maybe if you had worked a little harder, Columbus, we wouldn’t have to do this.

But there was always a powerful, unspoken context hanging over this whole thing. It was acceptable to take away Columbus’ soccer team because Columbus, after all, is only Columbus. It is an anonymous, amorphous, reputationless place people have maybe kind of heard of at some point. It’s an annual destination for coastal travel writers who can then submit the “Near North Arts District” as evidence that the Midwest has civilization. It’s a place where restaurants become residential and residents become homeless and that, we are told, is progress.   

The problem with Columbus, a lifelong resident once told me, is that it has no soul.

A city’s sports team is not the same thing as a soul, but it is a recognizable symptom of having one. Austin has a soul. It’s true; I’ve been there. And so it seemed right that they deserved a Major League Soccer team. The Crew would serve just fine for that purpose. It was nothing personal, just the natural progression of things. Some cities deserve nice things, and other cities are Columbus.

But there were people who did not give in to that natural progression of history. They held rallies and annoyed people in power. They put stickers in every window of every business on High Street. I saw them. You saw them. They were silly. They believed in something silly. They believed that Columbus deserved a soccer team. They believed that Columbus deserved nice things. And they won.

Photo via #SaveTheCrew.

If only, one might say, they had devoted all that energy to something more worthwhile. Why not build the same momentum to fix Columbus’ abysmal housing segregation, or to radically reform the city’s criminal justice system? Instead, these folks mobilized for nothing more than a game, and what did they get in the end? Another multimillion dollar development project that can’t possibly benefit the people in any meaningful way.

Sometimes the people who make the above points are residents who are sad and frightened to see their home transform into a bland, one-size-fits-all “test market” where the only culture that can be saved from corporate machinations is sports. And, yes, sometimes the people who make these points are professional cynics and nihilists, fair-weather Columbusites who will be Brooklynites in two years anyway. But regardless of who asks, the questions are worth asking. It’s naïve to think a sports team can deliver any significant or lasting economic prosperity to a city and its people. We all have to ask how much Columbus can and should sacrifice for the sake of a symbol.

But that does not mean the symbol is without value.

It should not have ended this way. Sports history is very clear; when ownership decides a team will leave, the team leaves. The stadium, the attendance troubles, all of that was just window dressing. None of it truly mattered to the MLS or to Precourt, who was scheming as early as 2013 to leave for Austin — a city with a soul. This story was supposed to be about how anything that belongs to Columbus can be taken away because Columbus does not deserve nice things. Instead, it’s the story of how Columbus said no.

Columbus must continue to believe that it deserves, and demand that it receives, nice things. Columbus deserves a real public transit system, befitting a major, growing city. Columbus deserves a police department that responds adequately — or hell, above and beyond — to the needs and concerns of black and brown and homeless residents. Columbus deserves development that actually develops and does not destroy the livelihoods of people who have lived here for generations.

Columbus deserves to be more than a test city for trendy startups, carpet-bagging their way into town and leaving us in the lurch when the going gets tough. Columbus deserves enrichment, not rich people. Columbus deserves a library and a grocery in every neighborhood. Columbus deserves art. Columbus deserves culture. Columbus deserves a future.

We can think that cities get what they deserve. Or we can suspect — as I do — that cities seek what they think they deserve. And if that’s true, we can never stop believing that Columbus deserves nice things, or we will never get them.

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