Three years ago a strange request popped into my inbox.
“Hi Ami, I hope this email finds you well…”
A friend of mine had a friend working for The Atlantic and looking for a connection on the ground in Columbus, OH. She was assisting Deb and James Fallows, the husband and wife reporting team, with their planning for the American Futures series. For this series they hopped in their Cessna and flew from city to city to see how the revival of recession-leveled communities was going. In Deb’s own words…
“We have been traveling around the country for over a year, visiting smaller towns, and now some larger cities that have interesting stories to tell of revival and reinvention. We are looking into visiting Columbus in the very near future, and your name came to us via a grapevine…”
At this time in 2014, like everyone else, I was lapping up city-fed messages about the exciting future of Franklinton. So naturally, when Deb Fallows emailed me I was full of links to help connect her with the people doing the doing in Franklinton.
Deb and I spoke on the phone as well as meeting in person. She was utterly lovely; grateful for my help and courteous of my time. She asked insightful questions, shared that she had a 93-year-old mother, and revealed that she was originally from Vermillion, OH. While my ambitions of having our fledgling coffee truck side-hustle featured in the national press didn’t pan out, I was able to connect her with lots of people making big moves in this city…. specifically in Franklinton.
The American Futures project aimed to present “Portraits of change and resilience in American communities.” And when the Columbus feature came out, it definitely captured that spirit of change… but it was named “Gentrification ‘without the negative’ in Columbus, Ohio.” Damn. Even then I thought… that can’t be the whole picture.
Part of the problem with the discussion of Franklinton is the fundamental assumption, based on misunderstanding, that there’s just nobody over there. That it’s a blank slate for the city and developers and therefore a win-win for everyone. If there’s nobody there, then there is nobody to push out. Even the comments on The Atlantic’s video at that time revealed that some residents were uncomfortable with that idea. One person, identifying himself as a resident in the comment section, said: “While I love the art warehouse (& the coffee), someone needs to explain to Mr. Sweeney that there are in fact […] people living in Franklinton, and for some of us, to varying degrees, gentrification will be painful. The blanket comment “the existing population is gone already” is an attempt justifying a corporate takeover of a neighborhood […]”
Another commenter brings up the lack of resident representation this way: “The video says that there is literally no one in that area but also said there’s about a 25% home vacancy rate. So, doesn’t that mean that 75% of the homes do have people living in them? Just because there’s a few boarded up houses doesn’t mean no one lives there. Anyways, the video looked really nice, and I’m not against artists making art in old buildings, I’m just concerned about the title and intent. It would have been a good idea to actually talk to long-term residents from the neighborhood about their opinion of gentrification, and whether or not this space is actually helping create opportunities for local folks.”
Yes, much of East Franklinton (the area near COSI, 400 W Rich, etc.) was uninhabited and ripe for takeover. But that’s not the whole neighborhood.
Three years later, with much of the ground broken on those promised development projects, we wondered what the picture looks like now. What about the people who live there?
Our incredible partners at Loose Films stepped up to challenge. They took our curiosity, a few connections, and lots of elbow grease and got to work on a piece that I think rivals The Atlantic’s in both presentation of perspective and artistic sensibility.
We don’t purport to have answers for what will happen in Franklinton, but we can definitely ask visionaries for their best advice on how to do this right. We can learn lessons from other cities. We can talk to the people who live and work there now. And the ones who will come later.
The end isn’t written, but the beginning definitely is. And it is important for the long-term success of any neighborhood—or city for that matter—to remember where they came from as they continue to grow and change.