TAKE BACK THE STREETS . . . FOR REAL
Winner, 2012 Promising Writer Award
As an eighteen year old girl, when men come from the shadows shooting at your friends, that is the first thought that crosses your mind. Right? Mine too. And my mom’s.
It is the late 1980’s, back in the days of 3.2% beer that eighteen year olds can legally drink. Nancy Snyder, not yet my mother, is barhopping downtown with her friends in an area of Columbus, Ohio called the Short North. Tonight is a rare break from the chaos of the AIDS epidemic; Nancy’s nickname is Lady Death because of her natural immunity to the mystery virus. She carries bleeding, dying men from bed to deathbed day in and day out because hospitals are too afraid to take them in. The stench of death clings to her clothes, but the smell of sweat and weak alcohol cover up some of it for the evening. Her parents do not know where she is . . . she knows they are better off ignorant. They will probably never fully accept that their only daughter is a lesbian. But for now, it is how it is, and this night is an escape.
Being in the dingiest part of town, where graffiti covers every surface and gangs run amok in the darkness, Nancy fits in with other leather-clad rebels. Everything is better until she leaves the bar, only to watch some acquaintances shot down steps ahead of her. The blood stench she barely escaped is back now, filling the air in no less sickly a manner than it ever does around the ill. The police do not even bother showing up. That night Nancy and the rest of the growing LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community decided to meet more often; time to take back the streets!
Several gay bars dotted the downtown and Short North area. In 1978, what would become the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) of Columbus started meeting in the Twilight Lounge, a gay show bar on High Street in the Short North when the area was still rough. Later MCC moved to a storefront on High Street just north of 5th Avenue, and eventually to St. Paul’s on Broad, where I went to church when I was little. But this was before St. Paul’s allowed an LGBT church to move in. In 1980, the year my mom graduated from high school, MCC was still on High Street. After Mom and her friends joined the “Take Back the Streets” movement, she started cleaning up graffiti while the burly-looking queens stood around as guards. The Blue Berets patrolled the streets at night in groups of three or four. Everyone carried a walkie-talkie to notify police at a moment’s notice of gang activity encroaching upon the clean-up effort. The numerous boarded-up houses were scrubbed clean and they picked up bag upon bag of trash. Gay men started moving into the area and fixing up houses, their new immaculate flowerbeds flowing down to the sidewalks in rainbow bursts of color. Cleanliness and a sense of community pushed the gangs aside and drug activity fizzled out. Businesses started moving in; the tide had turned.
This changing point in the city’s history is painfully easy to explain, yet so many people remain oblivious because no one bothers to explain it. Some, like gun enthusiast Jeff Garvas, only touch on this time period in their writing because of groups like the all-but-forgotten Pink Pistons. Like the Blue Berets, this gay-straight alliance gun club helped gays defend themselves against gay bashers and street gangs. The Pink Pistons motto is “Armed gays don’t get bashed!” and they still exist today as an advocacy group. Garvas points out that the rate of assault against homosexuals here in Columbus soars above the national rate year after year. Maybe this is a result of the ignorance that has been allowed to continue for decades.
A day after I read her email, I sat down with my mom and her partner to watch a DVD documentary called Columbus Neighborhoods: Short North. They were both excited because mom’s partner, Ann, is a professor at The Ohio State University and WOSU has won awards for its making of this new documentary. My parents were sure that the huge part of the Short North’s transformation that they both lived through would be on the DVD and they hoped I could learn more about it than what their combined memories could teach me. Before pressing play, I skimmed the back of the case. It claimed that I would see a “vibrant, exciting” neighborhood . . . including “the tale of the arches, the rise – and abrupt fall – of the Columbus Union Station, an incredible reunion of Civil War soldiers, the circus magnate who mesmerized a town, and the emergence of local festivals and traditions . . . ” and then FINALLY I saw “ . . . a story of how a grass roots movement transforms a run-down, forgotten neighborhood into Columbus’ center for arts and culture.” Now that is what I want to see! Snuggled on the couch with our cat, the three of us watched with anticipation through slides of Victorian Village, Italian Village, Harrison West, and Fly Town. They interviewed gallery owners, including my friend Hayley’s mom Sherrie, but the interviews looked a little off. How did they manage to interview only straight gallery owners? There are – what? – maybe two straight gallery owners in the entire arts district. As the documentary wrapped up with beautiful shots of the city today, my poor mom stomped off in outrage yelling, “Where were we?” and Ann trailed behind her whispering something about them including gays once somewhere in there. Yes, I noticed, gays were mentioned once–as being scary.
Later, watching the film for a second and third time at my apartment, I never was able to put my finger on the grassroots movement mentioned on the case. I popped up onto the Short North website to see if things have been corrected by now. After all, the film is from 2010. Maybe historians showed up to right the wrongs sometime in the past year.
Whoa! Surprise, surprise. The history page of http://www.shortnorth.org includes Union Station, Arch City, Goodale Park, and the Sells Brothers Circus. And that’s all folks! The grand Union Station was built in 1850 when the city had its industrial boom. The arches of the station inspired the architecture of what is known today as The Cap, a strip of expensive restaurants and bars. Arch City became the Short North’s national nickname in 1888 when Columbus was chosen to host a centennial celebration for the creation of the Northwest Territory. Columbus put up arches to light the streets, but they disappeared by 1916. Today the arches are back, and at night they light up the sky like a mile long rainbow. Goodale Park, a gift from Dr. Lincoln Goodale in 1851, is now the home of Comfest. Finally, the Sells Brothers Circus sold shares to Barnum and Bailey and eventually became part of the Ringling Brothers Greatest Show on Earth in 1911. These are the highlights of Short North history. These apparently tell the story Columbus wants the public to hear. These events are the important ones.
Obviously none of these people have taken a stroll up High Street before. None of these smart documentary folks have really visited the Short North. Everyone acknowledges the time in between the “good” parts, but no one can quite place their finger on how the city grew back into itself. No one knows why the Short North is even more glorious now. I think it was that grassroots movement so briefly mentioned. I think they should have interviewed the survivors. Do they even know how few survivors there are? Most of them are female because so many men fell victim to AIDS, but those females remember what happened. To them, the AIDS epidemic was as disastrous as the Holocaust was for us Jews. To them, leaving the rebuilding of the city and the symbolic rebuilding of the gay community out of our communal history is as tragic as forgetting about the Holocaust. Or even forgetting World War II entirely! Just ask my mom, the lesbian Jew of Polish descent.
A social group is unpopular with the government. They have no rights, they are discriminated against, and they face prejudices and persecution. One has recognition decades later after nearly being extinct; the other still cheers for every small win after they too were nearly wiped out. Will the government recognize the freedom to love? Will we college students, the future leaders, even learn about the injustices going on under our noses? If no one bothers to interview Nancy Snyder or any of the other survivors, will there be anything to recognize once they are all gone? Anything to learn from? No, there will only be what we are taught right now and what we teach in the future. Take Back the Streets and “Armed gays don’t get bashed!” will disappear with the deep symbolism of the rainbow flag that flies all over the Short North.
My mother’s memories will die with her some day and our public records will never care. The gay community in Columbus will seem to have popped up out of nowhere because their rich, colorful, dangerous history is not to be found. Not even at OSU, the largest college campus in the country.