Is there life after the Bay Area? When you’ve spent most of your adulthood here and given so much of yourself to it, what happens when it stops giving back? What happens when you fight so hard to remain in a place that you once to loved so much, but you finally get pushed out? Where do you go when you’re done with San Francisco, or rather when San Francisco is done with you?
I was thinking about this last week while sitting in the back of a 12-passenger van in Columbus, Ohio. Once or twice a year I get an email offering me a press trip. The idea is to fly out a bunch of writers, show them all the best things a location has to offer, and then hope they write about them. The writers don’t actually have to publish anything, but we almost always do because we get shown genuinely cool things. I’ve been flown such exotic places as Finland, Hawaii, Mexico, Israel, and yes, Columbus, Ohio. That’s right,
Experience Columbus wanted me to come out and explore their town so they paid for me to do so.
Lately, in conversations, I’ve been landing on this riff that goes something like, “The best American art and culture is no longer gonna be coming from places like New York, LA, and San Francisco. SF’s never gonna make another Grateful Dead, and Patti Smith is never coming from New York again. The future of American culture will be coming from secondary and tertiary places like Detroit, Buffalo, and Baltimore.” I’d like to add Columbus to that list.
I knew absolutely nothing about Columbus before this trip so I didn’t really know what to expect. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised by how much it had going on.
While there were a lot of dope things about the city, from the food scene to the way it supports the arts, what that really tied it all together for me was meeting people who’d lived in both San Francisco and New York, and now called Columbus home.
After spending time working in cafés up in SF and New York, Jeff Excell moved to Columbus with his wife Lauren Culley where they opened up a string of their own cafés called Fox in the Snow. “I never could have done this in New York,” Excell told me, “It’s just too expensive. Not only that, people in Columbus are so supportive. They want you to succeed.”
Excell went on to talk about how great it is to start a business in Columbus because people are excited to try new things, “If you open a place up, people are gonna come out and try it. They may not come back if it’s not good, but they want to give you the benefit of the doubt and see what you’re all about.”
I heard a similar story from Celeste Malvar-Stewart, a fashion designer from San Francisco who has lived and designed clothing in both London and New York. “I had no idea what I was getting into when my husband came here for work,” she told me while teaching us how to make scarves from lamb wool and alpaca fleece “but it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.” Malvar-Stewart creates beautiful couture dresses using wool and fleece from nearby farms and focuses on doing so as eco-friendly and socially responsible as possible. When she arrived in Columbus, Malvar-Stewart was surprised at how well her “hippie San Francisco values” were received and supported.
People come from far and wide to take her workshops on how to create felt clothing the way she does.
Supporting artists, makers, and entrepreneurs seems to be a theme in Columbus. I also got to explore the Idea Foundry, a Maker space where you can do welding, blacksmithing, woodworking, 3D printing and way more. In the same building they also have a coworking space full of graphic designers, web developers, and even VC firms. The idea is to have so many creative people from different disciplines under one roof and then watch the amazing things they can create together.
What’s particularly rad about the Idea Foundry is that they are working with the city, and combining both private and public funding to turn the surrounding area into a Maker neighborhood. It’s a wonderful model for how other cities can invest in both arts and business at the same time.
One of the things that allows all this to happen is that Columbus is affordable. Not only do one bedroom apartments start at around $1000 a month, but about 20 percent of the new housing going up is set aside to be below market rate. This is extra impressive considering the city is over 800,000 people and is steadily growing.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some downsides to Columbus too. It’s gets hot and humid as hell during the summer and it snows quite a bit in the winter. Plus there aren’t a whole lot of direct flights into their small airport. And while the city itself is diverse and very progressive, I saw confederate flags less than an hour outside of town. Apparently nobody told those idiots that Ohio is above the Mason-Dixon line. But other than these small things, Columbus is both surprising and remarkable.
So, does that mean I’m moving out to Columbus tomorrow? Not at all. But as the Bay Area continues to become simply a playground for the rich, it was comforting to find another place that valued the same things I do and that would welcome me with open arms.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com and join his awesome mailing list to stay up on the work he’s doing: http://bit.ly/BrokeAssList. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the Examiner.