Thursday, September 27, 2007

Comma Ohio

What’s in a name?

For people in Columbus, everything. Apparently people in this city are fed up with having to include Ohio in the answer to the question: where are you from? It doesn’t bother me, in fact I insist on offering up the state just so I don’t get mistaken for one of those tobacco chewing mutants from Georgia. Still most people don’t want to be troubled with including comma Ohio. It must be too much work.

To be fair, Ohio is a pretty clunky state to enunciate. It’s only got three different letters in it but somehow manages to demand three syllables. That’s just out of line, but Ohio is a high maintenance state. We don’t even have a flag like the rest of the states; instead we opt for a burgee. Most people don’t know what a burgee is which is understandable since nobody uses them. It’s like two pennants stitched together. Talk about overcompensating.

Columbus is like the youngest child in a big family with active siblings. The city is constantly taunting Cleveland and Cincinnati by claiming that it’s bigger, smarter and faster than they are. Still Cleveland and Cincinnati enjoy single name status which infuriates Columbus to no end. Even lowly Toledo is in the cool crowd thanks to Jamie Farr. Akron and Canton are prospective members of that club as well but Columbus is stuck wearing that cheesy name tag that reminds people that it’s in Ohio.

City leaders even waste time on this subject. Elected officials have spent money trying to elevate Columbus to that level of recognition that would make comma Ohio optional. The city has landed professional sports teams and adamantly refused to allow those teams to be called the Ohio (whatever). Since many of the cities rolling sans state have professional sports teams Columbus civic leaders believe that this is the answer.

They might be right but it has to be sports people actually care about. Major League Soccer and the NHL aren’t exactly mainstream enterprises and even if people did care the local team has to win. The Columbus Blue Jackets aren’t a force to be reckoned with.
And there’s a prime example of what makes Columbus such a forgettable place. What the hell is a Blue Jacket?

It’s not really a stupid name. Blue Jacket was a Shawnee warrior who fought against whites as they expanded into the Northwest Territory. Most people familiar with those early Indian wars think of Tecumseh who was more famous than his predecessor. Little is known about Blue Jacket but he was active in the area around Columbus. The problem is that team officials don’t claim Blue Jacket as the inspiration…even though the only reference to Blue Jacket in the area is an epic outdoor drama depicting the exploits of the war chief.

Instead of developing that angle and paying homage to Shawnee heritage, team officials adopted a blue bee named Stinger as their mascot and put a civil war era cap on his head. They claimed that Blue Jackets was a nickname given to union soldiers. So they combined the concept of a mutant hornet with a fictitious etymology. Translation: boring.

Columbus is a city replete with plenty of reasons to forget about Columbus. There’s an infamous field of concrete corn on the northwest side of town, the Major League Soccer team is dubbed The Crew, which is a reference to the extensive construction work taking place around the city when the team was created, and wedged in a mud bank in the Scioto River, downtown is a replica of the Santa Maria. A big 1400s era sea going vessel is moored in the middle of Ohio.

Why?

It’s true that Columbus, Ohio, like so many other places in North America, was named for the explorer/opium peddler/slave trader/blithering idiot but why would a city in the middle of Ohio see the need to purchase a replica of his flagship? It’s not as if Columbus ever sailed through the Gulf of Mexico, up the Mississippi and turned right on the Ohio only to find himself curious about where the Scioto might lead him. Columbus never set foot on the mainland and is believed to have died insisting that China was just a little bit past the little islands he "discovered". Erecting such a monument to his efforts might attract historians and tourists interested in viewing the place Columbus chose to drop anchor and then the city would enjoy that mono-moniker it craves if only Columbus hadn't been such a lazy explorer. I have lived in Columbus for years and still can’t figure out why we are supposed to be fascinated with Christopher. It’s coincidental, people, let’s move on.

But Columbus isn’t alone in inanity. Nearby Westerville’s claim to fame is its stoic commitment to prohibition. The former home of the Anti-saloon League remained dry for decades only relaxing its alcohol restrictions in recent years. Another suburb, Reynoldsburg, celebrates itself as the birthplace of the tomato. No kidding. There’s a tomato festival in Reynoldsburg every year but nobody in central Ohio seems to know why. A call to the city’s office reveals that it’s the birthplace of the commercial tomato but explanations are vague beyond that. Why make such a dubious claim? It’s not as if it draws tourists. For some reason central Ohio’s favorite pastime seems to be clamoring for attention.

Most of the cities we know of on a first name basis earned it the hard way. In the 1980s and early 90s Columbus was known as Cow Town because there were still pastures within the city limits and the annual state fair is held just a few miles from down town every year. Cow Town records and Cow Town guitars both closed up shop in the late 90s but when the NHL first came to Columbus in 2000 fans wanted the team to be named the Columbus Mad Cows. In fact a minor league hockey team took advantage of that popularity and played one game as the Columbus Mad Cows. The jerseys remain popular with collectors. City leaders took umbrage and made great efforts to distance themselves from that name. They believed it was detrimental to the city’s image and could cost billions of dollars.

What they did was miss a golden opportunity to join the single name club. Cleveland endured (and continues to endure) mean spirited jokes about its industrial past and current economic woes. Recently Cleveland was the butt of yet another joke by NBC’s 30 Rock where characters on the show expressed a satirical admiration for Cleveland as a vacation destination. Does Cleveland throw a tantrum and demand respect? Nope, the city rolls with the punches. Great Lakes Brewing Company even named its flagship beer after the infamous 1969 fire that set the Cuyahoga river ablaze. For the record, Burning River Pale Ale is a fabulous beer. It’s aggressively hopped without being woody and the complexities of the malt shine through with each sip.

Toledo might very well owe its popularity to Jamie Farr incessantly plugging his hometown as Max Klinger on MASH. The name also stands out thanks in no small part to the exclamation Holy Toledo but Toledo is known for its many obvious faults more than it is its charms. Nobody seems happy about going there. Name recognition isn’t always a good thing. There’s a fine line between fame and infamy. Look at Reno.

Anonymity isn’t a bad thing at all. Columbus is a great place to live, so what if you don’t want to visit? Now let's all go to Applebee's.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Where did you get that goddamn clown suit? Cleveland?"--"Well, actually, yes sir. I did... uh.. get it in Cleveland."

And also-- Where is it that you're from?
- Cleveland. - Cleveland.
- Lake Erie. - Erie.
Do you have any parents back in, uh, Erie?

Casey said...

I hear the Applebee's in Ashland has all-you-can-eat riblets and a damn fine brew of kiwi lemonade.