Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Magic of The Black and Gold

Columbus is a driving town. There is even an area near downtown that is nicknamed Driving Park. The area gets its name from the horse races, and then car races, which took place on an oval track in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

Driving Park, mostly unnoticeable due to freeway construction over the last sixty years, and some of the neighborhoods around it are currently experiencing the paleorenewification period common to medium and large cities throughout the United States. Paleorenewification is the slow and agonizing period of time when a tectonic like pressure builds within peoples of money and influence. The grinding together of--dissatisfaction with what one currently possesses and what one could possess--causes upheaval in the brain’s Gimme-Gimme-I-Want region. This region, present in each and every one of us, but severely overdeveloped in those sadly unsatisfied souls burdened with wads of cash and an as yet unrealized internal locus of identity, is closely aligned with the pre-frontal cortex and its ability to imagine worlds filled full of candy bars, jelly beans, hip restaurants, brick homes with quirky living spaces perfect for entertaining small groups of people searching for the elusive space in which to release some of the above mentioned overwhelming pressure, idyllic shrubbery and unicorns.

The fact that Columbus is a driving town (most of us drive from one suburb to another daily or from the suburbs to downtown and back like clockwork) only exacerbates the rumblings in the Gimme-Gimme-I-Want region. We long for the day when we are able to eat at Bondaluna’s Italian Waif Cafe, attend our neighbors’ gossipee gossiper parties and stock the fridge with dainty delicacies without so much as pushing the unlock button on our vehicle’s key-fob.

Neighborhoods like Driving Park, historically African American and much like, in regards to their proximity to downtown Columbus, German Village, Italian Village, Victorian Village and the Short North, provide an opportunity for those with the needed resources to create exclusive communities filled full with the promise of those mythical Unicorns.

My mom, who has taught for forty years in the Columbus Public Schools, has told me stories about nights out on the east side of Columbus listening to some of the best blues and jazz artists in the country. The touring musicians played at what would be considered black clubs. My mother, white as snow, worked with many black teachers. Apparently, she was considered to be “cool” (I don’t see it, but I guess that’s the typical son’s perspective), and in the 1970’s she was invited along on at least a few occasions to some of the underground clubs where the great musicians played.

Listening to my mom talk about the music and atmosphere, I sensed a real note of excitement, and maybe even wonder. I can’t help but compare her palpable memories to the handful of times I have been lucky enough to sit and listen to a great musician in a room the size of an extra large kitchen. One such time was in Las Vegas in the 90’s.

Prior to leaving for Vegas, I was looking online for things to do while my wife and I spent a few days on the strip. A place called The Sand Dollar Lounge popped up while searching. The Sand Dollar Lounge was described as “off-strip in a non-descript shopping center, and a little rough looking.” If the rest of the description had not gone on to paint a picture of a place where “bikers to business men enjoy a night of blues music by some of the best musicians in Vegas” I would have dismissed the place entirely; but, it said it was safe, and it said the Blues was top notch. I’m a blues fan. I love blues guitar with a bit of a rock edge. Stevie Ray Vaughan is/was legendary. We simply had to go.

So, on a Monday night we jumped in the rental car (driving theme again) and went in search of The Sand Dollar Blues Lounge. The description I read online was perfect. So perfect that when we pulled into the parking lot we didn’t realize we were in the right place. Big empty lot, tiny sign on the side of large building and mostly dark, the joint was not the most inviting place. If vampires and werewolves were to build a trap for human prey, this would probably be the trap. When we finally spotted the sign we instantly looked at each other with not a little trepidation. We may have even discussed the idea of not going in...we did go in though, and to this day I consider the music I heard that night to have been the best night of music I have ever experienced in person.

A lot of the night is a blur. Eight or nine beers will do that, even when your only thirty some years old. I don’t remember the name of the artist fronting the house musicians. I do remember he was young. According to the bartender he was twenty one and already the father of more than one child, and he had supposedly already written a number of hits that other artists had recorded.

We sat almost close enough to touch this guy. I’m not gay, but I do believe I would have married the dude if he had asked. He wailed for hours. You could tell the musicians behind him were as much in awe as I was. They smiled from ear to ear all night and into the morning hours. From Stevie Ray to Buddy Guy, he made the guitar moan and roar. There is nothing like being that close when magic is happening.

So, I’m close to a theme here, and it’s driving. Or, maybe it’s driving and not driving. Maybe it’s the Gimme-Gimme-I-Wants and the unintended magic that can evolve from that recently evolved pre-frontal cortex. I think it’s all those things.

Columbus, Ohio, a place I’ve never been super comfortable living in, yet have spent almost my entire fifty years of life in, has done some things well. One of the things Columbus has done well is care for its less fortunate. Good thing too, as sometimes, like when Columbus demolished and paved over what used to be a good portion of the African American neighborhood, Driving Park, Columbus displaced a lot of people.

Another thing Columbus has done well is revitalize the areas around downtown. I’m amazed when I drive the areas north and south of downtown. Condos, refurbished homes, restaurants, bars and small parks have come to life. Within these communities is a little bit of magic. Sometimes the magic is stifled by the human need to seek safety in overbearing order and rule of law. Sometimes the magic springs to life. There are some fine local musician and artist who call Columbus home and show their stuff in the areas surrounding downtown.

One thing I know for certain, there is a great deal more magic waiting to spring to life in Columbus, Ohio.

Greater Columbus is no longer a town of a few hundred thousand people. I would venture a guess that today there are a few hundred thousand people in the Columbus area who, when following sport, are only mildly interested in Ohio State Athletics. Quite a few are simply not interested at all. Bringing the Columbus Blue Jackets to life was a welcome addition to the sports and entertainment landscape in Columbus. It was only a small step, as the cost of attendance effectively makes the Blue Jackets experience somewhat exclusive. Building a ballpark for the Columbus Clippers tilted the playing field a bit more in favor of the average sports fan.

There is still something missing. Some magic drives around greater Columbus, and perhaps hunkers down in the central city, waiting to be brought to life. Tens of thousands of soccer fans reside in Columbus, Ohio. There are more and more each year, as evidenced by the number of bars that routinely put soccer games on their TV’s on Saturday’s and Sunday’s. This summer, during a World Cup year, it will be close to impossible to find a pub not showing games.

We have our own soccer games here in Columbus. Columbus Crew Stadium and the Columbus Crew, like the Jackets, have been a good addition to the Columbus sports and entertainment scene. Yet, have the Black and Gold and the sport of soccer fully sprung to life and added all they can to Columbus? I don’t think so, not even close.

The something missing I mentioned, that bit of magic that’s driving around and hunkering down, is inside the soul of soccer and the tens of thousands in the great city of Columbus who love the sport. And here is where two parts of Columbus should collide. What many have sought during the paleorenewification period is partially embedded within our Crew.

A mindful glance at soccer stadiums in cities such as Seattle, Portland, Houston, Philadelphia and soon New York City and Miami should show the people who can help make Columbus an even more vibrant place to live what a soccer a stadium in downtown Columbus would do to unlock a little bit more of the magic potential hiding in our Driving Parks, German Villages, and Brewery Districts.

As a lifelong resident of Columbus, my hope is that the right people see through their own bias and realize the dynamic spirit a Brewery District/Downtown Soccer Stadium would unlock in the capital city. Maybe, just maybe, the ghosts of past residents, residents who have been displaced over the years in neighborhoods like Driving Park, German Village, Victorian Village and The Brewery District will throw an ectoplasmic party when the people’s game, the beautiful game, soccer brings thousands of current Columbuscites to the streets, restaurants and pubs which now occupy what used to be old raceways, breweries, and buggy making shops. I can almost hear the blues coming from the basement of a long ago club on the near east side. I know my mom’s smiling.

Photo is of the type of car which won the world's first ever 24hour race. You guessed it, the race was staged at Columbus' at Driving Park in 1905. The Car was a Pope-Toledo.

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