On the first full day of our visit to Columbus for American Futures, I went to see the Tree Walk, a collection of 35 trees in the Old Deaf School Park, right downtown. The school, then called the Ohio Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, opened in 1829, one of the earliest such schools in the US and the only one publicly funded at the time. By 1868, seven stately buildings housed about 400 students.
I was interested to see the native Buckeye,Aesculus glabra, which I knew from my 7th grade Ohio history is the state tree. It was listed as Number 17 on the walking guide, way up on the north side of the park, and on the site where the dormitory for the students stood until it burned in an early morning fire in the 1980s. (No students were there; the less Dickensian-sounding Ohio School for the Deaf had renamed itself and moved north to a more suburban campus.)
I passed the Japanese Pagoda tree, the White Pine, the Dawn Redwood. Then I scoped out the spot where the Buckeye should stand. No! It can’t be, I thought, consulting my tree guide again. But there it was: a scrawny, sickly, almost leafless Buckeye. I wondered if this was going to be symbolic somehow of what we would find in Columbus.
We had encountered other moments of symbolism during our reporting over the last year: the broken clock in the main intersection of Allentown, which the mayor commissioned to repair as a sign that “Allentown is coming back!” Or the comment by Joe Max Higgins, the leader of an economic development team inthe other Columbus(Mississippi) that when the helicopters—somethingthat flies—came off the assembly line, that “people started walking upright a little bit.” Would the dying Buckeye symbolize something dire, I wondered?
To skip to the end of the story, I need not have worried. What we heard in Columbus over the next several days were institutional-scale stories of building, creativity, cooperation, and solid investment in the city’s future. Here are short versions of a few smaller personal-scale stories. All together, they start to tell the emerging narrative of Columbus.