Ohio’s Continuing Population Shift

When our family moved from Akron to Columbus in 1970, Cleveland was the largest city in Ohio by a wide margin, and Cuyahoga County, Cleveland’s home county, was by far the most populous county in the state.  Franklin County, where Columbus is located, had less than half of the population of Cuyahoga County, and it wasn’t even Ohio’s second most populated county.  That status belonged to Hamilton County, thanks to Cincinnati.

94oh_-_columbus_-_birds_eye_view_1But in the years since then, population forces have worked inexorably in favor of Columbus and Franklin County.  With its stable mix of white-collar jobs — from employers like the state, county, and city government, the Ohio State University, hospitals, and insurance companies — and a culture that visitors see as friendly and welcoming, Franklin County has steadily grown since the days of the Nixon Administration.  Many people who’ve come to the city for college, or a hospital residency, or a graduate degree, have liked it and decided to stay and raise their families here.  Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, on the other hand, have seen both the departure of blue-collar jobs and employers and ongoing population loss.

And now the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Franklin County has passed Cuyahoga County and become the most populous county in Ohio, with more than 1.2 million residents.  CFranklin County isn’t one of the fastest growing counties in the United States — no counties in the Midwest are — but its consistent growth, year after year, has produced a long-term result that would have surprised anyone who lived in Ohio in 1970.

Actually, I shouldn’t say that, because at least one person saw the trends.  I took a class in investigative reporting at Ohio State in the late ’70s, and the professor, Marty Brian, gave us the project of writing about the growth and future of Columbus, given its business attributes and employment stability described above.  The would-be Woodward and Bernsteins in the class groaned at the project, which didn’t have much sex appeal, but it turned out to be an interesting assignment that required us to delve into public records and other nuts and bolts aspects of investigative reporting.  And now the gist of the assignment has been proven in the population data.

Vets End

For decades it squatted on the west bank of the Scioto River, directly across from downtown Columbus — a bland, nondescript, hunched building, instantly forgettable to all who drove past it, noteworthy only for its absolute, unflinching genericness.

The Franklin County Veterans Memorial was home to trade shows and auto shows and generic meetings of groups.  No one really cared much about it, one way or the other.  And when Franklin County Commissioners voted to demolish the building as part of a plan to add some much-needed dash and character to the west bank of the river, no one really cared much one way or the other about that, either — with one striking exception.

For one group, Veterans Memorial was a grotesque living reminder of a horrible few days — a period in their lives that was so terrible that just looking at the building and parking lot brought back soul-crushing recollections of angst and strain, panic and pressure, and the ultimate in testing nightmares.  That is because, for years and years, every new law school graduate who wanted to be licensed to practice law in Ohio had to come to Veterans Memorial in Columbus and sit in its cavernous main room to take the multi-day bar exam.

After three years of law school, your professional and financial future rode entirely on your performance on one test.  It was an all-or-nothing proposition:  pass, and you went on to become a practicing lawyer; fail, and . . . well, failure was unthinkable.  Everyone who has taken the bar exam remembers the sense of suffocating pressure, the grim expressions of their fellow test-takers, and the oppressive atmosphere in that testing room.

Some lawyers who successfully navigated the bar exam make jokes about it now, much like people who’ve been through a painful divorce attempt awkward humor about it.  But the jokes aren’t funny, and every lawyer knows it.  Deep down, every lawyer in Ohio is secretly thrilled that Vets Memorial has been reduced to rubble, and that the ugly physical reminder of their ugly rite of passage is no more.  We are free.

Good riddance!  May the rubble itself burn in hell.