Columbus, OH USA

Pedal Pusher
December 2009
by Greg Knepp

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Monuments of Columbus bike tour

I've been on many a bicycle tour over the decades, but none like the Monuments of Columbus Bike Tour. Sponsored tours are generally tightly organized, with various pre-lectures on itinerary, safety, equipment and the like, waivers and applications to be signed in order to satisfy the dual demons of lawyers and insurance companies, and, of course, tour fees to be paid. The Monuments tour had none of this. In fact, I and the only other fellow who actually arrived on time at the staging point were initially doubtful as to whether there would be a tour at all. But as the Saturday morning drizzle abated, leaving gray windy skies in its stead, several more cyclists trickled in.

A few words about the embarking location, the OSU Urban Arts Space. This is an art gallery located in the old Lazarus building at 50 W. Town St., right across from the Riverfront South townhouse construction project. The whole area is becoming a showcase of urban revitalization in stark contrast with the blandness that has heretofore characterized downtown Columbus. The Lazarus renovation by itself is yielding breathtaking results!

In any event, our small but growing cadre perused the gallery while waiting for the tour to begin and, in so doing, discovered the real meaning of “monuments” as defined by this venue. You see, the gallery show was composed of various works (each looking like a hybrid of art work and science project) that featured Columbus urban locations that were abandoned, toxic, useless or otherwise derelict. Each display treated a separate location along the tour route in its current state along with a proposal as to how the area might be better utilized. The “monuments” featured on this tour were actually monuments to urban decay. Cute!

Also cute was the tour guide – a cherubic blond lass named Sarah Cowles. Ms. Cowles is an OSU professor of landscape architecture. She arrived 35 minutes late and looked as if she’d spent the wee hours of Friday night in deep research at the university library rather than getting a good night’s sleep. What else could have accounted for her bleary-eyed look and disinterested affect? Our leader spoke not a word. She simply hopped on her single-speed, fixed-gear bike and pedaled off, nine stalwart cyclists in tow. “How the hell is this woman going to pedal 20 yards much less 20 miles,” I mused? Boy was I mistaken! As it turned out, Cowles, with legs of steel and a total disregard for traffic laws, demonstrated the characteristics of a true urban cycle road warrior. But was she a tour guide?

Graffiti at Nelson Road Water Treatment Plant.
Photo| Charles Voit
The group of nine tourers was an odd mix: one or two of Ms. Cowles’ students, several professionals of various descriptions, an engineer and his friend both of whom had wheeled in from Groveport; Ms. Cowles’ hubby was also in attendance, riding a ‘60s vintage Schwinn woman’s single-speed. He and the only foreigner on tour (most likely a student or associate of Cowles) rode sans helmet – not a good idea.

Bolstered by a strong tail wind, we sped east on Bryden Road through Olde Towne East. It was heartening to see that gentrification is creeping slowly toward Franklin Park. It appears that the better part of this area’s grand old housing stock will eventually be saved. Besides several old mansions in dire need of rehab, the only eyesore was Franklin Alternative School, a ghastly slab built in the early seventies that easily qualifies as the most hideous piece of architecture on the east side – and that’s saying something! It wasn’t officially on the tour, but then there was precious little about this tour that might have been considered official.

From Bryden we turned north on the Alum Creek Bikeway and rode about a mile to our first scheduled stop, the abandoned Nelson Road Water Treatment Plant. This is a shell of a factory lost in a few acres of scrub wilderness. The chain link fence surrounding the place had a few gaping holes, so it was easy for our group members to simply stroll into the facility. What we encountered was truly stunning! With the addition of a nodding security guard and a matronly docent or two, the old plant could easily be transformed into the Columbus Institute Museum of Impromptu Folk Art (CIMIFA). A veritable Sistine Chapel of graffiti, this location captured the interest of all present. The lawyer in the crowd (isn’t there always one?) observed that this graffiti didn’t really constitute vandalism as it did not detract from the value of the property – an interesting if arcane point. In fact, aside from the graffiti itself, one could easily speculate that the facility has no value at all. No one seemed to know the origin of the graffiti; there are literally hundreds of individual works – some rather large and many highly resolved and quite beautiful. I played the cultural anthropologist and suggested that we figure out what subculture might have produced the mystery artists there represented. After much thought, a young member of our little tribe theorized that the work had been done by educated college types rather than by street gang members. I concurred; the fellows who decorated the Nelson Road Water Treatment Plant were art school punks rather than gang punks. Kool!

We set about on our next leg of the journey, continuing north on Alum Creek Bikeway for a short distance, then turning west on the rather dismal I-670 bikeway. It was on this span that my advanced age and lack of conditioning took its toll. The steady wind that had ferried us along on our eastward trek was now in our faces. It slowed me to a veritable crawl, and I arrived at our next location, Salt Mountain, a good quarter of a mile behind the rest of the group, which by this time had formed a rather functional peloton. Our leader had set a brisk pace and knew how to keep a cycling group together. Of that much I was now convinced.

Salt Mountain, a depository of Columbus road salt. © Photo| Charles Voit.
Salt Mountain is actually a couple of man-made mountains, one of salt, the other a combination of salt and cinder, located on a post-apocalyptic moonscape of some 90 acres or so, just north of I-670 and quite close to downtown. The area used to be an active rail yard but is now the depository of a major amount of the city’s road salt. We use salt, of course, for roadway clearance during the winter, but so much of the acreage around salt mountain is simply barren, the earth made lifeless by saline poisoning. What struck me as odd was that I had never noticed this immense wasteland in all my years of living in Columbus – but then I’ve never done much cycling in this area. On a bike, one notices aspects of the environment that the motorist, speeding along I-670 or barreling down Fifth Avenue, easily misses. There was little intra-group discussion at salt mountain. We pretty much explored the area as individuals, taking in, with wide-eyed wonder, the strange specter of the dreary dual mountains. Columbus monuments yes, but monuments to what? To a hectic automobile culture that wouldn’t dream of waiting for Mother Nature’s warm weather to clear the roads.

Back on our bikes, we headed still westward on Fourth Avenue, little more than an alley at this juncture, but an interesting alley with some old buildings that hinted of a once-vibrant working-class neighborhood now long gone. The gale was steady, but I kept up with the peloton this time, allowing the front riders to draft me. Fourth Avenue parallels Fifth and stops at I-71. Here we turned north to Fifth where an overpass traverses the interstate. We then traveled several more blocks to our next stop, Columbus Coated Fabrics at E. Fifth Avenue and N. Grant Street.

Actually, there is no Columbus Coated Fabrics. The factory ceased operations in 2001 after more than a half-century of production, and was taken over by the city in 2007. It was demolished forthwith, but then the hard part began – the cleanup. I am familiar with this site, a four-block long dirt patch featuring yet another made-made mountain; only this one is made of soil not salt, and resembles a mesa, or perhaps an Indian mound, more than a mountain. A few sturdy souls on dirt bikes actually pedaled up the southern embankment, but most of our group parked their steeds below and climbed the mound on foot. From here we enjoyed a terrific view of the surrounding area: Weinland Park neighborhood, much of the so-called University District and, of course, farther to the west and southwest, my own beloved Short North. The engineer from Groveport told us something of the nature of the site’s problems. It seems that, over the decades of the company’s existence, much of the chemical waste that was a byproduct of its production was allowed to seep into the ground, poisoning the very earth and making it unsuitable for redevelopment. The process of cleanup is well under way, but it will be a long time, if ever, before we see new residential and commercial establishments spring up on this stretch of land. Ms. Cowles continued her near-silence. I spoke with her about the efforts of local institutions, such as the Godman Guild located at the very foot of the mound, to improve the Weinland Park neighborhood, and the frustrations therein encountered. She barely responded. Suddenly an idea hit me: Beyond pedaling from one destination to another, Sarah Cowles had exhibited no intention whatever of guiding the tour. She was letting us, the participants, do all the talking, and in so doing was drawing on our collective storehouse of opinion and knowledge about the state of affairs in a major city in which the citizens would countenance such a blatant disregard for major tracts of derelict property within close proximity of their own downtown. It was becoming clear to me that this event was more of a symposium on two wheels than a standard day tour.

We headed west again on Fourth Avenue. High Street was closed off to make way for that evening’s annual Halloween revel, but, being cyclists rather than motorists, we barreled on through, dodging early partiers as we went. Our group zigzagged its way through the back streets of Victorian Village and spilled out onto Neil Avenue at Hubbard. We rode south on Neil to the Arena District, then turned right on a nearly hidden gravel road into a post-industrial scrub wilderness dubbed, at least for the purposes of this tour, the Olentangy Underbelly.

The Underbelly, much like its twin to the south, Whittier Peninsula, is what’s left of a once-active riverfront industrial area. Some railroad tracks remain and the foundations of a number of factories and warehouses, but little else: weeds, scrubby trees and the occasional varmint, that’s about it. There’s been some worthy construction on the eastern and southern borders of this vast area, most notably Huntington Park and the revitalization of several Spring Street locations. But the lion’s share of the Underbelly remains abandoned. I can understand how marginal locations such as Jeffery Place and the Columbus Coated Fabrics site might be difficult to develop, but the Underbelly and Whittier Peninsula are prime in-town riverfront locations! Has the automobile, the shopping mall and the McMansion so obliterated the sensibilities of our populace that prime territory – land that could be used for cohesive walkable neighborhoods or for recreation, or even for commercial and light industrial development – can simply be rendered invisible? Is the perpetual NASCAR rat race of the expressway and the blare and glare of the almighty flat screen all that’s left? The lawyer fellow mumbled something about “economic viability” but no one responded.

The hour was late and the tour winding down. We headed back to the OSU Urban Arts Space. Characteristically, there were no parting words of wisdom from our leader, or from anyone else for that matter. Some events defy glib summary. Then it was off to Dirty Frank’s, an artsy greasy spoon on Fourth Street near town – for hot dogs and beer (mine root) and some camaraderie and light conversation. An invigorating and thoughtful day. All in all a job well done by Professor Cowles and her students!

The Monuments of Columbus exhibit continues through Saturday, December 12, 2009, at the OSU Urban Arts Space, 50 W. Town St. Call (614) 292-8861 or visit

Greg Knepp is a Short North cyclist

© 2009 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. all rights reserved