Why all the Cool Kids Love Columbus, Ohio
This blog was originally featured on National Geographic by Andrew Nelson.
If you think Ohio’s a flyover state, its hip capital city might change your mind. Find out what makes Columbus a city to watch—and visit.
Pity the wandering hipster. There are so few frontiers left to explore, at least in the United States. Brooklyn’s too rich. Portland’s overly Instagrammed—with New Orleans and Oakland headed that way—and Austin’s not so weird anymore.
So which up-and-coming American city can now lay claim to the millennial mantle?
I say it’s Columbus, Ohio.
The Buckeye State’s capital—affordable, bustling, and young, with a big chunk of its population squarely under 40—is seeing an uptick in interest as a destination for the nation’s hipster elite, whether it’s to live or explore over a long weekend.
For some locals, like Jim Kaniaris (a vice president at Express, which is based in Columbus), the city is the clear winner when stacked against its local competition.
“Cincinnati’s too southern,” Kaniaris explains. “Cleveland? Sure, they’ve got ethnic pockets—Little Mexico, Little Italy, even a Little Macedonia. But Columbus? We have lifestyle pockets.”
And even though Columbus earns its nickname of the Biggest Small Town in America (“Everyone’s friendly here,” says Travis Samson, owner of hip men’s store Samson. “It’s like living and working on Sesame Street.”), it also gives the nation’s biggest cities a run for their money in a few key areas.
After New York and Los Angeles, Columbus is home to more fashion designers than any other U.S. metropolis. In addition to being the center of operations for Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret, the city boasts a farm-to-fashion ecosystem that feeds off a steady stream of fresh talent from its renowned Columbus College of Art & Design. They even mix fashion and design with music at one of the world’s coolest festivals – Fashion Meets Music Festival.
If the runway’s not hip enough, consider Columbus’s graphic art cred.
New Yorker cartoonist James Thurber grew up here and the city pays him proper credit in the form of local watering hole Thurber’s Bar located in The Westin Columbus and the Thurber House, a literary center and museum located in the home the creative icon shared with his family while a student at Ohio State. And the relatively new Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC)—a fitting continuation of Thurber’s legacy—is fast becoming the SXSW for graphic artists.
To complete the picture, here are five more ways this Ohio mainstay is having its moment in the millennial sun:
1. It’s hitting the mark with makers.
Columbus has more than its fair share of butchers, bakers, and aspiring candlestick makers, many of whom are setting up shop on Gay Street downtown or just off High Street, a crowded and prospering retail corridor in the city’s Near North neighborhood.
“It’s so easy to network and share ideas,” says West Virginia native Robert Grimmett, founder of Robert Mason, a boutique company offering bespoke stationery and office supplies. “I’ve fallen in love with Columbus.”
At Stump, a “curated” plant store in Columbus’ Italian Village neighborhood, the succulents and handcrafted flower pots are pushed aside for a pop-up Sunday brunch where you’ll find the usual hipster array of beards, tattoos, and piercings, alongside lip-smacking pastries made with care by Andrew Worth and small-batch, cold-brew coffee from Lokal.
The city is also home to the Columbus Idea Foundry, a sort of tinkerers’ paradise located in the historic Franklinton neighborhood. It’s crammed with 3-D printers, robot manufacturers, metal cutters, a few steampunks, and Alex Bandar, its founder and president.
“I think Columbus is the smartest city on the planet,” Bandar declares as he harnesses pure electricity to burn patterns into a piece of wood shaped like Ohio. (It’s like watching Dr. Frankenstein shock a cheese board.) “We’re empowering central Ohio technologists.”
And regular Joes and Janes, for that matter. Anyone can visit the newly remodeled three-story factory space and enroll in classes in welding, woodworking, entrepreneurship, and other empowering subjects (or become a member for $35 a month).
2. There’s lots and lots of craft beer.
Microbreweries have built up quite a head in Columbus over the past few years.
The city counts dozens of craft beer pubs, as well as several local breweries—with Land-Grant, Barley’s, and Four String Brewing among the best—within its limits.
Meanwhile Columbus distilleries Watershed, Middle West Spirits, and Brothers Drake Meadery are becoming producers of choice in the city’s cocktail bars as mixologists turn ordinary ingredients such as herbs, bitters, and even ice cubes into objects of veneration.
3. The arts are taking over the town.
The energy emanating from institutions such as the Columbus Museum of Art, the Wexner Center, and the Pizzuti Collection make the city a magnet for those who like to ride the cutting edge of contemporary art.
Indeed, the Columbus Museum of Art is redefining the gallery-gazing experience with a bold new $38-million modernist wing that opened in 2015 and hands-on programming—including Think Like an Artist Thursdays—that encourage visitors to engage with local artists.
At the Pizzuti, housed in a stately insurance building in the Short North Arts District, modern art from the collection of construction baron Ron Pizzuti is on impressive display.
What’s more, the philanthropic entrepreneur teamed up with his son, Joel, to bring an adjoining 135-room luxury hotel to fruition. The Joseph is dressed to the nines in world-class art—much of it produced by homegrown creatives.
4. There’s a bevy of retro barbershops.
A whiff of Williamsburg is the Old Familiar Barbership in the Old Towne East neighborhood, where the women recall Bettie Page and the guys reflect the personal style of affable 35-year-old owner Kenji Prince—dapper and inked. (Though few sport tattoos on their chins as Prince does. Permanently affixed there, the words “Tip Your Barber” offer a a subtle if permanent reminder for his upward-gazing customers.)
The store itself looks half VFW Lodge, with deer heads mounted on the walls, and half hip haberdashery, furnished with toiletries from Cliff Original, a collection of top-shelf natural grooming products concocted by native Columbian Jared Friesner.
“This is a low-stress job,” Prince says as he delivers a high-and-tight cut to a fashionable young man seated in one of the barbershop’s four chairs as the black rotary phone rings away. “Barbers don’t retire,” he adds. “They just die.”
5. Columbus brews up the best.
The city hosts a notable collection of cafés where the slow-drip coffee is accompanied by inventive eats.
Run by serious foodies, pour-over palaces—from Fox in the Snow (try the cinnamon-sugar cobblestone muffin) in the city’s Italian Village neighborhood to German Village’s Pistacia Vera (macarons are the tour de force here)—are celebrated for delectable goodies that could cause even the most gluten-averse among us to stray.
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