Featured Stories

Dispatch From the Death Zone

Economic segregation in America’s heartland

Rachel Toliver
Aug 3, 2018 · 12 min read
Psst...there’s an audio version of this story. Upgrade to listen.

It’s Friday and I’m at the bar, feeling festive because my husband and I just closed on a house. I’d thought our house was on Siebert Street, in the Southside neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. But now I know it’s in the death zone.

At least this is what the acquaintance tells me. Oh, he says. We call it the death zone over there.

A person who feels good about saying you live in the death zone also feels good about explaining in more detail why you live in the death zone. There’s nothing but police helicopters and stabbings on that side of Parsons, he says. The East side of Parsons. The side where I just bought a house.

On that side, the acquaintance keeps saying, and he also keeps saying over there.

The acquaintance is an authority, not because he’s ever come to my neighborhood, but because he lives on the other side of Parsons Avenue. The good side. The side with a Chocolatier. The side with a Starbucks down the street from Stauf’s, but everyone knows Stauf’s is the real café, with its spilling roses, its beautiful brick courtyard. That side of Parsons is called German Village: peaked brick houses, tiers of flowers in the park, Birds of Paradise, frothy Hydrangea, Peonies flounced and ready for engagement-photo season.

Exactly half of my zip code is what the acquaintance would call here, and the other half is what the acquaintance would call over there. Between the imaginary country of here, and the even more imaginary country of over there, is a single street. Parsons Avenue itself is all oil-leak and grey itch of exhaust, auto-body shops and stilted trees. It’s a major North-South artery, a relentless migraine of traffic. Really though, the only thing that bothers me about Parsons is biking across it to get my groceries. Of course they don’t put grocery stores in death zones, so the Giant Eagle and the Kroger are on the other side of Parsons. There are hardly any stop lights, and no stop signs, making it difficult to get across. This is what puts the death in death zone, for me: riding my bike across Parsons on a Tuesday afternoon, picking up coffee, and one percent milk, and a loaf of day-old discount bread.

Welcome to the death zone.

Morning Glories throng front fences. Tribes of cats catch crickets. Sunflowers lean toward each other, hobnobbing, blooms weighted in the heat. Honeysuckle galaxies suspend in summer dark. Ceramic toads hunker on front porches. A particular lavender lily appears all on its own, even in front of a house that’s been empty for years.

It’s the quietest place I’ve ever lived.

Mostly, the Southside is a place where people are doing their best to live, in whatever way they can.

One day, I knock a lamp over with my bike. I’m running late and yelling obscenities. Suddenly my next-door neighbor’s face is pressed against my window. Are you OK? he asks. I heard the crash and came right over. The cats and I look up, chagrined, blinking. Yes, we’re fine. When my husband and I first started coming around, working on the house, this neighbor said I’ll look out for you. He’d been here for forever, lived his happiest years with his husband in the bright red house next to ours. He has family all up and down the block, and nothing bad has ever happened to us, or to our house.

Across the street another neighbor pets his cats, two fat tabbies, every night when he gets home from work. Their tails make sinuous infinity signs around his legs.

Mostly, the Southside is a place where people are doing their best to live, in whatever way they can. It’s ridiculous, to have to write that. To say that the Southside is a place where people are doing their best to live, and in that they’re basically humans, living in America, in the year 2018. If that case has to be made — the people over there are human — it’s because someone, somewhere, thinks the opposite.

According to city-data.com, on Siebert Street in German Village, approximately three blocks West of Parsons Avenue:

  • 96.4 percent of the population is white.
  • 3.6 percent of the population is multi-race.
  • Median household income is $85,536.
  • Median house or condo value is $319,200.
  • Unemployment is 3.58 percent.
  • 5.3 percent of the residents are below the poverty level.

On Siebert Street, on the Southside, approximately three blocks East of Parsons Avenue:

  • 71.7 percent of the population is white.
  • 26.4 percent of the population is black.
  • 1.9 percent of the population is multi-race.
  • Median household income is $29,167.
  • Median house or condo value is $52,000.
  • Unemployment is 20.1 percent.
  • 27 percent of the residents are below the poverty level.

It’s a heat-squinty day in early September. I’m knocking on Southside doors for Yes We Can: Columbus Working Families. Screen doors swing on their hinges, toward my question, which is, What do you want for your family and your neighborhood? There aren’t any algorithms telling me which houses to visit because the point is to hit all of them: each house, except for the abandoned ones. Up and down Stanley and Whittier, 17th and Ann, the last of high summer, here in the death zone.

One woman, inflating birthday balloons, greets me short of breath. Her house, shining yellow, distills down the day’s sun. She’s lived here, aside from a few years out in Pickerington, mostly all her life. Slate roof, lace curtains, upstairs windows without screens. Lavender gone to seed, bleached from the sun. Her eyeliner blurs the edges of her eyes into exhaustion; it is clear she doesn’t trust me. Candy-pink Geraniums, baby pool, Bless this Home.

She’s not sure what I’m selling: who am I trying to get her to vote for, again? When I tell her no, right now I’m just here to talk to her about what she thinks, she purses her lips, watching me, seeing if I’ll wait.

Dogs, she says at last. People have too many dogs, and they don’t mind them. They don’t even care when their dogs get loose. They don’t fix them and they breed like crazy.

Yes, there are dogs like that on my block too. They could bite a child, and they make such a racket, especially when the tornado siren goes off.

A death zone minute passes. Bees spiral in the garden across the street. A kid whirs past on a bike. We contemplate the dog problem.

And also the cops, the woman finally says. Once I was walking home and a man followed me down that alleyway, over there. I was coming from my brother’s house, across the way. The man kept following me. So when I got close to home I called the cops. They asked me why I was in the alley late at night. Was I a prostitute or something?

One of the balloons slips from her arms. I catch it before it blows off the porch. There’s not much for me to say. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry that happened to you.

It’s not just the acquaintance.

The attentive bartender nods a lot, swivel of auburn hair, chiffon blouse. We’ve crossed Parsons for this happy hour: the Sycamore, everything on the menu six dollars or less. The light is the color of bourbon, the metal tables just tarnished enough, the brick exposed. It’s not busy so the bartender’s talking to us about the neighborhood’s walkability score. Over there the neighborhood means the German Village side, the Sycamore side. She assumes and so we don’t disagree: yes, we do live in the neighborhood. Yes, we did ride our bikes to the Sycamore. No, we weren’t on a bike ride, we ride our bikes as transportation. It’s a decadent hot Thursday and we splurge for the grilled Ohio sweet corn, not on happy hour, with maple cayenne butter and watermelon salsa.

Do you know what’s up with those new Lime Bikes?, the bartender asks. We explain that they’re dockless, smart technology, seem exciting.

And, I say, they have this deal, if someone’s on public assistance it only costs five dollars for 100 rides. The bartender poses for a moment in her thinking.

That’s cool, she says. Then her dimples deepen. As long as those hillbillies on the other side don’t trash all of them. She rolls her eyes, upper-lid mascara grasping lower-lid. Ugh. Those hillbillies.

And a teacher, where I’m substituting at a school that’s so expensive I’m surprised they don’t call it an Academy. The spicy smell of box hedges pervades its courtyards. All its burnished doors, all its dusted wooden surfaces, citrus nip of furniture polish. Flagstones, porcelain dining hall plates. In the kitchen, something I’ve never seen in any school: multiple cases of high-end Malbec. The teacher’s handing me some paperwork, roll sheets. The paperwork and roll sheet conversation is, what are you doing this summer? My husband and I just bought a house on the Southside, I say. So I’m going to be refinishing the floors.

Her mouth is a zero in the zero of her face. Do you feel safe there? she asks. This is in the library, where the light is geometrical. She’s wearing shoes that I admire, well-made Swedish sort of shoes, and I want to ask her does she feel safe in her neighborhood? The other option is playing dumb, and so that’s what I do.

Why do you ask? I say.

Because she has friends in German Village, and their garages are always — always — getting broken into. It’s people from that side, she says. One couple had just bought a brand-new lawnmower, Memorial Day special, and then two days later it’s gone. They only got to use it once — one time — and I don’t even know how to play dumb anymore, I just say I have to use the restroom, and where is it again, these bright hallways and terraces all look the same to me.

I meet the volunteer on our side of Parsons, both of us eating grease-eddied pizza, learning about how we can make an impact here. I say I live on Siebert and she says who knows, we might be neighbors? She usually travels during the summer, she says in her intro, but she’s been sticking closer to town this year. I live between Ann and 17th, I say. Her smile loses its elastic. She’s not hostile, just genuinely confused. Between where and where? Oh, she says, figuring it out. On the other side. Clearly we’re not neighbors.

Something in me wants to say, Actually, you live on the other side. We’re sitting there in nonprofit folding chairs, under nonprofit Florescent lights, on my side of Parsons. Why am I getting so technical, parsing her gestures, finding fault where there’s probably just habit? Why should I expect her personal map to include the streets on my side, and how would she know the order of the streets — Parsons/Wager/Ann/17th — that I always check off as I’m biking back home? And what’s the big difference anyway, between saying the other side and saying this side? It’s not like she called it the death zone, and, besides, she’s so eager to volunteer over here, she really wants to make a difference.

No physical geography distinguishes one side of Parsons from the other. You’d think our side has a historic pestilence, infestations of wasps, rat colonies, strange pupae throbbing underground. You’d think of sinkholes, sloughing earth. A bad damp that settles into woodwork and wool cardigans. The death zone. You picture radioactive deserts, skin peeling in slow petals, desiccation spreading from the spine on out.

Of course Parsons is an imaginary line, dividing one imaginary domain from another, equally imaginary. There’s the Craigslist ad — Affordable German Village apartment! Great light, spacious rooms, and the word sketchy is dropped twice. The only sketchy thing about the apartment, the author admits, is that it’s a block and a half from Parsons. And there’s a laundromat around the corner, but it’s on Parsons so it’s sketchy. The apartment itself is nice, though, the author promises: despite all that.

The word sketchy is its own geography, and it might be an imaginary geography, entirely unempirical, impossible to measure, but still. Imaginary and powerful aren’t contradictory. After all, this is America. Imagined versions of places tend to matter. And the same goes, of course, for the imagined versions of the people who live in those places. Parsons is an imagined boundary, and by imagined boundary I mean it determines everything about reality. This discourse of here and over there: these are the only maps we have. The death zone is over there, and obviously you don’t live over there, and you need that division, because it gives you a clear idea of who you are: you’re someone who doesn’t live in the death zone. You have a job and you go to it, then you go to the bar after work, then you come home and watch something on Amazon Prime.

Parsons Avenue is a line. This is a metaphor and it’s also a historical fact. Lines like Parsons run all across our country, and if this seems like an unoriginal way of seeing things that’s because I’m describing a series of literal lines, drawn on federal maps. I’m talking about the various territories that can be found on the “‘Residential Security’ maps of major American cities, including Columbus,” according to a feature in Columbus Alive. The lines that were drawn in 1936 by the Homeowner’s Loan Corporation, a federal agency. Our national racist imagination, rendered in bright color, and those colors rendered into policy.

The here and the over there, in those Residential Security maps, looked like this (from the same Columbus Alive story):

“The map’s shaded neighborhoods in one of four colors to indicate their grade; green was ‘best,’ blue was ‘still desirable,’ yellow was ‘definitely declining,’ and red was ‘hazardous.’ Citizens living in red areas, which were almost always populated by African-Americans and immigrant communities, found themselves ‘redlined’ by banks and other lending institutions.”

If the death zone has a particular feature, it’s this: that it was flagged yellow — declining for Mortgage, the second-lowest category. A literal color-code for Other. And now, 82 years after that designation, for its terrain of race and class, imaginary might as well be a naturally occurring condition.

I’ve been to that sketchy laundromat. It’s called Clean Machine, and the walls are covered with floppy signs, glue-on letters on poster board, signs that remind me of my childhood church basements: IF IT SAYS AREA CLOSED AREA IS CLOSED / NO ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION IN AROUND LAUNDROMAT IN AROUND PARKING LOT IF VIOLATED COPS WILL BE CALLED / CUSTOMERS RESPONSIBLE FOR CHECK FOR GUM IN DRIERS. Ammonia, tables in 1970s olive and starry Formica, oscillating metal fans. The Clean Machine is startlingly pristine, the cleanest laundromat I’ve ever been to, and its other defining feature is that lots of black people use it.

From Columbus Alive: “‘There’s a modern, 21st-century version of redlining that has a devastating impact on the South Side of Columbus,’ said Rev. John Edgar, pastor of the United Methodist Church for All People and head of Community Development for All People. ‘I don’t know what color ink they’re using. I’m not saying it’s a red line. But the appraisal industry draws lines….When it was built, no one was thinking there was any meaningful difference between what was built in [German Village] and what was being built in Southern Orchards.’”

No one was thinking there was any meaningful difference, until they started thinking there was a meaningful difference. In 1936, German Village was declining for Mortgage too. Populations shifted, black families and communities were displaced, forced south by insatiable highways — those highways that take people to Target or the AMC, to Zanesville or Toledo, ushering drivers safely through neighborhoods that they’d never ever set a foot in.

German Village was reimagined as quaint, as — well — European. But there was a limit to that imagination, and that limit was Parsons Avenue. And with that limit the death zone was established, traced in the city’s consciousness, overlaid onto the map of Columbus, Ohio. It wasn’t stained red, but it might as well have been.

I know it was just a casual conversation, but there’s something about the acquaintance, about the death zone, that lingers. The acquaintance is not a stranger; he’s in my social circles, and by some definition, he’s a liberal. He doesn’t care for Trump at least. I call him the acquaintance, but I know him well enough to exclude any identifying details here.

Because ultimately this is the American condition: this utter glut of imagination, paired with utter scarcity.

The death zone: houses with gracious porches, so old that the deeds don’t have a date and just say “old.” When the acquaintance was telling me about my neighborhood I wanted to laugh in his face, and maybe I should’ve. I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. It sounded like a video game — the lurching criminal bodies, rapacious jaws mid-drool. Mindless hack and flail, every bullet hole rendered in high-def.

I realize that his vision wasn’t really that unusual. Sure it’s amazing: how one person can be so full of imagination, and at the same time lack any imagination at all. But it’s also not amazing. Maybe that exchange — congrats, you’re moving into the death zone! — just felt familiar. Because ultimately this is the American condition: this utter glut of imagination, paired with utter scarcity. Because we live in a country designed and perpetuated by people like him. Because Parsons Avenue runs across our whole country, because our entire nation is a cross-hatch of red lines.

And because Parsons Avenue runs relentless through our minds, through our national imagination. Instinctive, insatiable. And forever speeding toward the future.


1.1K claps
Rachel Toliver

Written by

Thinking about cities, cats, public and domestic spaces. New Republic/ Brevity/ TriQuarterly/ American Literary Review. https://www.racheltoliver.com

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight.
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox.
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month.