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Photo by Michael Ware

The Changing Face of High Street

Clay Lowe first set out to tell the story of Columbus’s High Street corridor for WOSU-TV in 1972. He arrived fresh from the bucolic Georgia countryside to begin his teaching position with Ohio State’s now-defunct Department of Photography and Cinema, and he wanted to experiment with street photography. Lowe gathered four colleagues and friends from WOSU and spent a year and a half shooting the life and livelihood along the developing thoroughfare.

He quickly fell in love with the city’s great connector as he and his team traveled from the agricultural area south of town all the way past the Josephinum in the rural north. High Street was a farm-to-market road at the time, filled with fruit and vegetable stands and farmers on the outskirts of the city. There were white picket fences and manicured lawns around Scioto Downs, and the downtown district near Lazarus was a vibrant hodgepodge teeming with all walks of life. The photographers bonded with the people of the Short North, who were mostly poor and struggling in the pre-revitalization era, and they saw hippie culture displayed across campus. In 1974, WOSU released the mixture of film clips and still photography as a 29-minute documentary, High Street.

Then Lowe’s former student Mary Rathke, a producer with WOSU-TV, had the inspiration to update the film in the form of a photographic exhibit for its 40th anniversary. With Rathke serving as a photographer and the project’s associate producer, Lowe tapped 23 other visual artists – many of whom are Lowe’s former students, or current students and faculty at OSU and Columbus State – and the group staked out a similar path along High Street from Renick’s Family Farm in Ashville to East Wilson Bridge Road in Worthington. They spent more than a year recapturing the thoroughfare’s residents and landscape, all of which will be on display via approximately 125 photos in 25 on High: A Photographic Journey at OSU’s Urban Arts Space from September 20 through November 8.
But what these documentarians discovered was starkly different than what Lowe remembered; his assigned section of the journey was downtown.

“It has been dreadfully bereft of people doing the things like they did when Lazarus was there,” said Lowe, now an associate professor emeritus with OSU’s theater department. “There was community downtown on High Street at that time.”

The farm-to-market route is dead, he reported, because there are bigger corporate farms now. The South Side is glutted with fast food joints; the Short North is gentrified; and campus has fewer students around, replaced by massive redevelopment and far more homeless people.
“What I’ve seen now is a vast change in how we treat private and public space. That’s the issue: Who controls the space of the street that I live on?” he said. “Why is there so much commercialization in the South Side? Why do things settle down when you get through German Village?”

Even the Statehouse, which used to host midday symphony concerts on the lawn, is encircled by a spiked fence. Worthington was the only area that appeared to be mostly controlled by residents during the 40-year span. Though these personal observations intrigue him, Lowe is less concerned with artistic merit and political implications than the distinctly human element on display.
“Forget all our political stuff and think about these people that you’re looking at that we were out in the street with. That to me is the heart of it,” he said. “Public space, private space, human beings – what do we want out of life? Who are we?”

The exhibition will host an opening reception on September 25 at Urban Arts Space, 50 W Town St., Suite 130, and people are encouraged to use the #25onHigh hashtag on Instagram to submit their photos of High Street for streaming in the gallery. There will be three special presentations during the exhibition’s run – on literature inspired by High Street, homelessness, and street photography. For more info, visit www.uas.osu.edu/exhibitions.