Before beginning this journey, I didn’t realize how often I’d be traversing time, as well as space. Like a sci-fi sojourner crossing dimensions, I’ve found myself in places I didn’t recognize, not just because of unfamiliar terrain, but because it felt like I had landed in another era.
There was the time warp in 1960s Las Vegas and, in Santa Catalina, Panama, two timelines for the future: one of rapid development, another of peaceful seclusion. But nowhere has the demarcation between past and future been as clear to me as it was in Columbus, Ohio, a city obsessed with its future, and in Williamsburg, Va., a place dedicated to its past, even as it reassesses it.
No looking back
Admittedly, Columbus had long been a blank spot in my understanding of the country. Not so for my Instagram followers. I had more people send direct messages to me about Columbus — things to do, favorite restaurants, offers to act as tour guides — than any other place so far.
The capital of Ohio, one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, lives largely in the future tense: There’s a palpable energy when walking through yuppie-centric Short North, drinking with strangers around a bonfire in the still-bohemian Olde Towne East, or strolling along the new riverfront. Unlike many former industrial hubs in the Midwest, Columbus feels like a city on the move.
I sensed that when I got a preview of what an old friend described as a “crazy art thing coming to the city.” Opening in April in a 32,000-square-foot warehouse on the outskirts of town, Otherworld will be an immersive experience that combines storytelling, interactive art and escape rooms. Jordan Renda, a 26-year-old Ohio State graduate and the founder and creative director of Otherworld, gave me a tour of the space, which is in its finishing stages. As I made my way from room to room, things got stranger and stranger — there’s a fuzzy monster you can climb into, vertical LED lamps that respond to movement, and stations where you can alter the experiences of other guests. More than 40 artists have helped create installations in 47 different rooms.
“I figured this is the perfect spot to bring something brand-new like this,” Renda said. “There are so many young people gravitating toward this city right now, not just because of the university, but because of big tech companies moving in.”
It felt like the future walking through those tripped-out halls, and it wasn’t just the science-fiction theme — it was the excitement emanating from Renda and others in the city. I wanted to know how Columbus got where it is today, with bold art projects, new breweries and millions of dollars being poured into a “smart cities” initiative that aims to revolutionize mobility through self-driving cars and electric transportation.
I arranged a meeting with Cameron Mitchell, a local who worked his way up the restaurant business to where he is now: running Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, a 25-year-old empire that includes 37 restaurants in the United States, with a concentration in the Columbus area. In his plush office in the Arena District, over a bottle of chardonnay, he explained how he got where he is today.
In the early 1990s, Mitchell said, Columbus “was a total meat and potatoes town. Downtown cores were dying, people were moving out to the suburbs and becoming landlocked — they weren’t coming into the city for dinner.”
Restaurants and bars — including Mitchell’s — were a driving force in the redevelopment of the city center. Like all stories involving gentrification, it’s a double-edged sword. High Street, the backbone of the Short North neighborhood where Mitchell has five outposts, underwent a familiar urban evolution — from derelict to artsy to what it is now, a shiny strip of shops, cafes and trendy places to eat.
Of course, stories of urban development are never quite as neat as the “all boats rise” narrative Mitchell presented. Orange construction cones are ubiquitous around the city, and new apartment buildings are aimed at 20-somethings working at biotech companies. But I also heard about community organizers and city planners preserving diversity through mixed-income housing.
When it comes to food in Columbus, which is the home of Ohio State University, it’s no surprise that young people are leading the way. I had a very good, if not exactly revelatory, spaghetti carbonara at Mitchell’s Marcella’s, and a meticulously prepared cocktail at another of his establishments, The Pearl, down the street.
But the best meals I had were prepared by young upstart chefs. At Ambrose and Eve, Matthew Heaggans and Catie Randazzo serve comfort food inspired by family recipes (the restaurant is named after Randazzo’s grandparents). At Service Bar, Avishar Barua offers cheeky takes on everything from the Taco Bell Cheesy Gordita Crunch (replace the tortillas with Bengali fry bread and throw some brisket in) to Caesar salad (deconstructed to a single, loaded lettuce wedge).
I was impressed with both those meals. But Mitchell told me he’d still give the Columbus food scene 2-1/2 stars out of five, not because it’s mediocre, but because he sees so much potential.
“I’m not trying to downplay what we do have,” he told me. “But I have aspirations for the city to go to a whole other level.”
Other spots I loved in Columbus
>> The Book Loft, in the achingly cute neighborhood of German Village, is a national treasure. Its 32 rooms of books, each with different music creating a genre-specific soundtrack, can eat up a whole day. It took all my willpower not to fill every available inch of my suitcase with new books.
>> I spent a glorious afternoon at the Franklin Park Conservatory, where visitors can walk through climate-controlled rooms highlighting the flora of various environments. It’s home to a large permanent collection of glass pieces by Dale Chihuly, adding an element of the surreal to the experience.
>> The new National Veterans Memorial and Museum is an arrestingly beautiful building, a spiral that seems to spring from the ground. The thoughtfully curated exhibits take you into the lives of veterans from every major war the United States has been involved in, starting with the Revolutionary War. Its design facilitates reflection, even more than education.
More than costumes
When I mentioned that Colonial Williamsburg was one of the places I’d be visiting, the reaction I got from friends who grew up on the East Coast was somewhere between a smirk and an eye roll. It was a place, I gathered, that they associated with school field trips, at an age when anyone dressed in breeches and a tricorn hat was straight-up embarrassing. Well, I didn’t grow up in the United States, and Williamsburg was new to me. I ate it up.
I was giddy with excitement when a woman dressed in a bonnet and apron said, “Good day to you!” as I walked by, and when a stern man in Yorktown demonstrated the loading and firing of a musket with all the gravitas of an 18th-century infantryman. I could hardly blink during the portrayal of Colonial-era citizens put on by actor-interpreters, the cast members who make Colonial Williamsburg a living history museum.
Most of all, I was inspired to find that in the Historic Triangle (Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown), history isn’t dead — it is evolving as these places face painful stories about the past and make an effort to unveil the nation builders that didn’t make it into (because they didn’t write) the history books.
This year marks 400 years since the first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, Va. Just three weeks after that, the governor, his council and 22 elected representatives convened the first General Assembly, laying the foundation for a democratic, independent United States. Visiting the Historic Triangle now makes one understand why it’s impossible to pry those two narratives apart.
Williamsburg is also commemorating 40 years of African-American interpretation — it wasn’t until 1979 that Colonial Williamsburg started including stories of black residents. An exhibition at the Raleigh Tavern, “Revealing the Priceless,” includes a video, shown to the public for the first time, of the controversy that unfolded in 1994 when Colonial Williamsburg re-enacted a slave auction, drawing criticism from groups like the NAACP for what some regarded as trivializing.
I saw one African-American interpretation. “My Story; My Voice,” is the heart-wrenching tale of Betty, a woman who was enslaved by a wealthy family in Williamsburg. Put together from the fragments of documents that remain, the one-woman show charts Betty’s childhood, including the moment her mother is sold to another family and, later, Betty’s transfer to the family plantation. Records show, the actor-interpreter Margarette Joyner told the audience, that by the time she was 50, Betty was listed as “worthless.”
Stephen Seals is the program development manager for the 40th-anniversary commemoration and also an actor who interprets the life of James Lafayette, a slave who worked as a spy under the Marquis de Lafayette during the Revolutionary War.
“You have to be willing, when you’re acting, to allow someone to treat you as if your humanity is not there,” Seals said. “And that’s really hard, because as a black man in 21st-century America, I already have to worry about that walking down the street.”
The educational component of what Seals and his colleagues do undercuts the idea of Colonial Williamsburg as a quaint, whitewashed portrayal of a young United States.
“The goal is to tell all these stories in a way that they become as much a part of the American character as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington or Patrick Henry,” Seals said. “These are stories that people need to see as American stories” — stories, he added, “that we can be proud of.”
Seven miles down the tree-lined Colonial Parkway, another team is shedding harsh light on that history. At Historic Jamestown, the site of the 1607 James Fort and the settlement of Jamestown, I spent my final afternoon in the Triangle with David Givens, director of archaeology for the Jamestown Rediscovery Program. He wanted to show me something.
“Here, we have the alpha and the omega of enslavement in North America,” Givens said, pointing at some tall brick walls and, next to them, an archaeological site where two women in dusty galoshes pored over clipboards.
The walls are what remain of one of the last plantation houses on the island. When the Union army came through in 1862, they freed the slaves and told them to live in their former masters’ homes. The adjacent archaeological site is where the home of Capt. William Pierce once stood — and where Angela, the first documented enslaved African, landed in North America.
During this anniversary year, Givens and his team are trying to uncover pieces of Angela’s life. “We’re starting to ask hard questions of the past, and projects like this are where the American public actually want to be.”
Flipping history on its head through archaeology seems to appeal to Givens. At the Archaearium, an on-site archaeology museum, instead of an exhibition on Pocahontas, there’s one on the world of Pocahontas that uses archaeological evidence to show the sophistication of the societies that existed here before the arrival of British colonists.
“We study the past, but we don’t have to suffer from the past,” Givens said. “It’s upsetting for some people to not see Jamestown as just John Smith and Pocahontas — that it also potentially shows the beginnings of enslavement in our country. “
The sun was just beginning to set over the James River and a chill was setting in. Here in the Historic Triangle, I had learned more about early American history in four days than I had in 30 years.
Other spots I loved in Williamsburg
>> The reimagined American Revolution Museum at Yorktown does a wonderful job of delving into the political intrigue, brutal battles and larger-than-life figures of the American Revolution. The highlight is a theater that puts you on the battlefield with surround-sound musket fire and smoke machines.
>> Black and Native American experiences aren’t the only narratives being given more attention these days. The small, but illuminating “Tenacity” exhibition at the Jamestown Settlement dives into the untold stories of the women of the early Colonies and includes many artifacts from the early 17th century.
>> Williamsburg isn’t exactly a destination for foodies: Options are dominated by chain restaurants and a baffling density of pancake houses. But I had a great meal of Thai-style mussels and roasted Brussels sprouts at Amber Ox Public House, the rare kind of microbrewery where the food menu is as enticing as the draft list.