In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act into law, authorizing one of the largest public works programs in the nation’s history: the construction of interstate highways. The program changed the national landscape and fueled the development of the cities on its routes, though often by demolishing or dividing minority and marginalized communities along the way. In Columbus, I-71 split the thriving Black commercial area of Mt. Vernon Avenue, and though the area has since been targeted for revitalization, much of its history remains buried under the asphalt — including one of the most legendary venues of Columbus’ Black arts scene.
While the Snaps & Taps Lounge was founded decades after the highway’s construction and eventually moved downtown, it started as a series of arts-centered parties on Mt. Vernon Avenue in 1998 and would face the same marginalization until the institution’s demise in 2004. In its short life, however, the lounge became a formative haven and creative space for the city’s Black artists, providing the city’s first venue for slam poetry and bringing national recognition to the city’s writing scene.
“It was the cultural hub for Black Columbus, and especially young Black Columbus.” Mark Lomax, Columbus native, composer, drummer, activist and educator, said.
And like many businesses serving Black communities, it struggled to balance community support with the neglect of citywide media and resources, and eventually faced demolition. Today, a Google search of its name yields little more than an image of the parking lot where it once stood; meager evidence of its existence remains, physical or online. Despite a lack of documentation, its legacy continues on through Columbus arts spaces and programs inspired by the venue and its attendees.
The foundation of Snaps & Taps was built thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, where Mt. Vernon Avenue native and eventual founder Todd Tuney worked to help touring visual artists sell and display their pieces at galleries.
“It was cool — a little wine, a little cheese, soft jazz, maybe a little uneventful,” Tuney said. “So I thought, why not get a room, get a live band, hang up the artwork, and sell it at the clubs instead?”
The concept took a test run at the Hollywood Live lounge, where it not only sold art, but drew a crowd — enough that the venue owners decided they no longer needed Tuney to run it. Around the same time, his father suffered a stroke, and he decided it was time to return to Columbus.
But upon his return, Tuney found himself dissatisfied with both the local clubs and the lack of diversity at the city’s art galleries.
“There weren’t Black artists in the galleries, and when there were, they weren’t local,” Tuney said. “It felt like there was no avenue for them.”
In response, Tuney founded Krewe Productions, named for the organizers of Mardi Gras parades, with a group of friends in 1998. Beyond birthing the catchy pseudonym “Todd and the Krewe,” the name pointed to the often-forgotten racial history of the carnivals; it was not until 1992 that krewes were desegregated by the city of New Orleans. In Columbus, Tuney aimed to combat a similar whitewashing of the city’s arts spaces.
After founding Krewe, Todd and friends then began hosting parties on Mt. Vernon Avenue, where his father had owned a series of businesses. Like Hollywood Live, the parties featured a mashup of live bands, DJs, poetry readings and art shows.
“We packed the house, Thursday to Saturday, every week,” Tuney said. However, it was short lived. Later that year, when a nearby business complained to the Mt. Vernon Business Association, Krewe Productions was forced to move downtown into 44. S Washington Avenue — previously playwright James Chapman’s Black Box Theatre — where they changed the venue’s name to Snaps & Taps.
“Snaps & Taps is short for finger snaps and toe taps,” Tuney explained. “That’s the kind of feeling we were trying to evoke.”
With a more permanent space to operate in, Todd and Krewe quickly went about reaching out to local bands, poets and visual artists to fill nightly performance slots and monthly exhibitions.
“The artists were already there,” Tuney said. “We were just helping them get their work out there.”
To host the weekly poetry nights, Krewe initially sought out poet and mentor Charles “Is Said” Lyons, “the godfather of poetry in Columbus,” in the words of Barbara Fant, who has competed in National (NPS) and World (iWPS) Poetry Slams. Is Said declined, but recommended Vernell Bristow, who he knew from the open mics she had hosted at Ohio State University’s Frank Hale Black Cultural Center. Bristow, who now emcees the Columbus City Schools’ District Poetry Slam, then reached out to friend and fellow poet Scott Woods, and the duo began running the weekly poetry nights.
The novelty of the venue — which kept the hours and aesthetic of a traditional lounge, but operated more like a gallery and did not serve alcohol — made it an incubator for creatives with few other places to showcase their work.
“Snaps & Taps was pretty much the only space that working Black artists of all types could book,” Woods, also former president of Poetry Slam Inc., the global nonprofit that ran NPS and iWPS before ceasing operations in 2018, said. “Everybody had to go there.”
It not only drew a diverse crowd, but also kindled collaboration and community within a still-budding arts scene.
“It felt like a movement,” Bristow said. “College students, community members, professionals, writers, musicians, painters—all of these young, Black artists starting to talk to each other, starting to plan joint projects, because they were all converging on this one place.”
“A lot of us were cutting our teeth at Snaps & Taps,” Lomax, whose work has been honored through a residency with the Wexner Center for the Arts and a resolution from Columbus’ City Council, said. Lomax performed on Saturday nights — Jazz Night at Snaps & Taps — with his six-piece band Blacklisted.
“With so many people pushing, and even pushing to the point of failure, it became an experimental space where I felt I could try things I might not otherwise,” Lomax said.
The experimental nature of Snaps & Taps was also preserved through the support of its community.
“You had people who cared about you giving you feedback, and so failure didn’t feel like a setback,” Lomax explained. “It felt how it should feel, which is like a learning experience.”
Through this uplifting environment, Lomax found not only creative growth, but dear friends and even his wife of 22 years.
“That didn’t mean you didn’t get dogged,” Lomax added with a laugh. “On Wednesday nights it was like the Apollo. On Saturdays people might start to leave while you’re still playing. But there was love, and those experiences taught me how to engage with my audience as an artist.”
Poet and educator Sidney Jones Jr. had just moved to the city when he started attending Snaps & Taps in 1999, also drawn in by the lively nature of the open mics and the company he found gathered before the stage on Wednesday nights.
“I felt like I had to bring a new poem every week,” Jones explained. “There would be cats coming in from Cleveland, Dayton [and] Cincinnati, trying to represent and do their thing, and so then everyone else wanted to respond. There was a good sense of competition, and I found friends there.”
Snaps & Taps also paved the way for Columbus’ next generation of slam poets. At the time Jones was attending open mics at Snaps & Taps, he was also teaching at North Education Center, and began incorporating creative writing exercises in the high school’s dropout prevention program.
“We had a lot of freedom teaching at that school,” he said. “The things I was seeing at Snaps & Taps helped me take those creative leaps to get those students to be successful.”
In 2006, as North was closing, Jones moved to teaching at Columbus Alternative High School, where he was approached to run the school’s poetry slam program.
The Columbus City Schools (CCS) District Slam was spearheaded by Eastmoor teacher Wyk McGowan, with inspiration from the documentary “Louder than a Bomb,” named after Chicago’s youth poetry slam. McGowan was also involved in slam through the Writing Wrongs open mic in Columbus hosted by Will Evans, who had first seen poetry performed live at Snaps & Taps.
“Snaps & Taps was my introduction to this world of performance poetry,” Evans said. “So as an audience member just walking in for the first time, what struck me was how raw it felt, this overwhelmingly Black space where people were being creative.”
After Snaps & Taps, Evans began reading at the Black Pearl open mic, founded by iWPS Champion and Snaps & Taps veteran Ed Mabrey, and quickly found himself diving into the world of poetry slam. At the open mics, he was approached about joining a slam team, and after a couple outings to NPS and Mabrey’s departure to Arizona, he resolved to lead one, founding Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam in 2009.
“At Nationals there were certain cities where it was like, you know Detroit’s gonna have a really good team.” Evans explains. “Look out for Chicago, they’re in the next bout. I wanted Columbus to have that reputation, because I knew we had a lot of good poets.” In 2011, he succeeded, sending the first and only Columbus poetry team to the NPS finals.
Beyond poetry slam, the legacy of Snaps & Taps can be traced through Columbus’ burgeoning spread of open mics, arts galleries and community-facing organizations. When the business closed its doors in the early 2000s due to financial issues, some of its patrons sought to recreate their experiences in spaces of their own.
“Everyone had a sense of what was possible,” Scott Woods said. Woods credits his experiences at Snaps & Taps for informing the creation of Streetlight Guild, the arts organization and gallery space he founded and dedicated to uplifting marginalized voices in the city.
“Snaps & Taps showed us you could have a space and fill it with Black people, on occasion, and so then a lot of people who were regulars at Snaps & Taps started to move as independent operators, and become known not just as artists, but as artist-organizers,” Woods said.
“The network of those artists is still there,” Bristow echoed. She and Woods still host open mics on Wednesday evenings under the name Writer’s Block, inspired by a temporary location near the Franklin County Courthouse after Snaps & Taps’ closing.
Marshall Shorts, another regular at Snaps & Taps, would become a founding member of Columbus’ Maroon Arts Group, dedicated to the “cultivation, celebration, and promotion of Black culture.” The organization created the Movement Pursuing Arts, Commerce, and Community (MPACC) Boxpark, a community arts space on Mt. Vernon Ave, and recently purchased the Pythian Temple — previously listed on Columbus Landmarks’ Endangered Sites — in the King Lincoln/Bronzeville area.
Although Columbus’ arts scene blossomed from the community which gathered at Snaps & Taps, some of the issues that the lounge faced continue to challenge its successors.
Even as visibility for Black artists has increased in recent years, it has not always translated into leverage for their agency and independence. Snaps & Taps reckoned with this issue on both fronts. As a for-profit business in a rented location, it provided the otherwise unavailable creative space for the community it served, but was subject to soaring rent prices and was ineligible for funding dedicated to nonprofit arts organizations.
In the absence of grants or investors, Snaps & Taps’ cashflow was dependent on turnout, and although the venue’s programming covered everything from stand-up to blues bands, many of its shows played out to empty rooms.
“It’s still hard for me to admit, but it wasn’t a viable business model,” Tuney said. “We only charged a $5 cover, and we split that with the artists we were booking. We never made any money, and so when it came time to renew the lease, I had to call it.”
“It’s not enough to have the art; you also need the audience,” Woods explained. “They need to appreciate it, and getting a group of people to do that takes a long, long time.”
Part of that process is celebrating Columbus’ arts history, even at sites that are undervalued, demolished or paved over. The opening of Snaps & Taps marked the starting point of several major creative endeavors in the city, shaping the careers and lives of the artists and educators that have built its national reputation and preserved its unique culture.
“In a perfect world, Snaps & Taps would be a museum,” Jones said. “Instead, it’s a parking lot.”
Todd Tuney would like to acknowledge all the Snaps & Taps contributors, including: Kevin Dodley, partners; Scott Green, partners; Kim Hall, Esq.; Carmen Banks; Daryl Gentry; Ismahan “Izzy” Youssouff; Kojo (Photographer); Ricardo Davenport; and Charles Cooper and the Charles Cooper Quartet