Columbus, Ohio USA
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Andy Klein spells it out
By Jennifer Hambrick
©Photos by Rick Borgia
Andy Klein, recipient of the Short North Neighborhood Foundation's
2006 Community Leadership Award
Every morning, Andy Klein leaves home and walks to his modest Italian Village law office along a short street lined with unassuming old brick townhouses. He lets himself in through the slender door in the center of his shop front, a Mayberryesque plate glass window curtained with green velvet and framed by brick red and goldenrod wood trim. Then he comes out of the office again with a long metal pole and attaches one end of it to a hitch in the upper right corner of the window. A yellow awning slowly emerges as he swivels the pole round and round. He detaches the pole and goes back inside the building to attend to the day’s tax preparations, probate files and telephone calls.
Maybe Atticus Finch, the fictitious small-town lawyer of To Kill a Mockingbird, began his days this way, in a small private office, going about his business with no pretense, no delusions of grandeur. Maybe a similar well of humility is what has enabled Andy Klein, like Atticus Finch, to become a leader of his community just by doing the right things. Awarded the Short North Neighborhood Foundation’s 2006 Community Leadership Award, Klein has lived in the Short North for more than two decades and has had a hand in nearly all aspects of the community’s Phoenix-like rise from ruin to renewal. He made his contributions to the community believing that the Short North and its people are worth nurturing. And his contributions have given his Short North neighbors and all Columbusites a newly reborn historic neighborhood and commercial district that is now a crown jewel of the Cap City and a gem of the Midwest.
Gardens, Parades, and Other Festivals
None other than Sandy Wood, president of the Wood Companies and an elder statesman of the Short North, was among those who nominated Klein for the Short North Neighborhood Foundation’s 2006 Community Leadership Award. Wood says Klein’s more than two decades of grassroots community activism in improving the Short North made him a qualified candidate for the prestigious award.
“Andy has been a resident of the Short North for over twenty years and during that entire time he’s been working on one thing or another,” Wood said. “He’s helped the Short North move from the down-and-out area that it was in the early ’80s to a vibrant anchor for downtown Columbus and a tourist destination. He’s been involved in almost every step of the way. He’s a friend to all kinds of folks who live or play in the Short North. He can be a grassroots volunteer and still know how to go downtown and make a presentation at City Hall. He’s not afraid to get involved in the nitty-gritty and take minutes and be treasurer for an organization, but he also can represent us to the larger community.”
Klein also wasn’t afraid to move to the Short North, a neighborhood on the skids when he relocated to Columbus in 1980 shortly after graduating from the University of Toledo Law School. He took up residence in an apartment above Mary Catherine’s Antiques on High Street and got to know his neighbors.
“(My apartment building) was fully occupied, but I was the only person there with a job, and I was the only person there with a car,” Klein said. “Everyone else who lived there was retired or unemployed and getting compensation for some disability. All were good folks, but I got the feeling that this was a community that was kind of departing. Everyone was kind of on the way out.”
But Klein saw opportunity when many others were bailing out. He joined the Italian Village Society (an organization with which he has held every office and remains active today) right after moving to the Short North in an effort to try to save the neighborhood from the decline that was threatening to erase its last vestiges of greatness.
“At the time I moved here, it was a full-service neighborhood,” Klein said. “You really didn’t need a car. There was a Big Bear right across the street, where the Family Dollar is now. There were two banks – a State Savings Bank and a National City Bank. There were dry cleaners, Simon’s Department Store and Hoffman’s Department Store. The Salvation Army had a thrift shop there, and there was Acker’s Hardware at the corner of Fifth and High. It was a complete neighborhood. And you could tell all of that was going down. The Big Bear closed, State Savings, National City, Swan Cleaners moved. You could see it was all going away. To the casual observer, it was just a decrepit neighborhood, but those of us who moved here then realized that it had great bones and had potential.”
Andy stops to chat with neighbor John Warrix.
Klein joined the non-profit Martha Walker Garden Club in 1983 to help the area begin to live up to its potential. The guerrilla gardening happening on some of the area’s vacant lots struck him as an effective way of breathing new life into the moribund neighborhood.
“The thinking was that you’d have neighborhood-based organizations performing up to a standard the neighborhood demands. If you just hire someone from outside the neighborhood to come in, they don’t give a damn. It was all about image at that time because the neighborhood looked decrepit. So it was important to have people taking care of things like vacant lots. The image of the neighborhood improved and people started feeling better about living in Italian Village.”
Klein became the club’s paid administrator and, along with other duties, helped rent a booth for the club at the first-ever Community Festival in 1983. He started attending Community Festival organizing meetings because the Martha Walker Garden Club had a booth at the festival.
In the late 1980s Klein became involved with the Community Festival in a more direct way, serving in one organizational capacity or another, including as the event’s chairperson for community relations, until 2000. He spearheaded the campaign to move the event into Goodale Park in 1994, a role for which he was honored at the 2006 Community Festival.
“He’s a very strong advocate of the Short North,” said Micki Pike, Klein’s successor as community relations chairperson for the Community Festival. “Andy has a way of seeing the bigger picture of how the neighborhoods can get more work done together than by trying to do it alone. He’s a shining example of how you should be strongly active in your neighborhood and not just the neighborhood on your block, but the neighborhood as a whole.”
1983 was also the year a very short parade marched through the Short North. Klein said there had been talk among area residents and community leaders about organizing a Fourth of July parade in the Short North as a community-building event. Under the leadership of its president at the time, Paul Beach, the Association of Near Northside Businesses (now the Short North Business Association) organized a parade. The event left people talking for all the wrong reasons.
“It was really unintentionally lame,” Klein said. “Paul had a young daughter and he was pushing her in a baby carriage and that was pretty much the only rolling display that was there.”
But like the neighborhood itself, the parade idea had merit. It just needed a nudge in the right direction.
“I attended the parade,” Klein said, “and it struck me that it was a great idea to have a parade in the neighborhood, but maybe, instead of being unintentionally lame, it should be intentionally lame. I think it struck that chord with a number of people at the same time. A lot of people claim ownership of the concept of the Doo Dah Parade for the Short North, but I think it was something that occurred to a number of people simultaneously.”
Klein was one of the official “unorganizers” of the first Doo Dah Parade, which took place on the Fourth of July 1984, contacting people who would be affected by street closures, organizing cleanup after the parade and securing permits and police protection from the City of Columbus. Klein served as a volunteer for the parade for ten years, even after the unorganizers officially came to be called “disorganizers.”
Klein is now only a spectator of the Doo Dah Parade and the Community Festival, a role that allows him to enjoy the display of humanity that unfolds when the community comes together for these events.
“Part of the real enjoyment of the events is just sitting back and watching them unfold,” Klein said. “I think they are both animated by a real sense of community and also a sense they were somehow on the fringe or that they were something that hasn’t been homogenized by popular culture.”
In 1985, concerned that good health care remain accessible to all Short North residents, Klein began to serve on the board of St. Mark’s Community Health Center. He was president of the board when St. Mark’s Community Health Center moved from the basement of St. Mark’s Church to 1260 N. High St. in the early 1990s, and was one of two representatives for St. Mark’s when all of the community health centers were encouraged to join together as the Columbus Neighborhood Health Centers (CNHC) in 1996. Klein served on the board of CNHC for nine years, during which time he chaired its human resources and nominating committees and served on its executive committee, until term limits required him to relinquish his place in 2006.
Klein believes current CNHC chief executive officer Carl Walters’ initiative to bring patients at higher income levels back to the health centers will help the centers provide better care for everyone, including those who cannot afford to seek treatment elsewhere.
“St. Mark’s in particular had a very high reputation with physicians from Ohio State University,” Klein said. “We received a lot of support. It was very high quality health care. A lot of folks who lived in the neighborhood and who could afford to go elsewhere went to St. Mark’s. They’re trying to establish that again for the health centers because a really successful model is a health clinic that doesn’t serve just low–income people. It has a broad range of people who pay in different ways, so they don’t have to subsidize it with City dollars.”
Saving Italian Village
When Klein went into private practice, he hung out a shingle at 6 E. Poplar St., a building nestled among a clutch of historic buildings that in the 1930s had been the address of a barbershop.
When the historic building that housed Klein’s office was threatened with demolition to allow for the expansion of I-670, Klein took action. He led a coalition of representatives of the neighborhoods and commercial interests in the Short North, including the Societies of Italian Village, Victorian Village and Harrison West, as well as the Short North Business Association, in a campaign to minimize demolition of Italian Village structures.
“We ended up losing nine housing units – a total of three buildings – and at one time the loss was going to be much greater than that,” Klein said.
The coalition also addressed traffic circulation problems in the area by creating traffic islands and bump-outs, put a traffic island on N. Park Street, expanded the public space around Goodale Park and helped bring about the addition of the I-670 Cap.
In all of this, Klein was the eye of the storm.
“He’s just a very level-headed, calm voice of reason for all of us,” said Italian Village Society Vice President Steve Hurtt. “People tend to get very emotional about issues that are going on around them, whether it be building a new highway or tearing down buildings. He seems to be able to get to the root of it all and set us in the right direction to get to solutions.”
The I-670 expansion is complete, but Klein is still involved with ongoing traffic monitoring and street calming as an Italian Village representative on the Spring-Sandusky Interchange Traffic Task Force, a group authorized by the Overall Traffic Management Plan of the City of Columbus’ Public Service Department.
Although Klein and his coalition could not rescue all of the Italian Village structures from demolition, they were able to save 6 E. Poplar.
“We couldn’t save the street as a functional street, but we saved the building,” Klein said. “That building presents such a nice face for the neighborhood, everyone felt it was very important to be preserved.”
Some time after fighting to save 6 E. Poplar St. from its demise, Klein moved his law office to its present location in an old corner grocery store. He discovered that the barber whose shop once occupied 6 Poplar St. had been married to the woman who ran that grocery store so many years before.
Fixing the World
Klein says his penchant for community service comes from two sources. His upbringing in the Jewish Reform tradition exposed him to the ethical command to fix or heal the world. Attending Earlham College, a Quaker institution in Richmond, Indiana, as an undergraduate deepened his belief in the power of working in community with others.
“(At Earlham College) there was a strong sense of community,” Klein said, “and an emphasis on openness, silence and consensus. I’ve always been comfortable with meeting settings”
This comfort is apparent in all of Klein’s community service, all of which he has done and continues to do side by side with others. Klein currently serves as Secretary of the BrickStreet Arts Association and, since 2002, as Treasurer of the Friends of Goodale Park.
“He’s always very thoughtful and always has strong commitment to what he’s given himself to volunteer in,” said Stan Sells, president of the Friends of Goodale Park.
“I know that he’s been intimately involved in a number of organizations that have been transforming organizations in the Short North; and because of his role in those organizations, I’d have to say that he has been a key individual in the transformation of the Short North.”
Klein’s volunteer service extends beyond the Short North. He serves on the Temple Beth Shalom Social Action Committee, a group that works with other faith-based and social service organizations to help alleviate biting social problems, including hunger and poverty. He also is active with BREAD, an ecumenical organization that aims to solve the systemic problems that cause poverty and hunger.
“He’s just a very dedicated community person, a really neat person,” said Connie Freundlich, a Temple Beth Shalom congregant and longtime friend of Klein’s who also serves with Klein on the Social Action Committee. “When our Jewish involvement transcends our Jewish community, it’s very special.”
Complacency and Cyber-Activism: The Next Short North Generation?
With all that Klein has helped to accomplish in the Short North, one may wonder what he’ll do for an encore. But he has plenty of ideas.
Along with others in the Short North, Klein would like to see attention go to improving the northern and eastern borders of the area along Fifth Avenue and the eastern railroad tracks. He hopes that the old factories in that part of the Short North (with the exception of the Columbus Coated Fabrics factory, which he calls “a toxic blight on the city”) will be spared demolition and reused, perhaps even by high-tech industries.
There’s no shortage of work to be done in the Short North, but Klein worries that there may be a shortage of people willing to do it.
“My one concern is that we’re going to run out of people to wear all of these hats, because the people who are moving into the area now don’t have that community activism aspect,” Klein said.
And this is likely because they think they don’t have to be activists for their community. After all, thanks to Klein and the other pioneers who in the early 1980s started working to turn the Short North around, new Short North residents aren’t moving into a neighborhood in crisis. Klein suspects that there is still interest in the area among the more recent transplants, but fears that it’s a virtual interest generating pages of text in online chat rooms rather than a real interest seeping deeply enough under the skin of newer residents to compel them to get involved. Klein was shocked recently to learn that he was one of only two people to testify before the Italian Village Society about the Ibiza Urban Oasis project. However, he found a good deal of discussion about Urban Oasis online at columbusretrometro.
“Lots of people wrote in with a whole range of opinions about this project,” Klein said. “It really concerns me that activism has become virtual.”
The fear of trading real-world results for virtual fantasies may be another thing that keeps Klein engaged in the Short North community, even after 26 years of ceaseless involvement. Stepping in when others were retreating has been his leadership modus operandi, and it has worked for him and his community. It may not fix the whole world, but if it fixes a small and very special corner of it for generations to come, then Klein will have done more than his share, and will have earned the accolades that come his way.
©2006 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.