Columbus, Ohio USA
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Short North Memories
By Joel Knepp
July/August 2015 Issue
Photo © www.jimarnold.org
The nationally known tourist mecca and trendy destination we now call the Short North was not always as it is now. It’s been a long, slow climb. When I moved into a King Avenue apartment a few blocks off High Street on a warm, drizzly January day in 1973, there was little to commend the area, which didn’t even have a name. Most folks I knew looked either north to the OSU campus or south to downtown for food, fun, and shopping. The long, archless stretch of High Street from the stark pre-cap I-670 bridge just north of downtown to King Avenue was mostly just an area one passed through on the way to or from somewhere else.
There were a few establishments of note: Michael’s Goody Boy (the more modest original version), Hoffman’s Department Store, North Central Mental Health, Third Avenue Church, and a back-to-back Kroger and Big Bear where the Family Dollar and Yoga on High later appeared. Local dandy George Brown had a little shop across from Hoffman’s selling high-quality used clothing. Raymond Dingess, the grizzled patriarch of the Dingess hauling dynasty, used to hold court every morning at the White Castle before heading out in his large truck. South of Goodale where the Greek Orthodox Church (new version) and its parking lot sit now was Jeanne’s Restaurant, a down-home eatery decorated with an impressive teapot collection. An excellent used appliance store occupied the space at First and High where Grandview Mercantile now does business.
One hot spot was the J & G, where Sheila, possibly the world’s most efficient waitress, managed to serve the entire diner single-handedly on busy Saturday mornings. She never cracked a smile, but nobody’s coffee cup ever went dry. Mellman’s, a beautiful, old-timey, and always-crowded tavern on the southwest corner of Goodale and High, was a major hangout. The business moved downtown when the Greek church expanded but, alas, didn’t really catch on in the new location; they were too far ahead of the hipster downtown revival. There was the Old Time Religion Hall at Lincoln and High, which I never had the nerve to check out. The building has evolved through several incarnations into the present-day Level restaurant. The Garden Theater was a shabby second-run movie house where I first saw Robert Redford in the classic mountain-man drama, Jeremiah Johnson.
Beyond a few highlights, our now-glistening commercial district was largely down at the heels and neglected by Columbus’s movers and shakers. Poverty, alcoholism, prostitution and drug dealing were part of the mix. Many of the folks who lived on and near High Street were retired railroad pensioners, general relief recipients, and down-and-outers living in run-down rooming houses. East of High, the neighborhoods now known as Italian Village contained some dwellings in particularly bad shape. West of Neil Avenue, a large number of old houses owned by Battelle were gradually melting but provided cheap, spacious housing for artists, young workers, and low-income folks of all descriptions, not to mention many pigeons, possums, and raccoons. Some of the high-class homes around what are now called The Circles on West Sixth and Seventh avenues were then picturesque places reminiscent of the Addams Family abode. One of these old homes on West Seventh that I frequented in my youth was eventually moved to help form an unusual court off West Fifth Avenue. The infamous Cat Lady lived in a particularly palatial but creepy stone house on one of the circles. This was not the Batman character, but rather a woman who didn’t cotton to spaying or neutering. Aside: Does anyone remember that The Circles were once called gloriettas?
Most poor folks in the area have now been displaced and moved to other less desirable parts of the city, but as a welfare caseworker in the 70s, I made many home visits to clients all over the Short North, some of them memorable. I visited one house on Kerr Street that had no front door. In a grim apartment near Neil and Third, a sad-faced young woman was raising a toddler in a room which contained only a bed and an old TV – nothing on the walls, no books, no toys. I wonder how that child turned out. At a place on Harrison Avenue between Fourth and Fifth avenues, one of my clients had used a hoist attached to an overhanging tree limb to pull the engine from his car parked on the street.
The quiet residential streets were populated by black and white working-class families with kids. Most of the neighborhood schools were still operational. Scores of local kids showed up at our house on Halloween and we knew many of them. Children actually walked around, played, rode bikes, and hung out without adult supervision. The playground and sunken basketball court at the since-relocated Godman Guild on Delaware north of First Avenue were always busy after school and on weekends if the weather was decent.
Columbus was still an industrial town in those days, with lots of factory jobs in or near the Short North: Columbus Coated Fabrics (now an empty field), Columbus Auto Parts (Lowe’s), Dixie Margarine (now Harrison Park’s pricey apartments, condos, and townhouses), Weinman Pump, Jeffrey Mining Equipment, and Lennox were a few. All are now long gone along with the employment and benefits they provided. Yes, our local suburban-style Target/Old Navy mall was once the site of a large factory employing hundreds of industrial workers in the manufacture of heating and cooling equipment. The Short North’s air was dirty then, but many locals had good jobs that paid the bills.
Goodale Park, the city’s first, was more or less forgotten. The park walkway from the corner of Dennison and Buttles didn’t even end up at poor Dr. Goodale’s statue. Rather, for no apparent reason, it connected with the park driveway at a point farther west. Mel Dodge, former potentate of Columbus Parks and Recreation, got the notion to locate a kiddie train ride near the northwest corner of the park. Work actually started on the project. Fortunately, someone put the kibosh on that questionable undertaking and the park started coming back to life, its resurrection aided mightily by the budding Friends of Goodale Park and later the fine folks who organize ComFest. That now-gigantic festival had moved first from campus to the bumpy vacant lot east of the park affectionately known as The Moonscape, now Victorian Gate, and then west into the park, bringing needed infrastructure improvements. I recall many a happy ComFest hour roasting on that shadeless Moonscape surrounded by weekend hippies and enjoying the throbbing music.
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