Columbus, Ohio USA
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The Missing Element
We are an incomplete community
By Joel Knepp
March/April 2015 Issue

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Mark Stivers

The Short North – Victorian and Italian Villages, Harrison West, Dennison Place – is a great place to live. Many folks envy those of us fortunate enough to live here, and would love to join us. Some can even afford it. Seemingly, we have it all: older homes with character, shiny new condos and apartments, human-scale streets and buildings, services, entertainment, spacious parks, easy access to an increasingly attractive downtown, and a quick hop onto freeways to go anywhere. The neighborhood has been undergoing constant upgrading for years. However, in spite of our noticeable community spirit, we are an incomplete community.

Even casual observation reveals our dirty little secret: there are no children. Sure, we see ample numbers of babies and toddlers. I can sit on my porch and count dozens of ‘em as they get pushed down First Avenue in their over-engineered perambulators, strapped papoose-fashion to moms and even dads (How times have changed!), and staring out from their tiny helmets as they roll along in bicycle carts. Their source, the new Harrison West development up the street, is crawling with babies. And yes, there are a few odd children scattered here and there around the Short North, unnaturally isolated in an adults-only world with their every move monitored by anxious parents. The only time most of these unfortunates see other kids after school or during vacations is when they have planned activities or play dates. But by and large, once kids at the few remaining local schools go home for the evening, the weekend, or for vacations, that’s all, folks!

It wasn’t always like this. When I first moved here in the early ‘70s (last century), there were plenty of school-age children around and active local schools. On
Halloween, you knew the kids who came to your door, unlike these days, when they’re trucked in from distant neighborhoods. Back then and even into the ‘80s, groups of kids roamed the streets looking for mischief and hanging out in playgrounds and empty lots, just like we did in days gone by. It was a normal community with all ages represented. Mostly these were kids of working-class parents whose dads and often moms had jobs in the many factories that surrounded the neighborhood or were close by: Dixie Margarine, Weinman Pump, Columbus Auto Parts, Lennox (yes, your Target shopping center was once a large heating and cooling equipment factory complex), Columbus Coated Fabrics, and more. Welfare families were also integrated throughout the area that has come to be called the Short North. I visited many of them in my job as a welfare caseworker.

Times changed, and those employers are all gone. So are the kids, who grew up and weren’t replaced. A sighting of an unaccompanied child or children on the street in many parts of the Short North is about as rare as hen’s teeth. Most local schools are closed, torn down, or repurposed. As gentrification got into full swing and local housing became less and less affordable, education and income levels rose. Few low-income families can afford to live here now. Over the years, lots of singles, childless couples, and empty nesters moved in.

But let’s get back to the current crop of babies. What will become of these young families streaming past our house? If the pattern I have observed in recent years holds true, they will stay just long enough for their kids to approach kindergarten and then they will pull up stakes and head for Upper Arlington, Grandview Heights, Westerville, Delaware County, Grove City, and other school districts. A few of the more prosperous ones will hang in, bite the bullet, and cough up private-school tuition for their lonely children who will be forced to grow up without the joys and hard knocks of mass kid culture.

Why do young Short North couples who love the vibrant amenities of city life consistently retreat to the burbs when their children get out of diapers? Our streets are safer and more pleasant than ever. Now that the factories and the nasty old diesel buses are gone, the air is relatively clean. Unfortunately, we all know the reason they abandon an otherwise ideal living situation and retreat to the bland, auto-centric ‘burbs: Columbus City Schools. The sad truth is that our proud, supposedly great All-American City can’t maintain a school system to which educated, middle-class parents will entrust their children.

A quality, free public education is the right of every American child, including every child living within the Columbus city limits. I applaud those rare Short North parents who, like my brother and his wife, had the guts to stick it out. They demanded and received that quality education for their child, who is now a successful college student. It wasn’t easy. It required vigorously involving themselves with the schools and never accepting second-rate education. My hope, perhaps futile, is that those parents pushing baby buggies past our house will follow their example and just say no to the suburbs. Until Short North parents do so in sufficient numbers, the neighborhood we love and others envy will remain unbalanced and incomplete, a neighborhood where most kids are just tourists passing through.

joelknepp@outlook.com

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