Columbus, Ohio USA
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By Joel Knepp
January/February 2017 Issue
For those of us who live in the Short North, the recently departed David Bowie’s song title has never been more meaningful. The same applies to other central city neighborhoods and downtown. Things have always evolved in our city, but probably never before at the ever-increasing rate we are currently experiencing.
The Short North has been my Columbus home, mostly, since I first arrived in Columbus in January 1973. My roommate and best college buddy Gus and I rented a new but shoddily constructed apartment on King Avenue at Hunter which miraculously still stands. Our leisure activity consisted mainly of lounging on our mattress/couch on the floor next to orange-crate end tables listening to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by the aforementioned artist, along with Transformer by Lou Reed, Grand Funk by said Railroad, and other vinyl gems of that period. Our stereo and music collection sat on shelves made of boards and cinder blocks. This was before the arrival of luxury living for young people. Some nights we walked up to OSU campus to see the sights and enjoy a cheap shwarma meal. Gus sold life insurance and had a waterbed, while I worked at the welfare department and slept on a rickety Jenny Lind bed with open springs.
During those years, I had the good fortune of seeing David Bowie perform live in Cleveland and Dayton. He was even booked for OSU’s Mershon Auditorium in 1974 but cancelled. Imagine walking from home to a David Bowie concert; that would/should have been the ultimate urban recreation experience! On the down side, I had the misfortune of witnessing Lou Reed croak out a disappointing show at Ohio Wesleyan’s Gray Chapel in Delaware.
But back to the point. In those days the area north of downtown was evolving, but ever so slowly: a building fixed up here, a dusty old business dying of exhaustion there. Improvements in the ‘hood were small, piecemeal, and mostly privately funded by intrepid pioneers. It was a somewhat seedy, working-class part of Columbus that people drove through to get to and from downtown, which was, in the ‘70s, still a vibrant shopping location as well as the seat of government, education, and jobs. The pre-modern downtown was only just starting to become a sea of parking lots. Factories rimmed the downtown area. The unrenovated Southern Theater on Main Street showed kung fu movies and had a truly awful live country-music show one Saturday each month. For more details see my Short North Memories, Parts 1 and 2, on the Gazette’s website.
Over the years the rate of change started to pick up. The Short North acquired its name. Old railroad-retiree dwellings above street level and dingy storefronts began to give way to renovated apartments and shops. The first wave of groovy galleries, shops, bars, and restaurants started appearing, and ComFest moved down from campus. Suburbanites started visiting the area for the Gallery Hop and other events and some of them liked what they saw. High Street was becoming cleaner and less run-down than before, but the overall look and skyline (if you could call it that) really didn’t change all that much.
Well, folks, those days of gradual change are gone. The zeitgeist sweeping Columbus and many other cities can be summed up as follows: “Later for the ‘burbs, I’m heading for town where the action is!” Empty nesters, young professionals, entrepreneurs, students with parents of means, and anybody else who can afford it are all making tracks for the city at an unprecedented and accelerating rate. The pioneers of yesterday have been replaced by big-money developers and investors jumping all over themselves to build, build, build to accommodate the living, eating, drinking, and shopping needs of these new urban converts.
Government is bending over backwards to accommodate this trend with infrastructure improvements which everybody but the newbies must pay for with large property-tax increases. New construction is everywhere, as are gigantic cranes, concrete barriers, orange cones, and neon-vested construction workers. Downtown is extending northward even as OSU campus development creeps southward.
It seems like every week a new high-rise or condo complex is being announced for our once-humble neighborhood, and these buildings are being slammed up faster than you can say “Flytown.” Our stand-alone White Castle is gone, to be replaced by a monster building which will house a new version of the hallowed slider stand under many residential floors reaching toward the ever-shrinking Short North sky. The North Market parking lot will soon be the site of possibly two giant structures. A 12-story building with 41 condos has been proposed to replace a major area attraction, Grandview Mercantile, at First and High.
Vacant lots, green space, low-rise buildings, and affordable housing are disappearing faster than you can say “fifteen-year tax abatement.” A person who goes away today and comes back in five years would likely not even recognize much of High Street between campus and downtown. To quote the sage, “It’s all about the ducats.”
For good or ill, further development in the Short North is inevitable, but will the low-rise architectural charm, the friendly neighborhood feeling, and quirkiness that brought the Short North into popularity both locally and around the nation survive this ongoing and constantly accelerating transformation? Will storefront rents soar beyond the reach of non-corporate entrepreneurs and their one-of-a-kind shops? Are all our low to moderate-income residents to be exiled to the crumbling suburbs? How many upscale hotels, multistory condos, and franchise businesses can arrive before the character drains out of our neighborhood? Are we destined to become an urban Easton or a burned-out party strip like The Flats in Cleveland? And finally, Is there a middle ground with a workable mixture of the old and the new?
Perhaps in the foreseeable future the Short North we know and love will, like David Bowie, be gone but not forgotten. Only time will tell.
Joel Knepp lives in Victorian Village with his wife Lynda McClanahan, an artist.
They performed as the musical duo Nick & Polina for many years in the area.
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