Columbus, Ohio USA
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Farewell, Big Bird
By Joel Knepp
March/April 2017 Issue

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Photos Joel and Lynda

Despite a fervid outpouring of letters, phone calls, pleas, and protestations, our Thurber Village Giant Eagle as we knew it is no more, downsized to a liquor/beer/wine carryout. Although the news of the closing had been out for months, it really hit home in mid-February when I walked into the store on my way back from downtown to find many empty shelves, glum staff, and a general pall hanging over the establishment.  The experience left me with a profound sense of loss.  Since 2004, this modest grocery has been a Short North keystone of economic activity, providing area residents and workers with close and convenient access to life's essentials. For many years prior, the Big Bear at this location fulfilled the same function.  These establishments have served customers for decades while providing stable jobs for the community.

We will miss the Giant Eagle staff members who have cheerfully served us over the years:  Yalonda, the highly competent TCB cashier, likely one of the last people in America who knows how to pack a paper grocery bag; Colleen the flower lady, a local resident and veteran of the old Big Bear who always had a positive word and useful plant advice; Joe, the (overly) enthusiastic deli man; and many more.

This store, the smallest in the Pittsburgh-based chain, was the perfect size:  big enough to have what you need yet small enough to navigate easily and quickly find what you were looking for.  This is in stark contrast to the newer, suburban (and I use that word pejoratively) Giant Eagle Market District on 3rd Avenue.  This bird-on-steroids behemoth is difficult and dangerous to get to on foot or bike from the Short North and a pain to park by.  As the green space on the north side of 3rd Avenue just east of the river gets developed, the traffic situation on 3rd will only get worse and crossing Olentangy River Road will get sketchier.

When shopping at the overblown Market District, it takes twice as long to find what you want and constant care is required to avoid collisions in the crowded, confusing aisles.  There is far too much choice for each item. When checking out, you are subjected to the indignity of waiting for a machine to assign you to a cashier.  Though geographically close to Harrison West and Victorian Village, it's a world away from, and the antithesis of, the relaxed shopping we enjoyed at Thurber Village.
 
Walkability, and more generally ease of access, is central to the good life in our increasingly popular city neighborhoods.  As folks figure out that it's way more pleasant to meet their daily needs on foot, by bike, or with a short auto hop, they (re)turn more and more to urban life.  Cities all over America are experiencing revivals as increasing numbers of people realize that a better alternative exists to long commutes, traffic jams, and ugly, homogenized suburban environments. (For an insightful analysis of the post-World War II degradation of the American landscape, read The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler.)  More and more Americans, especially younger ones, are eschewing the burdens of automobile ownership in favor of trains, buses, Uber, Lyft, short-term car rentals, bicycles, and the venerable shoe-leather express, adopting the kind of transportation lifestyle well suited to urban settings.

But back to the Short North.  Internet trolls who welcome the suburbanization of Grandview Yard and other close-in areas may scoff and write "Welcome to reality!" on reading that many in our 'hood now must drive to the 'burbs for groceries, but the departure of the Giant Eagle is a real loss which will render living in our corner of the Short North a little less convenient, a little less pleasant.  This convenience is, in part, what we came here for and why we have been willing to bear higher rent, mortgages, and property taxes than our outlying brethren.  For carless local residents and former Thurber Village Giant Eagle employees, the loss will be of a more serious nature.  Perhaps among the most affected are residents of Thurber Village Retirement Community/Ohio Living, many of whom are no longer comfortable driving but were still able to walk across the street for groceries. 

For many years, grocery runs on foot or by bike through charming brick streets, down beautiful Neil Avenue, across calming Goodale Park, or on the way home from downtown jobs have been an integral part of Short North life.  I'm as much in favor of advanced planning as the next person, but there's a lot to be said for needing only a five-minute walk for a loaf of bread, a roasted chicken, or a carton of eggs that somehow evaded our weekly shopping list.  Sadly, that ease of operation in restocking the larder may be gone forever.

Roaming the nearly empty aisles in the last days was strange and disconcerting. A formerly packed bread section contained only a few sad, white loaves. The meat counter, produce department, and olive and salad bars were empty. Despite a large markdown to avoid hauling stuff away, a few unusual items remained here and there. A jar of artisanal pork lard was one of the last things my wife and I spotted on the shelves.  We found this amusing because in our early days in the ‘hood the old Big Bear (known to some as The Welfare Bear) once featured a prominent display of stacked plastic lard buckets on special, definitely not artisanal.  The then-and-now contrast reflects the area’s changing population and cooking styles.  

It's hard to believe but true:  the old storefront on the northwest corner of West 1st and Harrison Avenues on the border of Victorian Village and Harrison West once housed a Kroger.  This Kroger, like the dodo bird of Mauritius and the Giant Eagle of Thurber Village, has slipped away, lessening the quality of life on earth and more pertinently, right here where we live.  Time marches on, and the inevitable, unstoppable juggernaut of progre$$ will soon transform the corner of Neil and Buttles into - who knows what? - likely another dense high-rise carefully planned to maximize PSI (profit per square inch).  And yet, if fortune smiles upon us, the ground floor of that high-profit high-rise might just possibly house a grocery store.  One can only hope.   

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.

joelknepp@outlook.com

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