Columbus, Ohio USA
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High Street Through The Ages
Lifelong Victorian Village resident Lynda Mahaffey stays put during decades of change
September 2009 Issue
by Dennis Fiely
Lynda Mahaffey sharing stories.
© Photo by Emily Noble
The history of the Short North for most people begins with the gentrification movement in the late ‘70s. But they would have to go back another 50 years to catch up with the memories of Lynda Mahaffey. Mahaffey, 83, was born and raised in the area at Eighth and High streets and has lived in the same Victorian Village home for 63 years, where she raised her daughter Gerri Spitzer.
Change swirled around her, but Mahaffey embraced it with grace and humor characterized by an infectious giggle. “You could always hear Lynda coming down the street before you saw her because she had this amazing laugh,” said Melaine Mahaffey (no relation), whose late mother Eva was Lynda’s longtime neighbor and friend.
Over the decades, Lynda has lived in a thriving working class community, a decaying urban slum and a Bohemian arts and entertainment district – all without leaving her address. Through the contrasting transformations, she continued to call Victorian Village home. “You have to go with the flow,” Mahaffey said, “otherwise, you get lost.”
Before freeways led to urban flight and the neighborhood’s decline, Mahaffey recalled a High Street with a different vibrancy than it has today. Instead of galleries, boutiques, nightclubs and restaurants, the neighborhood’s commercial strip was peppered with family-owned stores selling the necessities of daily living. “There were all kinds of stores here,” she said. “I went to junior high school with a friend whose father owned a Chinese laundry at the corner of Highland and Fifth. There was a five-and-dime at Russell and High and a small grocery store at Second and High. We didn’t have the big supermarkets. I suppose we had antique shops back then, but we called them used furniture stores.”
As a young adult, Mahaffey dined at the Jai Lai, attended professional wrestling matches at Haft’s Acre sports arena on Goodale and gambled at nearby hotels. “We used to play the numbers for a penny,” Mahaffey said.
Specific names and dates escape her, but Ben Hayes, the legendary Columbus Citizen-Journal columnist who died in 1989, left a body of work that documented the area’s landmarks and colorful characters during what Mahaffey called “the good old days” in the first half of the 20th century.
Retail sold everything from “davenports to can lids, wheelbarrows to pianos,” Hayes wrote. Louie “Right Arm” Casbarro ran a poker game at Goodale and High. Hayes described Goodale Avenue from High to Park streets as the city’s “true urban block.” He continued: “The corner at High was a main transfer point for streetcars. Trolleys were noisy. Even then the sidewalks looked worn.”
Named for its view of Goodale Park, the Park Hotel was built in 1876. It stood until “the innerbelt smashed through the site.” The hotel housed a bank, a restaurant called Fat Sam’s (bustling at 3 a.m.) and a newsstand that sold Cuban cigars, according to Hayes. It was imbedded four steps into the ground and “the High Street buildings north of the hotel were uniformly three stories high.” Hundreds of families lived “above street level,” Hayes observed.
True enough, Mahaffey said. She cast a wistful gaze through her living room window to the rehabbed residences across her street. “Those used to be rooming houses and the families who lived there were just uprooted,” she said sadly. Such is the price of progress. “Sometimes, I’m not sure whether it is good or bad, but I suppose it has all been for the better,” she said.
Mahaffey was especially fond of the legendary Jai Lai, which began where the I-670 cap is now, before the restaurant moved to Olentangy River Road and became a regular haunt for Ohio State University football coach Woody Hayes. “The Jai Lai was just wonderful when it was down here,” she said. “It had white tablecloths, the big bar and water tanks filled with fish. It just wasn’t the same after it moved,” Mahaffey said.
Wrestling at Haft’s Acre was a favorite entertainment for her mother – Gladys Shelby – and other locals. “You couldn’t convince them that it was all a put-on,” Mahaffey said.
Mahaffey lived with her mother among an ethnic mix of residents, many who labored at nearby plants such as Jeffrey Manufacturing and Timkin Company. “We were all just poor people trying to make a living and raise our families,” Mahaffey said. “We all went to school and church together.”
Even during the down times, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when crime and decay infested the area, Mahaffey stayed put. “You could tell it was starting to go downhill, but I never saw it as a slum,” she said. “I always felt safe walking in the neighborhood, but maybe I just wasn’t in the places where crime was happening.”
Mahaffey worked for 10 years at Mills Cafeteria and retired in 1992 after 41 years at Byers car dealership. She helped sell and service cars, but never owned one. “I took lessons for a quarter and passed my driver’s test, but every time I got into a car I just froze. Driving is the one thing in my life I failed to accomplish.” She was more than happy to ride the streetcar and later the bus to work. Yet she doesn’t see the need for streetcars today, a revitalization vision of Mayor Michael Coleman. “The bus service is just wonderful,” she said. “I can walk a half a block and take a bus to Tuttle Mall. I can take a bus to everywhere I want to go.”
When the neighborhood was reborn into an urban renewal jewel and acquired the name the Short North, Mahaffey said, “Who knew?” Despite the pain of displacement for some, she loves what her community has become. “People are owning their homes instead of renting them, so they are fixing them up and taking better care of them,” she said. “The Short North, we never called it that. It was always just High Street to me. But I love walking down there now and just looking through the shop windows.”
After she retired from Byers, Mahaffey became an active community volunteer, working for the Victorian Village home tour, the Neighborhood Health Centers and the Second and Summit Senior Citizens Center. She served as a judge for the Doo Dah parade, one of her favorite events. “I think it is just wonderful,” she said. “Why shouldn’t we have something like that?”
Longtime community activist Pat Lewis described Mahaffey as a “neighborhood institution.” Said Lewis: “She is a real worker bee, not the type of person interested in taking on the responsibility for organizing an event, but someone who is always willing to help.” Added Melaine Mahaffey, owner of Mary Catherine’s Antiques: “She’s done a lot for this community, but never received much recognition.”
Mahaffey keeps a calendar on her coffee table filled with daily appointments In addition to her volunteer work, she is active in quilting and other crafts clubs. A workshop in her house is cluttered with projects engulfing a sewing machine. “Several years ago we had to buy her a cell phone just to keep up with her,” said her daughter, Gerri, who lives in Upper Arlington with her husband Lee. “If you want to get on her calendar, you need to give her a month’s notice.” Mahaffey is especially proud of her granddaughter Heather, a schoolteacher in Kentucky.
Mahaffey’s easy acceptance of change has included social and cultural upheavals. A neighbor recently felt obligated to inform Mahaffey that he was gay. There was no need for his coming out to her. “Gay people? I love them. I really do,” Mahaffey said. “I have so many gay and lesbian friends that I don’t even look at them as gay or lesbian.”
Mahaffey eagerly anticipates more changes in the future. “I have 17 years until I hit 100,” she said, “I wonder what the neighborhood is going to look like then.”
© 2009 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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