Columbus, Ohio USA
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Artists Edgy About Neighborhood Changes
Town Hall Panel Ponders the Short North's Evolution
by T. C. Brown
May 2010 Issue

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Pink hair, a glut of dogs and teaming, tattooed humanity hanging out on cheap furniture at the old Coffee Table at the corner of Buttles Avenue and High Street grabbed Kyle Ezell’s attention when he first cruised through the Short North. Ezell was new to town and looking for a place to land.

Any doubts about the area were erased once Ezell spotted the sawed off utility pole adorned with a cluster of dolls nailed to the wood, including one through the forehead, with a bicycle and seated mannequin hanging backwards from the top.

“I could tell it was the place to be and that something cool was going on there,” Ezell said. “I looked at all these freaks and the spontaneous art, and I was in awe of it.”

Ezell, a city and regional planning professor at The Ohio State University’s Knowlton School of Architecture, still lives just two blocks away from his Short North, love-at-first sight vision.

Ezell, along with Carmen Owens, co-owner of the Surly Girl Saloon, and Adam Brouillette, a partner of Wonderland Columbus and member of Couchfire Collective, were all part of a panel for a Short North Town Hall forum April 22 at the WOSU Public Media studio at COSI.

Moderated by WOSU’s Ann Fisher, host of “All Sides with Ann Fisher,” the panel and studio audience spent more than an hour chewing over a variety of issues on the Short North’s plate, including: the evolution of the neighborhood; its continued identity as an art district; family influences; whether gentrification will trump gritty history and edginess; and the enduring question of parking.

The taped show will run May 5 on WOSU 820 AM on Fisher’s radio show, and at 10 p.m. that day on WOSU TV, an hour after the rebroadcast of the documentary “Columbus Neighborhoods: Short North.”

Most speakers expressed confidence and excitement about the neighborhood’s future, while acknowledging a changing landscape.

“The southern end is more refined,” Owens said, speaking of the search to locate her restaurant. “The Surly Girl is a little more rambunctious and that personality has stuck. I feel that the north Short North is sort of edgy.”

Brouillette said he was “observant, but not critical” of the more polished image developing in parts of the neighborhood. The Short North can be compared to other cities’ artsy neighborhoods – like So Ho – that were once up and coming arts districts, but grew up while other neighborhoods developed artistic reputations.

Nonetheless, while change has moved in, it has not completely driven out character, he said.

“It seemed a lot easier to walk in a gallery to show my art before,” Brouillette said. “But the freaks don’t go away, they just move a street away.”

Ezell is confident that creative people will continue to conglomerate around each other and that will help ensure that “the Short North can still stay edgy.”

Christine Menges, director of the Short North Business Association, said that the area has to maintain a balance of business and arts, especially in light of the neighborhood’s history. It is important for “new and shiny” businesses to understand and appreciate that past, she said.

“The area is so grounded in the arts, and I hope that is constantly evolving,” Menges said. “If the arts remain, how can we keep it as a basis and constantly help new and independent business owners come into the Short North and stay in the Short North and evolve?”

Brouillette acknowledged that neighborhood arts people are “on edge and scared” for the future, but it is also important to avoid a pitched battle over the Short North being an art district.

“I hope we can allow areas on the periphery to grow,” said Brouillette, who also said Columbus would benefit from the development of a creative hub, not unlike the creation of Wonderland and Tech Columbus.

Parking has long been a topic of discussion, but the area maintains advantages by not building a parking garage, said Owens. “The lack of a parking prevents big box stores from coming in and that keeps us restricted,” Owens said.

No one seems anxious for a mall-type structure in the Short North.

“The difference between the Short North and a mall is that mall people are focused on making money,” Brouillette said. “Short North people are focused on manifesting.”

There’s nothing wrong with making money, Brouillette said, but “when you focus on making money, it becomes soulless.”

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