The hard morning rain had soaked the cobblestones and now, under the heat of the ripening sun, an as-yet invisible steam rose and hung low over the bricks. A stray dog across the street eyed me evenly and crapped in the middle of the sidewalk. I observed the wildlife with some interest until he walked away, and then I walked into the coffee shop, Upper Cup on Parsons Avenue.
North of Main Street, Parsons hosts an eccentric little strip of establishments. Ron Barker’s ornery punker tavern, Carabar, is there; so too is Upper Cup, just a bit north, and nearly adjacent to Chop Chop, the longtime feisty gallery. Also there on the western shore of Parsons is my own haircutter, Old Familiar Barber Shop. Its proprietor, Kenji Prince, was in to get coffee this morning. I asked Prince how it was to run a business over the past several years here. He gathered his thoughts before responding.
“I’ve lived in Clintonville for six years and I don’t know my neighbors, but I know everybody on the street where my barbershop is,” he said. He gets his coffee from Upper Cup, his pizza from nearby Yellow Brick, and even has his shirts made here.
“Every new business has instant support from the other local, small businesses,” he continued. “This whole neighborhood, I don’t know that there’s even one corporate restaurant until you get down to Livingston Avenue, which is out of the boundary, really. It’s awesome here.”
The neighborhood is one of Columbus’s oldest areas. At one time, it was a district for the fabulously wealthy. A cruise through OTE reveals an astonishing array of architecture, and many of the houses were beyond luxurious at the time of their building. The materials used and the intricate craftsmanship that was accessible to the very wealthy at the turn of the last century are now largely things of the past.
Renowned writer and cartoonist James Thurber lived there. So did the Lazarus family, of department-retail fame, and legendary artist George Bellows. Ohio Governors lived there, along with industrialists, well-heeled artists, civic leaders, and the inventor of paving bricks – all decidedly West Egg.
Decline crept in during the 1940s; after World War Two the affluent of the area were gone. Poorer families began to move in, and crime increased. The construction of the highway further divided the neighborhood from those adjoining, and the geographic and economic isolation came to characterize Olde Towne East.
The push to reinvigorate the area started for some a decade ago. The construction of the Rich and Town bridges have reconnected the area to downtown. While it hasn’t seen the kind of attention from the city that other historic and downtrodden neighborhoods like Franklinton have, major players have been buying up sections of real estate, and such activity is on the rise. Landlords have noticed, too, and have raised rents without offering much justification.
George Miller, proprietor of Black Art Plus, an African-American art gallery on Oak Street, has watched the neighborhood change for a long time. He says that, while the neighborhood has undoubtedly benefitted from attempts by city government and developers to improve the area, such progress doesn’t come without costs.
“In 10 years, none of these black-owned businesses are going to be here,” he said, leaning against a rack of paintings. “No Creole Kitchen, no Amina’s, no Black Art Plus. They’ll all be gone.”
Miller thinks that the transition is inevitable, and sees it less as gentrification than “re-gentrification.”
“This was an affluent white neighborhood,” he said. “And they are coming back. I don’t see it as them coming back and taking, so much as us giving it back.”
Still, he decries the land-grab tactics by entities such as Nationwide and The Ohio State University, deals he believes to have been largely brokered by the city government and other downtown power players. Miller said that the black residents who lived there for lower rents for decades had already been displaced, moving further east to Blacklick, or even as far as Pickerington.
“If you have a house now and you try to [qualify for low-income rent subsidization] Section 8, you’d catch hell trying to get it done, because they don’t want that now,” he said. “But if you had a house you wanted to put on Section 8 in Reynoldsburg or Blacklick, you’d have no problem; because that’s where they want them to go.”
He did note the many improvements to the area, the stabilization of the neighborhood, and that Olde Towne is a much safer place to live now than it was 10 years ago. “There was so much upheaval, the crime rates were higher, you couldn’t walk the streets really…the drug problem was terrible. I’m not saying it’s better; I’m saying it’s safer and easier, and that’s because they moved a lot of the undesirables out of the neighborhood.”
He also had some words of advice for the flood of younger, up-and-comers moving to Olde Towne. “You’ve got to respect what has been where,” he said. “If you don’t learn the history of the area, then you won’t know where you are.”
Chef Henry Butcher, owner and operator of Creole Kitchen on Mount Vernon Avenue was more optimistic.
“They’ve really cleaned everything up around here,” he said. “If it weren’t for the city coming down here, sending more patrols, trying to get the people out here, you wouldn’t want to be down here.”
Chef Butcher’s restaurant has occupied the end of the strip mall for the last eight years. Now he’s looking to expand, and is opening a dining room in the adjacent storefront. Currently, his dining room hosts only a handful of small tables, and most of the business seems to be carryout. Not for much longer, he says.
“You don’t understand what a difference it makes,” he said, his quiet voice obscured by the clamor of his kitchen. “I see a lot of different kinds of people come here now, different than it used to be. It used to be bad…crimes, drugs, all of it. Now we’re coming together. This neighborhood is turning around.”
I met Bobby Silver and Faith Pierce, owners of Yellow Brick Pizza, at their shop. Silver is perhaps emblematic of the new settlers of Olde Towne East: young, creative, upwardly hip. He’s a nunchuker. He’s got a band. He’s got a beard.
And he’s got a business. Yellow Brick Pizza has occupied its place on Oak Street for five years. He just finished a patio area this spring, using old weathered two-by-fours acquired from the guts of local row housing, slate shingles adorning a copper-plate fountain, and the whole thing strung with LEDs in re-blown glass beer and wine bottles. It’s hypnotic. And it’s a cool-vibes, artsy joints like Yellow Brick that can serve as a centerpiece for a re-emerging neighborhood.
According to Silver, a resident since 1995, Olde Towne East is more than a bunch of cool old houses.
“Basically, over the last 30 years, you just get this strong feeling that there’s an undercurrent that we share, a mentality that we all have,” he said. “It’s a tightknit community, but civic-minded, and we try to help protect what we have created.”
He said that, while the area has obviously improved, he might be a little bittersweet about the consequences, such as rent increasing across the district.
“Our thing is building a community, building a neighborhood,” he said. “I didn’t get into this because I wanted to see my property value grow.
“The last thing that we want is for things to change much. Just because we own a business doesn’t mean we want to chase people out of the neighborhood,” Silver said of himself and Pierce. “We’re not business people, we’re more community people.”
Earlier this year, they sparred with a developer over a proposed high-rise condo project destined for 122 Parsons…right next to Prince’s funky little barbershop, and just across the street from Upper Cup. He argued that the sky-rise would block the view of the neighborhood, and eventually the developer agreed to reduce the number of floors and the total impact.
That kind of active engagement in the community, and the passion residents have for their homes, may well provide further conflict in the future as larger developers eye what could be a gold mine – but it may also keep the cash-hounds at bay. Regardless, Olde Towne East is a neighborhood in flux, though Silver doesn’t think it will ever return to the depravity that saw it characterized as a near-city ghetto during the 1980s and ’90s.
“This neighborhood is good because it has face-planted several times,” he said. “There are a lot of ghosts here. There have been so many artists and influential people that have lived here over time, and you can feel that history when you’re here. That’s what gives it that true neighborhood feel: heartbreak and triumph.”