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Photos by: Megan Leigh Barnard & Chris Casella

Unlocking the “secret” of Italian Village

Carolynne Holmes and her family have just returned from a funeral, but they’re in good spirits, taking selfies with family members in town from Las Vegas in the doorway of their apartment building, The Virginia. Four years earlier, they wouldn’t have been on this stoop.

The brick building, which holds eight small apartments, used to face a small corner store that served as a beacon for a revolving door of 24-hour undesirable 24-hour activity. Today, as a young couple and their parents unload a moving van at the condos near the corner, she smiles and motions across the street to the soon-to-open Market at Italian Village, the corner store’s long-overdue replacement. The brand-new establishment will serve as neighborhood glue, much like the dog park behind her building and the community garden one block away.

All are signs of progress, not invasion. “Oh, it’s a positive,” Holmes says, pausing to acknowledge the free CBUS circulator whooshing by, momentarily blocking our view of The Market. “To keep a neighborhood alive, you do whatever it takes.”

When seen in blueprint, Italian Village is mostly back alleys – a series of sleepy capillaries spilling from the ever-flowing connectors of the Summit and Fourth urban highways that until recently gave motorists little cause to stop by or even slow down.

Winding through those same alleys today exposes a microcosm of urban redevelopment; a cozy little neighborhood filled with refurbished condos that share a skyline with post-grad rentals, subsidized housing abutting a prepped-for-drywall apartment complex, and new food/beverage service establishments within striking range of current and former sites of industry.

It’s Saturday, and Market at Italian Village owners Ali and Abed Alshahal are gearing up the staff for the imminent opening. “This is what this neighborhood needs – a place to call its own,” Ali says. In between sampling their chefs’ latest charcuterie, they reveal that they’re just as conscious of the neighborhood locals as they are of the new Market, even though they are not Italian Village residents themselves.

As a point of proof, they will work with the two-acre Urban Agricultural Farm a few blocks away. “What we’re doing that separates us from [the chains] is we are reclaiming food economies; working with the Urban Agriculture Farm, putting people to work. It’s about educating people,” says Abed. “We can’t control the real estate market, and we can’t control how long Section 8 housing gets funded within this area…all we can do is engage, build people up, and make food accessible logistically and economically, and continue to perpetuate this neighborhood feel.”

The Alshahal team is responsible for the highly successful reinvention of The Crest in Clintonville, and Ali acknowledges that he could have bet on a safer financial return with something similar in this space, instead of the all-in-one butcher/cafe/bottle shop. “It’s not 100 percent about the money,” he says. “We hope that lady across the street will become a regular here, and we’ll all know her name and know what she likes.”

That neighbor is Holmes, who grew up in Olde Towne East and claims she didn’t see a white person until she entered high school, which helps her appreciate culturally diverse neighborhoods now. She cites the redevelopment of her birthplace as a model for the way she sees Italian Village evolving. “When the neighborhood there changed, it kind of made me mad. But then I realized all of the older people died off, and their houses were left. Then, it changed into a whole different neighborhood. At first, it was transient. But now you see how they take care of it, and it’s beautiful.”

Accessibility is always critical, and the real difference in Italian Village is that it’s no longer just known for its proximity to the hot spots in town, but for the ones within its confines. A quick influx of bars and restaurants – Seventh Son Brewing, Little Rock, and The Table on the outer border – adds to the longstanding Exile and the renovated St. James Tavern. These attractions are drawing more young professionals, and according to neighbors, more couples and families. It’s an alluring alternative for those who crave an urban environment without haggling with a high-rise inhabitance. Or in the case of the new Wonderland Lofts (which will also soon open its own restaurant called Cray), a healthy marriage of the two. Mere yards from the back patio at Seventh Son, Shannon Gaines and partner Rob Wagner achieved the rare feat of a new home build in the tiny borough. The area has provided enough return on their investment that it swayed a potential move to Los Angeles. “In the end, Italian Village won out,” Gaines says. “There was just too much potential here.”

Colin and Amy Adams “accidentally” bought their house in 1991, and when the city allocated renewal funds for the area, the couple was part of the committee that helped decide how money was spent in their district. The renaissance was slow, but steady. “That development spurred momentum for individual homeowners to fix up their own houses, and that just kind of fed on itself,” Colin says. “It just kept improving and improving.” And now that slow and steady pace has blossomed in just the last year. There are at least three new condo builds (and another just approved that will replace a former gas station on First and Summit), and the remaining empty lots are being aggressively peddled.

Though too much, too fast is still a legitimate concern, Amy cited past revitalization efforts as proof that it can be done the right way, like with the New Village condos that displaced a declining senior center a decade ago. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh no, this is going to be horrible,’” she says. “As it turns out, it was great. It didn’t make the traffic crazy, it didn’t make the parking crazy…they kept it up and it’s wonderful over there, and they’ve kept it at 20-percent subsidized (rent).” As they share an afternoon drink on the Little Rock patio, the couple exudes an air of pride, as if the new bar is an extension of their own home. They waited 20 years for something of value in the vacant building. They still consider their block one of the best-kept secrets in Columbus, albeit that could change. “Suddenly, people have just discovered Italian Village,” Colin says. “But we feel like we’ve earned this place.”

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Travis Hoewischer

I've been working in journalism in central Ohio for more than a decade, and have been lucky enough to be a part of (614) Magazine since the very first issue. Proud to live in a city that still cares – and still reads.

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