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Photos by Megan Leigh Barnard

The extended horizons of Merion Village

Go to the southwest corner of East Deshler and City Park at 10 o’clock in the morning and face the sun.
Gaze across the landscape.

A lake. A bridge. The rolling hills of Schiller Park.

Just to the right, as you stroll down the avenue, you’ll see nearly a quarter-mile of glittering, stately mansions hugging the park, each of them just as deeply-rooted as the trees that reside within the square.
Yonder north, the shining spires of German Village: the so-hot urban offshoot, bustling with businesses old and new.

Where you are, essentially, is at the northern border of Merion Village, a neighborhood that in recent past has held distinction as being, as they say, “across the tracks.”

There are no tracks to draw the border, of course. Except perhaps the western border, but then, there’s only river after that.

Columbus people know, as any city regular ought to, that you can almost always walk a couple clicks in the wrong direction and find yourself somewhere you’d rather not be. This has not deterred the young and healthy from flocking to Merion in search of pasture.

Benji and Megumi Robinson reside on the same Deshler Avenue that hosts those aforementioned mansions – just a couple blocks east of the park and firmly within official Merion boundaries.

“We were looking to buy a house,” Megumi began, windows at her back spilling light into her spacious, well-conditioned living room. “We searched all of the neighborhoods around the city: Victorian Village, German Village, the Short North, even parts of Upper Arlington.

“We wanted a yard. We wanted to be allowed to do what we wanted to the house. We fell in love with this house the first time we saw it. And here we are.”

The Robinsons laid out the advantages of taking the extra stride away from the city. Lower taxes. More space. They see the opportunity, the allure of planting a stake early in the most recent revitalization of the Near South Side. They’re the fourth owners of this house in nearly 80 years, and see themselves digging in.

The previous owner grew up in the house and attended the now-derelict Barrett School that occupies the plot across the street from the Robinsons. Plans are still in development for the building and surrounding property. Whatever the ultimate plan, Benji and Megumi are happy to spread their roots and help improve the soil.

“There’s something cool about being part of an emerging neighborhood,” she said, and he added, “Growth doesn’t happen until people commit to the area.”

As far as growth goes, there are some new operations on the locals’ lips. T.Y. Fine Furniture took hold recently at the corner of Fourth and Moler, displaying high-end, handmade home furnishings, and Bake Me Happy, a local operation specializing in gluten-free goodies, is moving in right next door in short order. The new businesses join existing favorites, places like Easy Street Cafe, The Hey Hey, the former Hal & Al’s-turned-Tatoheads Public House, and Red Brick Tap & Grill.

At Red Brick, Jed Haldeman sat and described moving here and meeting his new neighbor Carol, an 82-year-old veteran of the block whose family built nearly every structure in eyeshot.

“She wasn’t what I expected. One day she asked me if I knew about Southbend [Tavern], the bar down the street. I said, ‘Well, yes…it’s a gay bar.’

“And she said, ‘They have the most beautiful men there. They’re so nice!’

“Yeah. She’s pretty amazing.”

Haldeman, a Cincinnati transplant, has the same deep appreciation of his idyllic surroundings as the Robinsons. He noted that most people don’t realize how quiet his street really is, that living as far south as he does – while difficult to imagine himself doing at one point in his life – does not come hand-in-hand with gunshots and sirens.

“You know,” mused Haldeman, “I never found strangers asleep on my back porch more often than when I lived in Victorian Village. I used to just leave my car unlocked with how constantly people were messing with it.”

The drop in property value south of Thurman seems independent of the expected undesirables. The streets are straight and clean and well-lit. The eastern boundary of Parsons Avenue remains just that – a boundary. Probably one best not crossed in the wee hours. But those living in Merion Village proper don’t live in fear. They’re a hardy sort.

“It’s more blue collar, I think. More working class than German Village. No million-dollar homes down here. That’s part of what I like about it.”

Therein lies part of the intrigue. Folks here are friendly. They welcome new neighbors with open arms. Nonetheless, there is a caginess beneath the smiles.

As a neighborhood grows, it changes. Loses its grit. Bright-eyed youth like Haldeman and the Robinsons come in and paint the shutters, and before you know it, there’s a Starbucks Coffee on every other corner. Right?

Suzanna and Mark, six-year veterans of the vicinity, stopped on their way to a church group meeting to comment on the topic of gentrification and the nature of shifting property values. They’re leery of cookie-cutter communities, and rightly so. Clearly, some people move to Merion and other transitional districts specifically to escape chain restaurants and shiny, high-market-rate condominiums.

That kind of cultural upheaval doesn’t seem likely – at least not from the seat of a bicycle, weaving up Jaeger and down Bruck during a hot dusk in July.

Neither from a booth at Explorers Club, the crown jewel of Merion Village’s restaurant scene, where just last month owner Tracey Studer was quoted as saying the menu had gotten too pricey and avant-garde.
Neither from the corner of South High and Hanford, where the landscaping outside Merion Village Dental could nearly justify its own little garden tour.

There’s a natural balance to a place like this. The stark borders – north, east, and south – provide the equilibrium.

Schiller Park is the brightest bulb around which the locals flock, and it’s clear that the neighborhood retains that common character – open, accessible, and diverse. Just another nook of Columbus’s spectacular sprawl, waiting for the next person to rediscover it.