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Discussion Highlights Tensions on Near East Side

Brent Warren Brent Warren Discussion Highlights Tensions on Near East SidePhoto by Walker Evans.
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A groundbreaking ceremony was held this earlier this summer at 818 E. Long St., where a mixed-use development called Adelphi Quarter will bring 130 new apartments and 9,000 square feet of retail space to the King-Lincoln Bronzeville neighborhood.

Although development on the Near East Side is not a new phenomenon – rehabs of single family homes have been happening for decades, and new, mid-size residential buildings have become much more common in recent years – Adelphi Quarter is the largest of all the recent developments and the one that has received the most attention, mostly for its potential to spark further activity along a historic commercial corridor.

It was within that context that PACT (Partners Achieving Community Transformation) and Columbus Underground recently hosted a Big Table discussion with the theme “Real Estate Trends and the Near East Side.”

A group of nearly 30 people gathered at Broad Street Presbyterian Church for the event, bringing a range of different perspectives and life experiences. There were community leaders, developers, representatives of several different nonprofit organizations and area churches, and a mix of longtime residents and new arrivals to the Near East Side.

One issue that kept coming up during the discussion was the way in which those two groups interact – residents that have lived in their historically African American neighborhood for decades (or whose roots stretch back multiple generations), and their new, mostly white, neighbors.

“One of the major concerns I have is with the attitude of new individuals moving into the community,” said Lela Boykin, a longtime resident of Woodland Park who sits on the Near East Area Commission (NEAC). “Some of us have had personal experiences with those individuals…we say hello, they don’t respond back.”

Boykin also said that she has been alarmed by posts on Next Door – the neighborhood-based social networking site – that seem to promote racial profiling, or that advocate calling the police or code enforcement on neighbors who have not kept up their property.

“The sense of community that we once had and enjoyed is no longer there, and all the bricks and mortor won’t change that…it’s all about people and their attitudes,” she added.

“Next Door can be good, but that’s not the means to bring people together, (it) can sometimes be more divisive,” said Willis Brown, President of the Bronzeville Neighborhood Association, who added that he often sees new residents show up in person for a meeting or two, then not return. “We will continue to work on issues (as a neighborhood group), but first we have to build the value and respect.”

“I embrace (new residents) coming back, but you got to understand that we are not going to change the fabric of this community,” said Ron Bryant, a member of Rehoboth Temple Church of Christ who has been active in the neighborhood for years. “We’ll embrace you to make this community better, to take it to the next level, but you’re not going to change it.”

Brown and others emphasized that one way for newcomers to embrace the existing fabric of the community is by learning about its history.

“We want the same things,” added Annie J. Ross-Womack, who chairs the zoning committee of the NEAC and serves as the CEO of the Long Street Business Association. “We want clean streets, nice shops, street lights…all those beautiful things that everyone else has. You want to feel safe in your community, but…there’s a fabric that’s here, and people want to come here and re-create what they had that they left – this is not Upper Arlington, or the Short North – every community is different.”

A broader perspective on the issue of neighborhood redevelopment was provided by Boyce Safford, the Executive Director of Columbus Next Generation, an organization that has played a role in many urban development projects around Columbus (including Adelphi Quarter on Long Street).

“The Short North was a 40 year effort, and it’s still going on,” he said, also citing the years-long collaboration – between neighborhood activists, private foundations, developers, the city and Ohio State University – that preceded the changes that have occurred in recent years in Weinland Park.

And on the Near East Side, Boyce added, efforts to invest in and revitalize Long Street date back to at least 2007, when former Mayor Michael Coleman began a push to restore the Lincoln Theater.

“The neighborhood has been through stages, good or bad, and now other folks are seeing value, as it relates to its location, its architecture, and for other reasons…and that’s a healthy thing,” he said.

Another issue that was brought up by several participants in the discussion is the tax abatements (and other incentives), that the city has used to encourage new development.

“I don’t have an issue with change, I have an issue of how it’s done; who benefits and who loses…it is the unfairness and inequity that comes with the tax abatements,” said Boykin. “I was one of those people who was redlined, back in 1981; when I purchased my house, it took me going through five insurance companies before I could get housing insurance, and I’m not the only one who’s experienced that…so we had to work and sacrifice to get to where we are.”

Others said that the fact that property taxes are now going up for many homeowners in the area – including seniors who may be on a fixed income – only adds to the sense of frustration.

The discussion was not all negative, though. When asked to list reasons to be optimistic about their neighborhood, several people spoke up.

Dana Moessner, Vice President of the Bronzeville Neighborhood Association, cited the area’s many churches, the involvement of anchors like the Urban League and OSU (which funds PACT and also operates the African American & African Studies Community Extension Center on Mt Vernon Avenue), and historic theaters like the Lincoln and the Pythian, which is now part of the King Arts Complex.

“All the inner city neighborhoods are similar, but this one’s unique, in that it has institutions that have been here a very long time, that are still intact, and that are participated in,” said Moessner.

“There’s no other predominately African American community in the country that has the assets that the Near East Side has, (and) I’ve been to a lot of them,” added Safford. “There’s something unique and positive that you can build upon, you just have to have the will, and everybody going in the same direction.”

Additional Reading:

To Be a Good Neighbor

Program Aims to Help Longtime Residents in Gentrifying Neighborhood

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