The Nicest Place in Ohio: Clintonville Neighborhood in Columbus

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"A Special Neighborhood"

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Social distancing couldn’t stop the party in this neighborhood.

For the folks who live in the Clintonville neighborhood in Columbus, social distancing has been especially hard.

“We enjoy each other’s company so much,” says Larry Ziniel, who moved to the area in 2014 after living elsewhere in the city of nearly 900,000 since 1982. On the north side of town, Clintonville is nestled against the Olentangy River and comfortably filled with modest, neatly kept houses built mainly in the early 1900s, fronted with tidy, green lawns. Porches bristle with American flags.

All over America, COVID-19 has helped people find out what their neighborhood is made of. What Clintonville’s locals have discovered is exactly what they always thought: They live in a small town where everybody knows everybody.

The realization began with an online group for groceries. When one neighbor would head to the store, he or she would message others to see if anyone needed anything, limiting the number of trips. Friendships blossomed and neighbors began to coordinate porch picnic dinners, with each family dining on their respective front steps at the same time as their neighbors.

Diane Erwin is “the unofficial mayor of the street,” West Dunedin Road, a street like dozens of others in the area, is emblematic of life in Clintonville, according to Ziniel. She rallied neighbors together to receive weekly beer deliveries in order to support her friend’s fledgling local brewery, Combustion Brewery & Taproom. Before coronavirus, Erwin loved to plan block parties. During quarantine it was beer deliveries for a socially distant toast.

When Erwin’s son Atticus turned five, Ziniel organized an entire parade for the birthday boy, dusting off his grown daughter’s childhood collection of 100 Beanie Babies to spell out “HBDA” for “Happy Birthday Atticus” along the parade route. Neighborhood children drew other birthday messages on the sidewalk in chalk.

“We feel lucky every day to have come here,” says Erwin.

Other community birthdays were celebrated with similar fanfare, including a girl who turned nine and a woman who turned 88 on the same day. One of the residents bought a cake to celebrate and set up a table outside so neighbors could come grab a slice while maintaining social distance.

Another neighbor, Diane Ray, sewed masks using her colorful fabric scraps and left them in a box on her front porch for members of the community to take. With the skills to make them and a sewing machine to do the work, she felt inclined to use her passion and her skills to help her neighbors.

“You get to pick your friends, but you don’t get to pick your neighbors necessarily, but somehow we have a really great neighborhood,” says Ray.

neighborhood in clintonville ohioCourtesy Larry Ziniel
These trying times have only served to highlight the kindness of the neighborhood.

Inga Smith shares puzzles and restocks the little library in front of Eva Fried’s home. The women’s book club has been meeting in backyards and staying six feet apart. Debbie Wardle makes baked goods for elderly neighbors.

The neighborhood even gained brief international notoriety when two of its youngest residents, Taran Tien, 9, and his sister Calliope, 6, put on an impromptu porch concert for their 78-year-old neighbor, Helena Schlam, 78. Her grandkids are usually around this time of year, visiting from Israel for Passover, but coronavirus changed their plans. So the concert was planned for noon and streamed via FaceTime so grandma and grandchildren could enjoy it together. The performers put on their Sunday best and played for a half hour.

“I haven’t been out of my house for five days, and I won’t be out anytime soon,” Schlam told the Columbus Dispatch back in March after the show. “This was a delightful break for all of us. I love all the kids and I love music. It was such a real gift.”

The Nomination

The Clintonville neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio is an older area of the city filled with a wealth of houses built in the early 1900’s, stately old trees, parks, shops, restaurants and possibly the highest density of Toyota Priuses per capita of anywhere you’ll find. The sense of community is really impressive here and our neighborhood recently gained national attention when two young aspiring musicians put on a porch recital for their 78 year old neighbor Helena Schlam while she was sheltering in place at home.

Just a few streets over from Helena’s place on Erie Rd. is where we live: West Dunedin Rd. Only two blocks long, West Dunedin is a wonderful place to raise a family or enjoy a comfortable and lively retirement. The residents range in age from under a year old to the mid-eighties. Our block has become especially close over the years and we keep in touch with each other several times a week through group emails (“does anyone have a cup of sugar? I’m making a batch of cookies and just figured out that I’m out!”), block parties, Friday night movies during the summer projected on Paul and Diane’s garage, a little library, a book club for the gals, a horseshoe club for the guys, Jim and Diane’s blowout Buckeye football season opener party (featuring an appearance by the OSU alumni band!) and so much more.

Ohio and the City of Columbus went into lockdown in early March, with the opening salvo being the significant scaling down of the Arnold Schwartzenegger Sports Festival, which normally brings thousands of people to our fair city and millions of dollars to our local economy. There soon came runs on food, cleaning supplies and paper goods in the local stores and we knew then that we were in for some challenging times ahead.

We have several healthcare workers on our street and lots of small children, so we quickly started to band together to help each other face our collective new reality. Some of the highlights of our lockdown activities include:

— Coordinating grocery store trips to keep some of our more vulnerable neighbors (or frazzled parents!) safe in their homes
— Diane R. sewing dozens and dozens of stylish face masks and leaving them in a box on her front porch for anyone to take
— Amy coordinating a neighborhood “porch picnic” where everyone sat outside their own homes and dined on a Friday night
— A couple of elderly neighbors receiving baked goods from Debbie, lawn care from Paul (or whoever can beat Paul to it!) and grocery deliveries from several neighbors
— Inga sharing puzzles with the neighbors and restocking the little library in front of Amy and Eva’s house
— Diane E. (the unofficial mayor of the street) rallying the neighbors to get weekly deliveries from a fledgling brew pub in town to help keep them afloat (Hey – it’s the least we can do!)
— And the monthly book club went to an online format and all of the gals enjoyed lively discussion, wine (of course!!) and comaraderie from the comfort of their own homes

A few weeks back Atticus had a fifth birthday approaching and his mother let folks know that he was bummed out that he wouldn’t be able to have a party or see his grandmother. The neighbors mobilized the very next day and organized a grand tour of the street for Atticus so we could all wish him a happy birthday. As he walked up and down the street he saw birthday greetings chalked on the driveways by his friends, was serenaded by the neighbors, given a bunch of birthday balloons, presented with some small gifts and even saw a birthday message on a driveway that was formed using over 100 beanie babies! It was so gratifying for everyone involved that we knew we had just created a new tradition for all of the little ones on the street.

While we don’t know what kind of normal we’ll return to someday, or when that day will come, we do know that we’ll be able to face this bravely and resolutely together. Through this terrible and tragic pandemic the residents of West Dunedin Road have learned that to survive life’s challenges, sometimes it takes a neighborhood!

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