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The Short North & The Automobile: A Love Story

I listen to what people are saying as I pass them while walking to work. Sometimes it is speculation on the neighborhood (did the city do this?), sometimes enthusiastic admiration for the changes (this place used to be a dump!), sometimes nostalgic reminiscences of what was (it just isn't as edgy). Sometimes I can't help but stop and mix in. And thus last Sunday I stopped at Bodega to talk to a group that was speculating about ARC across the street and what the "Byers" on the facade meant. "Yes, it was a car dealership" I found myself saying. Then I listed all the other buildings in the neighborhood that had been dealerships and pointed out Mikey's Late Night Slice as a former used car lot. Add in all the former body shops and car washes and you have an amazingly automobile centric neighborhood. Ironically, the automobile caused the death of that old neighborhood. The freeways came in and those cars drove everyone who could afford it out to the suburbs. The dealerships moved out to the 'burbs themselves, leaving a few scattered used lots and then nothing at all.

Those big buildings found new life as office supply stores, chair rentals, doctor's offices, furniture stores. The used lots mostly just became odd little parking lots. One was lost when an alley was relocated.

When the neighborhood changed, so did the uses. One gas station was converted to an art gallery. A car wash became a restaurant, another a design studio. A two story body shop was converted to apartments upstairs and retail downstairs. Two of the big dealerships were razed. The one story mid-century architecture was just not worth saving - at least for this generation. Both were replaced by multistory developments - retail below, housing above. One provided a parking garage. Other large dealerships, with the names still intact, were converted to modern usage. More restaurants. More retail. More residents. More density. And the neighborhood started to face another part of the love/hate relationship with the automobile. Parking. The neighborhood wasn't selling these marvels of engineering anymore, but they still insisted on being the center of attention. We try to have signage that is pedestrian oriented. We encourage the walking neighborhood. The cars say "HEY WHERE CAN I PARK!"

Since I wrote the above we have had a sad change to the landscape. The "Byers" sign on the ARC building was a concrete or terra cotta addition, prominately placed right over the door, with decorative elements on either side above the windows. Those are still there, but the "Byers" part is no more. It fell off the day after my conversation with the curious breakfast eaters. That adds yet another level of irony. If not for that sign, and my inherent nosiness, I would not have been musing about autos. And this blog would not be.

That, then, is another day in the life of the Short North Arts District!

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