Cover Story: Upside to Northside

Cincinnati's most diverse neighborhood seeks to maintain its mix

David Sorcher and Sean Hughes

It's a chilly Sunday night at The Comet in Northside. Ed Cunningham has just finished furiously sawing at his fiddle. He and the Comet Bluegrass Allstars have worked the bar's patrons into a frenzy of clapping and have left a filmy residue on the windowpane behind them.

"If you have any requests tonight, folks, keep them to yourself," Cunningham says. "Just kidding."

He introduces bass player Chris Cozintino, who leads a Johnny Cash song called "One Piece at a Time," the story of an auto assembly line worker who sneaks parts home in his lunchbox until he's got a full car.

Meanwhile, an elderly man in a cabby hat lurches over his table and bobs his head. He offers a middle-aged couple two of the last available seats. Someone's toddler is chasing a runaway root beer bottle across the floor. A motor-scooter kid built like a split toothpick tugs on beat at the fringes of his Moped Army jacket.

A mother with multiple facial piercings scoops up the toddler.

In the audience are electricians, 1960s Garage rockers, novelists. An older woman in a white sweater daintily sips wine from a stemmed glass. A guy wearing tie-dye pounds a Bud.

Sunday nights at The Comet are a neighborhood staple in Northside. So is the mixture of rich and poor, eclectic and traditional.

The Appalachian music seems to pin down the community to its working-class roots. The mixture of old and new in the audience is a visible sign of what people have been calling the neighborhood's transition — though no one in Northside seems to know for sure exactly what that transition is.

Folks know it has something to do with the gay and lesbian population that began building a base in Northside two decades ago. It has something to do with a growing African-American population, which over the past decade has increased from about 20 percent to 40 percent.

It also has something to do, people think, with Hamilton Avenue, the storefront-lined street that runs through the center of Northside, where an overabundance of appliance shops and hair salons are seeing the vacant storefronts next door turned to trendy restaurants and multicultural clothing stores.

It has something to do with Northside's growing reputation as an entertainment district, a reputation that's checked by the lumberyard and the hauling company that flank new shops and bars.

During a set break, mention of Northside's transition sparks a discussion about the neighborhood's future in one corner of the bar, next to the window where diners pick up The Comet's esteemed burritos, large enough to make Chipotle's servings look scant.

"Northside is either crashing into ghetto-dom or becoming the next Ludlow," says Tim Ebben, 28, a Northsider and member of a Garage band called The Suds.

Ludlow Avenue, it's understood by those listening, is the strip in Clifton's gaslight district just across Interstate 75. It's full of small stores that sell imported clothing and teak Indonesian whatever, a strip anchored by Graeter's Ice Cream and the Esquire movie theater. Its stores and apartments are swank and, thanks to its proximity to the University of Cincinnati, overrun with college students.

Ebben's fellow band member, Andrew Jody, disagrees.

"I don't think it's going to shit and I don't think it's going to be like Ludlow, you know, a bit highbrow with decorations that boring rich people buy because they can," he says over the blare of Blues coming from The Comet's famed jukebox. "People have been calling it a neighborhood in transition, but for like 20 years now. Northside is Northside. There's always new shit happening, but a good part of it is staying the same, too. It's headed in every direction at once, or none."

Ebben considers.

"Yeah, as long as they only sell crack or marijuana and no heroin, it'll be OK," he concludes.

He pours Burger Beer from a can into a glass and holds it up.

"And you can get Burger Beer in a glass," he says. "That only happens in Northside."

The Bluegrass Allstars again man themselves with their stringed arsenal. Cunningham asks why his baby's been gone so long and tucks his fiddle up against the collar of his shirt, which smacks of John Wayne despite the neon pink tint lent by the lights around The Comet's front windows.

The Suds burst into cheers — "Yeah, shred that shit!" — and the middle-aged couple buys a drink for the elderly gentleman in the cabby hat.

A hearse full of teddy bears
A night at The Comet demonstrates a lot about Northside's transition: the older, working-class generation giving way to the younger, creativity-oriented generation — gentrification looming overhead while drug activity and crime hold it at bay.

One member of the new generation is writer Michael Griffith. He walks south on Hamilton Avenue toward Slim's Restaurant, a new establishment that serves locally produced food and offers a different menu each week. Griffith is having lunch with Brock Clarke, a fellow fiction writer and instructor at UC.

Both men moved to Northside within the past three years, attracted like many writers, artists and musicians by the neighborhood's bars and inexpensive housing. But there's something more that sets Northside apart as a neighborhood of choice for the left-brained, and it suddenly strikes Griffith as he looks up from his reading material.

In front of him is a man wearing nothing but work shoes and a pair of paisley brown boxer shorts so fresh from the package that they maintain their crease. From the man's grinning mouth protrudes an enormous cigar, and in his right hand he holds two pairs of boxer shorts identical to those he's wearing.

Griffith wonders, "What the hell was he wearing when he bought the underwear?"

It is this sort of experience that makes Northside so appealing, says Griffith, who picked up a 2004 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship just before the holidays.

"Northside is a little gritty and full of extreme characters," says Clarke, who's published a novel, The Ordinary White Boy, and more recently a collection of short stories, What We Won't Do, which won the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction.

"I guess it sort of matches my sensibility," he says.

Clarke initially moved to Northside in 2001 because of the housing options. Run-down rental apartments often stand next to grand Tudor homes, making Northside's housing stock some of the city's most diverse and least expensive. Between 1999 and 2000, sales prices for single-family homes in Northside averaged $60,200, significantly less than the citywide average of $115,300.

Another factor that keeps housing prices low is the 2,052 publicly subsidized housing units in the neighborhood, a significant amount for a community of fewer than 10,000 residents.

But the writers agree it's more than inexpensive housing that keeps them here.

"You pick a place where you have the solitude to do your work but where you have the kind of stimulation that feeds your work," Griffith says. "Northside has that."

He's watching a neighbor unload stuffed animals from the back of her hearse.

"Not exactly what I expected to see, but not entirely out of character for the neighborhood," he says. "I don't think I would be seeing that if I lived in Hyde Park."

Griffith's first novel, Spikes, was published in 2001, the same year he moved to Northside from Baton Rouge, La. Earlier this year he published Bibliophilia, a novella. He hesitates to classify himself and his literary circle of friends as a Northside-based community of writers, even though he spends his free time with several Northside writers, including his wife Nicola Mason, Trent Stewart and Clarke.

"It's an awfully big phrase for what we do, which is hang around and drink and chat," Griffith says.

Yet the excitement of living in a community full of creative people is betrayed as he talks.

"I woke up this morning and was annoying my wife by singing the same Ass Ponys line over and over," he says. "Then I went out to go to breakfast, got in my car and turned the corner — and there was the lead singer standing in his front yard waving to someone."

Occurrences such as these seem to suggest that, for the past two decades, Northside's population has been slipping out of working class hands and into those that bear pens, paint brushes and guitars.

"It's a neighborhood that hasn't fallen pray to gentrification," Griffith says. "It means it's a much more interesting neighborhood because there are people from every strata, and it makes it cheaper, which is a big deal."

The members of The Suds are a few of the many musicians who dwell in Northside, a part of this relatively new neighborhood class of the quirky and creative who seem to be filling spots left vacant by dock workers and machinists.

"A lot of musicians live here," says Ebben, who moved to Northside after growing tired of the constant state of drunken college stupor in Clifton Heights.

The neighborhood, more and more, seems to cater to his lifestyle. Next door to The Comet, for example, is the recently opened Avant Garage.

"It's a thrift shop, but for Garage Rock kids," he says.

It's also another example of the local music scene's ties with Northside. The clothing shop is owned in part by Brian Driscoll of the Tigerlilies and Chuck Cleaver of the Ass Ponys, who maintain a studio off Hamilton Avenue.

In addition to catering to alternative lifestyles, Northside also seems to have a livable environment that many entertainment districts lack.

"I moved here and I got a fucking Neighborhood Watch," Ebben says excitedly. "I've got a garage. The bars here don't have a cover, and you get paid better to play here than in Clifton."

'We don't want Starbucks'
While the influx of the creative class has been a steady, long-term change, Northside's business community is now rapidly changing, perhaps catching up with the change in population. During the past decade, a number of specialty shops, restaurants and bars have successfully opened in Northside, including The Comet, Boca and Northside Tavern.

The prime example, though, is Shake It Records, a niche music store that peddles everything from Chicago Post-Punk Art Rock to Cincinnati Rockabilly.

These places seem to have a staying power, but since their inception many other attempts have failed. Specialty shops spring up in an attempt to serve a unique interest. Most of the time, the niche is too narrow and the shops shut down a few months later.

Thus the first block of Hamilton Avenue remains mostly vacant. The graffiti-covered brick walls and a mattress sitting outside an appliance store serve as the only signs of life.

The cycle has become something of a cliché in Northside, but a new trend might be finally allowing others to follow Shake It's success, largely thanks to mistakes in Corryville and Clifton that Northside community members are trying to put behind them.

Rob Sutton sits behind his storefront counter, adjacent to a clothing rack that features a leather mini-skirt with the Rolling Stones tongue plastered across the hip. He owns Scentiments/Rock City, a novelty store specializing in Punk Rock paraphernalia and accessories.

He opened in Northside four months ago after serving for years as a destination shop on Short Vine in Corryville. His move to Northside from the UC area parallels the move of several other shops.

"The landlords on Short Vine kept raising the rent, while the neighborhood was going further and further downhill," says Sutton, the three piercings in his lower lip bobbing with each syllable. "Our building was in such disrepair that we finally called the building inspector, and he was the one who shut us down."

Although the location change might not have come as a choice, Sutton is all smiles about his new spot.

"Our rent here is like a quarter of what we paid on Short Vine, and business has been exactly the same," he says.

A block away is Ali's Boutique, featuring clothing from around the world and accessories ranging from bamboo door beads to Kung Fu shoes. Owner Leslie Scott moved the store from Short Vine to Northside two years ago, leading the evacuation.

"The thing about Vine Street is that no one who has a business on Vine Street owns the building," she says from behind a pair of dark-rimmed glasses. "The people who own the buildings have owned them forever and they're still charging rent for what business was like in the '80s. They haven't adjusted with the times."

But Northside is different, she says. The owners of Shake It Records across the street now own their building.

"Even if they don't own the buildings, their landlord lives in Northside," Scott says. "It's not like somebody out in Blue Ash who owns something in the city. Scentiments' landlord lives in the apartment above the store. Northside Tavern's landlord is moving his offices into that building. It's much more of a community here."

Her business has been around for 30 years, as have some of the other shops moving from the UC area. Her hope is that with the arrival of foot traffic mustered by established shops, Hamilton Avenue will become a place where new businesses can make a go of it.

Another factor driving businesses from around UC is the university's increasing landholdings and the redevelopment of the Calhoun Street and McMillan Avenue business district. One casualty of that development has been the Survival Shop, a store specializing in all things Reggae. The owner there declined to discuss the details behind his move to Northside.

"Let's just put it this way," says the owner, who declines to be identified. "It wasn't by choice."

Crazy Ladies Bookstore, now the Greater Cincinnati Women's Resource Center, opened 25 years ago in Northside and features shelf labels such as "Lesbian Mystery." Citizens to Restore Fairness, the organization behind the campaign to repeal Article 12 of Cincinnati's city charter, has its new headquarters on Hamilton Avenue, as does the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Cincinnati. Several bars and restaurants in Northside, including Jacob's, have earned reputations as popular gay and lesbian destinations.

During the past few years, Northside has become a refuge for those forced out by gentrification in the Main Street entertainment district and by the razing of the Laurel Homes community in the West End.

Cathy Fletcher, president of the Northside Business Association and part owner of Fletcher Zobeck Realty, says the incoming shops are exactly what the neighborhood wants.

"We don't want a Starbucks," she says while standing in front of KFC, one of the few chain restaurants along Hamilton Avenue. "We want to promote small, independently-owned businesses and enough diversity in those that it services everyone in the community."

The inclusion thing
Fletcher says the community seems to be finally turning the corner, pointing out that vacant storefronts are disappearing and new businesses are staying. She recently bought one of the vacant storefronts in the first block of Hamilton Avenue, a purchase she says she might not have been comfortable with a few years ago.

Other changes can also be expected, she says. The Myron G. Johnson Lumberyard, with its stacks of 2-by-4s and rusty fence topped by barbed wire, will be leaving its high-profile location at Hamilton Avenue and Blue Rock Road.

"That block will be developed," Fletcher says.

The community is also in the process of developing a land use plan that will suggest what to do with areas such as the southeast portion of the neighborhood, where run-down apartments and boarded up houses with overgrown lots rub up against paper manufacturing plants and tire distribution warehouses. Many in the community hope to convert former industrial complexes into residential lofts with retail on the first floor, according to Fletcher.

The revamp might do the neighborhood some good, but upgrades often bring the sort of gentrification that's such a threat to the delicate socioeconomic diversity of the community — the very factor that sets Northside apart from other areas in Greater Cincinnati. After all, isn't part of Hamilton Avenue's charm its appliance shops, hauling companies and occasional barbed wire fence?

"We always want to have homes and things available to people who aren't as fortunate as the rest of us," Fletcher says. "We don't want to lose those people, but we don't want to inundate our neighborhood with it either. It's a tricky balance."

Though Northside maintains a relatively inexpensive housing stock, average home sale prices are increasing more rapidly here than in the rest of the city. Between 1991 and 2000, the average amount of money spent on a single-family home in Northside increased 46 percent, while homes in Cincinnati as a whole increased only 36 percent.

"It's coming around, but I hope it doesn't come around too much," says Darren Blase, who owns Shake It Records along with his brother, Jim.

He says places like Ludlow Avenue, where landlords rejected his offer to open a shop several years ago, lack Northside's open-armed reception — not only socially but financially.

"It just came down to 'What neighborhood can I open my business in where, if it doesn't work I don't lose my ass and if it does work I can buy a building in three years?' " he says.

A threat to those conditions is a threat to the best thing Northside has going right now, Blase says.

Elyse Metcalf owns Elyse's Passion, an adult bookstore on Hamilton Avenue, where she moved after a stint on Sycamore Street in Over-the-Rhine. She says the April 2001 uprising forced her to leave that location, but as Northside receives increasing attention from the mainstream business community, a social uprising of a different sort is threatening her store again.

Metcalf recently moved across Hamilton Avenue after the building that housed her business went up for sale.

"The building was up for sale, and I thought it's not going to be good for me," she says.

Her short hop across the avenue might seem insignificant, but it's these subtle warning signs that have some concerned about a possible threat to Northside's openness.

But Tim Jeckering, president of the Northside Community Council, says he doesn't think Northside will take the road all too often traveled. He sits in the Blue Jay Restaurant, an ancient Northside establishment and greasy spoon.

If Northside Tavern across the street represents the community's relatively new tendency toward the hip, the Blue Jay — with its hard-hatted and uniform-wearing customers — grounds Hamilton Avenue with a working-class anchor. Its olive green booths and wood-paneled walls are more reminiscent of your grandmother's living room than anything hip.

Jeckering orders a turkey breast sandwich and starts talking over the clatter of dishes.

"In my mind, gentrification has a little bit of negative connotation," he says. "Usually the poor get kicked out and the more economically advantaged get pushed in. There's some of that going on, but I don't think the poor are being pushed out. There's a point of no return on housing and building stock, so you need to fix that up, but you need to do it in an inclusive manner."

As the city of Cincinnati works on revising its 40-year-old zoning code, Jeckering, an architect by trade, has been leading community meetings to discuss Northside's own land use plan. He says the majority of Northside's housing, which can range from $30,000 to $200,000 in one block, is not up for debate. Vacant manufacturing plants and former car dealerships are the focus of discussion, he says.

One of them is the American Can Building at the corner of Blue Rock Road and Fergus Avenue. The five-story brick structure beams from the southeast corner of the neighborhood with 180,000 square feet of blight. Only about 20 percent of the building is currently in use because of environmental problems and welcoming omens such as a large Doberman pincher occasionally chained to the splintered picnic bench in front.

But that could be changing.

Maureen Wood, a Northside resident of 25 years who owns Off the Avenue Studios and a variety of other properties, hopes to close on a deal this week to purchase the building. She wants to renovate it, turning the eyesore into 88 market-rate apartments, vertically sandwiched by art studios and a neighborhood health club on the first floor and a garden on the roof.

"This building is an anchor for this part of the neighborhood," she says.

She talks about "turning the corner," a phrase often used by Wood and other urbanists. The question is whether everyone gets to turn the corner. Or will some find the curve of increasing property values too sharp?

"We have a commitment to maintain affordable housing," Wood says. "Our concern is that the affordable housing is not slum housing. I just want the quality of affordable housing to increase."

Jeckering moved to Northside more than 20 years ago because of the affordable housing.

"There are a lot of old manufacturing areas in Northside that don't work as that anymore," he says. "We're trying to do retail on the first floor and residential loft type stuff above. As long as you have inclusion in raising the physical fabric and you're not pushing out people of lesser economic means, you're maintaining that diversity. And one thing our land use plan is working on is the whole inclusion thing."

Armed and wary
Jeckering, who's eager to talk about porch tours and neighborhood banners flying over the I-75 bridge, hopes smart community planning checks the potential for gentrification that grows with each new Northside business. But something much less upbeat lurks on some of Northside's corners, and it could ultimately decide the direction of the neighborhood.

Ron Ferrier got a taste of gentrification's worst enemy firsthand.

Several years ago he approached his front door with his keys drawn. Suddenly a bottle crashed atop his head. He bolted for his door, worked his key into the lock, stepped through the door and slammed it shut behind him.

After living in Northside for 13 years, Ferrier says he "escaped to Kentucky in 1996 after a mugging and a break-in." He lived just off Chase Avenue, a street known for trouble.

"We had a little girl," he says. "We wouldn't let her out of the yard."

Crime, especially drug-related crime, is the thorn in Northside's side. There's little doubt in the minds of most residents that Northside's drop in population from 10,527 in 1990 to 9,389 in 2000 has much to do with an increase in the prevalence of drug dealing and crimes associated with it.

The Cincinnati Police Department considers Northside one of the city's "hot spots" for crime. In 2003, police tracked 128 drug-related complaints at 10 of the neighborhood's most notorious street corners and addresses.

Northside also boasts the highest serious crime rate in District 5 and ranks eighth in serious crime among Cincinnati's 53 neighborhoods. Serious crime in 2003 grew more than 16 percent over the previous two years.

Vernon Ferrier stayed put when his brother fled to Kentucky. The 22-year Northside resident walks the streets several times a week to stay fit, but he exercises more than calve muscles and hamstrings: He exercises his right to bear arms, a hot topic in Northside after Ferrier led a group of gun-toting men through the neighborhood last fall (see Show of Force, issue of Oct. 1-7, 2003).

As a hairdresser in Hyde Park, he might handle a blow dryer professionally, but he's also well accustomed to handling a 33-millimeter Glock handgun on his hip. He's had extensive training and recommends the same for those who would carry a firearm. With the legalization of carrying concealed weapons in Ohio, he believes crime in Northside will drop significantly.

"If the bad guys think that 80-year-old woman walking down the street might have a .38 in her purse, they have to think about that," Vernon Ferrier says. "I can't walk four miles like I do and not go through some rough areas. I'm not turning over one block of my community to outlaws. I think some people in the community avoid certain parts of the neighborhood, and that's unfortunate."

It's a sentiment echoed by Hal McKinney, who drew national attention to Northside last year. He was three sips into his Corona at Junker's Tavern when two masked men entered the bar, guns drawn, and began snatching money off the bar.

McKinney had brought a 40-caliber Taurus handgun with him that night but says he consciously decided not to be a hero. One of the robbers shoved the bartender to the ground. The other pointed his gun at patron Richard Wiggins and demanded his wallet.

Wiggins told the robber, Joseph Person, to go to hell. Person threatened to remove Wiggins' brain. Wiggins told him to go ahead.

McKinney says Person's mask had slipped some and that, as the robber turned his head to avoid the flash of the coming blow, he was smiling, his trigger finger tightening. McKinney had never fired a gun at another person but now grabbed Person's arm, placed his gun behind Person's ear and fired. Persons dropped to the floor. The other robber ran into the bathroom, where he stayed until police arrived and arrested him.

Persons lived, and both robbers are now in prison. A grand jury dropped charges against McKinney.

For those who live several blocks away from the community's troubled areas, Northside's seedy spots add charm and provide for barstool stories of muggings and shots ringing out in the night. But those a few blocks off Hamilton Avenue's well-beaten path put up with drug-related beatings on an all-too-personal basis.

Exactly six months after the incident, not much has changed at Junker's. McKinney holds a Corona in his hand and chats with Ms. Shirley, a wizened black woman in her mid-50s. There's still a "Registered Historic Nuthouse" sign over the bar.

Owner Tony Coynes argues that his bar has the best jukebox in the city, though he concedes jokingly that Junker's is more likely to be ranked "Best Bar to Get Shot In." Patron Darrell Boiteaux sits in the same stool where a gun was waved in his face six months earlier. While the patrons and wisecracking haven't diminished, those gathered agree that crime hasn't either.

McKinney wears a bulletproof vest beneath his sweater and might be armed. He's been shot at three times in the past sixth months, he says, in addition to receiving numerous death threats.

He has a restraining order against one young man who, McKinney claims, is part of a gang called the Northside Posse. McKinney says the group sells crack cocaine in the neighborhood and intimidates any opposition into silence.

Ms. Shirley finishes dancing to an R&B track and says McKinney is just paranoid.

"Most of the black people don't think you did nothing wrong," she says, hugging him. "Nobody is out to get you."

But another black woman at the bar counters that statement. She says she doesn't let her children use Children's Park at the corner of Chase and Fergus avenues.

"We call it 'Drug Dealers Park,' " she says, lowering her head. "I had to enlighten my kids about what was going on in that park."

She refuses to give her name, for fear of retaliation. Ms. Shirley also asks that her last name not be used. Another man who lives near the troubled corner says he's scared to death and asks that his name not be associated with accusations against the dealers. Suddenly, McKinney's paranoia seems less peculiar.

Coynes is far more candid than most of his patrons. He says he moved out of Northside because the harassment was so bad.

"Crime has definitely gotten worse," he says. "It's getting to be unlivable. For a couple of years, the dope dealers tried to take over this corner. They knew who I was because I called the police so many times. The police are either unwilling or unable to do anything about it."

Moments later a printer from across the street walks in, complaining that the windows of his store have just been smashed again. Then Boiteaux, a quiet patron who nurses a Budweiser, says he was mugged last month. Northside saw 80 robberies in 2003, compared to 52 in 2001.

"This is ground zero," McKinney says. "Anyone walking around at night is an ATM."

Outside Junker's, a blue conversion van circles the block for a second time.

"The crime gets imported into Northside," McKinney says. "Why come to Northside to buy drugs? Because you can have a gun rack in your truck or you can have pink hair. It's safe here."

As the blue van makes a third round, it seems to parallel Northside's own circular state of transition. The diversity, grit and crime that keep gentrification at bay also make the neighborhood hell for the handful of people in its rotten spots.

Gentrification is a threat to diversity. Crime is a threat to gentrification. Which is worse is a muddy question.

'They're coming back'
While Northside's up-and-coming business owners and residents weigh the advantages of reducing crime and cruddy storefronts on one hand and the maintenance of the neighborhood's mix on the other, one thing is for sure. The older business owners and working-class generation, who have for so long welcomed diversity in Northside, continue to creep toward retirement or death.

During a weekday afternoon at Ace Hardware & Electric, the store maintains its musty basement smell. Customers inch themselves down the store's thin aisles, sometimes turning sideways to make a pass.

The basement-like tang in the air is complimented by the basement-like sense of order in the store. There seems to be none.

A bouquet of rakes and shovels rise from a garbage can surrounded by stacked buckets of nails and boxes of lightbulbs. The walls are packed from floor to ceiling with door handles, PVC elbows and hacksaws.

Yardsticks jut out here and there. Hung overhead like laundry are hardhats, work gloves, extension cords, baseball mitts and a bicycle with training wheels.

Halfway through the store is a makeshift booth of yard signs, duct tape, vacuum bags, measuring tape and a utility heater. Popping up from the hardware heap is a cash register and the head of Bill Dickhaus, Ace Hardware's owner since 1949.

He watches a small black-and-white television that stands on a motor oil box, talks on the phone, takes money and directs each new customer to the proper location for dust masks or caulking. It seems he knows exactly where everything is.

Dickhaus functions not only as a diviner of household needs but as a neighborhood historian and watchdog. Police drop in to ask him about recent crimes and corresponding culprits. Customers chat with him about local politics and the community's status. On these topics, his inventory seems as vast as his collection of hardware.

Dickhaus says landlords 20 years ago held fast to an inflated idea about Northside's popularity and thus its value to renters.

"Every time a guy's rent was due, they'd raise it, and they run all these businesses out," he says, handing a bicycle pump to some kids.

But that's beginning to change, he says, and so is the face of what Northsiders call "The Avenue."

"Now they're coming back," Dickhaus says. "We're getting back to where the people that are in those buildings are owning them now. The neighborhood has been upgrading again, within the past two years, I'd say. The younger people are starting to take over some of the properties, remodeling them, and the older people are either moving away or dying out."

He slowly hobbles to the back of the store to fashion a key, taking careful steps across the store's chipped tile floor. His store used to stay open until 2:30 a.m., but because of his ailing health he recently began shutting down at 8 p.m.

It marks the end of a Northside tradition and perhaps the beginning of another Northside transition. ©

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