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Researcher: Morse Road A Distinctive Form Of Urban Renewal

New census figures show Columbus grew more diverse during the past decade. In the Northland area, the white population fell by more than 25 percent while African-Americans, Somalians, and Latinos moved in. The changing demographics are especially evident along a stretch of Morse Road. WOSU's Tom Borgerding reports.

When Northland Mall closed about a decade ago, the area lost some of its economic heft. Easton Town Center pulled commerce to the northeast outerbelt while Polaris Fashion Place attracted former Northland customers and residents to the next county.

"Then you started to see the deterioration of this strong, predominantly white community." Ohio Wesleyan University professor David Walker says as whites moved out of Northland, immigrants from Mexico and Somalia moved in.

Walker researches what he calls the 'material effects of globalization.' and Morse road through the Northland area provided a case study.

"So, I was looking at this neighborhood," Says Walker. "The Northland neighborhood, which wasn't just any particular neighborhood but it was a very important neighborhood that very much anchored the north part of the city with the Northland Mall being a very important economic and cultural center there."

Walker says what's happening now on Morse Road is a distinctive form of urban renewal. While the city uses capital improvements and tax incentives to sustain economic activity, its immigrant owned businesses that have played a major role in reviving commerce.

"I fear what we may have seen if it had not been for the immigrant entrepreneurs investing in the blighted areas and run down businesses we would have seen an increase in tax incentives to bring more box stores to the area."

In fact, Columbus city council did grant an $11 million 10-year tax abatement to Menard's to attract a major retailer to the former Northland Mall site. The city also spent $900,000 dollars to spruce up Morse Road between I-71 and Cleveland Avenue. But Walker says what happened to the former Sun TV building on Morse Road where a Latino bought the building and converted it to a Mexican restaurant and grocery destination is just as important.

"He employs 45 full time people at his store. That's one of nine stores he has just in Central Ohio."

Across the street, a group of Somali immigrants operate what barber Abdul Mohamed describes as a community-based mall, 20 or more small shops, started mostly with funds from family relatives or community investors.

"So its not a corporate-owned, individuals that own their own businesses such as myself."

Mohamed's business is one of 90 listed as a member of the Somali-American Chamber of Commerce. Its Morse Road offices are a couple of miles to the east. Ehmed Abdul, moved to Columbus from Memphis to open the Good Deal Grocery Market in the Global Mall.

"And, a lot of people of our community was here so that way we can join and see what we can also offer."

Abdul offers kitchen ware and food from the Middle East and Eastern Africa. A banner behind the check-out counter advertises Halal meats.

While census takers documented changes among the residents of Northland during the past decade, researcher Walker developed what he calls a perception map of the area. And he found some common threads across races and cultures.

"When we found then also that we saw overlapping agreements among Somalis and African-Americans and elderly longterm white residents of the appreciation of the Latino markets because of the variety of goods they had and because they were rather colorful and happy as opposed to these businesses that were empty for some time. "

Abdul Mohamed, part owner of the Warya Barber shop in the Global Mall says changes in perception have helped him stay in business for the last eight years.

"At the beginning we never thought that we'll be seeing a lot of Americans actually coming in and appreciate what we do here but come to see, people when they walk in and they're like. You know what, this is a clever idea. We never thought this could be done but it is done and its working."

Next week, Walker will present findings of his Morse Road research at forum on the Ohio Wesleyan campus.

"Dollars don't really see color lines and race lines and ethnicity lines as much as people would perhaps believe."