Sunday, January 17, 2010

New Albany

I like to tell people that I live in a fortified compound on the outskirts of Columbus, but I really live in New Albany.

New Albany was a genuine little village dating back to the 1850s or so, though not much of one. As late as the mid 80s it didn't have much more going for it than a feed mill, a general store and a high school for the farm kids. Like so many other Ohio farm towns it was well on its way to oblivion.  Then the New Albany Company came.

The New Albany Company was, for all practical purposes, Les Wexner and Jack Kessler.  Wexner, Columbus' only billionaire, was the founder of The Limited, which spawned and/or bought and subsequently grew and/or spun off Victoria's Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, Express, Bath and Body Works and all manner of other stores that fill your local mall.  Kessler was a developer. The two of them decided that conquering the retail world was not enough. They wanted to make a more permanent mark.  They wanted to make the prairie bloom.  So they bought up a bunch of land in and around New Albany through shell corporations, made some shady deals with the Columbus city council to get the water and sewers sent out this way and started building faux Georgian mansions everywhere. The first one built was Wexner's house. At about 22,000 square feet, it's a modest little country place for his family of four.

At the time they told the locals that if they put a blindfold on and came back in 20 years they wouldn't know where they were. And they were right.  Most of the farmers were bought-off and left, their land replaced with neighborhoods with names like Alban Mews, Clivdon, Edge of Woods, The Farms, Fenway, Hampstead Heath, Lambton Park, Lansdowne, and Upper Clarenton. Instead of soybeans, this land is now used to grow the over-privileged offspring of bankers, insurance executives and lawyers.  They go to school on a campus of buildings that looks as though it was transported in toto from the University of Virginia. Leisure trails snake through the village -- don't you dare call it anything other than a village, even though legally speaking it became a city once it surpassed 5,000 residents -- and the entire community is lined and surrounded by miles of its signature white fence.

There are still a few pre-New Albany Company old timers living in their lower-grade, early postwar homes. They were never farmers, really. They were just people who thought they were moving out to the country once upon a time. Their housing stock is mostly run-down, early postwar ranches with aluminum siding, basketball hoops on the garages, shaggy evergreen shrubs and chain link fences. They're the kinds of houses that, were they on New Albany Company-controlled property, would be regulated out of existence as eyesores and threats to property values.

Some of these pre-Wexnerite residents are a plain nuisance. Indeed, a couple of them have managed to stick on the village council somehow, and there they sit, voting their consciences as if they still matter.  For example, when it came time to re-zone some land for the new private surgical hospital and professional park, it was only approved on a 5-2 vote. When the new sign law was proposed (the one that was designed to put that ugly gas station near the village center out of business)  it was approved on a 5-2 vote.  When it was time for the appropriation to build the quaint traffic circle with expensive landscaping just south of the country club, it too was approved on a 5-2 vote.  Those two are just trouble.  Ingrates really, unaware of how lucky they are that they were saved from the barbaric and unsightly country living they endured just a couple of decades ago.

But while the old timers' efforts to retain the last bit of country in the face of all of this country club are routinely thwarted, they somehow managed to prevent the removal of the ugly but earnest War Memorial near the village center. Constructed in the heady days of the Great War, it recorded all of the names of the New Albany farm boys who died from Tayacoba in 1898 to Tet in 1968. When we moved here in 2005 it appeared to be a bit neglected. A few months later, however, a New Albany native died in Baghdad.

He was not the son of an attorney or insurance executive and he didn't live in Landsdowne or Alban Mews. He grew up in an early postwar home with a basketball hoop on the garage and aluminum siding, about a half mile north of where the famous painted white fence stops and Main Street turns back into plain old Rt. 62. After he died, the war memorial was gussied up with a wreath with his name on it and a new spotlight installed to illuminate it at night. It was soon covered with flags and ribbons, and quickly became something that no New Albany Company Community resident would ever be allowed to put on their lawn.  I'm sure most of my Range Rover-driving, latte-sipping neighbors don't notice it on their way to pilates class.

One day, I imagine, the last of the old timers will be gone and the war memorial will be taken down and replaced by something far more tasteful closer to the new village hall.  Given the prevalent demographics, it probably won't grow much going forward.

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We moved to New Albany in 2005 when our daughter was barely a year old and our son was on the way.  We were convinced that our 75 year-old house in the city was too small and too drafty in which to raise babies, and we knew that the schools in the area were sub par.  We were probably right about most of that, though whether that demanded that we move to New Albany remains an open question.

Still, I can't say I hate it here. There were several times over the past five years when the level sidewalks and nicely landscaped village green right outside our window provided a calming counterbalance to the chaos inside the house.  Anna's school is very nice. The snow is cleared off the streets quite quickly. It's quiet at night.

But though our neighborhood is among the most modest in the village, to the old timers we're no different than anyone else.  Sure, I drink regular coffee and not lattes and sure I could point out the subtle differences between our Volvo wagon and those Range Rovers, but I'm not sure it would help my case.  We're part of the new New Albany. The people who destroyed the village in order to save it.