Northland's new narrative is one fueled by diversity, entrepreneurship and reinvention

Aleyda Rodriguez was 14 when her parents separated. To help support her family, she transformed the front porch of the El Salvador home she shared with her mother into a kitchen and started making food to serve to anyone who would come.

“I said, ‘Mama, we don't have a way to survive. I'm going to make a kitchen and serve homemade food,'” Rodriguez recalled.

In 2001, Rodriguez moved with her family to Columbus, where she finished high school at the now-closed Southeast Career Center. Her first job was as a dishwasher at GameWorks, where she eventually worked her way up to busser and cook. She later took a job as a cook at the Hilton Columbus at Easton.

By 2013, Rodriguez was finally ready to strike out on her own again. Now married, she opened Ranchero Kitchen inside the Saraga International Grocery on Morse Road, eventually outgrowing the space and moving to a storefront location on the same street in June of this year.

“It was good to start at the bottom … and learn how to run a business,” said Rodriguez, seated at a table in the new Ranchero Kitchen location. “But we were very busy, especially on Saturday and Sunday. It was not enough, five or six tables. I told my husband, ‘It is time to move.'”

That Rodriguez makes her home and operates her business in Columbus' Northland area is no coincidence. Her story dovetails with the area's recent history, to the point where her story and Northland's story nearly become synonymous.

The Northland area of Columbus is comprised of 25 or so neighborhoods roughly bounded by Cleveland Avenue, Karl Road, Busch Boulevard, Dublin-Granville Road and Morse Road. The 25-square-mile area covers, generally, the area from New Albany on the east to Worthington on the west, and Cooke Road on the south to I-270 on the north. Approximately 130,000 people live in the area, which would make Northland the seventh largest city in Ohio based on 2010 census figures.

Residential and commercial growth in the area boomed in the 1960s and '70s. A centerpiece of the community was the Northland Mall, the first mall in the city, which opened in 1964. Dave Cooper, president of the Northland Area Business Association, recalled working for a company headquartered on Morse Road in 1969.

“You couldn't get a parking space at the mall at Christmas-time,” he said.

Numerous dining options sprung up catering to shoppers who came not just from Northland, but from around Central Ohio. The area's reputation as a shopping and dining destination stuck through the early to mid-1990s. The city's continued growth, however, was beginning to leave Northland in its wake.

The rapid growth of the north suburbs along I-270, as well as Columbus' annexation of significant acreage in northern Franklin and southern Delaware counties — an area which eventually became known as Polaris — and the attendant retail development, provided other, newer options for Central Ohio shoppers. Easton Town Center opened in 1999, followed by Polaris Fashion Place in 2001, each a short distance from Northland Mall. Major retailers began abandoning Northland for these new developments. Shoppers, and, in many cases, residents, followed.

In 2002, Northland Mall closed, and the Northland area suffered. The Morse Road corridor became an abandoned wasteland of increasing crime and vacant storefronts.

Armed with the various tools at its disposal, including grants, the creation of special commissions and tax incentives, the City of Columbus, area businesses and civic associations quickly set out to mitigate the anticipated economic havoc the loss of the mall wreaked.

The Northland Alliance was initially created with grant funds to support the development of a Special Improvement District, in which pooled tax revenue is used to fund improvement projects. Combined with the efforts of the then four-year-old Northland Area Business Association, formed at the first whispers of the closure of Northland Mall, early steps were taken to combat real and perceived struggles Northland would face in the ensuing 15 years.

These efforts were bolstered by a trend that not even the most astute city planner could have foreseen.

A significant influx of immigrant populations from Africa, Asia and South and Central America kept populations level or growing. Affordable housing, access to transportation, whether public via COTA lines or easy navigation via I-71, offered these new Americans a setting that not only provided a place for their families, but easy access to jobs (some, ironically, at or near Polaris Fashion Place and Easton Town Center). Northland also proved an effective location to start and grow a business.

“In the early 2000s, as Northland Mall was closing, interestingly enough some of these immigrant entrepreneurs had opened up shops in the mall, especially members of our Somali community,” said Department of Neighborhoods Director Carla Williams-Scott. “As the mall closed, they began to look at ways to bring their businesses out and start their own thing. That's when Global Mall started. That really grew out of the end of the [Northland] Mall.”

Global Mall, opened by Somali refugee Ahmed Mohamed in 2002, was one of the first spaces to offer opportunities for immigrant business owners along Morse Road. Part village market, part shopping mall, the small stores within allowed startup business owners a spot to sell their wares, and the draw of multiple businesses in one location exposed each owner to new potential customers. Upstart businesses found homes in these malls, but also in the vacant spaces in strip centers located throughout the Northland area. Dave Cooper found himself with a host of new neighbors in the Beechcroft Center, where he operates his printing business, The Ink Well.

“When my wife and I bought The Ink Well in 1998 … there were 17 storefronts in the Center. Four were owned by non-white business owners and 13 by white business owners. Now, the numbers have flipped, and there are 13 businesses owned by new Americans,” Cooper said. “We just want everyone to be successful. We do everything we can to help each other.”

According to a study commissioned by the Community Relations Commission, the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and the Partnership for a New American Economy, entrepreneurship among foreign-born residents of the city increased by 41.5 percent from 2007 to 2012. At the same time, U.S.-born entrepreneurship declined by 1.2 percent. While these numbers do not reflect the Northland area only, a separate study by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University revealed sharp increases in African, Asian and Central American immigrants living in the Morse Road corridor, where, by 2015, the total population was more than 20 percent foreign-born.

Additionally, the Community Relations Commission report indicated an increase in the share of foreign-born residents living in the city who had been here for more than a year, meaning the immigrant community was becoming increasingly established.

“I don't think anybody predicted the strength of the immigrant population on the economy,” said Bill LaFayette, owner of research and analysis firm Regionomics.

“[The Northland area] grew organically, without it necessarily being planned to incentivize or incubate these immigrant businesses,” said Patrick Terrien, president and CEO of the Columbus Council on World Affairs.

Joyce Bourgault, community activist and founder of Helping Hands Health & Wellness Center on Morse Road, saw the changes in Northland from both a macro and a micro perspective.

“When I first came to Columbus 31 years ago, Morse Road and [State Route] 161 [had] a wealth of middle-class restaurants that appealed to people all over city coming to the mall to shop and eat. When that disappeared, it was a huge change for the white middle class of the community,” Bourgault said. “The change was viewed as ‘our thing's going away' at first, but this wide range of new people moving in has been very much a bonus to the community.”

Bourgault also saw the struggles these new Americans and new business owners were having.

“Opportunity was there … but beyond that, there was a lack of understanding of how things are done,” she said. “I saw people … who needed to know how to operate a business, to get permits and pass inspections. There was a big effort to help small businesses learn how to operate, and helping with loans to get started.”

“At first, [the city] worked in an informal way, partnering with the Ohio Hispanic Coalition to have a liaison to help businesses get licenses and pass inspections. That was a first step,” said Guadalupe Velasquez, director of the city's New American Initiative. “But with the [2007] creation of the New Americans Initiative, we started working directly to provide access in terms of reaching out to the city for services, improvements on storefronts and other grants that are available to small business.”

“I didn't have a business plan, a financial plan, I just knew I could cook and if people will like it, I'll be fine,” said Momo Ghar co-owner Phuntso Lama in an interview at her space at Saraga International Grocery. (Lama recently announced plans to add a location in the North Market, new in early September.)

Lama's family moved to the United States from Nepal in 1984 when she was 15. They were not refugees, she said, but they were immigrants. Lama lived in New York City for 31 years before moving to Columbus in 2015.

“I found [the space at Saraga] by accident; I came to do my Asian grocery [shopping], and here was this empty spot with a sign that said, ‘Store for Rent,'” said Lama, who identifies as Tibetan. “I was not looking for this, but I was thinking about getting a job. I called up my husband [and] I said, ‘Maybe do you think I can give this a try?' I cook a lot at home, and so I thought maybe people will like it. I asked the rent [and] four days later we signed the lease.”

Lama said she initially expected shoppers at the popular market would make up her clientele, but she soon developed, via word-of-mouth, a following, aided by an online dining community that has given her a thus-far perfect rating on the online review site Yelp. Now, she said, Momo Ghar is a destination, with people finding Saraga through her business and not the other way around.

“The market is busier now,” she said. “Before, it was mostly immigrants — Somali and Nepali — but these days I think there [are] a lot of white folks coming to shop here. Some of them are my customers, and almost none of them have heard of this market. They're pleasantly surprised by how large the selection is.”

“I knew how to run a business, but I had been looking for the right storefront for about a year,” said Bhutanese-Nepali refugee Vikram Rimal, co-owner of the Indreni Mart and Fashion Store on Dublin-Granville Road, speaking via an interpreter. “In the beginning, it was a challenge. But we managed.”

Rimal said his customer base, once solidly Nepali and Indian, is now a full mix of nationalities, including long-time Northland residents.

Aleyda Rodriguez has noticed a similar trend among her customers, first at Saraga, and now in her full-service restaurant. She has tailored the Ranchero Kitchen menu to suit the varied tastes of the people who live and work in Northland.

“You see our menu? We make hamburgers, chicken fettuccine with my own Alfredo, wings. … I like everyone to feel like they're at home,” said Rodriguez of the Americanized dishes that appear alongside traditional Salvadoran pupusas and horchata. “You can't just focus on one kind of customer. So we are Salvadoran, but we make everything.”

There are pieces of Northland's reinvention that are the direct result of strategies developed to renew the area's economic vitality. The mall property was purchased by the city in 2003, which, in 2007, contracted with The Stonehenge Company, a local real estate development firm, to redevelop the land.

With the opening of a new Kroger store last fall, all but one section of the former mall site has now been redeveloped, according to Stonehenge Vice President Adam Trautner. He added that his firm is also handling redevelopment of the former Kroger store on the north side of Morse Road.

“Our idea was to create a mixed-use development,” said Trautner, who also noted the importance of meeting with both community residents as well as leadership, including former Northland Community Council president Dave Paul and current president Emmanuel Remy.

The reveloped site is now home to Kroger, a Menard's home improvement store, offices for the Ohio Department of Taxation, Franklin County Job and Family Services and Board of Elections, the Franklin County Animal Shelter, the Northland Performing Arts Center and additional lots featuring a variety of restaurants and miscellaneous retail shops.

“We worked to redevelop the community in a different way, with a resurgence in more specialty, mom and pop shops, which lends well to what's happening in the whole Northland area. It's very identifiable, the success we've had with restaurants,” Remy said. “In the transition, we lost [a lot of] retail, and it was clear to me when I got involved that we're not going to replace it all with the same thing.”

The work is not done. It has proven more difficult to replicate the success of Morse Road along the State Route 161 corridor. Cooper said that, while efforts to work with police and other city offices to shut down hotels that had become hubs of prostitution and drug activity, many spaces remain underdeveloped.

“While Morse Road is well on its way to revival, I'm still concerned about the [State Route] 161 corridor,” Dave Paul said. “But attention has turned there since Morse Road is mostly stabilized.”

Remy also voiced concern that Northland remains “deficient on park space as it relates to urban-planning standards.”

Nonetheless, the old Northland narrative of economic depression, high crime and suburban flight has been revised. New residents have found a place where they can be successful and not only find a place to live, but a community, a home.

“This influx of new Americans, they're an essential part of the [Northland] community,” said longtime resident Bourgault.

“The vibrancy of the Morse Road corridor is just another example of why our city benefits from a diverse community made up of immigrants and refugees,” said Terrien of the Columbus Council on World Affairs. “Too often we're talking about us and the immigrant population, when in fact the immigrants and refugees are us.”

“We have an opportunity not only as Northland, but as the City of Columbus to celebrate the diversity that we have here,” Remy said. “We are in the most diverse area in city, maybe even the state.”

“There has been dramatic developmental change in the Morse Road area,” Vikram Rimal said. “We live in Forest Park, with many Nepali and whites as our neighbors. We feel like part of the larger community. We came with a lot of family, and I now feel like Columbus is my home.”

During a conversation with Rodriguez and Remy at Ranchero Kitchen, a 22-year-old woman from Honduras interjects. She said that there are many chefs in her family, and she wonders how she might go about opening a restaurant. Unbeknownst to her, she's looking directly at the answer.