Started from the Bottoms: How Franklinton has risen to the top of Columbus' art and culture scene

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

It's a Monday afternoon and Alicia "AJ" Vanderelli, Ashley Pierce and Tiffany Boggins are on the back patio of Rehab Tavern in Franklinton. Their picnic tabletop is full - not with beer bottles, but with art supplies. There's a toolbox of sculpting tools, a sketchbook or two, and a dead cicada (a model of sorts). Vanderelli, founder of The Vanderelli Room, is painting, wiping, painting and wiping a found tray featuring an image of an English countryside. Things are about to change for the residents of the tiny brick homes. Hovering above the scene is a gigantic spaceship, with equally enormous cicadas climbing down (backwards, as they do). Her countryside will never be the same.

These organic Franklinton gatherings aren't just impromptu study halls. They're a result of creative placemaking, a practice of intentionally leveraging the arts to serve a greater community. Because of planning started more than a decade ago by the City of Columbus, in Franklinton, it's now plausible that a successful zombie escape business shares a building with teens scrimmaging for the world series of robot fight club, FIRST Tech Challenge. Now casual gatherings at places like Land-Grant Brewing and Strongwater (called "the de facto business center of Franklinton" by Alex Bandar, CEO at the Columbus Idea Foundry) bring about ideas. Ideas like the Artists Wrestling League, an ongoing series of WWE-style paint-offs. Ideas like date night events involving blacksmithing at Idea Foundry followed by a three-course dinner at Strongwater. And ideas like Franklinton Fridays, monthly art walks that connect the Ethical Arts Collective, 129 Studios and the neighborhood's other 11 galleries and arts hubs.

The effect of the arts - starting with the opening of 400 West Rich - on the community is undeniable. In May of 2010, as many of 400 West Rich's Pecha Kucha guests wandered into the dark warehouse for the first time, police on foot and in helicopter investigated gunshots in nearby Riverside Bradley. Five years later, khaki-laden suburban couples pose for selfies in front of handpainted plywood signs outside the same building at the 9th annual Urban Scrawl. A few feet down from where Three Deuces once stood - known by police, says Franklinton Development Association (FDA) executive director Jim Sweeney, as "a good place to get stabbed" - full-time blacksmith Adlai Stein now teaches Idea Foundry students how to make decorative knives. And just a block away from asbestos-filled homes with boarded up windows plastered with warnings not to enter, there's a new public service advertisement, one connected to a CoGo Bike Share station reminding passersby to steer clear of ticks.

In just five years, the peninsula has traded crack addicts and prostitutes for artists-in-residence from near and far (see: Dresden, Germany). And between 400 West Rich, The Idea Foundry and the newly relocated Glass Axis, East Franklinton employs more than 100 full-time employees, all in the creation business. In recent months, a tattoo shop (Defining Skin), a custom furniture shop (Wood.Metal.Art.), a 3D scanning company (Knockout Concepts) and a product design company (Bigger Tuna) have either expanded or opened in the area. And this weekend, the eight-year-old Independents' Day Festival will return to Franklinton for the second year, bringing with it more than 100 musical performances across seven performance stages and spaces, and more than 300 volunteers.

In short, the area once branded a floodplain by FEMA (and "The Bottoms" by everyone else) has risen to the top of Columbus' art and culture scene.

Every story has a beginning, and East Franklinton has many. There was the time the city decided to build a floodwall and created the FDA and hired Sweeney to help manage the changes that come with taking a floodplain and making it viable land again. There was the time when a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur with a keen ability to hire the right people from 2,200 miles away purchased an empty water fountain factory. Maybe it began when Lance Robbins, that aforementioned investor, brought in Chris Sherman, who grew up in a transitioning Short North, and Kris Howell, who would later open Strongwater, to poke around what would become 400 West Rich. For some in the near future, the beginning of the Franklinton we know today came a few weeks ago, when Resource Ammirati's Nancy Kramer and entrepreneur Christopher Celeste invested the money needed to complete the top floor of the Idea Foundry, adding windows, HVAC and a rooftop patio.

For Kramer, Franklinton's true beginnings are paramount. "Franklinton is Columbus' original neighborhood," she reminds us, "And that's really inspiring. It is an epicenter for so many creative activities. I feel as if the Idea Foundry has the potential for being a huge catalyst for creativity and innovation, not just for Franklinton, but for the entire [Columbus] community."

All these milestones - from Sweeney starting the Franklinton Art District, which spawned Go West, Urban Sprawl, and, most recently, the George Bellows Grant Program, which funds arts projects in Franklinton with the sales of Urban Scrawl paintings, to the origins of 400 West Rich, to the completion of Idea Foundry - have helped to make art happen organically, and they all took foresight and quick thinking.

Because of his early work in the area, Sweeney and Franklinton are almost synonymous, but he's careful not to take all the credit for what's going on. "We were hoping that if we put the right opportunities into place, that people here and others not from here … would step up and start working on interesting projects," says Sweeney of the original vision to include art in the plan for a post-floodwall Franklinton, "I'm happy to say that it's working out nicely."

Modesty aside, he's been instrumental in attracting arts anchors to the area. Both Sweeney and Idea Foundry's Bandar admit it took some major wooing to make it happen. Bandar didn't want to get into a situation where he'd help develop a neighborhood and then be priced out of it. (This exact thing had happened twice to Glass Axis in previous locations, before the organization joined Franklinton in January of 2015.) Both artistic mainstays negotiated long-term leases with Sweeney's involvement. For the Idea Foundry, it was intimate: a lease-to-own situation with the FDA as owner (with the recent Kramer/Celeste investment tying it all together) and for Glass Axis, it was a 20-year lease.

In short, the FDA's job is to revitalize the area by finding grants, building houses and turning the housing market around, to increase value to the point where the people who own houses can see a return on investment, but not so fast that people can't afford to live there. The goal? Providing housing for moderate-income buyers and renters. A recent boon is the opening of United Preparatory Academy (UPrep), whose Franklinton-area enrollment is more than a quarter of the student body. Andy Boy, founder of United Schools Network, believes grade schools add stability. "As the FDA works to bring in more homeowners, we become a part of the long-term plan. There [are] lots of tie-ins between schools and the arts," said Boy. "We have to have strategic partnerships. There's an opportunity for collaboration." Watching artists fill the streets (making them seem safer) with paper-balloon launches, bands, and pop-up skate parks is quite a start.

That said, the road's been rough for Franklinton's pioneers. Along with old buildings come leaky roofs and countless repairs. 400 West Rich keeps 11 staff members busy, just for upkeep.

Many things have changed from their original plans. The event space at 400 was originally envisioned as a gallery. The Idea Foundry? It was meant to be apartments. A private meeting room at Strongwater became extra seating when Sherman knocked a wall out. Countless residential projects are approved and ready to go, as soon as funding arrives. And some things didn't last, including Dinin' Hall, a food truck pod.

The biggest hurdle is the perception problem, one that's slowly changing. Rex Brown, executive director of Glass Axis, encounters negative comments on Facebook. "Sometimes it's from people who aren't even coming down here; they haven't been here in 10 years," he says, adding, "What is cool is when people do come down here, it's a lot more lively and exciting than they expected." Although Glass Axis is experiencing record sales, the empty blocks between institutions don't guarantee collaboration. Currently, it's more natural for Glass Axis to partner with nearby Jubilee Museum and Catholic Cultural Center than it is to connect with events like Urban Scrawl or Independents' Day.

That image problem was connected with the decision to make Franklinton an arts destination, says Sweeney. "[The FDA] could not attract people of higher incomes because we had an image problem. We were known as the Bottoms; people were afraid to come here. Art was an initiative to restore hope in the community. It was free or inexpensive, and gets instant momentum."

The hustling, the planning, the wooing of investors and businesses. Did it work? Did it turn Franklinton from "the next big thing" to a thing that definitely is?

Longtime business owner Tom Pappas of Tommy's Diner says it did. "I was sick and tired of crackheads and prostitutes. It's very clean now, very safe. It won't be long before we're the new Short West."

Independents' Day development chair Wolf Starr says it did. "We moved to Franklinton after a year-and-a-half study spanning from board rooms to hot tubs. We wanted to impact the right neighborhood at the right time and realized we'd be adding gas to an already burning fire. It's become one of the most talked-about neighborhoods in the city."

Shawn Walburn, a design and fabrication artist at 400 West Rich says it did. "We're starting to help one another out. There's probably about 15 or 20 of us who are always recommending one another. That's kind of why we're here," he says.

And maybe Ashley Pierce says it best. "You have this energy here where you feel like you're part of something big. It's just a part of history. Maybe people will look back and talk about us, saying 'They were the core.' When you go over to [The Vanderelli Room] and there's a fire going and we cook out, we all know that it's not going to be that way forever. But right now, it's so good. It's a special moment. All of us are pretty aware of that."