|A bit of whimsy in Uptown Columbus.|
We pulled off the interstate at Tifton and maneuvered our way along a series of state highways and secondary roads, passing through a half-dozen or so sun-bleached towns and cities -- Albany, Dawson, Lumpkin and Cusseta -- before pulling into Fort Benning.
The massive military base makes up a third of what the locals refer to as the tri-cities. Columbus and its neighbor, Phenix City, across the Chattahoochee River in Alabama, fill out the rest of the metro area.
After clearing one last rise in the road, the skyline of Columbus and its two skyscrapers -- the government center downtown and the headquarters of AFLAC a few miles to the east -- came into view. At first blush the city seemed a clay-stained vision of what I had seen on previous trips. The heart of the community was nestled in a bend of the Chattahoochee, sprawling to the north and east like a creeping bit of kudzu.
If rumors and news reports of massive growth and redevelopment were true, then what I was seeing from a distance had little to do with reality and much to do with my aging memory. Uncovering the truth of such reports, however, would have to wait another hour or so while I attempted to put the lie to Thomas Wolfe's assertion that you "can't go home again!"
|First stop was to visit my folks at Riverdale Cemetery.|
It's here that my mother and father can be found; so, too, my paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and a legion of cousins and family friends and acquaintances: The Hirschs, Kravtins Raabs and Myers; Shapiros, Cohens, Satlofs and Siegels; Levys, Behars, Scopps and Greens; Robbins, Funks and Witts.
Hidden away in an older section of the cemetery is my great grandmother, Bailey Feinberg, who was born in Eastern Europe in 1852 and died in Columbus in 1941. She's the woman my granddaughter, Bailey Levetan, is named after -- her great-great-great Bubbe!
|My great grandmother, Bailey Feinberg.|
There were a few doctors, lawyers and accountants among them. But, truth to tell, they were mostly merchants, men who scratched out a living buying and selling stuff -- food, clothing, hardware and scrap metal; watches, rings, luggage and weapons. Stuff!
Some prospered. Others struggled. My father did both.
Wendy and I spent part of the next hour visiting the store where he managed to grow his business, Village Pawn Shop; and the site where he began the journey. Central Pawn Shop, on First Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets, is toast now; a mostly fond but fading memory of a different, simpler time.
It was a tiny place with linoleum floors and fluorescent lights dangling from the ceiling. Once inside, there was a jarring blend of merchandise: watches and rings; hats, caps, suits and leather jackets; tires and tools; pistols, rifles, shotguns and knives; luggage, footlockers and a wide assortment of musical instruments.
The store was hot in the summer, cold in the winter and filled with a bizarre menagerie of characters: addicts and prostitutes, professional gamblers, pool sharks and con artists; men and women struggling to get by and others hunting for bargains; cops in search of stolen merchandise and the occasional reporter in search of a good story.
|Chattahoochee and RiverWalk big part of city's redevelopment plan.|
Thanks to an innovative collaboration between the city's consolidated government, Columbus State University and Uptown Columbus, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the slightly sleepy and seedy business district has been re-imagined and revitalized. It's a happening place, attracting locals, students and the occasional tourist with a pleasant and eclectic blend of upscale restaurant and bars, retail shops and boutiques, historic buildings and a world-class performing arts center.
Perhaps most remarkable is the western boundary of the area, once a decaying eyesore filled with abandoned warehouses, overgrown thickets of underbrush and debris. Now the RiverWalk, a beautifully landscaped path, meanders alongside the Chattahoochee for 15 miles or so from downtown, alongside the city's historic district and Victory Drive, to the southern fringes of Fort Benning.
The path is wide enough to provide runners, cyclists and folks just our for a leisurely stroll plenty of room to exercise and enjoy the natural beauty around the trail. And if that isn't enough to get your heart racing, just know that Mother Nature, herself, has been given a makeover of sorts.
A few years ago the river was slightly rerouted and gussied up with some well-placed boulders to create a rush of whitewater for kayakers and others in search of a wet and chilly way to spend a few hours.
|All that remains of dad's store is the address.|
My father owned a pawn shop on First Avenue. It was next to Suran's Furniture Store, which was around the corner from the Kravtin's Novelty Shop on Broadway. Next door were a cluster of businesses -- Blue Ribbon Shoes, Rainbow's Department Store and Tots and Teens -- all owned and operated by the Rainbow and Shapiro families.
Nearby, on the same block, was Aaron Funk's United Jewelers, Gus Mendelson's Fox's Pawn Shop and Sol and Harry's, a hugely successful clothing store owned by Sol and Harry Cohn. A block north was Phil Pomerance's Kiddie Shop, Charlie Stein's Huddle Shop and Victor Kiralfy's woman's store.
Turn the corner at 11th Street and walk a block east past Kirven's department store and Federal Bakery and you'd be just across the street from Miller's Delicatessen, home of the best corned beef sandwich (possibly the only corned beef sandwich) to be found in Georgia south of Leb's in Atlanta.
The businesses are gone, replaced by Uptown's move into the 21st Century. The changes, wow factor and all, can be a bit jarring and unsettling. Certainly what's become of my father's business is notable. All that remains of Central Pawn Shop today is its address, 1023, updated and prominently displayed across a green awning that welcomes folks to "The Abbey".
Turns out what was once a pawn shop is now a ministry for young adults, providing prayer, meals and financial support. Now that I think about it, nothing much has really changed. Given my dad's warm heart and caring soul, I'm pretty certain he was doing the same sort of mission work years ago in his little store.