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Notes From The Top

How Sonia Modes became the First Lady of piano in Columbus. Sonia Modes is timeless. It’s notable enough to make a living as a musician for almost three quarters of a century in a town like Columbus—add to that becoming a living part of the city’s history, and a fixture of classic Columbus dining. Yes, [...]
Aaron Wetli

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How Sonia Modes became the First Lady of piano in Columbus.

Sonia Modes is timeless.

It’s notable enough to make a living as a musician for almost three quarters of a century in a town like Columbus—add to that becoming a living part of the city’s history, and a fixture of classic Columbus dining.

Yes, nothing quite brings people together like a meal at The Top, where Modes’ piano playing is as iconic as the decor, as tasteful as the menu.

I call her timeless.

She calls herself grateful.

That singular adjective stuck with me during our 90-minute conversation at her East Side home. During our time together, Sonia used this word often to describe her life and more specifically her 68-year journey as a professional pianist in Central Ohio. During our conversation, I was shown photos (a who’s who of Columbus), accolades (Columbus Senior Music Hall of Fame) and proclamations (Sonia Modes Day in Bexley), and even got to play chopsticks on the Steinway Baby Grand her dad bought her as a child.

I’m grateful, too. How often do you get to trade notes with a Columbus legend?

She can remember hearing the piano as early as three, and was able to pick out simple melodies by ear—a gift she attributes to her violinist father. Sonia soon began taking piano lessons on the aforementioned Baby Grand, setting into motion what would become her lifelong passion. After graduating from University High School, Sonia enrolled at The Ohio State University as a music major. However, the lure of playing mid-century standards, pop, and show tunes would prove too tempting and Sonia (luckily for everyone reading this) decided to focus on her professional career.

What were you doing after your third year of undergrad? Sleeping in because you stayed out? Starting that corporate internship? Finishing your second sophomore year at Ohio State? (That’s the more important sophomore year…)

After three years of undergrad, Sonia began a career as a professional pianist at small bars and restaurants in the greater Columbus area. She was nervous, but having fun and it wasn’t uncommon for her mother and/or aunt to accompany her to jobs, for both support and security.

Eventually, Sonia landed a regular job at the now defunct Desert Inn, where she played her favorites (including Sinatra, Porter and Gershwin) regularly for 10 years. Immediately after that job ended, Sonia was scooped up by The Top Steakhouse where she has been consistently playing in some capacity since 1965—you know, when Lyndon B. Johnson was President.

At The Top, Sonia was busy perfecting her craft and took advantage of all available opportunities to play live. During this time it wasn’t uncommon for Sonia to work a luncheon followed by a cocktail party followed by her nightly gig. Life was busy, good and uncomplicated. And then Sonia married.

After five years at The Top, Sonia tied the knot and tried her hand at homemaking. However, her husband had a hectic work travel schedule and the music kept calling, so after six months she informed her husband that she was going back to work. The marriage lasted, but the homemaking didn’t and Sonia immediately found regular employment at the Grove City Holiday Inn where she was grateful to finally have the opportunity to play as part of a trio.

While being a part of a trio didn’t last long, it did pay off. As fate would have it, Columbus media magnate John Walton Wolfe happened to be in the crowd one particular evening and quickly stole Sonia away and slotted her for a regular gig at the Neil House hotel, where she played from 1972 until it was razed in 1980.

For those unfamiliar, which included myself until this interview, the Neil House hotel was a High Street institution that catered to celebrities, politicians and other powerbrokers. Backroom deals, three martini lunches and the launching or destruction of careers were the rule, not the exception. Suddenly The Sonia Modes Trio was the name on the marquee and she had more exposure and connections than she knew what to do with. She never worried about finding employment again.

THE ART OF MATCHMAKING

After the closing of the Neil House hotel, Sonia stayed true to The Top while working at other fabled Columbus clubs such as the Bexley Monk, Kahiki Supper Club, the Press Club at the Deshler Building, The Marriott Inn and even the Playboy Club, often seven nights a week.

While working at these clubs, Sonia developed a following—mostly because of the music but partly because word of her matchmaking abilities began to spread. She’s introduced (all free of charge) 44 couples who would eventually tie the knot. Is she clairvoyant? No, she said with an ornery grin. She can just “see things that others can’t.”

She consults the stars for this matchmaking process and upon learning I was married, immediately asked for my sign (Taurus) followed by my wife’s (Cancer). She assured me this was a good match because Cancers are adaptable even when their Taurus husbands are “little boys who never grow up.”

Yeah, I’m pretty sure she’s clairvoyant.

FULL CIRCLE AT THE TOP

Music has been Sonia’s life for 68 years, so it is fitting that The Top (where Bob Hope once told her she belongs in Hollywood) is where she continues to perform. Every Tuesday (starting at 6:30 p.m.) and Saturday (starting at 7:30 p.m.), you can find Sonia behind the keys on the west wall of The Top. Here she is accompanied by lounge singers Jayne Cabral Smith, Leslie Gantener and Justin DeWolfe and surrounded by patrons at the bar around her piano. Sometimes all three lounge singers are in attendance and sometimes just one.

Basically, it goes down like this: You walk into The Top, which seems like a 1950s New York Supper Club straight out of Mad Men. You either get a seat in the dining area (reservation recommended) or you get a seat at the bar, order a drink and watch as patrons from all around the restaurant shout requests for all of the old standards. The lounge singers field the requests, inform Sonia what key they would like and bam…away they go.

It’s a tribute to Sonia’s legacy that her peers value her contribution to the city and to the restaurant.

DeWolfe has been performing with Sonia for four years and drives the deeply religious Sonia to their performance every Saturday. She attributes her sanity and health to God and prays two hours daily. She makes sure to credit Top owners Denver and Regina Adkins for their support.

Sonia also plays for fellow residents at her retirement community. Here, she is accompanied by DeWolfe and just like at The Top, they take requests. On the evening I attended, I saw rousing renditions of Moon River, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Dream A Little Dream of Me, among others. As much as I enjoyed the evening (it’s hard not to enjoy time with Sonia), the residents enjoyed it more as they were transported back in time to the memories only music can rouse.

How long does Sonia plan on performing? “As long as God will let me,” she says. Since none of us know how long that will be, you would be well-served to get to The Top for the Sonia Modes experience. You will be treated to a classy meal, a classy evening and world-class music from a classy lady. And who knows? Maybe she can get you a date.

The Top is located at 2891 E Main St. in Bexley. For more, visit thetopsteakhouse.com.

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Community

North Market Past: A history of the 143-year-old business

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Contrary to what some might expect, the North Market has outlasted a history that’s pitted culture and economics against it. It has, through dedicated merchants and customers, endured.

Columbus’ three other public markets can’t say the same. The Central Market, the East End Market House and the West End Market House have all risen and, ultimately, fallen over the decades. That leaves the North Market as the only space through which the city can preserve and celebrate this aspect of the area’s history.

The original North Market (image courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan Library)

“This place has been evolving since the day it opened in 1876,” said Rick Harrison Wolfe, executive director of the North Market Development Authority. “Everything changes. The merchants changed, the way people shop changes, the buildings change. ... We are an evolving thing, and that’s the only way we’ve been able to survive over these 143 years.”

Columbus was incorporated as a city in 1834, and the first public market was born a little over 10 years later: the Central Market, built around 1850, stood on Fourth Street between Rich and Town Streets. If that location rings a bell, it’s because today, that is the location of the Greyhound Bus Station.

At the time—before the era of supermarkets—public markets were a place for Columbus residents, farmers and merchants to buy and sell fresh food and other products. This was a national trend according to the Ohio History Connection, many cities were building public markets “to facilitate agricultural and industrial as well as retail trade around the middle of the 1800s.”

The Central Market House became “one of the best-known institutions of Columbus,” with blocks of stalls lined with horses and wagons where three mornings during the week and Saturday nights it was “a very busy scene,” write Lyan Liu and K. Austin Kerr in their book The Story of Columbus: Past, Present and Future of the Metropolis of Central Ohio.

The two other now-closed markets, the West and East End Market Houses, were built following the Central Market House, and in 1876, the North Market opened on Spruce Street.

The land upon which the North Market sits has a story that precedes the historic space. It was Columbus’ first cemetery, the Old North Graveyard, dating back to 1813. The cemetery remained in use until 1873, growing to more than 12 acres and becoming the final resting place for some of the city’s founders, including Columbus’ second mayor, who was buried there in 1823, according to Jannette Quakenbush’s book Columbus Ohio Ghost Hunter Guide.

But times, and Columbus, changed, and the city needed to make room for the future. Columbus’ first railroad station was built next to the cemetery, and as it grew throughout the 1850s and 1860s, the railroad companies led lawsuits to acquire more and more of the cemetery’s land, Quakenbush writes. In the end, many—though not all—of the Old North Graveyard remains were transferred to Greenlawn Cemetery.

The original North Market was a two-story brick building. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the market had a slate roof and was 325 feet long and 80 feet wide—distinctly different from its space now. The neighborhood in which the North Market was built was undergoing a massive transformation in the late 19th century, becoming a hub of commercial and warehouse buildings and reflecting “the growth of Columbus as an important retail and distribution center after the Civil War,” according to the Ohio Historic Places Dictionary. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that the market would eventually come to occupy one of those old warehouses after an incredibly turbulent and uncertain period in the market’s history.

By the mid-20th century, public markets were losing their popularity, and a fire at the East End Market in 1947 put an end to one of Columbus’ four markets. Just a year later, the North Market itself burned down. To revive the market, its merchants pooled their resources and purchased a military-surplus Quonset hut. In contrast to the market’s previous building, the Quonset was a metal, arch-shaped building meant to be a temporary space.

However, as the remaining markets went out of business— the original Central Market was demolished in 1966—the North Market limped along.

“That was maybe the 50s or 60s, as public markets were starting to struggle, and we were city owned and city operated up until the late 80s,” Wolfe said. “Generally speaking, that’s not in this day and age the best way to do it.”

The market was losing money, but as the last one standing at a time when people were once again becoming interested in markets and their vendors, the city, merchants and shoppers decided to create the North Market Development Authority in an effort to reinvigorate the space.

The NMDA in partnership with the city and community partners was key in transforming the North Market into its modern iteration. In 1992, the city purchased a former Advanced Thresher warehouse adjacent to the Quonset hut. It was a space with “an interesting interior structure of wood and steel, abundant windows to provide natural light so lacking in the old market, good vertical and horizontal clearances to enable movement of crowds, and a second level of office, restaurant and dining space,” as the AIA Guide to Columbus describes. In other words, the foundation in which the current North Market resides could be built. The North Market moved in 1995.

North Market, 1985 (Photo courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan Library)

“There was no arena, there was no convention center. All the buildings on Park Street were boarded up,” Wolfe said. “It took the support of the city, and individuals and some of our corporate friends around to keep this thing alive.”

When Wolfe became the NMDA executive director in 2013, he says he wanted to get the market out of more than 100 years of operating in the red. Continued investment from the city has been vital to make that vision a reality.

“We have to be subsidized, and we also have to be creative on how we make money,” Wolfe said.

The North Market may be the only remaining public market in Columbus, but two others still exist in Ohio: one in Cleveland and one in Cincinnati, Wolfe says. It’s not even the only place in Columbus people can go for a reminder of this piece of Columbus’ history; a new restaurant called the Central Market House is named in tribute to “the thriving Central Market which served as the central economic center of Columbus from 1850 until 1966,” according to its Facebook page. However, the market is a must-see for Columbus residents and visitors, presenting a one-of-a-kind microcosm of the city’s food and cultural scene, and it’s a storied space that Wolfe himself is partial to.

“The Short North ... COSI, the art museum, those are all amazing resources and amenities to our city. But you know, we’re free to hang out. I think we’re the best out of all those. I think we’re the best.”

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Community

Farm to Vehicle: Veggie Van brings affordable staples to those in need

Linda Lee Baird

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Bushels of greens, squash, tomatoes, beans, and peppers are laid out on tables under a tent on Cleveland Avenue—the organic produce clearly labeled as such. I’m munching on fresh peach salsa, and holding a recipe card listing the ingredients I’ll need to make the recipe at home. It feels like an upscale farmers market, but it’s a different take on the concept. This is the Local Matters Veggie Van, a mobile, affordable market that brings fresh food into neighborhoods under-served by traditional grocers. Every week, the Veggie Van makes regular stops in the city’s Linden, Hilltop, and King-Lincoln neighborhoods.

“Our goal is for you to be able to make a complete meal for under $10,” said Monique Williams-McCoy, Local Matters’ Community Food Access Coordinator. To achieve this, the Veggie Van sells staples such as lemons and limes, and shelf-stable items like beans, rice, and olive oil, in addition to seasonal produce. While the “local” part of the organization’s mission is brought in through food farmed from Local Matters Community gardens and relationships with Ohio growers, what matters most to Williams-McCoy is making sure people have healthy food on their shelves. “It’s important for us to be able to get it local, but it’s more important for people to have access,” she said.

Photos: Rebecca Tien

Accessibility goes beyond presence; it’s also about knowledge of how to prepare what’s available. To assist, Williams-McCoy leads cooking demos and hands out samples of prepared foods using the ingredients which are for sale that day. “I’ll have recipe cards. I’ll take them right up here to the market ... [and] show them what they need to get,” she said. “We may not have anything fancy like ugly fruit or jackfruit, but we will have those things that ... you know how to go about preparing them— where you’re not going to be intimidated.”

First launched in 2009, the Veggie Van didn’t resonate with customers as hoped the first time around. “It was way before its time,” Williams- McCoy explained. But when Kroger’s Northern Lights location closed in early 2018—leaving the Linden area without a major supermarket— staff at Local Matters began thinking about pursuing the idea again. With issues such as food justice, accessibility, and smaller-scale food production garnering attention over the past decade, the timing felt right. Local Matters was selected by the University at Buffalo to participate in a study about the role of mobile food markets on increasing food security and improving fresh food access in communities under-served by grocery stores. The Veggie Van relaunched in July.

Community support and partnerships became the key to the project’s success this time around. Ijeoma Nnani, Owner and Pharmacist at Trio Pharmacy, said she was committed to the project. “When Kroger closed down, the whole area became ... a fresh produce desert. So I thought of what I [could] do to get people to eat fresh,” she said. Nnani heard about the Veggie Van through conversations with people in the community, and she reached out to Local Matters. “They came, we had a meeting, and that was it.” The Veggie Van now sets up shop in front of her business every Tuesday.

Williams-McCoy said the Veggie Van is well-received by patrons. “They love the display of the market because they feel like they’re shopping with dignity, and they love that everything’s fresh, and they love that the prices are very reasonable,” she said.

In addition to accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, Local Matters offers Produce Perks, doubling the value of SNAP benefits spent on fruits and vegetables. The community pitches in as well—sometimes people will leave extra money when they make their purchase for others who need it. “People are paying it forward here,” Williams-McCoy said. “I don’t want anyone to walk away from my stand hungry.”

The potential benefits from this project extend far beyond the conclusion of a satisfying, home-cooked meal. Reliable access to healthy foods, as well as the knowledge and skills required to shop for, prepare, and cook healthy meals on a budget, are key aspects of increasing food security and preventing diet-related disease, a point Nnani emphasized. “Even though my profession, my business, is to give people medicine, I tell them that if you eat well, you don’t need my medicine. You may put me out of business—who knows—but I’d rather that you’re well!”

If you ever spot the Veggie Van around town, Williams-McCoy invites you to come by. “You need to stop and get your shopping done, and know that you’re supporting something that’s really needed in the neighborhood.”

Visit local-matters.org/veggie-van for the Veggie Van’s weekly schedule.

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Arts & Culture

Two of the 13 “Greatest Places in America” are in Central Ohio

Mike Thomas

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Throughout Central Ohio, efforts to uplift communities have been ongoing for decades. Now, some of these efforts are garnering attention on the national stage.

According to a report from Columbus Business First, The Short North Arts District and Delaware's historic downtown were named among 13 “Great Places in America” by the American Planning Association, a national organization of urban planners.

The APA's picks highlight locales representing “the gold standard for a true sense of place, cultural and historical interest, community involvement, and a vision for the future.”

In its rundown of the Short North Arts District, the APA points to the neighborhood's status as "a pioneer in urban revitalization in Central Ohio," and goes on to call the neighborhood the "art and soul" of the City of Columbus.

As for downtown Delaware, the APA It highlighted efforts by civic and business leaders in transforming the derelict city center into a thriving neighborhood full of attractive amenities for locals and visitors to enjoy.

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