Thursday, March 24, 2016

A Day in Arch City


I hate the term "flyover city." There's more to the United States than just New York, Chicago and LA. There's also more to the United States than just its collection of major cities. Even while places such as Columbus, Indianapolis, Portland, my hometown of Cincinnati, et. all toil to define their identities and stand out, all places have elements that make them unique to an extent. From rural municipalities to international ports, there's always a sense of place and local pride hidden within, always something to find. I've enjoyed stopping in small towns along road trips just as much as I've enjoyed wandering around New York City. This was my chance to see Columbus, a city like my own in that it's adored by most of its people and probably too often overlooked, shrugged off, or stereotyped by others. I've found that taking the time to get to know a place, to make an effort to see it, to learn about it, to walk its streets - that all teaches you a better appreciation and understanding of any place you go. This was my chance to see the Arch City, thanks to a longtime friend and promoter of his adopted home.


- Nate and I at a MacDonalds circa 1995.
Nate Patrick and I have known each other since morning Kindergarten class at St. Ann. We were captivated as kids when we saw all of the original Star Wars' films get re-released in theaters. We were confused and disappointed teenagers when we saw the Star Wars prequels debut. We were cautiously optimistic adults texting about the most recent Star Wars film having gone in different directions after high school. Nate went on to graduate from Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio. He stayed there, transplanting his Hamilton/Cincinnati roots to his newfound home of Ohio's Capital. We'd catch up every now and then when he was back in Cincinnati, dropping details on how we had both changed and grown over the years. Nate closed every meeting with the same invitation: Come to Columbus and he'll show me why it's worth visiting.

I had been visiting Columbus for years though via a static formula. My father and I would go regularly for Blue Jackets games, our closest NHL team to support, albeit a frustrating one. We'd drive up, park in a downtown garage, always hit up the same nearby restaurant and then walk a few blocks to Nationwide arena to watch the Blue Jackets struggle. This method was tried and true, always a great time. We deviated once, visiting the Capitol building and Ohio Historical Society - another great day trip. I had also been to see The Crew play a few times and seen a few concerts in the city. However, I had never truly taken the time to explore or really understand Columbus outside of a few city blocks and a couple of tourist attractions. I had never really spent a decent amount of time there, taken in its nuances, or appreciated it for more than just a quick getaway to a neighboring place. I didn't think negatively of Columbus, but it also had never really stood out to me. So I decided it was time to go and take up Nate on his offer. With that in mind, I hit the road out of Cincinnati.

- Interstate 70 between Dayton and Columbus.
I've driven to Columbus several times. The drive up 71 and back is never particularly interesting. This time I decided to change things up in spirit of experiencing something new. I took 75 to 675 around Dayton and over to 70. This route isn't all that more interesting, but does offer a few more chances to stop and get Waffle House coffee. As the sun started coming up, the skyline of Columbus finally appeared on the horizon. I arrived at Nate's apartment in the Grandview area, the one he shares with his lovely girlfriend Amy. We wasted no time, hopping in his car almost immediately. As I have always sung the praises of Cincinnati, Nate has sung the praises of Columbus since he arrived there. By day he's a Scientific Information Analyst with a background in Biochemistry. In his free time he's a contributing editor to Clog, the co-founder of a startup, a photographer, a designer, a great writer, and the President of his local Civic Association. I wanted the day to be his to show off, I didn't have very many things I was tied to specifically seeing. More so, I wanted him to just show me what he felt made Columbus special.
I did have one very specific request though: that we go to the Jolly Pirate.
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- Jolly Pirate counter.
I think it was the name and the building's appearance. Both just screamed: "simple place to get a decent cup of coffee." I had been by one of the local chain's locations while heading home from Blue Jackets games before, but never had the time to stop. Nate parked the car and we walked in to the Whitehall location grabbing stools at the counter. Those seated around us asked the employees about their lives, exchanging conversation with regular familiarity. Nate and I weren't regulars, but we were welcomed into conversation just the same. When a gentleman walked in and the crowd said his name in unison ala Norm from "Cheers," we offered him one of our seats. He declined, grabbed a newspaper, stood by the corner and joined the rest of the regulars. Another employee came around with free samples, blueberry donut holes, and some were instructed to use the swear jar after dropping a curse word. The donuts were tasty, the coffee was solid, and the company was even better. I was reminded of the regulars in my "Kings Waffle" series and I fell in love with the Jolly Pirate. We were lucky to have stopped by and met these folks on this particular day too.

"I'm glad you like it," a neighboring customer said, "because it's closing tomorrow."

We ended up grabbing a dozen donuts for later, enclosed in a box decorated as a treasure chest. We thanked everyone for the conversation, the samples, and the good start to the morning. Jolly Pirate will continue existing in a few other locations around town, but if the Whitehall one has to go, I'm glad we were able to spend a morning with the folks there.

Back in the car we headed towards downtown, parking near the children's museum. We had lucked out. Despite being late January, the weather was predicted to be gorgeous. It was still a bit chilly though as we made our way to the riverfront of the southern flowing Scioto.

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- The Scioto River and Genoa Park.
A few jogging groups passed us as we made our way down to the riverfront, the flags of the United States, Ohio and city flying in the wind above. The city had just recently finished up a project where they'd dredged the river - making it deeper and pushing out the nearby riverfront land for more park space. Occasionally we'd come across the remnants of homeless camps and on one occasion, accidentally awoke a man resting on a bench. The solace of the early morning was nice, like we had our own personal run of the city. Come Spring, I figured all this green space along the river would be packed with people enjoying their civic surroundings. Later in the day when the weather warmed up, that was proven. It's a beautiful public space.

We continued our walk along the riverfront, occasionally jumping below bridges and above railroad tracks.

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- Along the Lower Scioto Greenway beneath the W. Broad St. Bridge.

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- Railroad tracks above the greenway looking towards the AEP tower and One Nationwide Plaza.
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- Along the Lower Scioto Greenway looking towards the LeVeque Tower and downtown.

We kept walking over and into downtown. With it being a Saturday, the streets were a little less active than if it was a business day. One man in a NASCAR jacket waiting for a bus demanded I give him my camera, then just muttered to himself after I replied with some colorful language of my own. The rest of the folks around though offered the usual Midwestern politeness: "Hi." "How are you?" "How's it going?"

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We meandered for awhile, past the iconic neon Columbus Dispatch sign and to the center of the state's government. The Statehouse itself is an interesting sight within downtown. It's ornate lawn and greenery are complimented by its Greek Revival architecture and the use of a cupola as opposed to a dome gives it a unique appearance amongst those found in other states. It seems more fitting for a rural setting, but blends in nicely with the skyscrapers, busses, and urban landscape around it.

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- Ramp connecting the street with the Statehouse's underground parking garage.
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We headed down an alleyway and emerged in a wide open space amongst the downtown buildings:

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- Columbus Commons, formerly the site of a downtown shopping mall.

At one end was the stage, at the other a carousel. Separating them was a large grass field. The concept is similar to Millenium Park in Chicago, albeit without the permanent seating and on a much smaller scale. The space is an excellent re-use of land and dubbed "Columbus Commons." Formerly, this area had been occupied by the Columbus City Center mall. City Center had been among several similar malls built into the fabric of many Midwestern downtowns in an effort to compete with the suburbs in the 80s. Like so many others, and Cincinnati's, it eventually died off. The space in Columbus still brings in large crowds, although now for a much different purpose and one that connects people with the city in a much more vibrant way.

We continued wandering around downtown:

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Columbus' downtown is like that of many other similarly sized Midwestern cities, it has its fair share of empty storefronts, but plenty of redevelopment as well. As people flock back to cities across the country, Columbus is currently (and has been) embracing these changes. There's no specific center square or area for people to continually converge at, but there's public spaces all over for various events. Everywhere you go in Columbus, there seems to be some sort of activity, new ideas and development springing up all over. It's also not a relatively new attitude in Columbus, several projects have been in place for years.

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- A closed storefront in Columbus with deteriorating lettering. This scene, however, is definitely the exception, not the norm.

The Arena District features two of the city's major sporting venues: Nationwide Arena for the NHL Blue Jackets and Huntington Park for minor league baseball's Columbus Clippers. It's definitely the "visiting from the suburbs" section of the city with its maze of parking garages and a Dick's Last Resort. Not that those qualities are always bad, but it wasn't an area we felt we needed to really dive into. Nevertheless, I had already spent a lot of time there on the aforementioned previous hockey visits. I will say though, Nationwide Arena is a great facility for the sport, one of the best indoor arenas I've been into. It's sponsored by one of the city's most prominent corporate citizens, the same ones who inhabit the nearby skyscraper:

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- One Nationwide Plaza reflected in the glass of a nearby building.

One Nationwide Plaza is a pretty prominent figure on the north edge of downtown featuring 40 stories at 485 ft. It's a structure laced in limestone and reminiscent of 70's architecture, the anchor of the namesake insurance company's public plazas. During the day it's imposing, somewhat bland, but at night it's illuminated in colored lights. One of the more interesting quirks of the building is on the side:
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- One Nationwide Plaza's former express/observation elevator.

The former express elevator still exists, locked into position alongside the northeastern side of the building. When the restaurant up top was still open, patrons could ride this glass observation elevator past all the office floors and straight to the top. Apparently, it's no longer used.

We also stopped into the downtown Hilton. Seemingly normal on the outside, the interior space is beautiful:

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When then made our way over to North Market. Like Cincinnati's Findlay Market, the North Market is a public market with a collection of unique vendors under one roof (and a few outside in warmer seasons). I had been wondering where all the people were and we found them cramming into the aisle-ways between booths and waiting in line for the apparently legendary Hot Chicken Takeover.

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- North Market as viewed from the upper floor.

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- North Market's aisles.
Our next stop was The Short North, the neighborhood where the North Market can be found. The area houses several bars, entertainment venues, restaurants, and retail outlets representing both chains and local joints. Even in the winter, the Short North is packed with foot traffic and cyclists.

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- Looking down High St. into the Short North neighborhood.

One of my favorite things about entering this neighborhood was how it was connected to downtown. Technically separated via the I-670 Expressway, you wouldn't know it unless you were specifically looking. Short North is bridged to downtown via a bridge above the highway, but on both sides of that bridge are buildings that sit over the highway, essentially creating a tunnel for the commuters below. This allows a continuous connection into greater downtown and even blocks out the noise of the highway below. I probably would've never realized it had Nate not brought me to a small public space next to one of these buildings:

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- A small public space at the edge of The Short North shows how its connection to downtown over the highway is concealed by buildings. Parking garage under construction in the distance. 

One of the more recently opened highlights of this neighborhood is Le Meridien Columbus, The Joseph. A four star hotel:

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Columbus' convention center is also located in this neighborhood. I don't really know how to rate or review a convention center, but I can say this: the restrooms are clean and allow for much needed relief if you're wandering around downtown constantly drinking coffee. The interior is quite nice despite the bland pastel colors of the building's exterior that reek of late 90's paint schemes.

- View from the convention center out onto the Short North.

We spent the rest of the morning touring the Short North and climbing parking garages for a better view of the city. The city has a lot of parking facilities, many of them somewhat hidden or decorated too look like buildings/better blend into the landscape. While the cycling community, even in January, seems strong, public transit is limited. COTA is the primary bus service and it seems to be either well liked or detested depending on who you talk to, where they live, and how old they are.

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- View of the edge of Short North and downtown from atop a parking garage.

We happened upon a garage on the western edge of downtown. Occasionally the sirens of an ambulance would waft up or the horn of a train, but it was a peaceful way to overlook the city around us. We were just getting started in the day and already I was falling in love with Columbus. I was starting to see it as a place, not just a regional neighbor.

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- Nate atop the parking garage.

This garage also had excellent views of the city's most iconic skyscraper: LeVeque Tower. On the National Register of Historic Places, the Modernistic building has become a prevailing symbol of Columbus. It was completed in 1924 along with several other buildings that revitalized the city's riverfront along the Scioto. It featured an observation deck until some point in the 60's. The tourist area was later converted into a penthouse apartment. Due to its proximity to the river, the building is embedded in the bedrock below and was constructed in a manner similar to that of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. At night the tower is illuminated and the lights are mounted to spots that once featured several sculptures affixed to the structure. As the building aged and its terra cotta decoration deteriorated, several sculptures were lost. A revitalization effort costing an estimated $26.7 Million is currently planned. Primarily an office building, the tower features the Palace Theatre at its base.

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- LeVeque Tower as seen from a nearby parking garage.
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- Looking into downtown Columbus from the parking garage.

I've always felt Columbus' skyline as a whole doesn't feel all that recognizable. The building's are spread out, most of them similar in shape. However, the LeVeque Tower is what sets them apart. It's a physical symbol of the city, the most recognizable landmark, the building that screams: "Columbus."

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- View of the surrounding city from the parking garage.

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- The William Green Building as seen from the parking garage.

We ventured back across the Scioto to where we parked and set out in search of lunch.

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We met up with Amy and decided to check out their part of town. Rife's Market had been a neighborhood staple for around 78 years when it closed. Within its walls, Sweet Carrot opened and started serving up "fresh, casual comfort food." On a beautiful Saturday, the restaurant was packed. The crowd wasn't just young people or young professionals often stereotyped as the only ones "going to the city," it was diverse. We jockeyed to find a table amongst families out enjoying a meal.

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- Interior of Sweet Carrot.

The pulled pork was excellent and none of us were quite sure why, but the pickles are the greatest we had ever tasted.

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- Pulled Pork sandwich with the greatest pickles you'll ever know.

We grabbed coffee nearby at a place called Stauf's. Despite the crowds, the service was quick and the coffee strong.

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- Stauf's Coffee Roasters in Grandview Heights.

Nate and I then broke off to continue exploring the city.

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- Built on the reclaimed lands of an industrial district, Scioto Audubon Metro Park.

We wound up at Scioto Audubon Metro Park. The park is centered on the Whittier Peninsula. For most of its life, the peninsula had been home to factories and rail yards. After years of cleanup, the peninsula was converted into a vast and beautiful park. There's walking trails, a bird sanctuary, volleyball courts, a dog park, boat launches, and a massive outdoor climbing wall. One of the more interesting features is a final remain of the industrial structures that used to dominate this space: a lone water tower. The water tower is now emblazoned with the park's name and even serves as an observation deck.

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- The park's climbing wall as seen from the water tower observation deck.

By this point in the day the whole city seemed to be aware of how nice it was, that this may be the only good day until Ohio's version of spring gets around to showing up. The park was packed and people were out and about. Visiting this place had been one of my requests. To be honest though, it wasn't the rock climbing or hiking I was interested in, I was in search of something else. At the edge of the park, we found what I was looking for: a unique view of Columbus that's been abandoned.

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- The former Whittier Street overpass.

Whittier Street used to run over Interstate 70 and once the park was built, the overpass was cut off and left. It lines up perfectly with a view of LeVeque Tower and is slowly being reclaimed by nature as overgrowth has found its way through the asphalt and around the old street lights.

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- LeVeque Tower as seen from the abandoned road.

Several makeshift camps dot the area and it seems to be a popular spot for the homeless. It's a secluded spot with a unique view, a place where the sounds of the park fade and the interstate hums in the distance.

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- The abandoned overpass with Interstate 70 running beneath.

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- Abandoned 35mm camera found on the overpass.

We started walking along the Scioto Mile. The trail connects Audubon park into and through the city to the Arena District. It features beautiful views of the riverfront as well as interactive fountains and an outdoor theatre. With the amount of people out enjoying it in on an unseasonably warm January day, it gives you an idea of how residents enjoy the city in the nicer months. The mile is a great way to see multiple facets of this place as it crosses under industrial railroad tracks from a beautiful park to the city's skyline.

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- Columbus as seen from the Main Street Bridge above the Scioto Mile. The bridge was the first in North America, and fifth in the world, to use a single arch superstructure.

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- Railroad tracks that run above the Scioto Mile.

With the evening approaching and the sun starting to set, the city was really alive. People were now out everywhere, taking advantage of the beautiful weather. We drove around as Nate pointed out a few more things. I made him stop at several fading advertisements/ghost signs. Ever since documenting Cincinnati's, I can't stop seeing these things everywhere I go.

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Unlike Cincinnati with its hills and topography, Columbus is flat with activity radiating out from the center. Like Indianapolis and Detroit, the city sprawls out in all directions beautifully and coherently transitioning from a skyscraper laden downtown into neighborhoods lined with trees and old houses.

One of the more interesting things I noticed as we continued our way out of the city center was how development has arisen in some neighborhoods. Everywhere you go there seems to be local restaurants/businesses fitting in amongst the houses. While the city has its share of "districts" featuring collections of dining and entertainment, it certainly isn't lacking the occasional neighborhood spot. In one particular case, Nate pointed out a restaurant converted from an old oil change business amongst the houses of Harrison West.

Also hidden amongst the houses are some interesting natural spots. Had Nate not shown me, I don't know if I ever would've been aware of Glen Echo Park's presence. We parked on the street and headed down some stairs alongside the road.

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- Stairs leading to Glen Echo park.

There hidden amongst the neighborhoods was a tranquil, natural spot with a creek running through it: a park at the bottom of a valley within a neighborhood. Kids skipped rocks, people walked dogs, and one couple glared as we stumbled upon their apparent make out spot beneath the bridge above. Cruising by on the road above, you'd be likely to miss it.

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Just above the gorge and its natural features, there's a quiet neighborhood with picturesque houses and all of it is just a few minutes outside of downtown.

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We went a few blocks down to visit Nate's recommendation for dinner: a Gastropub called The Crest. We were lucky enough to grab two seats as they opened up at the bar, skipping the crowds waiting for a table. Dinner was a delicious Bison Burger with two glasses of a Goblin King IPA from Columbus' own Seventh Son Brewing Company. The beer had been a recommendation from the bartender amongst a list of multiple local brews, some favorites from Cincinnati, a few from Cleveland and several other cities across the United States. Definitely one of the better burgers I've ever had and the best rating I can offer up for a beer: I'd drink it again.

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- A Bison Burger at The Crest.
Nate and I caught up about our lives, talked plans for the future, and Star Wars (pretty much the same things we've been talking about since Kindergarten). We mulled over the things we liked about our respective cities. I gave him tips on things to see and do here in Cincinnati, he offered up more knowledge of Columbus.

We journeyed back to his place and checked our mileage for the day. All in all after 11.5 hours, we had walked 12.99 miles. I scarfed down one more donut from our Jolly Pirate treasure chest, a leftover from the morning. We said our goodbyes and vowed to see each other soon.

On the way home, I mulled over Columbus. My preconceptions weren't shattered, mainly because I didn't really have any. I didn't think of Columbus negatively, I just didn't really think of it at all actually. With the way I've embraced Cincinnati, I've seen what happens when you get into a city's details and take the time to look into things and realize a sense of place. To really appreciate what's going on around you. I try to apply that to other cities I visit, any place, really. Columbus was a reminder of how you can make an honest attempt to try and begin understanding somewhere outside of tourist attractions and common suggestions. Thanks to Nate, I was able to get a close up look at Columbus, a chance to really breath that city in and appreciate it for what it can be. I'll never have the knowledge of someone who resides there and I'll never have the true appreciation like that of someone born there, but as I drove home that night, I couldn't wait to apply those experiences into viewing my own city in a refreshing light and also, to explore Columbus again.

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To check out some of Nate's work, visit his website or read some of his excellent pieces.

14 comments:

  1. Came from Reddit to read about your experience in my city, leaving this comment with an enormous smile on my face after seeing your surprise visit to the restaurant I work at. Very glad to see that you enjoyed your time here AND your experience at the crest!

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    1. I wonder if we ran into you that night. Great city, great food, and that Bison Burger was absolutely fantastic. Thanks for reading!

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  2. Great photo's. You really were all over the city.

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    1. It was a long day, but well worth it. Thanks for checking it out!

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  3. If you're back and looking for donuts from local places, be sure to check out any of these: Buckeye Donuts (OSU campus), DK Diner (Grandview), Destination Donuts (in the North Market), or Auddino's (or really anything from Auddino's). My personal favorite is the crumb cake donut from Buckeye Donuts, which I am susceptible to grab a few from there whenever it's convenient.

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  4. Did you grab that camera to see what was on the film?

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  5. Wow! Great photos. I went to school in Columbus and your photos really bring back some fond memories. It's always interesting to see how places have changed over the years from how you remember them.

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  7. Wonderful post and beautiful photos! Thank you so much for sharing. :)

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  8. Wonderful post and beautiful photos! Thank you so much for sharing. :)

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