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It's never been more important to understand our neighbors on a deeper level. With careful, embedded reporting and engaging long-form narrative journalism, Community Dispatch will regularly bring you a series from one of our region's varying communities to explore their experiences, their concerns, and their defining sorrows and joys.

It's not just 'The Bikeriders.' Lockland's historic district is having a moment

The former Pharmacy and Merkle Meat Market in Lockland's Mill and Dunn Historic District.
Nick Swartsell
The former Vaughn- Hesley pharmacy (left) and Merkle Meat Market in Lockland's Mill and Dunn Historic District.

Michael Fetter walks the area around Mill and Dunn streets on a recent weekday, remembering them as they were in the 1960s and early 1970s, before he left Lockland for the Marines.

There was a clothing shop, doctors' offices, a jeweler, and more within a couple blocks. Fetter still remembers the time his sister spilled a soda shop milkshake on some greeting cards and ran out of the busy pharmacy across the street.

"This used to be the old Merkel Meat Market," he says, pointing to a now-empty storefront and listing off the names of the owners. "My mom used to come up here all the time."

At the time, there were numerous factories around the business district — Fetter's grandfather came from Germany to work for mattress giant Stearns & Foster there, for example.

Fetter returned from the service to find a different Lockland in the 1980s as those industries blinked out one by one.

"All these stores were empty, and they weren't doing anything with them," he says. "I was like, what the heck happened? I didn't realize they were already tearing down all the mills."

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Movie crews recently transformed Lockland's mostly empty business district into a bit of the lively '60s atmosphere Fetter remembers for the film "The Bikeriders," which opened last week.

Todd Snapp owns the former Vaughn- Hesley pharmacy building they used to depict the Stop Light Bar, a central location in the film about a Chicago biker gang.

Snapp says producers fell in love with Lockland's gritty vibe.

"There's just a character to this," he says, referring to the intersection of Mill and Dunn streets where film crews worked. "It's almost trapped in time."

A crop of new owners like Snapp want to keep that historic feel in the district. But they also don't want Lockland trapped in time any longer.

Laid out in 1828, the village was the site of multiple locks on the Miami-Erie canal, making it an important location for manufacturing and fueling the business district in the 19th and 20th centuries. Lockland's central location — first on the canal, then along the railroad lines, then literally in the middle of I-75 — made it a bustling hub.

Then the industries left, going out of business or moving to other places, and the district fell mostly empty for decades.

Now people are paying attention again. A push from preservationists landed the area around Mill and Dunn streets on the National Register of Historic Places in 2019.

In 2021, Pepper Construction renovated the mattress factory's former offices at the edge of the district for their headquarters. It's a cutting-edge building with a number of green features, including solar panels in its parking lot.

And in 2022, film crews for "The Bikeriders" showed up. Snapp says the movie has helped focus attention on Lockland. It also accelerated his efforts to renovate his late 19th century brick building into performance and studio space for artists.

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But there was already a lot of energy in the district around fixing up its historic architecture before the movie came, much of it grassroots and collaborative.

"Everyone's borrowing each others' tools, and helping each other out and trading tips and tricks and stuff," he says. "When the movie came, I was already in the middle of it."

Alyson Gawrych owns two buildings across the street from Snapp's. She's run photography studios out of one for several years and is renovating the other.

She says the activity building in Lockland isn't a return to the past, exactly, but an evolution.

"A hundred years ago, you could go over to Merkle Meats and get your meat; you could go to the ice cream shop in the pharmacy across the street," she says. "But now, the need for that might not be as great. Coming up with creative businesses is really where these little towns have to go."

Other businesses have started popping up in the district, adding to some stalwart antique shops and locally-beloved Wolfman's Bar. A bustling specialty upholstery called Helltown Workshop relocated from Northside to Snapp's building recently. A design firm just moved into another historic building across the street owned by Sam Wilder, whose grandparents lived in Lockland.

One of the first to reinvest in Lockland's business district, he sat outside his building on a recent weekday chatting with friends.

"I just love Lockland," he says. "There's a vibe here you'll hear over and over again; people just come here and like it."

The film industry certainly seems to like it. "The Bikeriders" isn't the first movie filmed here — and it's not the last. "Alto Knights," a Robert DeNiro film coming out in November, has scenes filmed at the historic Vorhis and Ryan Funeral Home behind Gawrych's building.

There are plenty of challenges still. Some of the historic buildings are in poor shape. And it's hard to piece together exactly what will work economically. Despite that, Gawrych says more people are figuring out what Lockland natives already know.

"I'm just excited that there are other people seeing the potential for Lockland, this little town that I feel like was forgotten about for so many years," she says.

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The jury is out for Michael Fetter, the former Marine. As he walks Lockland's blocks, he lists its charms: central location, small town feel, history. He's excited to see the neighborhood in "The Bikeriders."

He's not sure it can recover, but he's also not ruling it out.

"It might, you know. We'll just have to see," he says.

The small group of business owners are pressing ahead. Earlier this month they held a pop-up market outside Snapp's old pharmacy. It drew a couple hundred people. And a new retro ice cream stand nearby is drawing customers from all over — a kind of callback to that soda shop that used to be in Snapp's building.

Nick has reported from a nuclear waste facility in the deserts of New Mexico, the White House press pool, a canoe on the Mill Creek, and even his desk one time.