The Olde Towne East district is a part of the Near East neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. The district is adjacent to downtown Columbus and is one of the City’s most historic communities — many of the buildings date back to the late 19th century. After the Civil War, the population of Columbus began to grow relatively rapidly, and the Near East neighborhood became one of the first residential communities. The primary transportation modes of the time were horse and buggy; historic carriage houses and stables are still found in the neighborhood.
Like many other cities, including San Francisco, the form of Columbus shifted with the advent of the streetcar system in the late 19th century. Downtown Columbus began to grow outwardly, and the Near East neighborhood, with its larger land parcels, became one of the city’s wealthier communities.
By the end of World War I, Near East was home to a well established, though economically diverse, community. The area near Hamilton Park and Long Street developed into a wealthy African-American neighborhood, characterized by large Victorian-style homes often made of brick. Another portion of the Near East, known as the Blackberry Patch, was home to a poorer African-American community. Despite these differences in class, the Near East neighborhood was relatively stable, until the next World War.
Olde Towne East in the 1940s. Stills from Super-8 footage. Filmed by Eugene Brown. Courtesy of the Brown Family Archive.
In 1941, one of the United States’ first public housing projects, Poindexter Village, was built in the Near East. Following World War II, a slow migration of the Near East’s wealthier residents from the central city to more suburban neighborhoods began, facilitated by the introduction of the automobile. By 1950, much of the more expensive housing stock in the neighborhood began to show signs of deterioration, and many of the larger homes were subdivided into apartments or used as rooming houses. Income levels in the Near East began to decrease.
In 1960, the Federal Highway Administration began to subsidize highway construction. New freeways were built in and around Columbus, linking more and more suburbs to the central city. In addition to further encouraging the migration of the Near East’s longtime residents and families to the suburbs, a new freeway literally cut the Near East neighborhood in half, taking vast amounts of housing stock with it. Many families were forced to relocate. Money and people continued to leave the neighborhood, and by the late 1960s the Near East was marked by increasing crime and falling property values. The period was marked by extreme social strife, and many portions of the Near East fell victim to arson and vandalism. Another exodus of businesses and residents took place.
By the 1970s, some portions of the Near East were relatively intact while other huge sections were desolate and derelict. The neighborhood continued to be primarily African-American and — in sharp contrast to its glory days in the 1920s — the Near East had become one of Columbus’s poorest neighborhoods. Federal government programs, such as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), provided revitalization money for single-family homes, and Neighborhood Commercial Revitalization (NCR) areas were formed on a number of retail corridors, including Main Street and Long Street. These programs allowed a small amount of reinvestment in the Near East, but the neighborhood continued to struggle.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, 85% of the Near East population was African-American, and the neighborhood’s average household income was well below the City’s as a whole. In addition, the vast majority of Near East residents were renters; in 1990, only 30 percent of the Near East housing was owner occupied, making many residents particularly susceptible to displacement.
By the mid 1990s, the population of the Near East began to shift. What had been a predominantly African-American community neighborhood for years, and a neighborhood that had been losing its middle-class residents for decades, had for the first time an influx of new residents — primarily white, gay men. The new community was attracted by the large, though dilapidated, historic homes and affordable housing prices. In addition, the Near East neighborhood was very close to downtown Columbus, and well served by public transit. Slowly, the new residents began restoring the deteriorated homes, stitching together a neighborhood more reminiscent of the Near East in the 1920s.
Around this time, a group of residents began pursuing formal historic districts within the Near East, including what is now known as the “Olde Towne East” district. Others strongly opposed designating the area as historic, over fears the reinvestment would cause property values to soar, resulting in the displacement of poor residents, particularly renters. The city eventually adopted a number of historic preservation codes that created stricter controls on changes and additions to property.
As “Flag Wars” depicts, the current struggle of the Near East is epitomized by the Olde Town East district: poorer African-American residents are fighting to hold on to their homes in the face of stricter zoning controls and increasing property values. Gay white homeowners see the rundown homes as “fixer uppers” and work hard to restore historic buildings. Crime in the Near East is beginning to decrease. Two traditionally marginalized groups are now competing for the same increasingly valuable real estate in one Columbus neighborhood.
The informational maps in this section provide a glimpse of the demographic changes currently taking place in the Olde Towne East district, although the true impact of the changes will continue to be played out over future years.
Kelley Kahn is an urban planner and writer living in Oakland, California.