How the Flytown Historical Plaque Ignores and Erases Black Cultural Heritage
Cultural heritage is an expression of social power and identity. It is a manifestation and assertion of a community’s shared customs, practices, and values. To know and to access one’s own cultural heritage is to be invited and empowered to join in the celebration and expression of that power. Visible, tangible representations of cultural heritage are present in the natural environment, in working landscapes, and it the built environment. Collectively these landscapes, objects, and artifacts communicate a tangible sense of heritage but places are also inherently linked to intangible cultural heritage. Food, religion, and expression through dace and music are practiced and shared in the spaces we create. City planning processes that shape places and space influence our range of opportunities to practice and share our cultural heritage.
Formal city planning practices that intentionally shape culture and place are most often applied in historic preservation planning and tourism planning. Fore example, consider world-famous heritage sites like the the Great Wall in China, Stonehenge in England, or the Colosseum in Rome. Lost civilizations and their cultural remnants are protected and revered. Time often translates to value; more recent histories are easy to forget in the scale of humanity’s print on this planet. In the United States, cultural heritage sites range in size from the Grand Canyon National Park to homes of famous Americans like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate. Columbus, Ohio features several sites on the National Register of Historic Places, including the fabulous Art Deco style Leveque-Lincoln Tower and the historic German Village neighborhood.
In academia, in local government, in the physical environment, Black history is erased every day and I want to challenge my community in Columbus, Ohio – neighbors, scholars, place-makers, decision makers – to consider not just who we remember in space, but how we remember them. Most western city planning narratives reference a timeline that begins just before industrialization at the turn of the twentieth century; in fact universities and colleges didn’t offer coursework in planning until after 1920. City planning in the United States is a ‘recent’ field of theory and practice was created and dominated by White men following a similar blueprint – maximizing the health and wellness of residents by providing both the benefits of nature (fresh air, attractive surroundings, accessible recreation) with the economic and social opportunities that cities and urban places offer.
Not written into these theories are those that White male planners willfully excluded and exploited women, minority races, and many other marginalized groups. These facts are essential to telling an accurate history of city planning and the intersections that inflicted trauma and devastation on generation of Black Americans. The following case study investigates the history of a predominantly Black neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio and finds that the city’s attempt to memorialize the place is a mere platitude rather than a sincere preservation of cultural heritage.
Near the intersection of Goodale St and Dennison Ave just north of downtown Columbus, this plaque describes the history of a neighborhood called Flytown, shown to the right [Image 1]. It recalls a ‘melting pot’ of nationalities and cultures that ‘respected the land’; a community of resilient and spirited folk realizing the American Dream – a legacy worth remembering.
The story it tells is true, but grossly incomplete.
Whether maliciously or incidentally, this plaque forgets generations of Black Americans that lived, worked, and built a community here – more than 500 Black families before slum clearance destroyed the neighborhood.
What has been lost in physical space cannot be restored, but the Black cultural heritage that is tied to this place should be preserved and elevated.
Flytown was platted in the City of Columbus’ plans in 1865.
At the turn of the century, Columbus was growing and industrializing rapidly. Demand for labor drew German, Irish, and Welsh immigrants to Columbus and Flytown’s proximity to industrial jobs along the Scioto and Olentangy rivers made for an ideal place to settle.
Although the neighborhood’s physical boundaries have warped tremendously over the decades, the core identity of the neighborhood as an eclectic working-class community has survived the test of time.
Though sparse, records identify Black enclaves and neighborhoods surrounding the central business district – including the areas west and south of Goodale Park that were colloquially called Flytown.
This map, from a graduate dissertation, shows a snapshot of Columbus in 1918, detailing the industrial land uses in the city alongside clusters of minority races and nationalities.
Columbus’ Black population remained steady after the turn of the century, with at least 10% of Franklin county reported as Black by 1930. In 2019, nearly a quarter of Franklin County is identified as Black – well above the national average of 13%.
A mile from downtown, Flytown and the Goodale area was well served by transit; Columbus’ early streetcar system featured routes along Neil Ave and High St which provided residents access to the rapidly growing city.
1929 : the Great Depression
The Great Depression of the 1930s took a heavy toll on the neighborhood. Industrial sites along the rail tracks fell into disuse. Unemployment was prolific and vacancy pervaded the area as people sought opportunities elsewhere.
Flytown developed a reputation as a squalid, desolate place in popular media of the day. While the weather certainly does no favors, these images below show Flytown on a rainy day in 1922. Notice the electricity lines in the second image; these provided power for the electric streetcars that once provided transit service across the city. The photographers notes the ‘foreign’ population that dwells in in the section and the ‘squalid’ conditions he found.
Post-war Columbus: Black Urbanity Thrives
Franklin County’s Black population swelled after WWII, with violent racism in the South driving people and families to Northern cities, where segregation was enforced by redlining or sundown restrictions rather than lynching. While industrial jobs and a growing economy offered some new opportunities to Black people, they were still limited significantly socially, economically, and geographically.
The map below [Map 3] is evidence of one method that cities and planners used to advantage White residents over Black. was created in 1936 by the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and it shows neighborhoods in Columbus, Ohio ranked by desirability.The green neighborhoods were ‘Most Desirable’ for investments, while other neighborhoods were were ‘redlined’.
Redlining was a practice that the HOLC used that helped cities leverage home and business loans to contain Black neighborhoods. By designating predominantly Black communities as “High Risk”, HOLC justified denying home loans to thousands of Black families, thus severely limiting spatial mobility for Black residents in Columbus.
This redlining policy also enabled White residents to more easily obtain loans in the suburbs propagating the phenomena we call ‘white flight’. With White residents abandoning the central business district, a pattern of both racial and economic segregation emerged that persists to this day.
The disadvantage of disinvestment impacts generations. Recently in Columbus, Ohio, many ‘redlined’ neighborhoods are being provided targeted support by the city to overcome the myriad issues that stemmed from early planning practices.
In this 2017 map from the City of Columbus [Map 4], the very same neighborhoods that were economically disadvantaged by mid-century urban planning are today identified as key investment zones, known locally as “Opportunity Zones”. These modern investment zone policies from the city are slowly chipping away at decades of injustice.
By the late 1940s, Black communities – segregated from Whites – thrived. Churches, schools, and social services were established by the communities alongside businesses ranging from hair salons and barbershops to grocers and restaurants. Despite market control enforcing segregation, Black Columbus residents established a rich cultural and physical footprint in the city. By the 1950’s, Flytown and West Goodale supported over 1,200 households and the neighborhood’s Black residents outnumbered the White by several hundred.
It’s difficult to quantify the speed with which these neighborhoods shifted and established a shared culture but a few local African American newspapers published in the mid-thirties through the early fifties offer a glimpse of Black resident’s experiences. This gallery below features a few newspaper clippings from The Ohio State News and The Ohio Sentinel reporting on national and local concerns for Black people in Columbus [Image Gallery 1]. These Black new publications also provided advertising for Black-owned businesses and sometimes social and civic events.
West Goodale transformed quickly into a commercial strip, with swanky restaurants serving up home-cooked meals and bars hosting Black performers of the day. Publications like the Ohio State News and Ohio State Monitor were notable newspapers of the day. Produced for and by the Black community in Columbus, these newspapers brought national and local news into homes and strengthened ties among African American organizations, businesses, and community members. The gossip columns frequently mentioned notable and successful people stopping by Flytown to pay respects to some aunt or grandfather – most of which were successfully practicing law, medicine, finance, or pursuing higher education in other cities across the country.
The neighborhood in 1951 is shown in this map created by the Sanborn Insurance Company [Map 5] to estimate potential liability for properties and structures in cities.
In addition to several businesses, the area was also featured the Olentangy School (center, right of the north arrow) and several churches that provided for the minds and souls of Flytown’s several thousand residents.
The pictures below show a few places around West Goodale. The top left show St. Francis of Assissi, a Black church that provided a school and other social support for the neighborhoo. The church remains in service at the corner of Buttles Ave and Harrison Ave in Victorian Village. The other images show various perspectives of Goodale St and a few of numerous homes and buildings that were demolished in the 1950s – notice the difference between Image 10 and 11.
The 1940s, defined by global and national unrest, was a key era in which the United States government began making aggressive policy changes that would be the foundation of decades of urban displacement and destruction.
Housing Act of 1949
As a piece of Truman’s Fair Deal proposals, the Housing Act made dramatic changes to the federal role in mortgage insurance/issuance and the construction and funding of public housing. This federal legislation approved financing for slum clearance programs across the United States, frequently referred to as “urban renewal projects”. This national policy manifested locally in Columbus via the Goodale Redevelopment project that ultimately destroyed the community of Flytown.
The Housing Act was particularly devastating for Black neighborhoods because the policy allowed states and municipalities to independently define ‘blight’. Essentially any area that a city deemed ‘blighted’ meant that it was then legal to pursue condemnation and clearance in the urban renewal process. The conditions that allowed a city to declare blight were entirely subjective and Columbus’ meticulous inspection requirements damned nearly all of Flytown’s buildings for offenses ranging from unsealed windows to outdated heating systems – although it remains unknown how many of Flytown’s contemporary neighborhoods would have been blighted by the same metrics. Today, urban historians such as Dr. June Manning Thomas understand ‘blight’ metrics were prejudicial and manipulative.
This collage of newspaper clippings was featured as the back cover of the City of Columbus’ official Redevelopment Plan for the Goodale Area. Newspapers from across the Midwest critiqued the “high cost of squalor” that plagued Columbus and emphasized that “redevelopment means progress”, especially for the Goodale “slums”. The prejudices against the neighborhood are evident and, although not explicit, speak volumes to the lengths that planners and city officials would go to justify such profound destruction.
Redevelopment and Rehabilitation
The City of Columbus formed the Redevelopment and Rehabilitation Department which oversaw several smaller departments and commissions. A commission was assembled, consisting of a few White men with broad social and political influence in the city; they implemented plans to clear at least 3 neighborhoods including Flytown, Market-Mohawk, and the Near East Side.
The City’s myriad agencies and departments collaborating on slum clearance commissioned several documents supporting the plans for Goodale, one of which laid out the precise legal definitions that allowed the city authority to redevelop this neighborhood. By the letter of the law (in 1952), this was all perfectly legal and citizens had little power to challenge the city. The City of Columbus justified its planning practices by appealing to people’s moral sense.
This political cartoon [Image 13] from the Columbus Dispatch personifies the city challenging the social evils of ‘apathy, indifference, resistance to change’. The Columbus Master Plan is compared to a game of chess, with the city pointing to slums and poor sanitation as key problems to address.
Flytown residents had no part in developing the plan at all – a cardinal sin in city planning today. Public engagement was not part of the process, especially for Black residents. This concise pamphlet is the only surviving example of public information distributed to residents of Flytown in 1954, following approval of development plans by Columbus’ planning department. It offers assurances that the process will be simple and directs concerned citizens to the Urban Redevelopment office in City Hall.
Documents from the City archive report that the plan called for the creation of offices for family relocation in neighborhoods marked for clearance, although records on engagement with these offices or their exact locations are absent from the surviving historic archive. Residents concerned about the redevelopment project were directed to the city planning office. Opportunities like public meetings that are a standard part of planning practice today are missing in the case of Flytown.
When slum clearance enters an area it does not merely destroy slatternly houses. It uproots the people. It tears out the churches. It destroys the local business man. It sends the neighborhood lawyer to new offices downtown. It mangles the skein of community friendships and group relationships beyond repair.1958 H. Salisbury
1955, left: 1 year after residents are informed of impending clearance. Residents are removed – relocating to surviving Black neighborhoods (like Hilltop and Linden), or placed in public housing (like Poindexter Village).
Groundbreaking on the neighborhood’s destruction would begin in 1957.
By 1959, right, the Goodale Expressway was nearly completed and open to travelers. Flytown is gone – Olentangy School and the few properties not yet condemned would be replaced by a strip mall, apartment complex, and a high-rise retirement and care facility.
Urban histories are incomplete without Black places and spaces.
The exclusion of Black places, sites, and stories from Columbus’ history perpetuates harm and trauma caused by implicitly racist city planning practices. Flytown was a thriving neighborhood where Black residents had established businesses, built homes and places of worship, consolidated cultural power, and generated wealth that threatened the paradigm of white supremacy. When the City demolished Flytown, they dispersed thousands of families, destroyed investment, and spatially enforced racial segregation across the city.
To forget this, is irresponsible.
Cultural heritage should be present in public space. Our reminders in physical places, should be accurate even if they illuminate histories that are shameful and embarrassing. Acknowledging Flytown as a place where Black culture was destroyed is important. Place-makers, planners, city leaders – all of us should be embarrassed that we have neglected the land’s memory and supported systems that enabled abuse of Black residents in Columbus. Telling the shameful parts of our history is essential to ensuring that city planning processes do no more harm to the Black community.