Slum Clearance in Columbus, Ohio

Contextualizing and describing the magnitude of loss in physical space

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

    There are many celebrated neighborhoods in Columbus, Ohio. The historic charms of German Village or the vibrancy of Short North enthrall residents and visitors alike. Areas around downtown have undergone tremendous change over the last few decades — where some historic districts have been preserved and rehabilitated, numerous others were lost to redevelopment following the City of Columbus’ mid-century slum clearance.

    One of Columbus’ most interesting neighborhoods, Flytown, was demolished in the late 1950s — the community’s legacy mostly lost to time is remembered simply in this plaque near the intersection of Neil Ave and Goodale St.

    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 at the turn of the century identify Black enclaves and neighborhoods surrounding the central business district – including the areas west and south of Goodale Park.

    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. In 2019, nearly a quarter of Franklin County is identified as Black – well above the national average of 13%.

    A healthy walk from downtown, Flytown and the Goodale area were 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 1930’s Great Depression took a 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.

    Post-war Columbus: Black Urbanity

    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 growing economy offered some new opportunities to Black people, they were still limited significantly social, economically, and geographically.

    Redlining was a practice that the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (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 allowed White residents to obtain loans to buy homes in the suburbs in the phenomena we call ‘white flight’. With White residents abandoning the central business district, a pattern of segregation emerged that persists to this day.

    A consequence of this City endorsed segregation is economic devastation – disinvestment .

    In this 2017 map from the City of Columbus, the very same neighborhoods that were economically and socially raped by mid-century urban planning are today identified as key investment zones. By offering tax deferrals and exclusions to business owners in these areas, the city has slowly began chipping away at decades of injustice.

    Flytown’s Black Places & Culture

    By the late 1940s, Black communities – still 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.

    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 1940’s, defined by global and national unrest, was a key era in which the United States government began making aggresive 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 outlined in five Titles. In the first of these five, the federal government approved financing for slum clearance programs; these were associated with urban renewal projects like the Goodale Redevelopment in Columbus.

    Most importantly, it allowed states and municipalities to 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.

    This collage of newspaper clippings was featured as the back cover of the City of Columbus’ official Redevelopment Plan for the Goodale Area. The prejudices against the neighborhood are well evident and, although not explicit, speak volumes to the lengths that planners and city officials would go to justify such profound destruction.

    Assemblage of newspaper clippings describing Goodale area, urban renewal, and slum clearance

    City of Columbus: 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 neighborhood in 1951 is shown in this map created by the Sanborn Insurance Company.

    In addition to several businesses, the area was also featured the Olentangy School and several churches that provided for the minds and souls of Flytown’s several thousand residents.

    Citing increasing costs and decreasing tax value, the city moved through the process quickly, recommending clearance of over 60 acres of land in the city including at least 500 homes and over a thousand families. The process moved quickly and West Goodale & Flytown’s clearance was planned, implemented, and completed in less than a decade.

    Justification for demolishing were largely economic, page 7 of the Goodale Redevelopment Plan (1954) cites value loss in Goodale and heavily emphasized redevelopment as a solution for ‘these problems’.

    The City’s myriad agencies and departments committed to slum clearance published 4 (5?) documents outlining 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.

    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.

    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.

    4 Years

    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.

    A plaque is not enough.