Ohio's first public housing project-a symbol of black pride, progress, decline, fear and hope-struggles for recognition, permanence

Ohio's first public housing project-a symbol of black pride, progress, decline, fear and hope-struggles for recognition, permanence

Chief Baba Shongo Obadina pauses in front of artwork depicting the slave passage from Africa to America. He stands there briefly, contemplating a piece he's viewed countless times-thin black necks tethered by iron clamps and chains. The aging curator can't fathom what would possess people to do such a thing. In 1976, he purchased the once-decrepit house on Bryden Road in which he now stands for $200, and he spent the next 13 years turning it into the William H. Thomas Art Gallery, a home for African-American and African art. Some of the works portray visions of hope, others reckon with a painful history. Today does not feel hopeful.

Obadina is angry and frustrated by the gentrification he sees all around him, in Columbus and sweeping urban centers across the country. He's especially upset by the fate of Poindexter Village, the historic public housing project where he was raised, which has been almost entirely demolished. He has been fighting alongside other Near East Side activists for its preservation and reuse since before demolition began about four years ago, and he's concerned that the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority will not spare the final two remaining buildings.

"There's no doubt in my mind that what they want to do is tear 'em down," he says. "They're trying to wait for things to get cold, people to get tired, forget, people to die."

One mile away, Bryan Brown steps inside one of the last Poindexter buildings, on North Champion Avenue. Some rooms are mostly intact, while others haven't fared so well. CMHA contracted a local company, CleanTurn, to extract salvageable materials from the buildings, and now only debris and remnants of the life once housed here remain.

Brown, CMHA's chief operating officer, walks through a ground-floor unit. He notes the narrow passageway between the living room and the kitchen and remarks on the low ceilings-about 6-foot-7, he says, pointing out the proximity of a light fixture overhead. He stands in the small, disheveled kitchen and offers an assessment: "This is what they're talking about saving."

The Rise and Fall of Poindexter

Poindexter Village was once a place of neighborhood pride, permeated by hope. It replaced a Near East Side shantytown called the Blackberry Patch. The new development was named in honor of the Rev. James Poindexter, a well-respected minister of African, Native American and European descent who became the first black member of Columbus' City Council and Board of Education. It was dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt on Oct. 12, 1940, as one of the nation's first public housing projects.

Poindexter offered modern amenities like steam heat, electricity and indoor plumbing to many for the first time. Its residents-all of them black, relegated there by segregation-saw it as yet another step forward within the Great Migration that brought millions of black families away from the harsh conditions of Southern sharecropping. Doctors, school teachers and domestic workers-the poor and middle class-lived side by side. Business flourished along Mount Vernon Avenue and Long Street nearby, and Poindexter became the heart of the black community on the Near East Side.

Patrick Potyondy, an Ohio State doctoral candidate whose dissertation studies African-American public housing, says that pre-World War II projects like Poindexter were far different than the current perception of "the projects." The village was a collection of barracks-style buildings constructed on a "smaller human scale," and Potyondy says the residents' experiences generally were positive and vibrant. Many went on to achieve great success, including Aminah Robinson, the late artist and MacArthur genius grant recipient acclaimed for her colorful depictions of life at Poindexter.

Angela Pace was born there in 1952. The longtime 10TV anchorwoman remembers the village's family atmosphere, and she still recalls the names of neighbors who watched over the children. She remembers carnivals and festivals and picnics. She remembers everyone working, as doormen and maids and entrepreneurs at the East Side Market. "It wasn't a prison. We didn't consider it a project-it was home," says Pace, now 10TV's director of community affairs. "And we were incredibly proud to be there."

Potyondy moved to Columbus in 2009 and settled in the King-Lincoln District on the Near East Side, where he learned of the controversy that had already been brewing for a year, after CMHA announced its intention to demolish the project. The idyllic version of Poindexter was long gone by then. The construction of I-71 in the early 1960s displaced people from homes and cut off the Near East Side from the rest of Downtown. Subsequent developments that were touted as urban renewal-like the construction of Mount Vernon Plaza-required further demolition of acres of homes and the removal of residents.

The federal Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, and over the ensuing decades black families who could afford better homes moved out of Poindexter, creating a void in neighborhood leadership and economic investment, says Julialynne Walker, who lived on the Near East Side in the 1960s and has been involved in the Poindexter preservation effort since she moved back to Columbus in 2012.

The problems were aggravated by lagging federal support for public housing, which Brown says has been "woefully underfunded for decades." Poverty became concentrated at Poindexter, and by the late 1980s, it was increasingly plagued by the blight of crime, drugs and violence that has come to define other housing projects.

"People who were interested in staying gradually became disillusioned because the resources that used to be available weren't available," says Walker. "Areas became more dangerous as a whole."

"Come Hell or High Water"

Its finances increasingly tight, CMHA began divesting its housing assets in favor of a Section 8-based voucher system-"CMHA is getting out of the public housing business, period," Brown says. The housing authority analyzed its inventory, and Poindexter was deemed functionally obsolete for several reasons, including its low ceilings, narrow passageways and moisture problems with the foundations. In 2008, CMHA applied for demolition funding from HUD.

Word of the pending demolition sparked a reaction from concerned Near East Side residents, particularly from elders who recalled Poindexter's halcyon days. Trudy Bartley, executive director of Partners Achieving Community Transformation, calls it a groundswell of emotion. "This is their community, and they feel that there is an entity that is disrespecting that and saying, 'We're just going to tear it down,' and not understanding the attachment."

PACT-a partnership among OSU, the city of Columbus and CMHA- was formed in 2010 after the three entities combined their existing efforts in the Near East Side and focused on revitalizing an 800-acre swath. The redevelopment of Poindexter-and the razing of its 35 original structures-was the centerpiece of the effort. Plans for the site now feature 450 new mixed-income housing units, including Poindexter Place, a senior-living facility completed earlier this year.

But community organizations, neighborhood groups and hundreds of area residents were worried about yet another urban renewal displacing residents and leaving land vacant for years, and they didn't want to lose a piece of the Poindexter history they valued deeply.

"We have a renaissance of people now putting value on Afro-American history, but at the same time we have the possibility of losing it," says Reita Smith, a local historian who has been a leader in the preservation work and raised her children at Poindexter in the 1950s. She and her fellow activists pushed to get Poindexter Village listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and because federal funds were being used in the demolition, the project had to undergo a historical evaluation. That review requires agencies to consider alternatives that avoid or minimize harm to historic properties.

The review process resulted in a memorandum of agreement between the city, CMHA and the state's historic preservation office in early 2013. CMHA agreed to document Poindexter's history and produce a historical exhibit, and an independent group of experts were convened to study the feasibility of retaining 10 Poindexter buildings. In the meantime CMHA was free to begin demolition of the other 25 buildings, which they did in June 2013. Later that month, the expert group recommended that the 10 remaining buildings be rehabbed and reused for residential housing.

CMHA conducted its own analysis and responded three weeks later, explaining that the cost for rehab was too high and the economics weren't sustainable in the long run. CMHA was simultaneously pursuing a $29.7 million grant from HUD, which was subsequently awarded in 2014, to fund the Near East Side redevelopment. That money was partially intended to reconnect Poindexter's isolated site to the neighborhood at large, Brown says, which couldn't happen if the cluster of 10 buildings was left standing. CMHA was only obligated to consider the recommendations of the expert group, not heed them, so demolition continued until only two buildings were left for further deliberation.

Walker alleges that the historical review process was an afterthought. Potyondy and several others agree, apparently frustrated by the four-year delay between the request for demolition funding in 2008 and the submission for review in 2012. Justin Cook, who assisted with the review at Ohio History Connection's State Historic Preservation Office, says the complaint about timing is fairly common because agencies tend to leave the historical review until late in the process. Activists were convinced that alternatives to demolition were only given cursory consideration. "CMHA had made up their mind they were going to demolish the thing come hell or high water," says Jonathan Beard, CEO of the Columbus Compact Corporation, who has worked toward preservation.

Brown says the housing authority has always embraced Poindexter's history but challenges anyone to prove that celebrating it requires retaining the buildings. He cites a report about a local shortage of 36,000 low-income housing units, adding, "Our mission as an organization is to house people today, and I don't know if you know this, but our community has an affordable housing crisis."

In Limbo

Two grassroots organizations have emerged from myriad defunct committees to support proposals for the buildings' potential reuse. One group, helmed by Walker and Smith, is a nonprofit called the James Preston Poindexter Foundation; the other is the Coalition for the Responsive and Sustainable Development of the Near East Side, which is led in part by Beard and Obadina. There's discord between the two groups about how the buildings should be used, and there are lingering tensions between some members.

Meanwhile, a different type of historical conservation is also underway. As part of the agreement, CMHA is responsible for funding an exhibit commemorating Poindexter's history and significance, completed with help from the Columbus Historical Society, PACT and other area organizations. The exhibit is scheduled to open May 1 at the Columbus Historical Society museum within COSI. Jeff Lafever, the society's executive director, says it will include displays about the Great Migration, the Blackberry Patch, Rev. Poindexter, Aminah Robinson, the village's decline and the current controversy. There will also be a virtual reality installation-the brainchild of Ohio State history professor David Staley-created by Potyondy and a team of other OSU students. The installation will provide a first-person historical perspective of the housing project's lifespan via glimpses inside a virtual Poindexter and oral histories from former residents.

"It will be another way of demonstrating the relevance, the need for a permanent structure that serves the same purpose," says Walker, who has culled artifacts for the exhibit. She also helped craft the first preservation proposal, now being shepherded by the Foundation, which seeks to repurpose one building as a museum and cultural center while using the other building to generate revenue through hospitality units and leasable office space.

CMHA responded in April 2015, citing concerns about funding sources and costs, which were estimated around $5.6 million for design and construction alone. Beard was also skeptical of the proposal, anxious that CMHA would reject its hefty price tag and walk away from preservation altogether, so the Coalition replied to CMHA's concerns with its own proposal. The Coalition plan, which estimates costs at approximately $1.1 million, calls for a smaller museum and learning center in just four units, funded by updating and renting the buildings' other 20 units as multifamily residential.

But CMHA has maintained from the beginning that there would be no more residential use of the two buildings. Despite the independent expert group's original recommendation for rehab and reuse of 10 buildings, Brown says financing market-rate housing in the area is extremely difficult, in addition to all the reasons CMHA deemed the buildings' functionally obsolete. Preservationists contend that the buildings are still in excellent physical condition, and Beard believes that CMHA's underlying reason for prohibiting residential is to make it easier to declare any proposals infeasible. It's just one of the ways he feels the housing authority hasn't acted in good faith.

"Members of that community, particularly those outspoken members of that community, do not trust that the city of Columbus, Ohio State University and CMHA will do the right thing by the community," says Horace "Ike" Newsum, a professor of African-American and African studies at OSU who has helped with the historical exhibit and the first preservation proposal. The distrust traces back several years to the neighborhood plan itself, and the fact that people like Obadina fear gentrification of the entire area. He already watched it happen in his current neighborhood of Olde Towne East.

Bartley insists that gentrification is one of her biggest concerns, too, and that PACT is taking a holistic approach to revitalization, starting with improving education. She says any redevelopment must be done respectfully, unlike what happened in Olde Towne. Brown is incredulous, confounded by concerns about relocating residents because, he says, all CMHA heard for years was that Poindexter was a drag on the neighborhood. To him, the redevelopment is already a success story because living conditions have improved. He mentions Barbara Cunningham, a longtime Poindexter resident. She still lives nearby in an upgraded unit; she has plenty of room, she says, and she loves it. Brown swears that the new Poindexter will address past problems because it will still include low-income rentals, but rather than concentrating poverty, it will also feature housing for people with a wide variety of incomes.

These things do not always go as planned, Newsum says. Usually redevelopment projects scatter former residents around the city, often beyond the Outerbelt, and they don't want to return by the time the new build is finished. Eventually low-income units are scaled back in favor of market-rate rentals, which aren't affordable for the previous demographic. "It's not like we have to guess what happens," he says. "There are a lot of examples across the country."

A Story in Bricks

These two empty buildings are more than roofs and walls, more even than rosy-eyed recollections of a bygone era. The buildings at Poindexter are an open wound for the black community, an exposed nerve rubbed raw. Neighborhood residents cling to what they have-memories and material alike-because society hasn't assigned much value to their history. Where others see squat row houses past their prime, they see a journey north away from slavery and Jim Crow. They see poverty, segregation, redlining, a struggle upward, progress and hope. They see bulwarks against the devastation of the Near East Side, resilience despite the odds stacked against them. They see themselves in these facades, and they fear that one day soon they will see nothing at all.

The buildings' fate remains in doubt. CMHA is still considering options, and there is no timeline for a decision. Brown says that both community proposals are largely conceptual, and he's unaware of any resources committed to either one, which limits their potential. He says that CMHA put in a request with the Ohio General Assembly for funding the retention and adaptive reuse of one or two of the buildings. They are testing the appetite for investment in preservation.

Angela Pace understands the need for progress, but she believes something physical must endure, that Poindexter should be more than words and pictures in a museum. Charles Hillman, CMHA's CEO, gave her three bricks that she believes to be from her childhood home. She passed two of them along to her younger sisters and placed hers on the fireplace in her living room. She glanced at the brick during Easter dinner, and it reminded her to tell a story-she and her sisters in their Easter Sunday finery, sitting on the porch of their Poindexter home while a neighbor cooked what little food she had to share with everyone. The brick calls these memories forward, keeps them fresh and real. She looks at it every day.

"It's tacky as hell, doesn't match anything else in the living room, I don't care," she says. "It's my brick, and it's part of where I came from."