My role as an urban pioneer looked different—and carried new responsibilities—once I discovered the people who came before me.
Less than a year after arriving in Columbus as a professor at Ohio State, I decided to put down roots in the Near East Side of the city. To me, it was the most exciting neighborhood in Columbus—less dense, more diverse and not overrun with yuppies like the Short North or German Village. In the spring of 2005, I found the North of Broad development, where they were building new homes on vacant lots. When I first saw what would be my home, it was only a frame, without walls or insulation. I was so excited that I purchased what was supposed to be the model home.
By the time I purchased my home, the Near East Side was in the throes of urban redevelopment, and I was a pioneer of sorts—the second person to move into a North of Broad home. I was lured by the promise of a truly diverse, mixed-income neighborhood and generous property tax incentives that the city had put in place to make the Near East Side attractive.
Further improvements also came: LEED-certified houses, brand-new street lights, an experimental street made of ground tire. The goal was not only to increase owner-occupied housing, but to make it environmentally conscious. In many respects, I was self-righteously proud to be a part of this.
I knew about the history of the Near East Side in general terms—that it was the heart of the African-American community in Columbus since before the Civil War. That was part of the lure of living there as a new resident in Columbus. But living in the neighborhood exposed me to only a part of the history. Over the next decade, my work as an economist and historian took me on a journey looking for national trends in segregation and urban blight. Today, as a result, I see the history of my home, my neighborhood and decisions that were made about it in a very different way.
My work, largely, is about houses and who lives in them. A few years after moving in, I began developing a new way to measure residential segregation. What people typically do is take a city and cut it up into small blocks, and then they look at how black or white those blocks are relative to how black or white the city is. But nobody really lives in those blocks; they live in households, in communities and with neighbors. Everyone has a neighbor. So I took the census and started counting: every household and every neighbor. Millions and millions of neighbors.
I found that we have separated more by race than ever, and this was something that even specialists in the field did not know. This was not something that started in the 1950s—it has been an American perennial. Between 1880 and 1940, the likelihood that a black person lived next-door to a white person declined by more than 35 percent.
It is no coincidence that this increase in segregation took place at a time of intense racial violence. It was so dangerous that the simple task of getting from A to B could be fraught with the potential for bodily harm, threats or the cruelest humiliation. To help facilitate safety in automobile travel, African-Americans built a historical Yelp of establishments we could patronize without fear. Starting in 1938, we began cataloging the places that were safe for us in “The Negro Motorists Green-Book” (familiar to viewers of the 2018 Peter Farrelly film), a national publication that recorded all of the establishments where you could get a haircut, stop for gas, use the restroom, or sit down in a restaurant for dinner. The locations for Columbus were literally a stone’s throw from my front door. Long Street was a haven for African-American travelers looking for a safe place in Central Ohio.
While the “Green Book” was showing African-Americans which places were safe for them, red was being used by business and government to tell Americans which places were not. In fact, around the same time that the books were coming out, in the 1930s, the government was marking neighborhoods in green, blue, yellow and red, representing “residential security.”
Green was the best. Green areas in Central Ohio included Bexley and Upper Arlington. The next neighborhoods were blue areas deemed “still desirable” but not the best: Grandview and Worthington. Yellow areas were those marked as “in decline,” which at the time included German Village and the Short North.
Last were the places in red—and red was used because these neighborhoods were declared “hazardous.” In neighborhoods labeled red, it was difficult to secure a home loan, and insurance was more expensive. These were places not fit to be invested in, and not just for home loans and insurance but for public goods like roads, sewer development, libraries and hospitals.
I found that redlining was predicated on the racial separation I was researching. The very neighborhood deemed safest for African-Americans by the “Green Book” authors was deemed most hazardous for investment. Redlining served as a way to cut the Near East Side off from finance, public investment and economic integration into the robust midcentury American economy, even as its residents gathered there for safety.
In 1930, the spot where my house stands was in the middle of a bustling neighborhood, close to Long Street and the local shops that served a tight-knit and socioeconomically diverse black community. On my property stood a home owned by Elliot B. Henderson and his wife, Luella. Elliot was born in 1874 and died in 1942. By the time he died, the Near East Side was a diverse mix of owner-occupied housing, apartments and new public housing developments.
What was the impact of this sad history on my predecessors? Eighteen years after Elliot Henderson’s death, on Sept. 23, 1960, the house was valued at $1,290 (about $11,000 today) and sold to Jeanette Grider, a dance instructor in Columbus. Jeanette was regularly featured in The Columbus Dispatch, appearing with the Fasting Ballet and serving as secretary-treasurer of the East End Dance and Ballet Club. Her dance studio was at 329 E. Long St., right Downtown.
Jeanette did her best to keep the house afloat for the next 30 years. It burned twice as the neighborhood depopulated and became the victim of institutional disinterest and underinvestment, as well as rising crime. The house was demolished and the lot sold as a parcel in 1995 for $700—just 10 years before I moved into a brand-new house on the same spot.
Yet the map of “Green Book” businesses shows that this was not a community destined for despondence, but rather a thriving community that was safe for African-Americans. In fact, my house is three blocks from the site of the first and only black bank in Columbus. The Adelphi Building, Loan & Savings Co. was founded in 1900 right on Long Street. It was a leader in black business development and personal banking for a community locked out of Downtown banking businesses. By the early 1960s, the bank was closed, and the building was demolished in 2017.
Today, the vast majority of those “Green Book” businesses are gone, and with them, the core economy of the communities where they were located. By the time of interstate highway construction in the late 1950s, the Near East Side had everything transportation officials desired. The depressed real estate prices, depopulation and proximity to Downtown made it a prime location for eminent domain. The redlined area became the bulldozed area, as well.
How did we lose that history of the vibrant community that was here? What we do remember of the Near East Side typically revolves around celebrity and the arts. The Lincoln Theatre has been restored to its original Egyptian theme. It is, after all, the first place where Sammy Davis Jr. took the stage. The Long Street Cap is beautiful, a modern mural of the celebrities, politicians, civic institutions and churches in what was the heart of the African-American community here in Columbus.
But honoring a community and its history is more than honoring the stars and glory. It is honoring the Elliots and Luellas and Jeanettes, and what they did and represented. Respecting the work and lives that were lived day to day in the Near East Side, and acknowledging that choices were made about whether the lives in this place mattered as much as the lives in other places, is difficult—as is owning up to the fact that the renewal is largely about who moves in, not who has been here.
As much as I love living in the community, I now realize that I am the beneficiary of Elliot’s and Luella’s and Jeanette’s broken dreams. And when you think of it this way, you carry a sense of duty. It is not only about constructing murals to celebrate past heroes. It is about making choices, large and small—making a choice today to honor Elliot, Luella and Jeanette by telling what I know of their story and by encouraging all of us to consider that when we build something new, we owe it to the future, and to ourselves, to tell everyone what and who came before.