Columbus: The Myth and Truth Behind the Millennial City

11 months ago Alger Mag Editor 5

A small city clings jealously to its national accolades, and residents of Columbus have had more than a few to celebrate recently. In addition to receiving a competitive $40 million “Smart Cities” pilot grant to modernize its outmoded public transit system, the growing city has been the subject of several high-profile articles on its economic “revitalization” – such outfits as NPR and National Geographic have praised its nascent tech scene and chic, well-funded arts and shopping districts, even suggesting that it could be the next millennial destination city.

At the same time, Columbus has been in the international news for a less rosy reason: the murder of a black child, Ty’re King, at the hands of city police. Even though reports of such killings have become grimly commonplace, many Columbus residents I know were stunned by the event; we expect this in Cleveland, in Cincinnati, they murmured, but not here. Never here.

However, their innocence elides a local history of institutionalized racial injustice that stretches back a century. The bitter truth is that there’s little contradiction between Columbus’s ostensible “success” and the continued dispossession of its black community from body and home. America’s “smartest city”, after all, is also one of its most segregated. The economic stability of Columbus’s professional class has long been buttressed by low taxes, a gerrymandered public school system, and a technocratic city government determined to avoid social unrest in any form.

In NPR’s profile piece on Columbus, Ohio State University professor of history David Stebenne describes its recession-proof success as the product of “a very committed group of civic leaders and a culture of working together”. It is perhaps more accurate to say its many banking, finance, and consulting firms have remained in town as the result of an implicit pact between capital and City Hall, in which business leaders have offered their patronage in exchange for the maintenance of a “comfortable” white-collar environment – that is, one free of the inconveniences of school busing, fair housing laws, and equitable taxation.

This history of acquiescence began in the 30s, when the city’s population began to grow in earnest for the first time, driven by an emerging manufacturing industry and an influx of black laborers from the South. Anticipating the mounting middle-class demand for detached, single-family homes, developers began to buy up unincorporated land on the outskirts of the city and lay down planned communities like Upper Arlington and Worthington Hills.

It should come as little surprise that these communities were white by design – the allure of the suburbs came in no small part from their exclusionary nature. Even after 1948’s Shelly V. Kramer Supreme Court ruling struck down explicit racial covenants (like those of Upper Arlington), housing discrimination continued in practice through the mandatory vetting of prospective tenants by “homeowners’ associations” and through price and size minimums on new developments. The intent behind these policies was clear, as two thirds of Columbus’s planned subdivisions had racial covenants on their books (as documented in Patricia Burgess’s Planning for the Private Interest) even after Kramer made it impossible to enforce them legally.

Whereas suburban communities in other cities soon became politically autonomous, the Columbus city government saw the tax potential of these new developments and acted quickly to annex them in the 50s. They made this move politically palatable with three incentives: low income taxes, the provision of public utilities, and the preservation of those communities’ existing housing restrictions in the city’s zoning code. These codes, exclusionary by design, became part of the new law of the city, solidifying patterns of neighborhood segregation that persist to this day.

These patterns were briefly thrown into question in the late 60s when black city leaders brought a string of school desegregation cases against the city. Prior to this era, the Columbus School Board gave Brown II‘s injunction of desegregation “with all deliberate speed” little heed. However, a small but growing number of local demonstrations and flare-ups, along with clearer timelines for integration outlined in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, made the issue impossible to ignore any longer.

During these legal struggles, Columbus officials were preoccupied by the thought of their city turning into another Detroit or Boston, where the opposition to integration was so vitriolic that it descended into riots, bomb threats, and car burnings. Columbus had long thrived on its unremarkability – social stability meant a secure tax base and a steady stream of business investment. Now, faced with the mandate to make a bold but unpopular choice for integration, city officials sought a way to fulfill the letter of the law while mitigating its actual impact.

The result was the creation of a quasi-private and politically “neutral” entity, the Metropolitan Columbus Schools Committee, to oversee the desegregation effort. MCSC ran a drawn-out and piecemeal busing campaign until its corporate and philanthropic funders withdrew the last of their funding in the late 70s. In what was becoming typical Columbus fashion, leaders managed to assuage concerns on both sides of the issue while changing very little of the city’s economic and social geography.

As Robert Duncan, the Sixth District Court judge who presided over the city’s landmark desegregation case, would later say, “The power structure in Columbus traditionally gives the black community just enough to keep it relatively happy. Whenever you push, they just sort of give up a little and they take you off guard.”

This style of politics – incrementalist in words but intransigent in deeds – can be seen in contemporary battles over the city’s public transit system. A good public transit network can be a way to stitch together neighborhoods forced apart by segregation, but the system for Columbus has long been among the worst of America’s large cities, lacking light rail or an extensive commuter bus network.

Since the creation of the Central Ohio Transit Authority in the 70s, there have been five serious legislative attempts to improve the public transit system through the addition of rail or bus rapid transit corridors. All have failed. The proximate explanation for this poor record is lack of funding: until the mid-2000s, the city passed up on millions in federal public transit funding due to its lack of a transit plan. This meant that proposed expansions would have been funded by sales tax levies, which were (and still remain) political anathema.

However, the continued opposition to public transit in Columbus runs deeper than fiscal concerns. Local leaders in the suburban counties, who have veto power over any proposed transit plan in the metro area, often see the expansion of public transit as an unwelcome intrusion of the “urban” population into their exclusive communities. One County Commissioner from a suburban country told me he would not support any transit or housing plan that could bring “the riff-raff from Columbus”. The coded racial nature of this opposition is clear, and the structure of Columbus’s regional governance system – parochial by design – makes it nearly impossible to challenge through legislative means.

If Columbus is really a city of consensus, as Prof. Stebenne claims, it is a consensus among business and civic elites alone. In “Getting Around Brown”, his masterful history of the city’s desegregation efforts, Gregory Jacobs describes how that confluence of interests has shaped the city’s politics: “The wealth of Columbus’s elite… [has] remained uniquely and intimately tied to local investments. The local dependence of Columbus business leaders bred a sense of civic loyalty and commitment to municipal matters born of economic self-interest.”

Stability, not progress, has been Columbus’s ethos. When the city administration deigns to consider the needs of its black community, it is always in a tentative way – granting just enough ground to appear accommodating and high-minded while doing little to improve the economic fault lines that make the city one of the least socially mobile in the United States.


By: Max Mauerman

Corrections: Worthington Hills, not Worthington, was a planned community.