Olde Towne East, as the name implies, is one of Columbus’ oldest neighborhoods. It began as a series of farms and modest homes, but began to consolidate as a neighborhood when the National Road (now Broad Street) reached Columbus in 1833. This new road acted much like later highways would, allowing those with the means to live a bit further out from the hustle can bustle of Downtown Columbus, which during the 1800s was rapidly growing. So essentially, Olde Towne became one of Columbus’ first suburbs. These early suburbanites tended to be the wealthy elite of Columbus, and they built large, extravagant homes for the period, many of which still exist today.
As the city and neighborhood prospered, residents began to clamor for alternative modes of transit. In 1863, Columbus began service of its first horse-drawn streetcar with a route to Olde Towne East along Broad Street. This allowed for further growth of the area and made it easier for those of more modest means to take part in building the area, and the population continued to grow. This prompted the city to annext Olde Towne in 1870.
By the 1880s, transportation improved again when trolley tracks were laid. The streetcar barn that served the trollies still exists, although currently in desperate need of maintenance. Further development prompted much of the area to be converted to a gridded, residential area, and the affluent continued to flock to the area to build their dream homes. It is likely that the neighborhood reached its peak sometime between 1890-1915, before new suburban areas, such as Bexley, began to pull the rich from Olde Towne.
From the 1920s through 1940s, Olde Towne East transitioned from a neighborhood of the rich to a middle class enclave, and much of its former luster began to slowly disappear. Old mansions were gutted and turned into apartments and nursing homes, while others slowly rotted until they were demolished. This trend was accelerated in the 1950s, as a new highway system was being constructed, and the urban core of Columbus gradually declined due to pollution, crime and worsening schools. This suburban flight, better known as the “White Flight” movement, left Olde Towne wholly transformed. Over time it became a neighborhood dominated by low income families mostly of African American descent. African Americans had not been able to take advantage of the surburban exodus, and instead had simply replaced those who had already left.
What happened in Olde Towne was happening in many urban neighborhoods across the city, exacerbated by the “urban renewal” movement. Urban Renewal is now considered one of the absolute worst disasters to ever befall cities. Leaders believed at the time that the best way to fight urban blight was to basically bulldoze everything in sight. Because the automobile had become such a dominant force, it was believed that the best way to bring people back to the city was to provide large amounts of parking vs a smaller amount of buildings. The theory was that if it was easy to drive and park Downtown, those businesses that were left would be able to tap into all those customers. Beyond that, there was a lack of appreciation for anything of real historical value or age. Old buildings, more often than not, were just considered blight that needed to be removed, far too cost inefficient to maintain. Therefore, if there was more parking for the increasing suburban population along with less blight, urban areas would again become revitalized. It was a ridiculous theory and basically accomplished the exact opposite.
The worst blow, however, was the highway system. Olde Towne East was connected to Downtown with dense, urban development. I-71 changed that. It carved a path through the heart of the neighborhood, destroying hundreds of historical homes and permanently severing the two areas with a highway canyon. All highways did was allow more and more people to escape to the far suburbs, and by the 1970s, Olde Towne East, along with most other urban neighborhoods, was in freefall decline.
The 1980s began to provide a ray of hope. The principles of urban renewal were rapidly becoming obsolete, if not shunned. The damage the philosophy had caused was obvious everywhere one looked in the urban core. But while Olde Towne had lost so much and was in bad shape, some people saw potential. Many of the original mansions had survived, though in extreme disrepair. Real estate had become very cheap in the neighborhood, and house flipping was beginning to take off. Renovations began to take place and the very slow process of turning the neighborhood around began. It was not without controversy.
By the 1990s, gentrification was well underway in Olde Towne East, but not everyone was thrilled. Many in the African American community saw these new urbanists as a threat. Why? Because the inevitable result of fixing up a neighborhood is higher rents, higher mortgages and higher taxes. These lower-income residents, who had been there for decades, saw this revitalization as their eventual push out of Olde Towne East altogether. This controversy became the subject of a 1990s documentary called Flag Wars. The documentary centered on the gay community, in particular, being a force of revitalization, and the conflict it created with African American residents who felt they were being bullied to leave.
The 2000s were a slow time for Olde Towne East. Double recessions hit house flippers and developers hard, and the housing market overall crashed. Revitalization slowed and it looked for awhile that perhaps the process had stagnated. However, within the last few years, the city, along with private and public investment, such as with Ohio State, has pledged millions of dollars to fix up homes and infrastructure in and around Olde Towne even as small-scale renovations have gradually ticked up once more. These new partnerships signal a new era for Olde Towne and other urban neighborhoods that we are once again serious about the urban environment. In the years to come, Olde Town’s incredible architecture and history will become an increasingly important selling point to a society that, at least in the past 5 years, has taken a second look at urban living and not found it to be all that scary anymore. It may take time to rebuild infrastructure and population, but the seeds are there for a true rebirth of one of Columbus’ oldest and best neighborhooods.
Olde Towne East Historical Population and Demographics
% of Population by Race
*Hispanics were not counted separatrely until the 1970 Census.
**Asians were not counted separately until the 1980 Census.
***Prior to 1970, many were largely counted as either White or Black. This partially explains the rapid changes from 1960-1970 in demographics, but is not the entire story. This was also the same period that Interstate 71 was constructed through the neighborhood (early 1960s). Almost 5,000 residents were forced to relocate or simply left the area between 1960 and 1970 and completely reversed the racial makeup of the neighborhood.