City Center Site Has Risen and Fallen and Risen Before

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City Center Mall
City Center Mall

City Center has seen better days. The multilevel shopping mall in Columbus, Ohio, opened in 1989 and quickly became the place to be for the shopping set in central Ohio.

At the time, City Center seemed to many people to be the answer to a prayer. In the years after World War II, sixteen million people returned from military service and promptly went looking for a spouse, a car, and homes of their own – not necessarily in that order.

The result of inexpensive land and cheap transportation was what we came to call suburbia. The central cities of America emptied out and one of the greatest internal migrations in American history took place.

Columbus was luckier than many places because its diversified economy of public and private employment and policy of aggressive annexation cushioned the dislocation caused by the movement of so many people.

But it was only a little luckier. By the late 1960′s and early 1970′s, it was often said that one could shoot a cannon down High Street near the Statehouse at 9 PM and not hit very much at all.

A nonprofit development organization called Capitol South brought City Center into being and for much of the past twenty years it was the premier place to shop. Then in the past few years new shopping centers in the suburbs took its place.

Now many people wonder whether – with City Center or without it – the heart of the central city can be saved.

Of course it can be – and it will be.

For most of the past two hundred years, the several blocks along High Street from the Statehouse to the Courthouse and from the River to Fourth Street has been the commercial center of the city.

And it is not hard to see why.

After Columbus was platted in 1812 and an old Indian trail became High Street, a ten acre square was cleared for the Statehouse and another ten was set aside for a penitentiary where the Cultural Arts Center is today.

It should not be too surprising that local entrepreneurs – much of whose business was alcoholic – would place them selves between these land mark locations. The first tavern in town – called the Lion and the Eagle – was in a two story brick building near the southwest corner of State and High Streets. Another establishment was called the Columbus Inn and stood on the southeast corner of High and Town Street. Because it was a little classier – at least in name – it served as the first meeting place of Columbus Borough Council.

In short, many of the earliest residents of Ohio’s capital city lived and worked along the first few blocks of South High Street. For a time in the 1820′s, business sagged and the “western country” fell on hard times. Many people had bought real estate at prices far higher than the property’s real value. When the market faltered, the whole state faltered with it.

Many towns took years to recover. Some never did. But Columbus was blessed with the arrival in the 1830′s of the Ohio Canal and The National Road. In two years, the Borough of Columbus became the City of Columbus.

Business was slow again in the 1840′s, but the arrival of railroads and the Civil War sparked an economic boom that lasted – with a few digressions – well into the twentieth century. Through most of those years of growth and retrenchment, South High Street and the streets nearby continued to be the ‘ place to be.’

As late as the end of World War II, the corner of Rich and High Streets was still called The Hub. And in a very real way it was. From that Hub in almost every direction a web of commerce, trade and business reached into most of a still vital downtown.

City Center did what it was supposed to do. It reversed the centrifugal force that was spinning Columbus into its suburbs and away from the downtown. Now what are we to do? New housing is being built downtown. New shops, offices and sports facilities are being built as well. As we have in the past, we are doing what needs to be done.

Until South High Street, for yet another time, becomes the place to be.

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