Downtown Columbus – Change is Constant

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N/A(Photo: Ohio Historical Society)
N/A(Photo: Ohio Historical Society)

When I first came to Columbus to stay – more than forty years ago – Columbus was a much smaller city than it is today – both in actual population and in the size and scale of the place. In those days before the great Interstate highways were completed, one came into town on of several U. S. Routes – 23, 33, or 40 to name three of the most traveled.

Entering Columbus took a while since even the national highways passed through innumerable small towns – with innumerable small speed traps. Traveling by car through Columbus in those days sometimes became a game. Can I make it through to Statehouse Square without hitting single red light? It was a goal devoutly desired – but seldom obtained.

But when one arrived at a sedate 25 miles per hour in downtown Columbus from the west, the first view of the city was rather spectacular. There stood the riverfront with its bridges and public buildings. Driving up the Broad Street rise from the river and to the Square, one knew that one was in a special place – where power and authority were manifest in the simple stone of the Statehouse. Towering above the city unchallenged in those days was the LeVeque Tower. Built to be the Citadel of the American Insurance Union in 1927, the building was clad in oak-bark terra cotta and festooned with all sorts of signs and symbols in brass and copper and stone that mirrored the people who had made them.

The Tower had a public viewing floor where one could look out across the city with clumsy large binocular machines. On a clear day, one could see Circleville – if such was one’s desire.

Importantly, however, I noticed that the binoculars did not adjust straight down with any reliability. And perhaps that was just as well. IF they did one would see up close what was increasingly obvious – the center of the city was vanishing.

After World War II, hundreds of people left the inner city and began to move to the world of suburbs and shopping centers. As they did, lots began to be leveled since it seemed to some that asphalt parking lots made more money than the empty buildings along increasingly less frequented streets.

By the late 1960′s, much of downtown Columbus was streets, vacant lots and parking lots. And following the prevailing philosophy of that time, whole neighborhoods – considered too far gone to save – were removed in a process politely called “urban renewal.” In Columbus, the program had the more descriptive title of Slum Clearance and Redevelopment – or SCAR for short.

In retrospect, we can see now that the rush to renew – sometimes destroyed whole neighborhoods that – by the standards of our own time – might have been saved. We learned that lesson through the long and difficult struggle to save historic districts like German, Victorian and Italian Village – and many, many more.

Columbus also revitalized its downtown with a variety of public and private projects. The City sponsored new bridges, new parks and a whole new acquaintance to the River that runs through downtown – the Scioto Mile.

For all of that, we can still stand atop a tall building in downtown today – and there are many – and see that much still remains to be done. Freeways still divide the city and separate many older neighborhoods from the downtown. The site of City Center is a vast empty lot – soon to be a park – but still a reminder of how rapidly city life can move. The great shopping mall was not yet twenty years old when it fell – a victim of the one great constant of urban life.

And that is change. It is in the nature of cities to foster change, encourage change, welcome change and sometimes embrace it rapidly. It is in the nature of cities to be that way. Bring together large numbers of people and the restless energy to seek success – and rapid change will always be part of city life.

Over the past few decades, Columbus has become one of the most successful cities in the nation by being flexible enough to break free from the industrial legacy of the Midwest and seek a new future in new fields. It has also successfully saved much of the living legacy of its past for future generations. But as we congratulate ourselves, we should not forget the parking lots that continue to stand across downtown Columbus – a reminder of what we once were and what still might be.