Investigating Local History

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For those of you not from or familiar with Columbus, German Village is (now) a historic neighborhood. Named for its first inhabitants, its quaint, cobblestone streets and brick homes are quintessential scenes that appear in most of Columbus’s marketing material. The trees are old, the shops are charming, and the real estate is expensive. 

Historic German Village is nestled between High Street and Parsons Avenue, major Columbus throughways that display other parts of the city’s past and present. The South End (or South Side, depending on who is talking), is a larger area that encompasses German Village and the neighborhoods to the south, east, and west. The larger South End is full of history, though it has not been preserved in the same way as German Village.  A drive north on Parsons Avenue puts the city’s gentrification efforts on full display.  The closer you get to downtown, new breweries, apartments, shops, and restaurants surround the ever-expanding Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Houses on the “other side” of Parsons (the “not German Village side”) are being bought, renovated, and sold again to new residents who want to be close to downtown, new amenities, and, well, German Village. 

For students at South High School (on the “other side” of Parsons), Schiller Park in the center of German Village is an important landmark and after school destination. The Park has a recreation center and basketball courts open to young people where they are free to play until dusk. Yet I was surprised when, for example, as coach of the cross country team, we ran further into German Village and students had no idea where they were. On the other hand, students (and adults) from outside the South End might have been to German Village for dinner or to shop many times without any sense of the vast neighborhoods and strong communities that surround the area.  When explaining to folks where I worked, I would locate South High “near German Village, but a world away.” 

Columbus is among the 20 most segregated cities in the United States, startlingly exemplified by German Village and the South End. How is it, for example, that we can have homes on the same street that sell for $1 million and $100,000? How can we have restaurants that advertise dinner plates for $25 and a corner store that accepts EBT? How can folks living on different sides of the same street have a 20 year difference in life expectancy? 

And finally, why aren’t we talking about this in school with our students? 

To kick off this year of Erase the Space, Derek and I decided to make our students’ ideas a reality and plan a scavenger hunt. Brainchild of Franki, Luis, Goodness, Zi’Kyea, and Debby (2018-2019), the scavenger hunt is intended to teach students about the physical area while forcing young people from different communities to work together and solve clues. Where better to host a scavenger hunt than in German Village, one of the most historic neighborhoods in Columbus and one of the most severe examples of socioeconomic inequity? 

With help from the German Village association and the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State, we procured several maps, each telling a different story of German Village. We ultimately ended up with six maps that we thought might be the most interesting to students. 

  • A map from 1872 of German Village. This map shows streets named for its early inhabitants, mostly immigrants of Eastern European descent. It is easy to forget that immigrants from Eastern Europe were discriminated against by other white Columbus citizens at this time period. When the Home Owners Loan Corporation began assessing neighborhoods for risk in the early 20th century, German Village would receive a lower “grade” than other neighborhoods populated by white citizens who were no longer considered immigrants.  

  • A map of redlining and restrictive covenants in Columbus. The map shows redlining and the lines point to neighborhoods where entire subdivisions were plated with racially restrictive covenants. The most important point with this map is how policies worked in tandem to segregate our society and disenfranchise African Americans from property ownership, which we know is directly related to wealth.Neighborhoods shown in green and blue had the most racially restrictive covenants, meaning that non-white families could not move into those neighborhoods. Red and yellow neighborhoods had few or no racial restrictions. The impact of these policies are evident today over 100 years later. 

  • A map of historic designation boundaries for German Village. The historic designation of German Village did not happen until the 1960s. Even then, the historic contributions from the early immigrant inhabitants were not the driving force behind the historic designation, but rather the architecture. The historic neighborhood regulations for residents of German Village is outlined in a pamphlet with the subtitle “preserving historic architecture.” Once the historic designation was final, real estate prices within the boundaries shot way up. For many, this made up some ground in wealth that had been stripped from the inhabitants once the FHA graded the South Side of Columbus C (yellow). However, the boundaries for the historic designation only extends as far as Parsons Avenue. Notice that the map even includes a fence! 

  • A map of Columbus highways and median net worth. The growth of Columbus through the latter part of the 20th century had a lot to do real estate. The city annexed its way through Franklinton and Clinton Township, and continued its outward sprawl. The surrounding suburbs grew along with the city and highways were instituted so (white) folks could work downtown and live in the suburbs. Hanford Village—along with other redlined communities—was plowed down to make room I-70 as it bisected the city. Notice that red and yellow communities on the maps are the ones affected by highway growth; highways go around blue and green communities. Remember, those blue and green communities were built on racially restrictive covenants. 

  • A racial dot map and life expectancy map for Franklin County. The racial dot map shows that modern Columbus is still segregated. The blue dots, or white residents, populate northern and western neighborhoods, while the red dots, or Black residents, populate the southern and eastern neighborhoods. Asian and Hispanic residents are represented throughout the city; however, these are large, overarching racial categories that tell incomplete stories about the residents they represent. It’s important to note that racial minorities are clustered in areas that were graded as “C” and “D” neighborhoods by the Home Owners Loan Corporation yeas ago. These are the same neighborhoods with a low life expectancy. Depending on your location in Franklin County, you average life expectancy ranges over 20 years. In some areas, like German Village and the South End, life expectancy changes by crossing one street. 

Each of the maps would be located at significant places in German Village and the South End. We selected: 

  1. The Parsons Branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library - A beautiful branch with caring librarians. They have been great friends to us and to our students. 

  2. Community Grounds - A new coffee shop with affordable fare ($2 coffee, $2.50 bagels) and with a mission to bring people together. 

  3. South High School - Where Erase the Space began and a historical landmark. South High has been in its current location since the 1920s and was formerly located inside historic German Village. 

  4. Stewart Elementary School - Another historic Columbus City School with strong ties to the community. 

  5. Friedrich Schiller Statue - A large statue in the middle of Schiller Park. 

With help from Jackie Burtch, Derek and I created clues to lead students through the different sites listed above. At each site, they would receive a map from the volunteer at each station. They would be responsible for synthesizing the information provided by the volunteer and through studying the map. We provided minimal context for most maps so that the students could really study the map themselves and ask questions. At the end of the hunt, students would be responsible for “telling a story” about German Village and the South End. Volunteers would vote on the group that demonstrated the strongest civil discourse and worked best together as a group. 

On the day of the scavenger hunt, it rained. It poured. It poured so hard that my mascara was running down my face once we found safe haven at the Parsons Library (coming through for us, once again). Luckily, we have awesome students and awesome volunteers who went with the flow of the day (pun intended) and we set up the hunt in the Homework Help Center. Our space was smaller, so we just had each “site” at a different table while each group had their own table for working together. Students still received clues to guide their movement around the room. 

It was incredible to watch 18 students from different communities show up on a Saturday morning at 10:00am, get soaked, change location, and continue working. It was also Homecoming weekend for South High. Regardless, as they always do, our students came through to have meaningful conversations about the local history that surrounds them and influences their lives every day as citizens of Columbus. At noon, we asked students to share their stories of German Village. All three groups powerfully acknowledged that we are living, breathing products of specific policy and decisions that privileged some and oppressed others. The “way it is” is not the way it had to be. 

The Blue Group, comprised of three South High Students and two Olentangy Liberty Students, ultimately won top prize for their civil discourse and positive group dynamic. However, we felt so proud of all our students and volunteers for coming together on a Saturday to learn and share. After eating lunch and taking pictures, we cleaned up and set off to enjoy the rest of our Saturday. The entire event, from start to finish and including the rain delay, took about four hours. 

We will do this again, in a different neighborhood with different maps. We will have a better rain plan moving forward. But, weeks later, we are still reveling in how powerful this was to witness. We are sharing our resources here in hopes that community organizations adopt the idea to get people talking about the space they inhabit. We hope teachers will do this activity in their own classrooms about the community they inhabit. The story of German Village and the South End is the story of America’s major cities...and it’s a story we should be sharing with our young people.