German Village as a Case Study
This chapter explores German Village as a case study. German Village is a neighborhood located in Columbus, Ohio. I begin this chapter by describing some of the changes that are happening in the Central Ohio region, Columbus and some of its urban neighborhoods, highlighted the renewed interest in urbanity. I then describe German Village in more detail.
Establishment and Maturity as an Urban Neighborhood, circa 1830 to 1940
Before the ‘German Village’ identity, the area was known simply as the South End, along with many other neighborhoods. The area was settled in the mid-19th century by German immigrants and has street names like Kossuth, Frankfort, and Jaegar, to prove it. Germans were pushed to leave their homeland by war and famine, arriving en masse between 1840 and 1880 (Clark, 2015), but many arrived even earlier.
A 1927 thesis by Ira Blanchard generalized the entire South Side as “another region of foreigners…mixed up with the colored people in the north part of the region and with the descendants of the old German settlers through most of the region in general” (Blanchard, 1922, p. 117). The area also contained many stores owned and operated by immigrants “composed of about a dozen nationalities,” indicating the diversity of ethnic groups—not singularly German. These characterizations do not isolate the current German Village area as particularly more German or distinct from the South Side as a larger neighborhood.
Even before the work of Blanchard, the German section was noticed by scholars as an especially strong ethnic enclave. Eminent Chicago School sociologist Roderick Duncan McKenzie described the South Side in his 1923 study The Neighborhood: A Study of Local Life in Columbus, Ohio. He wrote that in 1910, Columbus’ 5,722 foreign-born Germans were the largest foreign-born group in the city. Of the neighborhood, he wrote, “The renowned German section of the city extends along South High Street from Livingston Avenue as far south as Washington Park, bounded on the east by Parsons Avenue, and on the west by the Hocking Valley track… The whole community, just outlined, is fundamentally German.” McKenzie offered more detailed descriptions of life in the German section: “The dwellings represent the typical German village structure,” he wrote, “built close up to the sidewalk, with garden space and chicken house in the rear. Many of the alleys are lined with small residences. Frequently the owner of a fine home will have a small building on the rear of his lot occupied by a tenant family” (McKenzie, 1923, p. 156). The historic district boundaries of today, then, appear to include just a small portion of the heritage area populated by Germans in the past.
Along with Old World architecture, the neighborhood had social clubs, institutions, schools, and newspapers for German-speaking residents. The first local German newspaper began printing in 1833, and German businesses were popping up to accommodate the influx of people (Rippley, 1968). Their migration occurred during a tumultuous time in German history, when multiple territories were being brought into the fledgling German Empire. A large portion of the migrants to Columbus were of the Swabian and Bavarian groups, bringing with them their own unique customs but having the Germanic language as a common denominator (Clark, 2015).
The neighborhood was an enclave of German-born and German-speaking residents until the early-mid 20th century. To serve the new residents, the south side supported “a variety of businesses; most focused on daily necessities…[b]ake houses, blacksmith shops, saloons, wallpaper shops, slaughterhouses, barbershops, wagon shops, tailors, grocers, stone cutters and upholsterers were scattered throughout” (Graichen, 2010, p. 65). An important piece of German Village’s identity has always been a mixed-use environment. The concept of separating land uses among residential, commercial, retail, and others was not considered during this period of the neighborhood’s history. Homes and shops “were mixed with dwellings, for this was a walking community where local merchants and artisans were also neighbors” (Campen, 1978, p. 7). The business mix was such that Campen considered it to be a “self-sufficient neighborhood” where “markets, groceries, confectionery shops and taverns were randomly dispersed amidst residences (Campen, p. 68).
To access the variety of shops and amenities, the primary mode of transportation was walking, though horses were also available. Evidence of horse transportation is still visible today through limestone steps along the sidewalk designed to assist riders as they dismounted from carriages. The figure below illustrates the step, directly in front of the door on the left.
The advent of the streetcar era around the turn of the 20th century included German Village. The neighborhood would have been nearly built-out by 1901 when a streetcar map shows lines on S. High Street, E. Livingston, E. Whittier, and Parsons Avenue to the east. By 1906, there was also a line running along Mohawk, around Schiller Park and down Jaeger Street, serving the interior of the neighborhood. Streetcars served the area until the late 1930s and early 1940s when busses replaced them.
Unlike other urban neighborhoods of Columbus, German Village was built-out before the construction of streetcar rails in the area. With a general gradient in age (older to younger) from the north to the south and from the west to the east” (Travis, 1973, p. 52), most structures in the neighborhood were built between 1830 and 1900—before streetcars.
Some areas of Columbus, like the Clintonville and Old Town East neighborhoods, are considered “streetcar suburbs” because they developed in tandem or because of the extension of streetcar lines, which made the more distant areas accessible to jobs in the downtown area. This was not the case in German Village, however. The neighborhood was also considered
urban in terms of public schools, according to historic listings in the city directory. Beginning in 1910, the City Directory listed public schools and suburban schools separately. Suburban listings included neighborhoods like Milo-Grogan, Clintonville, South Linden, and the University District—but never schools in or near German Village (See Appendix C for full school listings). This indicates that the near south end was always considered part of the central city. As such, the neighborhood has always been pedestrian-oriented. The infrastructure and architecture developed entirely before the advent of automobility, which has an approximate date of 1930 in the U.S. (Norton, 2011, p. 11). The rise of car-oriented infrastructure and culture was one of the many factors that contributed to the decline of the South End, according to historian Campen: “the growth of suburbs and the proliferation of the automobile, sent the Village into a decline (1978, p. 26).
The economic state of the German immigrant neighborhood was, not surprisingly, regarded as working class. The neighborhood weathered the Great Depression better than other areas of Columbus, according to Elmer. It also maintained a sense of pride despite ranking low in a 1918 measure of personal property returns by sociologist McKenzie (see Figure 5: Columbus map of personal property value by ward, 1918). The average value for household furniture for an elector in Ward 2 was $67.56, the fourth lowest in the city. Despite this lower ranking,
the German area had a “greater mixture of economic levels” than anywhere else in the city, and residents were regularly “decorating their humble little cottages with flowers and plants,” a behavior that indicated “people's pride in their own homes.” Elmer also noted that even though many people were considered poor and there was deterioration of the physical structures, “the area had an exceptionally low crime rate” and “the Village area remained quite stable” during this period.
Period of Decline, circa 1940 to 1960
While there is not a distinct year that marks the decline of German Village, the prevailing narrative is that suburbanization led to depopulation and physical deterioration. In addition to automobility and suburbanization, “the loss of employment in the immediate area…left many a simple, deteriorating Village residence open to occupancy by the lowest and most disadvantaged elements of society who had either the means, nor the will to properly maintain it” (Campen, 1978, p. 10). There is also a claim that zoning of the neighborhood to allow manufacturing and commercial uses in 1923 contributed to a decline in desirability (Clark, 2015, p. 95). However, industrial firms were in the neighborhood much earlier than 1923. The Columbus Watch Company produced time pieces at 79 Thurman Avenue, in a building constructed in 1882 that housed a “small army of workers to turn out up to 150 pocket watches a day” (Clark, 2015, p. 151). There was also the Martin Carpet Cleaning company at Jaeger and Sycamore, a dry cleaning facility complete with a smokestack (Clark, 2015, p.103) as well as a small mineral water bottling company at 791 Lazelle street in 1910. One of the most popular name sakes of German Village also used the neighborhood for an industrial purpose. The Schmidt family, owners of the popular German-themed restaurant
that has attracted tourists to the area since 1967, owned a meat-packing and processing facility where hogs were slaughtered until the banning of slaughter in city limits by Columbus City Council in the 1960s (Clark, 2015, p. 110). The idea that 1923 was a watershed year that marked the loss of a more pure residential enclave is difficult to sustain when considering the variety of land uses present in the neighborhood before that time.
The narrative of the period of decline paints an image of a suffering neighborhood saved by the “initiatives of Mr. Frank Fetch in the 1950s and the formation of the German Village Society in January, 1960” (Campen, 1978, p. 26). In oral history interviews, one resident discussed how the neighborhood was “probably 30% to 40% boarded up and it was kind of lost” in the 1950s (Oral History Interviews; Phillips, p. 2). Another resident called it a “really broken down neighborhood” when she moved there in 1961 (Oral History Interviews; Lilly,
1) and another said her parents asked if she had “move[d] into Skid Row or something” (Oral History Interviews; Kight, 1). Contrary to the image of the south side as desperate, U.S. Census figures show stability from 1940 to 1960 in key indicator areas. Population figures declined minimally in both census tracts from 1940 to 1960, for a total loss of 960 people over 20 years. The unemployment rate decreased substantially over the time period, from over 10% to an average around 3% for both tracts. The rate of owner-occupied properties, an important indicator of neighborhood stability, actually increased by just over 5% on average between the two census tracts from 1940 to 1960. Despite these signs of stability, the vacancy rate for dwelling units did increase over the 20-year period, but by less than a 2% average. For reference, the vacancy rate in 1970 rose to 5.85% on average, even after ten years of structural renovations.
In his detailed case study of the German Village restoration, Elmer wrote that “census figures do not actually paint a picture of doom for the area, but with less than 37 percent owner occupancy and with over 36 percent of the properties in an advanced state of deterioration, it is understandable that lending institutions became hesitant to invest in the area” (Elmer, 1970, p. 26). This points to the negative influence of federal and banking policies over the lack of will or concern of the population to keep up their properties. With institutions unwilling to loan money for home repair in a working-class neighborhood, residents were left with little choice but to watch their homes deteriorate as federal programs subsidized suburban growth through mortgage tax write-offs and highway construction.
It is likely that the image of hardship is most centrally attributed to the deterioration of physical structures rather than the socio-economic composition of the area. The images below illustrate examples of pre-restoration properties in German Village.
Figure 6: Photo of a property on Mohawk Street before restoration (Source: Scheurer, 1966)Figure 8: Rear of unidentified buildings in German Village (Source: Elmer, 1970) demonstrate the pre-restoration physical condition of some structures in the neighborhood, but do not provide a complete picture. By understanding the structural and demographic make-up of German Village in the period just before restoration, we can better imagine the neighborhood into which restorationists were moving. There is evidence to refute the narrative that the neighborhood was severely disadvantaged before the intervention of 1960.