The urban planning community, city politicians, and urban enthusiasts have sought the revitalization of the city for decades. After mass suburbanization in the mid-twentieth century emptied the cores of many U.S. cities, the prevailing narrative has been one of rebuilding and repopulating urban centers. For the most part, this process has been slow. The central cores of most cities, especially Midwest and Rustbelt cities, are less populated than sixty years ago but some city neighborhoods have witnessed redevelopment and resurgence, beginning in the 1970s but escalating the last decade or so. A case in point and a focus of this thesis is the historic urban neighborhood of German Village in Columbus, Ohio.
German Village is typical of many inner-city areas, in that it enjoyed growth and vitality from its genesis in the mid-nineteenth century until a period of decline in the mid-twentieth century. With high vacancy rates and low-property values, parts of the neighborhood were even suggested for demolition in urban renewal schemes. But in 1960, the German Village Society formed to advocate for the preservation of the historic structures and for the creation of a protected historic district. In 1963, the City of Columbus established the German Village Commission to regulate demolition and exterior alteration of structures in within the boundaries. Since then, property values have risen and the district has transformed into a highly desirable neighborhood—a process that could be characterized as gentrification.
The socio-economic impacts of gentrification have been explored by a variety of scholars (see Lee, Slater and Wiley, 2013). The case of German Village, a neighborhood that has been gentrified for over half a century, offers an interesting case study into a central question of this thesis: Is there a new phase of post-gentrification that suggests such urban neighborhoods are becoming suburban? More specifically, has German Village adopted physical and socio-cultural characteristics similar to those we attribute to the suburbs?
Recent trends reveal that society is pushing toward the center of what has been a traditional divide between the urban and suburban. Suburbs across the nation have been investing in walkable town centers for decades, a pattern which has recently accelerated. Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution has said that “suburbs are mimicking cities just like cities were mimicking suburbs” (Brown, 2016). Even in the densest area of the U.S., the island of Manhattan, there is a mounting critique that the borough of 1.6 million people is now providing “the illusion of the urban experience without the diversity, spontaneity, and unpredictability that have always been its hallmarks” (Hammett, 20). In a scathing reproach of Bloomberg-era New York, scholars Deborah Cowen and Neil Smith (2007, 39) criticize the dilution of authentic urban elements: “Time Square’s success lies precisely in knitting a hint of urban danger into the suburban fetish for security. It serves up city-dangerous as suburban-safe and commodifies it to boot.” The logic of Cowen and Smith’s article leads the reader to understand that the gentrification of cities is a corollary process to suburbanization. The processes work in tandem. As Smith and Cowen suggest (2007, 40) “gentrification becomes suburbanization while it also chases the suburban dream to its edges… The suburbs urbanize as the city suburbanizes.”
In order to understand this process of suburbanization of the city, I examine the literature around what exactly is meant by “suburban.” I focus on two aspects: the physical or built environment characteristics and the social or cultural characteristics. In Chapter 2, I review this literature, and in the process identify the different elements that, in the context of the built environment, include such characteristics as single use, density and automobile dependence and, in the context of cultural or social characteristics, include homeownership, conservatism, privatism, and homogeneity.
Mumford, in referencing the suburban exodus from cities in the postwar period, spoke of the new suburbs as ideologically, “[a] new kind of community.” Taking the concept to the extreme, Mumford (1961, 486) characterized the suburbs as veritable cultural wastelands, where consumerist drones purchase identical goods and subscribe to manufactured lifestyles that “[conform] in every…respect to a common mold.” Cities, on the other hand, are a “multi-form, non-segregated environment” (Mumford, 1961, 493). In fact, the suburban is often characterized as the opposite of the urban. The suburban is homogenous, the urban diverse. The suburban is consumerist, the urban cultural. The suburbs are private places; the urban is alive with public spaces.
Sylvia Fava (1956) declared that suburbanism is a “way of life.” She followed in the footsteps of Louis Wirth’s 1938 examination of the urban “way of life.” Fava (1956) also argued that suburbanism is a social-psychological state. This realization opens the concept of suburbanism to a vast field of inquiry. The consequent associations with suburbanism can offer rich insight into the distinctive characteristics of “suburban” and how it might be possible to be “suburban” in an urban setting. Acknowledging that there is no official U.S. Census Bureau definition of “suburban,” economist Jed Kolko of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley conducted a recent study in which 53% of respondents claimed to reside in what they perceive to be a suburban environment (Kolko, 2015). The ambiguity of what constitutes a suburban environment is a major focus of this work. From the perspective of two defining attributes, social and physical, the meaning of this phrase will be explored.
In Chapter 3, I provide the reader with the necessary background to the historical context of German Village, how it has evolved overtime and the importance of the German Village Society in the redevelopment of the neighborhood. In Chapter 4, I describe the data I used in this study and a description of how I analyzed the data. The use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to quantify change in the built environment and real estate markets is critical to this research, as well as the results of an online survey of neighborhood residents and business owners to qualify perspectives on the district. In Chapter 5, I highlight the results of my analysis and discuss the most pertinent findings. In this chapter, I discuss how German Village possesses qualities of suburbia. The concluding chapter offers implications of this research on the field of urban planning and recommends further research on the topic.