Our class discussions about race, cities, and various forms of residential segregation (both systemic and self-perpetuating) got me thinking about my own hometown, Columbus Ohio.  Growing up, we lived in a primarily white neighborhood in the city limits.  Then we moved to an even more white suburb on the west side, where my parents still live today.

I think it’s safe to say that Columbus considers itself a pretty “white” city.  It’s the capital city in a Midwestern state surrounded by suburbs and farms, and has long been primarily white-collar, unlike its neighbors to the north and south (Cleveland, Youngstown, Toledo, and Cincinnati).  Sure:  Ohio State University, with about 60,000 students from all around the world, is a major source of diversity, but one which remains somewhat concentrated around the campus itself.  And sure:  Columbus actually has a three-term black mayor, Michael B. Coleman (1999-present).  But he is Columbus’ first black mayor, only a few decades behind other Ohio cities like Springfield (Robert C. Henry, 1966) and Cleveland (Carl Stokes, 1968).

That said, however, it should also be said that much of the political and social power in the Columbus area (apart from the University and state politics in the Capital) lies in the suburbs, which are pretty uniformly white.  I dug up some demographics from the Census in the American Community Survey and found some interesting results:

Columbus (City)
Total population:  729,369
67.5% White
27.9% Black
4.5% Hispanic (of all races)
4.6% Asian
1.7% Other

Columbus (Metro Area)
Total population:  1,752,870

81.9% White
14.9% Black
2.9% Hispanic (of all races)
3.5% Asian
1.1% Other

(ACS 3-year estimates, 2006-2008)

This seems typical for an American metro area, but that’s the point!   The city population is 28% black, but only 15% in the whole metro area.  Compare the numbers themselves:  there were 203,493 black residents in the City of Columbus counted (out of 730,000), and 261,422 black residents in the entire metro area (out of 1.75 million, more than double).  That says to me that the suburbs must be pretty white.  Here’s the data for Hilliard, a city I would consider to be predominately white but with some pockets of diversity.  The numbers suggest I’m even overestimating the latter point:

Hilliard (City)
Total population:  31,556

91.0% White
3.0% Black
2.7% Hispanic (of all races)
6.2% Asian
0.9% Other

(Interestingly, the percentage of Asian residents is slightly larger than the average for both Columbus proper and the metro area).

All these numbers are to say, there is a discrepancy between perception and reality here.  It got me thinking about my own experience growing up:  I attended a racially-mixed public (arts) elementary school, and was bussed a fair distance to get there; I briefly attended a public middle school in which I was in the minority; but otherwise most of my friends, neighbors, and classmates were white.

Then I started thinking about all the areas of town I didn’t go to, for one reason or another:  Franklinton, immediately west of downtown; the east side, south of the campus area and out by the airport; in fact, much of the east side, period.  I had the perception, particularly in Franklinton and east of campus, that these areas were “bad” or unsafe; these areas are also, I know now, predominately black neighborhoods.

Furthermore, a lot of the “desirable” places to go–the shops along Grandview Avenue, shopping at Easton Town Center mall, the boutiques along the Short North, and pretty much all of the northern suburbs–are very “white” places.  White not only in terms of their typical patrons, but also in that very intangible, subjective set of assumptions you make when you hear the description “white neighborhood” or “black neighborhood.”

I don’t know enough about the history of housing and politics in Columbus to talk more specifically about residential segregation, whether it was a large-scale project like in some cities (Chicago) or more of an informal sorting-out of the real estate market by income and racial groups.  But in evaluating my own experiences and perceptions about Columbus, I feel suddenly aware that race was an unspoken issue in the area, despite the fact that it is clearly an issue nonetheless.

Why does this matter?  Beyond the obvious political implications for the neighborhoods in question and the city as a whole, I think it’s really too bad that Columbus continues its self-identification as white for this reason:  its story is actually more complex, and it has a lot to offer!

  • Columbus is the capital of a large and influential Midwest state;
  • Columbus has the largest single-campus university in America, and attracts smart and interesting people from all over the world to do what I can only assume is helpful research and study;
  • Columbus hosts an annual International Festival, in which for a small price you can sample international foods, music, and purchase small wares;
  • Columbus also hosts an annual Asian Festival, a Greek Festival, a Jazz Festival, an Arts Festival, and a bunch of other interesting events year-round;
  • Columbus is home to a significant Japanese population, due in part to a nearby Honda plant; a growing Somali refugee population; a growing Hispanic population; a sizable (but clearly not visible) African American population; an active gay/lesbian population; it’s the historic home of a Native American population (though I’m not sure what those numbers are now); and of course a variety of ethnic and cultural groups which we generally lump together as “white.”
  • At the risk of sounding superficial, Columbus also has a great variety of ethnic restaurants, given that it’s in the middle of some cornfields:  Blue Nile (Ethiopian), Udipi Cafe (South Indian), a bunch of North Indian places, Central Asian Market and surrounding Japanese restaurants; Thai Orchid (Thai); Greek; Italian; Chinese; Mexican; and a host of things I’m forgetting.

Based on conversations I’ve had with those from elsewhere in the country, Columbus is either seen as a lukewarm place, or it’s not on the radar at all.  And that’s really too bad.  Columbus needs to improve its image, and part of that should be more closely evaluating its own self-image in regard to its diverse population.  It’s not that Columbus needs to become a more diverse (and international) city; it’s that it already is, but doesn’t think of itself that way.  I don’t want to gloss over the social problems of segregation by saying it’s enough to do an image makeover, because I think those problems are made worse by their invisibility.  But perhaps even before we (the collective residents of that area) can be in a place to address and improve those problems, we–city AND suburbs–need to think about where we live a little differently.

1,752,870
81.9%
14.9%
2.9%
3.5%
1.1%
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