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A Century Later: Ranking Columbus Neighborhoods by Wealth

In 1918, the neighborhood of Columbus’ economic and social elite was Franklin Park. Today, the neighborhood has a lower than average median income. This familiar story of neighborhood change can be told throughout the city. A very specific data set from 1918, however, allows a unique perspective into the ranked order of neighborhoods by wealth—a proxy for where the city’s power brokers chose to live at the time.

Roderick D. McKenzie

Roderick D. McKenzie, a notable scholar in Sociology and part of the Chicago School, completed a detailed study of local life in Columbus in 1918 as part of his dissertation. The document contains a fascinating set of maps, depicting the spatial arrangement of racial and ethnic groups, population mobility, social dependents and delinquents, and—yes—economic status. To measure economic status, McKenzie used the Personal Property Returns of electors (meaning a qualified and eligible voter) as a proxy to measure household wealth. McKenzie explains the rationale for this choice:

In order to bring into relief the various levels of economic distribution of the population of Columbus, a measure of comparative economic status was sought. It was finally decided to take the average per elector tax returns on household furniture as a standard of rating. Household furniture returns are listed from the home address rather than from the down-town office, and, therefore, furnish a territorial distribution of this sort of property. The returns were calculated by wards and the totals divided by the number of registered electors for the same year in each ward. The measure of economic status here adopted is not without its shortcomings. In the first place the ward is not a homogeneous economic area. It frequently includes the extremes of wealth and poverty. This is true, for example, with respect to the sixth ward, the eastern end of which contains some of the most luxuriant homes in the city, while the western corner represents a broken-down colored section.

Personal Property Returns (PPRs) were filed by households in the early 20th century. Homes with less than a certain amount were exemption from taxation.

The map demonstrates that the Olde Town East (Ward 4) and Franklin Park (Ward 5) sections of town were the wealthiest, according to this measure. Considering the grandeur of homes in those areas, this isn’t surprising. The slideshow below showcases some historic scenes from the Olde Town East and Franklin Park neighborhoods. Check out the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s historic neighborhood map to see these images and more from around the city.

Today, we can use U.S. Census Bureau data to compare wealth by neighborhoods. One of the most common metrics used is Median Household Income. This doesn’t necessarily represent a households wealth, but is a useful measure of economic status in general. Wealth—the value of a persons assets minus their debts—is a more complex and difficult measure to ascertain for individual households.

*Personal Property Return Census tracts and wards approximated with the following: Franklin Park 37; Old Town East 38; Clintonville 5, 4.2, and 2.2; Victorian Village/Circles 18.2 and 20; Woodland Park/Eastgate 25.2; Mt. Vernon/Bronzeville 28, 29, and 36; Near South/Driving Park 56.1 and 55; South Side 58.1, 58.2, 60, and 61; Weinland Park/Milo-Grogan 16, 17, and 23; Hilltop 49, 45, and 47 ; Downtown 30 and 40; Flytown/Goodale Park 32; Brewery District/German Village 52 and 57; Near North/Italian Village 22; Franklinton 50; Downtown West 42.

Over 100 years, which neighborhoods showed the greatest change? German Village and Franklin Park. German Village jumped 11 points in the ranking, from #13 to #2. With its historic district designation and incomparable charm, the neighborhood is highly desirable and has a very expensive real estate market. See the slideshow below to browse some photos of German Village structures. Franklin Park, on the other hand, fell 9 points from #1 to #10. While development pressures in Franklin Park may be increasing, it will likely take decades to recover from the deep disinvestment the neighborhood has experienced.

Many other parts of the city have changed dramatically as well, but some have remained relatively stagnant. The Hilltop, for example, is nearly the same in the context of other neighborhoods today as it was in 1918. Other stable neighborhoods include The Circles, Clintonville, Franklinton, and the South Side—which is ranked the same today as it was in 1918 at 8th out of 16th.

While this exercise in historical comparison is more fun than philosophically revealing, it is helpful to keep in mind that urban neighborhoods are dynamic. Drastic change can occur in as little as a few decades; for example, the German Village was considered a slum by some in the 1950s, and by the 1980s nearly every structure had been restored. These differences occur due to many factors, a few of which include proximity to the central business district, and especially the quality and characteristics of housing stock.

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