Meier on Blackford, 'Columbus, Ohio: Two Centuries of Business and Environmental Change'

Author: 
Mansel G. Blackford
Reviewer: 
Dustin Meier

Mansel G. Blackford. Columbus, Ohio: Two Centuries of Business and Environmental Change. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2016. Illustrations. 256 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8142-1314-8

Reviewed by Dustin Meier (The Ohio State University) Published on H-Environment (January, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55671

Mansel G. Blackford expertly tells the two-hundred-year history of how Columbus, Ohio, became, according to humorist Joe Blundo, “a national leader in anonymity” (p. 206). Columbus, Ohio: Two Centuries of Business and Environmental Change analyzes the city’s water and land-use policies from its founding in 1812 to the present. Blackford emphasizes two central themes in the capital city’s economic and environmental histories. First, he traces “the tension that was present from the city’s earliest days between business growth and environmental change” (p. 2). Second, he questions how private enterprise and public policy intersected at crucial points in the history of Columbus. Blackford admits that these themes appear unsurprising, yet they propel his narrative admirably, revealing the economic, spatial, and social complexities of this thriving city inconspicuously tucked in the heart of the Rust Belt. 

This book is most significant for how it sharpens our understanding of several well-worn paradigms. Blackford “argues that in many ways Columbus was a typical midwestern city, but that in other ways, especially the city’s continuing economic ascent after World War II, it was atypical” (p. 5). Midwestern cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, or Milwaukee emerged as nineteenth-century commercial centers alongside rivers and the Great Lakes, transitioned to railroad hubs, and flourished as centers of iron and coal production before suffering the ravages of postwar deindustrialization. Columbus does not fit neatly within this narrative. Blackford goes so far as to suggest that by the twenty-first century, “Columbus seemed to be much more like Sun Belt than Rust Belt cities” (p. 171). His treatment reveals the dangers of generalizing about the history of the Midwest.

Blackford employs a unique narrative structure to accentuate Columbus’s gradual ascent opposed to the region’s more typical boom and bust. After a chapter surveying the city’s economic growth from the early nineteenth century to the present, he retraces this narrative twice, with two chapters on water policy and two on land use. Eschewing a more linear narrative, he downplays moments like the Civil War or the postwar baby boom, which are crucial to the histories of other midwestern cities. In chapter 1, Blackford attributes Columbus’s success to its economic diversity, which is on full display. Chosen by state leaders as the capital due to its central location, Columbus owed its early commercial success to Ohio’s agricultural growth. Mills, plow manufacturers, and railroad lines to rural towns thrived in the antebellum period. This laid the groundwork for industrial companies, such as Buckeye Steel and the Curtiss-Wright Aviation Company, to flourish in the years between the Civil War and World War II. Home to Nationwide Insurance and The Ohio State University, Columbus weathered the storm of postwar deindustrialization by positioning itself as a leader in finance, education, and state government. Blackford states succinctly that “people were important,” and he punctuates the narrative with vignettes of business leaders William Neil, a transportation and real estate magnate, Samuel Prescott Bush of Buckeye Steel, and Murray Lincoln of Nationwide (p. 28). 

This research also demonstrates the value to the field of urban environmental history of studying midsize cities. Regarding water and sewage, the works of Martin Melosi and others have analyzed metropolises such as New York, but Blackford suggests that cities like Columbus better represent the norm. Chapter 2 describes government officials’ early attempts to create a stable water supply, culminating in the “Great Columbus Experiment” of the Progressive Era, a water and sewage system that became a nationwide model. Like most antebellum cities, aside from larger ones on the East Coast, Columbus’s water system was “ad hoc, local, and fragmented” (p. 53). The late nineteenth-century dissemination of germ theory and fear of waterborne diseases eroded Columbus’s trust in this system, and the 1904 death from typhoid of Senator Mark Hanna, a close ally to William McKinley, provided the catalyst for change. Columbus damned the Scioto River and created a reservoir for an improved water supply, used sand filtration and water softening to better treat its water, and successfully employed sprinkling filters for a state-of-the-art sewage system. No other city had yet implemented these technologies simultaneously. Chapter 3 emphasizes water’s continued importance to Columbus’s history following the Progressive Era as the city gradually expanded in size and population. A catastrophic flood in 1913, growth of such industries as the Anheuser-Busch brewery, and postwar suburbanization all precipitated a collection of improvements to the water system, while also generating environmentalist concerns by the late twentieth century. 

Chapter 4 details the early history of land use in Columbus, emphasizing the interplay between public and private efforts. Government buildings, such as the state house, penitentiary, and City Hall, served as the centerpiece of the capital city’s early layout. Homes and other private property like stores and taverns gradually surrounded this urban core. As the city grew in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, local government developed city parks, an electric streetcar system, and several amusement parks. In the Progressive Era, Columbus joined the nationwide City Beautiful Movement, but calls for cleaner streets and a robust civic center met resistance from African American and immigrant communities. After World War I, public zoning codes and private deed covenants, the subjects of chapter 5, became the preeminent means through which Columbus determined land use. Blackford shows, for example, how the suburb of Upper Arlington blossomed in the 1920s through twin processes of residential zoning and private deed covenants, which were often racially restrictive. 

Before a brief conclusion, chapter 5 ends with a section titled “Living in Columbus,” which includes the type of analysis that is regrettably missing from the rest of the book. Blackford compares the life of James Dunn, an African American raised on the North Side in the 1920s and 1930s, and that of Bob Greene, a white man born in the suburb of Bexley in the 1940s. Blackford’s overall narrative is driven by businessmen and government officials, but it could have been enhanced with more of this rich description of the lived experiences of everyday men and women. Like most northern cities, Columbus struggles with school segregation, income inequality, and various iterations of systemic racism, and the historical processes that created these urban issues are central to both business and environmental history. This omission is particularly frustrating because Blackford fleetingly mentions environmental justice several times throughout the book without thoroughly questioning its causes and impacts on Columbus’s history. As environmental historians have begun to analyze the experiences of marginalized communities, it has become abundantly clear that inequality is not merely an offshoot of economic development but often a prominent causal force. 

Despite this oversight, Columbus, Ohio: Two Centuries of Business and Environmental Change will appeal to historians of business and the environment, as well as the urban Midwest. Blackford’s prose is clear and accessible. His extensive archival research is complemented by copious footnotes and a wide-ranging bibliographic essay, providing a nice introduction to the scholarship for students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Past and present residents of Columbus will also enjoy learning the history of men like William Neil, Lincoln Goodale, and Thomas Worthington, whose names dot the urban landscape in the form of streets, parks, and neighborhoods.

Citation: Dustin Meier. Review of Blackford, Mansel G., Columbus, Ohio: Two Centuries of Business and Environmental Change. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55671

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