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At the turn of the 20th century, thousands of migrants were arriving into Columbus by the railroad, greeted by the arches of Union Station. Poor, and with few connections in the city, these migrants didn’t stray far.
Many of them settled nearby, in a ramshackle neighborhood known as “Flytown.”
Several WOSU listeners, including Matthew Osborn, have inquired about the origins of Flytown. And listener Giles Kennedy asked, “What has happened to Columbus' former great railroad sites?”
As it turns out, the history of both Flytown and Union Station are closely bound.
A Little Thread Of Opportunity
Running from Dennison Ave. to the Olentangy River, and bound by Goodale St. to the north and Spruce to the south, Flytown was first divided into city lots in 1865.
Historians call Flytown an “entry point community,” where a large number of low- to moderate-income residents lived. And for most people, the entrance to Flytown was Union Station, which opened in 1850 on North High Street.
“Families would get off the boat, literally, in New York and make their way by train to Columbus, Ohio, to catch on this little thread of an opportunity here, to follow their families and follow their dreams,” historian Arnett Howard told Columbus Neighborhoods in a 2013 documentary.
As a Franklin County Historical Society plaque declares, “Flytown was democracy’s melting pot for the city of Columbus.”
“Flytown was really a very integrated neighborhood,” Howard says. “There were Italians, there were Germans, very integrated with black folks.”
Though a few theories emerged about the origin of the name Flytown – the garbage didn’t get picked up, or the migrants were slurred as “flies” – Howard says there’s only one explanation.
“The reason why it was called Flytown was because when they got started, the houses flew up so fast that they called it Flytown,” Howard says.
Life In Flytown
Flytown was home to the Ohio State Penitentiary, but it also was a center of industry. Tanning factories and stone quarries employed a lot of Flytown residents, as did a number of factories along the river: the Indianapolis Paper Stock Company, the United States Pipe and Foundry Company, the Columbus Forge and Iron Company, and the Franklin Lumber and Furniture Company, to name a few.
Lined with mostly cheap brick-and-frame houses, Flytown was marked in its early days by high levels of disease and other social problems – until its annexation in 1880, residents had no running water or electricity.
Anna B. Keagle – a high school and Sunday school teacher in Flytown – began the Neighborhood Guild Association in 1898 after discovering “all her 8-10 year old charges were in jail one Sunday.” In 1900, the Godman Guild opened on West Goodale Street, offering child care classes, a community garden, health care clinics, libraries, classes, sports and other activities.
Howard says that Flytown emerged in particular as a center for jazz and the arts, where musicians like Edith Clark grew up. Clark, in her memoir “The Way, The Gifts And The Power,” described Flytown in the 1920s:
“Carnivals and medicine shows often set up on the baseball field on the corner of Poplar and Michigan in the summer time and the neighborhood reveled in the novelty of the show put on by the medicine man,” she wrote. “The Godman Guild was the heart, the hub, the center around which revolved the community of Flytown. It taught the residents laws and ordinances, showed them the way wherein they must walk and brought their causes to the rulers of the city.”
According to the Short North Gazette, former residents remember a neighborhood “with a small-town feel and a place where people of races and nationalities got along.”
Around the 1950s, Columbus began the process of redeveloping the city, constructing Route 315 and turning Flytown and the surrounding areas into what we know now as the Short North. That meant tearing down housing and kicking out residents – with many poor residents moving to the city’s East Side instead.
“Columbus just cleaned it out and said, ‘We’re going to start anew,” Howard says. “And now they built – north of Goodale Park, west of the park – they built a neighborhood called Victorian Village.”
But the people never forgot: Dozens of former residents return to Goodale Park every summer for the annual Flytown Reunion. A half-century after Flytown’s end, though, residents worried about how long the tradition would last.
“As long as we can keep them going,” Karl Hairston said in 2005. “A lot of people are dying out, but we try to get the kids to keep it going.”
In 2011, at the age of 80, Hairston passed away himself.
Union Station didn’t survive the transformation, either. The arcade and the station were torn down in 1976-77 in order to build the Greater Columbus Convention Center, which now sits in their place.
Amid discussions about preserving the façade, wrecking crews started dismantling the station with a wrecking ball in the middle of the night – according to Touring Ohio, advocates were “caught off-caught when they saw the demolition on the local news.”
The end of Union Station also heralded the end of passenger trains in Columbus, stopped coming through Columbus in 1979. Today, many freight trains still come through, on tracks just below the Convention Center.
As for the iconic arches of Union Station, which ushered in waves of immigrants to the city, just one was saved from demolition, in a court battle that eventually led to the creation of the Columbus Landmarks Society. The final arch now lives in the center of the Arena District, and on the National Register of Historic Places.
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