Subdivisions Built for Blacks Preserved

Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Akron Beacon Journal, February 10, 2008

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)—Young, working-class and black, Henry Bolden Jr. was not the kind of person who bought a new house in 1946, even in the North. But Bolden was also a U.S. Army veteran who’d spent World War II driving supply trucks in Belgium and France. With help from the GI Bill, he was able to buy his house in a Columbus neighborhood that was revolutionary in its day: Hanford Village, an enclave of single-family homes marketed solely to blacks.

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Some of the early black homeowner neighborhoods around the country are trying to win historic recognition before their place in the history of homeownership fades.

The residents want to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which would make them eligible for federal tax credits or grants for historic preservation. The designation doesn’t protect against demolition but requires anyone involved with a federally funded project, including developers, to take the listing into consideration when the work could endanger the structure.

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The neighborhoods were developed as the G.I. Bill made home ownership a reality for millions for the first time, including blacks. Cities partnered with the government—the Veterans Administration or the Federal Housing Authority—and private developers with a conscience.

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Another challenge is the relative youth of the housing developments. Eligibility for the National Register begins after 50 years, a timespan that could now make “historic places” of split-level ranch subdivisions and shopping plazas.

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The National Register, a listing of about 80,000 properties, considers the architectural and historic importance of buildings and the shape they’re in.

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In Columbus, the Hanford Village subdivision got its start in 1946 when real estate developer Ivan Gore advertised the first houses.

“Homes for Negro Families” read the April 21 ad that year in The Columbus Dispatch. Houses were available for about $6,500, a relative bargain considering the median value of a single-family home at the time was about $8,500.

William Watkins was a Tuskegee Airman who lived in one of the first houses while stationed at nearby Lockborne Air Force Base. Watkins, now 94, remembered how happy he was to have a house as a newly married soldier.

There was gratitude, but something less comfortable too: The segregated houses were a reminder of blacks’ station in society, even in a northern city.

“There was always a bitter spot in our hearts because they’re building houses all over Columbus and the only houses available for Afro-American vets was this one little Hanford Village,” Watkins said. “This is only a drop in the bucket of the number of houses that we actually need.”

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Children rode their bikes late into the night. They fished, swam and rafted in nearby Alum Creek. Families played and picnicked in the park around the corner.

A mom calling her son home could yell his name from her door and neighbors would repeat it house after house until the message arrived.

“Everybody knew each other, everybody’s parents parented everybody,” said Carol Haile, whose father, Major Haile, an aircraft mechanic who served in the Pacific in World War II, bought one of the first houses.

The neighborhood began to change in the 1960s when the state routed Interstate 70 through Hanford Village, removing several houses. The highway split the park that a generation of children had grown up in, rendering the remaining few acres almost inaccessible.

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Today, Hanford Village is slightly downtrodden, with a mix of renters and homeowners, including a few original residents. Many of the single-story Cape Cod-style cottages are still well kept, looking more or less the same as when they were built. Others are showing signs of neglect; some are even boarded-up.

The Ohio Historical Society considers Hanford Village historically significant and deserving of further study. But it will take a resident to step forward and ask for the process of listing on the National Register to begin.

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