The Context & Data section places the Hilltop focus area within the setting of the City of Columbus and Franklin County. Using history, current data, previous plans, and the experiences of some Hilltop neighbors, a snapshot of the community is presented here. Data alone cannot provide a complete picture of the needs of the Hilltop community, but this section offers a combination of qualitative and quantitative research, statistics, and maps to demonstrate patterns and trends in a variety of sectors.
Welcome to the Hilltop!
A few miles west of downtown Columbus, the Hilltop is one of the primary historic residential sections of the city. The area was originally attractive for its elevation—safe from floods—and for its location “high and dry away from the smoke and dust of the city,...an ideal place for a suburban residence”. The neighborhood grew as streetcars offered an easy route to and from downtown along Broad and Sullivant. This proximity to transit was a major factor in the Hilltop’s early growth.
But today the Hilltop is experiencing significant distress. Population loss, urban disinvestment, and economic growth on the periphery of the city have contributed to the area’s decline. Still, the sense of community pride in the Hilltop among long time residents is strong. Hilltoppers are resilient. Where numbers point to challenges, many residents point to opportunity for growth.
With a strong historic heritage, unique housing stock, intriguing topography, and robust mobility options, the Hilltop is well-positioned to recover as trends turn toward urban reinvestment. Nationwide, a renewed interest in urban living has transformed diverse neighborhoods and brought new energy to de-populated areas. Two commercial corridors offer the Hilltop the potential for expanding economic activity. Leveraging the high daily traffic volumes on West Broad Street and Sullivant Avenue could provide valuable retail opportunities for emerging entrepreneurs.
The community plan, first, captures the sentiment of Hilltop residents who participated in the year-long public engagement process. Listening to the community allowed the most pressing concerns to rise to the top and gave residents the power to drive the process. Second, the plan offers a package of objectives and recommendations to help stabilize the neighborhood and improve the quality of life for residents. These were formulated based on the resident feedback and direction provided through dozens of formal meetings and informal interactions. The Hilltop Community Plan is a document to help chart a course for the future shared success of the Hilltop neighborhood.
1. Columbus Dispatch, Sept. 17, 1890. Page 8.
Focus Area Map
showing Census Block Groups
The Greater Hilltop is a very large expanse—nearly the entire southwest quadrant of the City of Columbus. This plan is directed at a smaller area within the Greater Hilltop, which is the older section of the Hilltop. The focus area also represents the area of highest need in the neighborhood. The focus area extends from I-70 on the east to Hague Avenue on the west, then south along Roys and Binns to Mound Street. The north is bound by railroad tracks, while Mound Street forms the southern border, except for extensions to include public schools. Important indicators in the focus area set it apart from other sections of the Greater Hilltop as more distressed: more violent crime, more structural vacancy, and prevalent substandard housing conditions, to name a few.
Conflicting Boundaries. The focus area of the Hilltop Community Plan represents what some think of as the historic core of the Hilltop neighborhood—but not the entire Hilltop as it is known today. From east to west, the focus area is bound by Interstate 70 and extends to a jagged boundary of Hague and Roys. On the north, the boundary is the railroad track separating Columbus from the Village of Valleyview, and the southern boundary is Mound Street.
Data for this plan was collected based on available geographic levels. Census data was collected based on block groups and tracts (shown on the map). Some data was collected by zip code, but these data are not accurately representative of the Hilltop focus area due to the large area of the zip codes. Despite this, some data is only available by zip code and must be displayed as such. Different terms may be used to refer to areas for which data is being presented. The “Hilltop focus area” refers to the area inside the yellow dotted area on the map, approximated by the 24 census block groups.
Conflicting boundaries and incongruous data-collection geographies present difficulties when comparing data. In this document, data sources and scopes are labeled to be explicit about the area(s) and time periods represented. If data refers to the Hilltop, it is referring to the Hilltop focus area for this community plan, not the Greater Hilltop. If data refers to the Hilltop “area,” it relates to an area larger than the focus area, and may even be referring to the area represented by the 43204 and 43223 zip codes.
Hilltop Area Timeline — Major Events
The Hilltop suffers from many inter-related issues that plague historic urban neighborhoods across the country. Decades of disinvestment in housing and businesses has left the neighborhood with a reduced economic base, a smaller network of residents, and hundreds of vacant structures. These conditions present multiple obstacles to creating a healthy and stable community.
More recently, the impact of the nationwide opioid addiction crisis has been felt. The Hilltop is a major hot spot for opioid addiction, which fuels unhealthy behaviors and illicit activity. Many crimes are driven by addicts’ need to feed their addiction. The presence, and reputation, of crime then furthers disinvestment by deterring people from moving to or opening businesses in the Hilltop. This creates a cycle where the existence of crime and blight contributes to desperation and lack of economic opportunity for familes—especially impacting the development of children. The harsh realities faced by many residents create a vicious cycle of neighborhood decay that has multiple inputs and even more complex outputs, making it difficult to pinpoint specific causes and solutions. The interventions to mitigate these effects must be coordinated and substantial.
People & Perception
The reputation of the Hilltop is dominated by images of crime and urban decay, due partly to the real challenges plaguing the area—crime, drug use, violence, and vacancy—but also to geographic oversimplification and media attention. Neighbors on the Hilltop struggle to bring positive stories to the surface.
Joe Argiro, Highland West
"When I moved to Highland West in 2016 and got involved with the civic association, I quickly became aware of the rich history of families, architecture, businesses, diversity, and community involvement that built this historic Columbus neighborhood. Highland West has a strong housing stock, multiple recreation centers, quick access to the bike path, Olentangy, and Scioto greenways, multiple parks, is close to downtown with access to public transportation, and is poised for a renaissance in the economic core along West Broad Street. I was intrigued by the opportunity to bring people together and advocate for our neighbors. My vision is of a safe, clean, diverse, and exciting neighborhood with regular opportunities for people to come together, quality education, well-paying jobs, housing affordable to people across the income spectrum, and access to green spaces. We are working towards that goal everyday!"
Lisa Boggs, South of Sullivant
"The Hilltop has a proud history of honest, decent and hardworking people who only desire a safe, clean place to live. Its diversity and openess will inspire the growth and change needed to improve our little corner of this earth. I envision a thriving community that explores new ideas to improve our neighborhoods and look forward to us enjoying the fruits of our hard work! One change I’d like to see is a new police substation and community center to help bring our police and community closer together—and that’s what we need right now, some closeness. Another issue dear to my heart is the overwhelming trash and litter in our neighborhood. The trash gives off a vibe that entices criminals to come here and do whatever they want. Most importantly we need to work to improve the situation for the children, because children are always observing. They’re watching the prostitutes go down the street. They’re watching the drug dealers. We just want the crime, the drugs, and the trash out of the Hilltop area."
Previous Plans & Studies
See full previous plans and studies on our Issuu page! (Click below for link)
The Hilltop was a small but vibrant community in its early days. But as farms were subdivided and sold for housing development between 1885 and 1895, it began to evolve from a rural community into a more suburban setting. By 1900, there were over 2,000 residents in the Hilltop, with many families migrating from Virginia and Pennsylvania as well as Wales, England, and Germany. In the 1910s and 1920s, the number of community facilities and organizations mushroomed, community pride flourished, and the Hilltop was regarded as one of the most desirable areas to live in Central Ohio. The area became even more desirable after the Flood of 1913, which drew many Franklinton residents to its elevated terrain. By 1924, Broad Street in the Hilltop had over 50 businesses .
Though not segregated by law, the Hilltop was segregated in practice by real estate agents, developers, and likely neighborhood civic organizations. African-Americans were largely limited to certain streets—Wayne, Oakley, Wheatland, Highland, and Clarendon, south of Broad Street.2 Jesse Owens, four-time gold medalist in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, lived on South Oakley as a student at Ohio State because he was disallowed from living on campus due to his race .
In 1923, the creation of Broadview Addition (eastern portion of Westgate today) and the West Gate Lodge’s announcement to build a permanent home were significant events because many members of the fraternal organization would want to live nearby, as social schedules were often devoted to fraternal activities. The West Gate Lodge was a significant social center and meeting place for Hilltop movers and shakers. These included City Council members, County Commissioners, Columbus Board of Education members, and political party officers. Westgate and the area west of Hague would later be home to three Columbus Mayors: Floyd F. Green, Maynard E. Sensenbrenner, and W. Ralston Westlake .
1. City of Columbus, Greater Hilltop Reinvestment Plan. 1994.
2. Hilltop Heroes & Sheroes: The African-American Legacy Memories of World War II. 2004.
3. Mike Hardin, Columbus Dispatch, May 17, 1995.
4. Original research, historian Jennie Keplar.
Public Lands. One of the most prominent institutions in Columbus—and in the entire state—was the Columbus State Hospital, located on the eastern edge of the Hilltop where the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) and Ohio Deptartment of Public Safety (ODPS) now stand. It figured significantly in the social and economic life of the neighborhood until it was shut down in the 1980s, when the model of psychiatric care shifted to a more dispersed approach. This caused the number of institutionalized persons on the Hilltop to drop dramatically, and without long-term housing for those suffering with mental illness, prison populations began to swell. Court officials “trace[d] the increase in mentally ill inmates to cutbacks of federal funding for community mental health centers and to the continuing ‘deinstitutionalization’ of the mentally ill from state hospitals” .
The land owned by the State of Ohio west of I-70 in the Hilltop area amounts to about 330 acres. Today, much of that is occupied by offices and surface parking for ODOT and ODPS. In the early 1990s when officials were considering the impact of relocating thousands of state jobs from downtown to the Hilltop, they claimed that the new offices would have a positive effect on the area. The state architect commented, “Look at the economics of 2,500 white-collar workers shopping in the area, eating in the area. That has to be a benefit to the community" . An editorial in The Dispatch called the relocation of state offices “an economic bonanza for the Hilltop,” writing that “the state’s Hilltop redevelopment will give the area an economic shot in the arm, attracting restaurants, shops and homebuyers” .
Nearby is Twin Valley Behavioral Healthcare, one of six regional psychiatric hospitals operated by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The facility provides short-term, intensive treatment to patients from across Ohio in both inpatient and community-supported environments, as well as patients committed by criminal courts. To the southeast, the Columbus Developmental Center is located between W. Broad and Sullivant Avenue. It serves 107 people in a campus setting, with the majority of people diagnosed with severe and profound challenges. And there are two additional publicly-owned structures north of the ODOT building. The first—to the west—is a helipad for Columbus Police. The second—to the east—is the Moritz Forensic Unit, a maximum security building for the Twin Valley hospital.
1. Columbus Dispatch, April 22, 1982.
2. Columbus Dispatch, May 23, 1995.
3. Columbus Dispatch, May 31, 1995.
4. Columbus Dispatch, January 1, 1991.
Built in 1877, the Columbus State Hospital was originally known as the Lunatic Asylum of Ohio and was later called the Central Ohio Psychiatric Hospital. It had expansive grounds for recreation, including an ice skating pond.
The Central Ohio Psychiatric Hospital used a variety of techniques to treat mental illness, including lobotomies, sedation, and electroshock therapy. It was demolished in 1991.
A 1989 report said lack of maintenance by the state had resulted in serious structural deterioration, with restoration costs estimated from $50–$80 million.4
Construction of the new state office buildings began in October 1995, with employees moving into the $109 million, two-building complex starting February 1998.
This 1918 map by sociologist R. D. McKenzie illustrates residences of ethnic and racial groups in Columbus. A few streets between W. Broad and Sullivant were inhabited by Black people, while the rest of the Hilltop was white.
Historically Working Class
The Hilltop is still known as a middle or working-class neighborhood, and some of that legacy may be attributed to its strong heritage as such. Academic research in the early 20th century, from a 1918 sociology report by McKenzie to a 1922 geography thesis by Blanchard, repeatedly categorizes the Hilltop as middle class.
An analysis of 295 households from the 1940 U.S. Census (pictured below) showed median household income and professions of heads-of-household on selected streets. It was common for extended families to live together—nieces and nephews, in-laws, or grandchildren often lived under one roof. Of the 503 income-earners recorded, only 147 were women, 29% of whom did not report employment. But many women showed some additional income without formal employment. Women who were formally employed typically worked as stenographers, nurses, teachers, and secretaries. Men often worked in construction or as mechanics, engineers, machinists, or railroad workers.
In the 20th century, real estate agents used paper index cards to track properties on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). These cards often contained notes that indicated if properties should be sold or rented to white or Black people. The examples above are from Oakley Avenue in the focus area and demonstrate the pervasive racism in the housing market at the time. (Images provided by the Columbus Metropolitan Library.)
Streetcars and Segregation. The Hilltop was originally a streetcar suburb, where residents could get away from the bustle and grime of downtown while still having easy access to jobs there. Streetcars allowed travel throughout the neighborhood as well as outside of it. Horse-drawn streetcars were introduced in 1863; the first electric streetcar began running in 1891 along West Broad Street to the Columbus State Hospital (also known as the Central Ohio Psychiatric Hospital). An electric streetcar along Hague Avenue was abandoned in 1939 and was covered with asphalt instead of being removed. This was forgotten for many years until Hague Avenue was excavated in 2016 to be rebuilt and the old tracks were revealed under the asphalt. All streetcar service in Columbus ended in September 1948.
Except for a few streets, however, the majority of the Hilltop area was reserved for whites only. Segregation was enforced both formally and informally by restrictive covenants on homes, selective steering by real estate agents, and general racial intimidation. Occasionally, reports of overt racist acts made the news. One such incident was in 1996 when an African-American woman “was greeted with spray-painted racial slurs and racist signs left at her home” after moving to South Burgess Avenue . Some homes in the focus area also display confederate flags. Despite this, the neighborhood has become one of the most racially diverse in Franklin County. Nearly 19% of focus area residents are African-American, a figure which approaches the county percentage of 22%. For comparison, just 1.8% of Clintonville residents are African-American and 72% of South Linden residents are African-American. These figures indicate residential racial segregation. The Hilltop focus area, however, is racially similar to the county average.
1. Columbus Dispatch. June 4, 1996.
Streetcars on Sullivant Avenue helped facilitate the development of the neighborhood.
The Home Owners Loan Corporation produced maps that graded the quality of homes. The Hilltop focus area contained three grades: red, yellow, and blue. Red areas were unlikely to qualify for mortgage loans.
This excerpt from a deed on a property in the Wilshire Heights Addition sold in 1926 shows the restriction against nonwhite inhabitants. Restrictions like these were extremely prevalent at the time.
After World War II, manufacturing in Columbus was strong. The resulting opportunities for living wage jobs allowed many to rise into the middle class, and affordable homes on the West Side encouraged people to live nearby. This combination of steady employment and proximate housing produced a stable community on the Hilltop for decades. By the 1980s, however, the Hilltop core began to suffer as jobs were off-shored to emerging global economies, and urban sprawl pushed amenities and housing farther west and north.
Manufacturing facilities like White-Westinghouse and Fisher Body General Motors (later Delphi) were integral to creating growth and stability in the post-war years. Operating from 1946 until 2007, the Delphi plant was demolished and replaced with the Hollywood Casino. Opened in 2015, the casino employs about 2,000 people—compared to 5,500 at the peak of Delphi’s employment .
The casino cost $400 million to build, and the site underwent $25 million in clean-up. Over 45,830 tons of soil contaminated with solvents, chemicals, and fuel oils from the Delphi factory were removed. The foundation of the casino was built on top of a plastic-coated membrane to prevent any remaining chemical vapors from penetrating the building .
The Westland Mall also had a major impact on the Hilltop area from its establishment in 1969. About 3 miles west of central Hilltop along West Broad Street, Westland was a fixture of shopping and retail employment opportunities for decades. The 860,000-square-foot mall had more than 100 active merchants at its height . Many attribute Westland’s demise to the construction of the Mall at Tuttle Crossing in 1997, which captured many consumers who would have previously shopped at Westland.
The White-Westinghouse plant employed just 300 by the1980s, when it was sold to Big Lots liquidation stores.4 The 175,000 sq. ft. Big Lots headquarters were located here until 2018, but the facility still services as a distrbution center today.
The Westinghouse plant at 300 Phillipi Road employed 4,000 people in 1965. It manufactured appliances and became known as White- Westinghouse after being purchased by White Consolidated Industries in 1975 .
Opened in 1946 by General Motors, the Ternstedt plant employed about 5,500 at its peak. Originally a plant for the Fisher Body division, it was transferred to Delphi Automotive Systems in 1999 .
By the early 1990s, the 1.7 million-square-foot GM facility employed only 2,000 people5 and in fall 2005 Delphi declared bankruptcy.6 The maker of door-latch parts employed just over 400 by 2007 when it closed .
Opened in 1969 as an open-air shopping center, Westland Mall’s original anchors were Lazarus, Sears, JC Penney, and Woolworth. The mall was enclosed in 1982 .
In 2003, “excluding anchor merchants, Westland [was] 59% occupied”. The mall closed in 2012, with its last remaining anchor, Sears, closing in 2017.
1. Columbus Dispatch, Dec. 16, 2007.
2. Columbus Dispatch, Oct. 21, 2012.
3. Columbus Dispatch, Oct. 13, 2013.
4. Columbus Dispatch, May 25, 1988.
5. David Lucas Collection, CML My History.
6. Columbus Monthly, Dec. 22, 2014.
7. Columbus Dispatch, June 23, 2007.
8. Labelscar: The Retail History Blog. www.labelscar.com/ohio/westland-mall.
9. Columbus Business First. March 3, 2003.
Post-Industrial Period. The loss of major employers was extremely detrimental to the economic stability of the Hilltop. From the factories to the medical institutions in the state lands along I-70, major employers closed due to economic and social changes far beyond the neighborhood. With the loss of this employment base, many Hilltop residents re-located elsewhere, perhaps closer to new employment opportunities. Because adapting old factories and retail centers to new uses can be difficult, many properties sat vacant for years—contributing to blight and an overall sense of disinvestment on the West Side.
Without industry to provide employment, the Hilltop lost retail amenities that residents relied on. Without important retail assets—laundromats, groceries, pharmacies, hardware stores, and others—the neighborhood became less attractive to potential residents. This cycle of disinvestment is difficult to escape. Today, the primary assets of the Hilltop focus area are its historic housing stock and its location. Housing trends are pointing to a shift from suburban expansion to urban reinvestment. For example, a 2007 survey by the National Association of Realtors found that 51% of respondents would prefer to live in multi-family housing if located in a walkable urban neighborhood close to work. This compares to just 45% in 2015—highlighting a growing demand for compact urban living. With smaller homes and a walkable built environment, the Hilltop area is poised for reinvestment if current trends hold.
HILLTOP THEN & NOW
A 1922 thesis by Forest Ira Blanchard contains many photographs from around Columbus. Inspired by the Chicago School of Sociology, he studied the city’s racial composition, focusing on the role of transportation in shaping the urban landscape.
W. Broad Street & Burgess Avenue — looking east
With its streetcar removed and many of its homes demolished, W. Broad has experienced great change. Despite this, the area remains recognizable.
N. Terrace & Eldon Avenues — looking west
Certain areas have hardly changed in nearly a century. Here, the growth of trees illustrates the passage of time.
S. Highland & Sullivant Avenues — looking east
Sullivant Avenue has also lost its streetcar line. Where a home once stood, a one-story retail building is now found.
TABLE OF SELECT CENSUS FIGURES, 1940 - 2017
Lost Population, Lost Energy
Lost Population, Lost Energy. Today the Hilltop area—like many core urban neighborhoods—has a fraction of the population it previously supported. With fewer people living in the area, a domino effect occurs that impacts many areas of life. Fewer people means fewer customers for neighborhood businesses, which may result in their closure or re-location. This begins to create a vicious cycle wherein potential new residents may not want to choose the neighborhood due to a lack of amenities. This further deteriorates the neighborhood and leads to social and economic isolation with many obstacles to recovery.
A decrease in population density has been primarily caused by residents leaving the focus area for other neighborhoods. This leaves unoccupied housing units abandoned or demolished. Another factor contributing to density reduction is a decrease in household size, or the number of people living in one household. In 1950, the average household size in the Hilltop area was 3.88. Today that figure is 2.89.
Fewer people also means fewer neighbors, with less opportunity for resident interaction and creation of the social bonds that bring stability to residential areas. With more vacant lots and abandoned homes, the opportunity for crime also increases. Less activity and energy on the street and sidewalk contribute to a feeling that no one is watching, which may encourage criminal activity. Overall, the impacts of depopulation should not be underestimated. The path to revitalization will include inviting more neighbors in, helping to restore energy and activity to this once-thriving area.
Population Density: 1950
Population Density: 2017
Hilltop Focus Area Population, 1940—2017
What is a Community Plan?
Early efforts at city planning resulted in engineering feats, transportation projects, and zoning classifications—all of which ignored human experiences like employment, recreation, and housing. By the 1920s, in the wake of the Beaux Arts and city beautiful movement, the persistence of social ills prompted a shift in the planning approach.
“Community planning” is a planning approach that incorporates both physical and social considerations while relying on guidance from residents and stakeholders throughout the process. The term arose around 1919 as “an embodiment of human aspirations based upon a truly democratic conception of legality” . In the years following, there were efforts to integrate physical and social planning  to help “create a new institutional framework through which the social architect and planner formulated urban physical and social goals”.
The community planning concept continued to evolve throughout the twentieth century, experiencing a resurgence during the building boom after World War II. In 1944, the National Committee on Housing urged builders of growing communities to avoid economic segregation and income stratification. Later, some called zoning a “device for economic segregation” and said that “planners should do all they can to combat these trends as un-American and undemocratic”. Community planning was seen as an opportunity to create visions of community that were inclusive of different income and social groups—using their input and lived experience to guide plans.
Many previous planning efforts have quantified the value of communities using financial metrics, home values, and identification of pervasive social or public health conditions: what proponents of the rational model could term “objective” measures. These measures became a justification for widespread demolition and population resettlement. Urban renewal is a typical expression of this model and today is widely criticized as contributing to poverty concentration and racial and economic segregation.
One primary question of the community-driven planning movement is how to create viable community planning structures that share power and decision-making authority among contending interests. This challenge holds true today. The central tenet of community planning—and of this Hilltop community plan—asserts that “when people participate directly in determining policies that affect their lives, the decisions are more likely to produce support and commitment than when policies are determined for them”. The Hilltop Community Plan demonstrates a commitment to community involvement, resident engagement, and citizen participation that speaks to the community planning model.
“If democratic health is to be maintained, no community should consist exclusively of a single income group…[D]iversification is an essential element of safety for all concerned—the developer, the owner, the storekeeper, the municipality, the school system and our political system itself”.
— National Committee on Housing, 1944
1. American Institute of Architects, Proceedings of the Fifty-Second Annual Convention of the American Institute of Architects, Washington, D.C.: Board of Directors, American Institute of Architects, 1919.
2. Roy Lubove, Community Planning in the 1920s: The contribution of the Regional Planning Association of America, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963, 43.
4. National Committee on Housing, Your Stake in Community Planning, New York: National Committee on Housing, Inc., 1944, 14.
5. Herbert L. Marx, Community Planning, New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1956, 83-84.
6. Girbert & Specht, Dynamics of Community Planning, Balinger Publishing Co., 1977, 36.