Invisible fences for humans, Part I: The Columbus example at the ground level.

The most concise definition for an enclave according to the principles of political geography is a small land area outside its home country, completely surrounded by the neighboring country. In a world atlas, the most visibly obvious example of this is the small mountainous kingdom of Lesotho, surrounded in totality by the large Republic of South Africa. Closer to home, a number of large cities in the US contain independently incorporated municipalities (typically with their own mayor, code of ordinances, and independent public services) completely surrounded by the larger city. In many cases, these enclaves began as suburbs of the larger city. As the city grew over time, it expanded its municipal boundaries through municipal annexation until it completely surrounded the enclave. When one municipality is considerably larger than the other in annexations, the large city often proposes to absorb the smaller city, resulting in the deincorporation of the community as it waives its right to levy taxes and provide city services on its own. The absorbed community no longer has political autonomy. (In other instances, these smaller communities were never incorporated to begin with, and the larger city only needs to engage in annexation proceedings.) Over time, such absorbed communities typically function as neighborhoods within the larger city. Enclaves, however, frequently reject the larger city’s proposal and retain most (if not all) of their autonomy; in short, they operate as mini-cities within a city.

In some cases, the distinction between enclave and surrounding city is so subtle that the only identifying feature is a welcome sign at the boundary. Other enclaves adopt their own infrastructural and streetscape design, with visibly different paving surfaces, street lights, road signs, and even possibly a different vernacular architecture for the homes and commercial buildings. Bexley, an enclave of approximately 13,000 people within Columbus Ohio (population 750,000), to the east of downtown, takes the distinction to an entirely different level. Its origins, as a turn of the century bedroom community for the gentry of Columbus, places the municipality at a location that may have seemed exurban at the time of its founding, surrounded by rural estates and farms. Today Bexley sits more or less squarely in the inner city. It certainly borders no other municipalities, as evidenced by this Wikipedia map of Franklin County.

Bexley’s roughly quadrilateral shape only offers clearly discernible physical boundaries on two of the four sides, as this outline of the city limits demonstrates. The western edge of Bexley consists of the Alum Creek and Wolfe Park; the northern edge consists of a rail corridor.
Despite being surrounded by Ohio’s largest city, Bexley still offers a way of life typical of an affluent older suburb. Its commercial main street—resting along Columbus’ main east-west arterial—remains quite successful, offering upmarket goods and services within a pedestrian friendly vernacular architecture in this overwhelmingly automobile oriented metro area.

(Unless otherwise indicated, all photos in this series are courtesy of Jung Won Kim.)

The housing stock to the north and south of Main Street in this community of a mere 2.4 square miles echoes the affluence of the commercial district, presenting a variety of Tudor and neocolonial homes, mostly dating from the first half of the 20th century. Most of Bexley’s residential districts follow strict rectilinear grids, with ample sidewalks and a largely consistent tree canopy. In many cases the lots are smaller than what would be desirable in contemporary Midwestern suburbia, with about four or five homes to an acre.
In affluent Bexley OhioA quiet street in Bexley

However, if visitors step outside of Bexley, they are in the big city of Columbus, no matter which direction they travel. And the differences are typically striking. This housing, just north of Bexley in the Columbus limits offers a good example of the contrast:

While hardly impoverished, it is visibly unadorned and shows no indication of the prosperity of its neighbor to the south. This Google Street View screen shot shows another image of Columbus at 6th Avenue, just north of Bexley, on the notorious “other side of the railroad tracks.” A third image reveals respectable but unremarkable low-density housing immediately south of Bexley in Columbus.
outside Bexley in Columbus OH

But perhaps the biggest contrast is in the primary commercial corridor. Main Street Bexley clearly offers a well preserved urban retail experience for a clientele with high disposable income across much of the street’s nine-block length.
Main Street Bexley
Step outside of the city limits, though, and this is what one would see in Columbus:
drab development outside Bexley OH

An auto oriented strip mall to the east.

Low end retail with some evidence of high vacancy to the west, as one ventures closer to the Columbus downtown. Notice also that the cheap cables are hoisting the stoplights, instead of the more attractive metal masts featured in Bexley. Other portions of Columbus immediately outside Bexley yield similarly less aesthetic results, such as the intersection of Livingston Avenue and Alum Creek Drive just southwest of Bexley.

Bexley is only four miles east of downtown Columbus. If one were to draw a radial line from Columbus’ center at High and Broad and trace the circle formed by that radius, in many cases it would place a person in some of the metro’s most struggling neighborhoods. But Bexley is not struggling in the least. If anything, it’s growing as much as it can within completely constrained political boundaries through densification. Main Street Bexley has successfully introduced several new infill developments in the past few years, enhancing the retail corridor while providing residential options in the upper levels, thereby increasing its potential customer base.
Urbanizing infill in BexleyUrban infill in Bexley

The most remarkable differences, however, rest precisely on those municipal boundaries. Take Mound Street, for instance, which within Bexley is as pristine as anywhere else in the community.

Just a block away, in Columbus, the character changes completely, but more interesting is the physical impedance separating the two cities resting along this eastern boundary, at Gould Street. This photo, taken from the Columbus side, shows a garage resting squarely on what would have been the east-west right-of-way where Mound Street intersects Gould Street, the later of which is little more than an alley.

While it is possible this garage has always stood there, reinforcing the privately owned strip of land that bisects Mound Street, a map would suggest that the parcel bears the necessary physical dimensions to comprise a continuous right-of-way.
Bexley boundary with ColumbusSo what happened here? Did someone in Bexley buy the public right-of-way to the street to transform it to private property, thereby impeding public access between Bexley and Columbus in this location? Obviously this is only speculation, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first example—I’ve even observed in an early blog post a scenario where an installed road barrier blocked automobile access between an apartment complex and a condo complex in suburban Indianapolis. In that instance, however, the barricade only inhibited automobile traffic, and pedestrians could walk around it. If my speculation is correct, here in Bexley the landowners have completely removed a segment of a collector street from public access.

The evidence is subtle and may very well be a red herring, but it does appear that a certain contingent has made a conscious effort to alter the infrastructure in ways that weaken the accessibility between Bexley and surrounding Columbus. By why would a community attempt to do this? Obviously for the same reason that affluent gated communities have been cropping up across the country: the income differentials between the inside and outside are formidable, and the wealthy inside aims to stave off the undesirable perceived behavior characteristics of the outsiders. This near-east side of Columbus, though not uniformly poor, has not generally benefited from any of Bexley’s ostensible prosperity; all evidence suggests that it is considerably less affluent than the enclave it surrounds. The Community Data Center, under the management of Community Research Partners, provides useful cartographic economic indicators for all of Franklin County, revealing Bexley’s economic distinctiveness. This map showing median household income in 2000 by census tract is fully demonstrative: Bexley’s city limits are traced in yellow, and the Columbus Statehouse (the center of the city) indicated by a purple circle.
Echoing these trends is a map of the 2007 assessed value of residential properties in the area, again using census tracts:
Under both metrics, Bexley stands out as wealthier and with higher appraised home values than surrounding Columbus in all directions, but particularly to the east (across Alum Creek) and to the north (across the railroad tracks).

As far as the perceived desirability of the community is considered, these efforts to keep Bexley carefully sequestered from its more socioeconomically diverse “parent” city have proven overwhelmingly successful. In short, Bexley is almost uniformly affluent; the surrounding neighborhoods of Columbus are not. But the physical barriers to Bexley, aside from a few privatized rights-of-way, are relatively modest. Bexley is hardly surrounded by a gate. Cars and pedestrians are free to travel in and out of the municipality, and can easily do so on the arterials or collector streets. So what has given this suburb such cachet, when other neighborhoods in Columbus city limits also feature architecturally distinct houses, tree lined streets, pedestrian commercial corridors, and the characteristics that have made urban living appealing to many?

It helps to know a bit of the history of the area. Today, Bexley is a freestanding municipality, with its own mayor, city council, clerk of courts, police force, department of revenue, etc. It originated as a bedroom community called Pleasant Ridge, which emerged to house professors and their families after Capital University relocated in 1876 from its earlier site near Gooddale Park. Only after the Pleasant Ridge Improvement Association attracted infrastructure upgrades did the area begin to function as anything more than a rural assessment; the 1907 initiative added sidewalks, paved roads, and streetlights, encouraged tree planting, and restricted large signs, all in an effort to attract more people to the area. The efforts proved successful: by 1908 the Association decided to incorporate, combining several small neighborhoods to form the Village of Bexley. Incidentally, the City of Columbus sued the village shortly after this incorporation, contending that Bexley was annexed territory and subject to Columbus taxes. However, the Village successfully fought the suit and the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Bexley was a separate and legally incorporated village and beyond the reach of Columbus taxes. Secure in its political autonomy, Bexley grew quickly and by 1931, the recent Census had proven that Bexley had achieved the minimum 5,000 residents in order to become a city. Its first mayor remained in office for 32 years. In short, Bexley was a fully incorporated community at a time when the surrounding Columbus neighborhoods were still new developments, and, in some cases (particularly to the south) virgin land. Columbus had grown eastward to meet Bexley and then continued to develop around it.

Over the years the neighborhoods of Columbus that surround Bexley have met widely divergent fortunes: some have remained working or lower-middle class, some have declined significantly, while a few closest to the downtown (such as Old Town East) are showing early evidence of reinvestment and gentrification. Bexley, conversely, has consistently remained upper-middle and upper income regardless of its “parent” city’s vicissitudes. It has also remained largely college-educated, as reflected in this map from Community Research Partners:
Bexley outlined in yellowCorrelations between income and education level are so powerful and widely known that the results of these analytical maps should come as no surprise. Bexley is an island of educated affluence. Equally unsurprising is the racial/ethnic composition of the community. Unfortunately the US Census Data does not isolate Bexley for analysis in its 2008 American Community Survey, so I will have to use 2000 results.

A more refined examination, of course, would evaluate the census tracts individually through charts, but since maps are a more expressive tool at illustrating spatial organization I will demonstrate the percentage identifying racially as white by census tract according to 2000 data.
Compared to the surrounding neighborhoods (particularly to the lower income north and east) Bexley is overwhelmingly white. In short, these political boundaries have in essence quarantined the municipality from poverty, low education, reduced property values, and racial diversity. The city’s political independence allows it to determine laws, budgets, millage rates, capital improvements, zoning—everything short of determining who gets in on a person-by-person basis.

Yet many of those other policy initiatives could just as easily serve as a de facto means of limiting those who otherwise would hope to live in Bexley but cannot afford it. For example, Bexley could have required laws that require certain construction standards—a high quality building material, for instance, which ensures that homes will be of a certain minimum value, rendering them less affordable than if those standards did not exist. In the city’s earlier days of development, it could have required subdivisions to be platted at a certain minimum lot size—for example, two homes to an acre. The land costs would have been prohibitive to many. It could have restricted residential land use to single family homes of a minimum square footage, thereby precluding the construction of lower-cost multifamily or small residential units—also making it quite difficult for higher density apartment buildings to break ground. All of these actions would have entailed the practice of exclusionary zoning, ruled unconstitutional by the influential New Jersey Supreme Court Decision Southern Burlington County NAACP v. Mount Laurel Township first in 1975, then again in 1983 (with more enforcement powers) after public officials in Mount Laurel largely ignored the ruling the first time and continued to zone out affordability. Though the Mount Laurel Decision remains the most influential case determining the necessity of inclusionary zoning, most other decisions requiring the provision of affordable housing remain enactable only at the municipal or county level. No nationwide regulations prohibit zoning to exclude low-income persons.

Bexley’s distinctive affluence could just as easily derive from forces completely divorced from the public sector. Redlining, in which mortgage lending companies would systematically deny loans to neighborhoods marked in red by a map (usually poor and racial minority), was a perfectly legal practice until federal legislation in the late 1960s and 1970s prohibited it. Most affordable housing advocates would argue that redlining still takes place under more covert methods. Restrictive covenants, in which certain obligations embedded in a deed prevent a homeowner from selling real property to a racial minority, also promoted and retained racial (and usually socioeconomic ) homogeneity in neighborhoods. This, too, was rendered illegal, first by Supreme Court ruling Shelley v. Kramer (1948) and, after that failed to stem the practice, the 1968 Civil Rights Act.

While it is possible that Bexley engaged in some or all of these practices, the built environment does not immediately reveal evidence of exclusionary zoning. Lot sizes vary widely, as do the sizes of homes. In fact, recent Brookings Institution research indicates that Bexley and Columbus are the only two cities in the metro area with zoning that allows densities over 30 dwellings per acre. Building materials include brick, stone, and wood. And while the city is overwhelmingly wealthy and white, nearly 8% of the population is of some other race, which certainly makes it more heterogeneous than many other Columbus suburbs. In addition, persons of Jewish heritage—an religious group often targeted in restrictive covenants—comprise about a third of Bexley’s population. Without digging up Bexley’s entire legislative and zoning history, let’s hypothesize that none of these discriminatory practices were prevalent in the community. So how did Bexley get to be so rich? And, more importantly, how did it stay that way?

The city’s incorporation at a time when it was a sleepy, prestigious bedroom community helped galvanize its exclusivity. Defining its boundaries as a small distinctive suburb at an early stage became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: it has always attracted people in Columbus with high aspirations (it also houses the Governor’s Mansion and the President of Ohio State University) and their own spending capacity have promoted a prevailing culture of affluence. Imagine if the Gold Coast of Chicago or the New York’s Upper West Side had incorporated as a separate community a century ago, or even if they did it today: it would be a freestanding municipality of elites. In essence, a suburban community outside the old center of Los Angeles did much the same thing when threatened by annexation from the parent city. Beverly Hills, now a virtual enclave of the superwealthy, incorporated in 1906, just two years before Bexley. Is Bexley the Beverly Hills of Columbus? Two other enclaves within Columbus, Grandview Heights and Worthington, are also quite affluent, but they are less striking because they directly abut some of the wealthier sections of Columbus; the contrast when crossing their boundaries is less striking. Conversely, Whitehall, a municipality about a mile to the east of Beckley that is also surrounded by Columbus, is not remotely affluent and in recent years has shown indications of escalating poverty levels. An enclave does not ensure exclusivity.

One final map may prove the lynchpin to Bexley’s continued prosperity: the city’s school district boundaries, which, unsurprisingly, are conterminous with the city limits. Equally unsurprising is the fact that the Bexley Public School system is one of the highest-ranked in the state, but then a community such as Bexley has the deck stacked in its favor: the high assessed value of the homes translates to a robust tax base that may not even require a high mill rate to funding the –public schools generously. And what’s around it? The widely variable and sometimes abysmal Columbus Public Schools. The virtual absence of poverty in Bexley results in a minimal demand for low-income programs such as reduced lunch or subsidized sporting equipment. But the demographics itself favor an excellent school system: a municipality with such a high proportion of well-educated residents almost guarantees a high-achieving student body. Even if the schools were poorly funded (and they aren’t), the students would no doubt perform well. Like any city with sterling test scores, Bexley touts its school system, further enhancing its desirability and ensuring that real estate in the area remains high—and that a lower-income population (or even a middle class one) will never intrude upon its serenity by imposing greater educational burdens, or lowering the median test scores. Prestigious suburbs across the country share similar demographics, and their school systems are nearly always exemplary. Metro Columbus has a few of its own. But most of these other suburbs are not surrounded by a big city with broad swathes of poverty. The City of Bexley is basically impervious, as long as the well-oiled gears of its school system keep chugging along efficiently. The tree-lined streets, the walkable business district, the well-maintained older homes, the proximity to center of the state’s government—these factors in aggregate render the city immune from the higher crime and considerable poverty in the city that circumscribes it. Among the few palpable examples is a garage that blocks the right-of-way on Mound Street. But the intangibles exert a lasting power—the impeccable school system is the billy club that keeps the ne’er-do-wells away.

If this conclusion comes across as an attack on Bexley, let me mitigate it by asserting that I am not attempting to castigate success. If Bexley achieved its prosperity through passive, “organic” means rather than exclusionary laws, it would scarcely deserve condemnation when dozens of other municipalities have deliberately excluded the poor and continue to do so. Bexley is a particularly striking example that is worthy of a dozen other socioeconomic evaluations. Part II may arrive far in the future as my current workload is intense, but I hope to examine the demographic implications of Bexley’s success, and how other municipalities—and particularly their school systems—can wield their own demographics into a position of economic opportunities, even if they lack the embedded advantages of a place like Bexley.

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12 thoughts on “Invisible fences for humans, Part I: The Columbus example at the ground level.

  1. The Urbanophile

    I think you nailed it.

    One Indy friend of mine said that Bexley was like Meridian-Kessler + Butler-Tarkington + Broad Ripple, with its own municipality and school system. Imagine what the real estate in that area of Indy would be if it had those characteristics

  2. AmericanDirt

    Indeed. I hope to touch upon that in an eventual Part II. No doubt Meridian-Kessler and Butler Tarkington would be impeccable as well if they were enclaves. However, its a testament to their resiliency that they’ve managed to stay strong neighborhoods (with definite gritty sections) despite the fact that they rest in IPS, the worst school district in the state. These enclaves of Columbus may also help explain why, by some metrics, the city’s median income is lower that of comparable big cities: many of its premier upscale urban neighborhoods are not part of Columbus at all. Imagine how much wealthier Columbus would be if Upper Arlington were a neighborhood and not a suburb–that is, unless the wealth didn’t leave because of the deteriorated school system. Bexley’s independence is good for the region, not so good for Columbus the city.

  3. The Urbanophile

    You’ve already inspired a future blog post for me on this topic. One thing I can’t help but speculate on: did this affect Columbus’ edge suburb development? If you compare their premier edge suburban environments like Dublin to Indy’s, Indy is the clear winner. It makes me wonder if places like Bexley didn’t capture for Columbus a lot of the market that went to Carmel in Indy.

  4. cdc guy

    I’m the Indy friend. 🙂

    I have the advantage of deep roots in Bexley (my grandparents built their house near Capital University in 1926, my father grew up there, I was born there, and grew up visiting) as well as similar roots in MK, BT, and BR (married a lifer who went to Butler, raised our kids and ran businesses there).

    You might be shocked to learn that Main St. in Bexley did get to a tipping point in the 70’s: there was a theater on Main near Cassingham that was running triple-x fare in those years. And aerials still show the front-yard parking added to the older commercial strips…as well as the new faux-2-story CVS that replaced a small and outdated (IGA?) grocery.

    The Indy neighborhoods survived the “urban disinvestment” era because property taxes stayed low until 2004: we didn’t pay much, and didn’t get or expect much. It was sort of the opposite of the Bexley situation, but we had a safety valve in MK: under-populated North Deanery Catholic schools with then-reasonable tuition.

    It is no coincidence that MK neighbors pressured IPS and organized the second Center for Inquiry at School 84 after the property-tax debacle in Indy.

    I look forward to your next installment.

  5. David

    What makes Bexley so unique (and I think the idea that it captured a lot of wealth from the ‘burbs is likely true) is that most Jewish neighborhoods become the primary vector for ghetto expansion (Avondale and Roselawn in Cincy, Hough in Cleveland). Instead, the Jewish neighborhood incorporated and was able to maintain its identity. Amberley Village in Cincinnati is similar but happened later in the development of Cincinnati’s ‘burbs.


  6. AmericanDirt

    Thanks for the insight David. I wasn’t aware of that being the case, particularly in Ohio. It certainly seems to be the case, though, in Boston, and to a lesser degree in Philadelphia.

  7. cdc guy

    David, it’s not clear to me whether Bexley “historically” had a significant Jewish population or that it was so at the time of the village’s formation. Was Bexley a starting point or did it become a destination for upper-middle-class Jewish families in Columbus?

    The latter would mean that Bexley really didn’t avoid the ghetto-expansion vector you cite in other cities (which had to do with relatively large “Jewish Quarters” being abandoned due to upward mobility in the second and third-generation Jewish families).

    The Bexley article in Wikipedia cites the “Lutheran settlement” around Capital University, the Lutheran Seminary and Christ Lutheran Church (mostly from Main St. south to Livingston) as a primary organizing influence for the Village of Bexley a century ago. There is no similar comment about a Jewish neighborhood.

    The Les Wexner story doesn’t shed much light; he went to Bexley HS and then OSU before starting The Limited as a young man. His parents were shopkeepers; he was somewhat more successful at it and left Bexley for a suburban estate when he made his first billion.

    I guess I’ll have to call Dad and ask him. 🙂

  8. John

    I don’t think any city is “impervious” to decline. If the City of Columbus had the same problems of…say Detroit, then there would probably be a lot more city neighborhoods and suburbs in decline. Bexley would likely be one of the last places to decline – well after Olde Towne East, Woodland Park, and Whitehall – but it could happen. For evidence, look at the fight places like Cleveland Heights, University Heights, and Shaker Heights have to put up to keep the east side of Cleveland from creeping in. If those suburbs were in Columbus, I would say they wouldn’t be having the same troubles right now. They would be…Bexley.

  9. AmericanDirt

    Thanks for the comment, John. You’ve actually touched on something I would have included in the essay, but decided against because this post was getting long enough already. Not all enclaves are fortresses; you aptly mentioned Detroit, which has two enclaves: Hamtramck and Highland Park. Hamtramck has certainly lost population but generally remains a stable, multi-ethnic working class neighborhood, and in recent years it has become almost trendy. It’s the best that can be expected of an enclave in a region as depressed as Detroit. Highland Park, on the other hand, is just as economically devastated as its surrounding city, if not more so.

    As you said, a community can never completely stave off the potential for decline, just as some neighborhoods will find it impossible to resist gentrification. But carefully defined, airtight school districts are probably a more effective means of ensuring stability than anything else, because their influence on property values ensures that the differentials between places like Bexley and their surrounding city will be huge. Bexley will almost always be out of reach to the segment of the population most likely to weaken the high rankings of those schools (and, incidentally, the population most likely to benefit from those top-tier districts as well).

  10. John

    I agree about schools being essential to keeping an enclave wealthy, but “airtight school districts” require enough people with money to keep the property values high. Columbus has many top-tier school districts. If the job market collapsed and there were no longer enough people to keep all those districts stable, then one or more could decline. It could be Bexley, it could be somewhere else (probably Reynoldsburg). In declining times, suburbs/neighborhoods need an extra differentiator in addition to schools to make sure they’re the “last one standing,” or the top choice for wealthy people. I would suggest that these differentiators are often location, architecture, and trees. Bexley has great architecture, an attractive main street, large trees, and a good location near downtown, so it will probably succeed. But if downtown failed, it could put pressure on Bexley, which might not be in as good a geographic location as Grandview or Upper Arlington due to their proximity to OSU and jobs in the northwest suburbs. I guess I’m just saying “never say never.”

  11. AmericanDirt

    Excellent points again John. Columbus’ diverse and well-educated work force almost guarantees that many of these suburban school districts will remain desirable for a time to come. But it would most likely take a catastrophic failure of the region’s economy–the likes of Cleveland or Detroit–to engender the implosion of a place like Bexley. Even the most depressed metros still retain a certain base of people demanding top-tier schools, and while everything in Detroit may have depreciated significantly over the past few years, the differentials between the “good suburbs” of Detroit and the rest of the metro are still formidable. And those good areas (the Bloomfields, the Grosse Pointes) still have good schools and out-of-reach home values—all just at a lower tier than before. A massive collapse of Columbus’ economy may threaten Bexley, but the first suburbs to slump would be places like Whitehall, which apparently already is declining by some people’s perceptions.

    I appreciate your final remark most of all. Though I’m surely guilty of it on occasion, the two adverbs I try to avoid more than any other are “never” and “always”. Thanks again for your observations!


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