Historical photo of Drexel Theatre and Main Street business in Bexley

How Bexley Became An Island

Adam Black lives in Upper Arlington, but spends a lot of time in Bexley.

“We have friends there, we go to synagogue there on Saturdays, and on Thursdays we go there every week because my boys have bar mitzvah lessons down there,” Black says.

His twin sons Tani and Ari are sitting in the backseat of Black’s SUV, brushing up on their Hebrew before their 4 p.m. lesson. On this particular day, Black is driving down OH-315 and heading for I-670 to get to Congregation Agudas Achim.

Depending on the day, Black drives into Bexley from three different directions, but he sees something similar wherever he crosses into town.

“From every direction we come to Bexley, it’s immediately noticeable as soon as you hit the Bexley border,” Black says. “We come from areas that are upper middle class, or sometimes quite impoverished.”

Black slows down as he drives east towards the synagogue. He points out houses before crossing over the border.

“It’s like, it’s not subtle. You begin to notice the difference completely,” Black says. “This one looks like it was gutted in a fire, that one is boarded up.”

Bexley is one of Columbus’ wealthiest areas, but it’s surrounded by far-less-prosperous neighborhoods. (Photo by Adora Namigadde)

Bexley is home to the governor’s mansion, the Ohio State University president’s house, and the only municipality in the U.S. to be named an arboretum. Black asked WOSU’s Curious Cbus project about why Bexley is wealthier than the areas immediately surrounding it.

“Why has this happened?” he asks. “That Bexley, which is a relatively inner-city neighborhood very close to downtown and five minutes from revitalized areas, and suddenly the neighborhood drops off and becomes immediately good again.”

The answer lies in the city’s beginnings, a large construction project, and an exception to demographically restrictive housing.

Bexley’s Beginnings

Bexley was founded in 1908. Mayor Ben Kessler says it started out as a community around Trinity Lutheran Seminary, and then became a city in 1932 after surpassing a population of 5,000 people.

“It was kind of a series of country estates for relatively well-heeled Columbusites who were going to their homes on the countryside,” Kessler says.

The city saw a lot of development over the next few decades. According to Kessler, the civic core of the city is just a walk away from most houses in the city. It’s a 2.5-square-mile area with more than 4,000 households.

“We did something pretty big early in our history: We added sidewalks,” Kessler says. “Those didn’t exist initially, and we added streetlights.”

Jason Reece, an Ohio State professor who specializes in city planning, says as Bexley thrived in the early 1900s, a positive rating from appraisers really set things off.

“As a result of this, Bexley flourishes as credit is available to that community over the next half century,” Reece says. “Meanwhile to the west, we see most of the East Side and most of the South Side, except for a few pockets, are restricted from credit.”

Wentz Pharmacy operated at the corner of Drexel and Main in from 1925-1989 at 2282 E. Main St.

Without the federal government backing lending in certain communities, those areas struggled to develop. The divide grew even more in the 1950s with the construction of Interstate 70.

“During this time, it was normal for these neighborhoods to become the places where massive demolition happens to construct the highway system,” Reece says. “If you’ve ever wondered why I-70 does a very peculiar thing when it turns very sharply to the south to avoid Bexley, and if you look to the west it barreled right through the East Side community there.”

A 1952 document from the Ohio Department of Transportation shows the Franklin County Regional Planning Commission intentionally protected Bexley when building the freeway.

“Although some existing residential properties will have to be acquired for right-of-way purposes, care has been taken to avoid the newer and more expensive properties east of Alum Creek,” the document says.

Not all neighborhoods were so lucky. One noted neighborhood that was damaged after the construction of I-70 was Hanford Village, a small community of African-American home-owning families.

“We see housing that has not had the reinvestment that it needs,” Reece says. “We see patterns of segregation, then we see the impact of these big highway projects.”

According to Reece, Hanford Village was primarily made up of military veterans and their families. Now the neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jews Allowed

A lot of parallels can be drawn between Bexley and Upper Arlington, which grew at the same rate around the same time. Reece says one thing that gave Bexley an economic edge was allowing Jewish people into the community.

“It did differ from other garden suburbs in that it did welcome and allow the Jewish population to suburbanize and move east into the Bexley area,” Reece says.

WOSU checked in with the Columbus Jewish Historical Society and the Jewish Federation of Columbus, but no one seems to know exactly what pushed Bexley to let Jewish people move in. But Bexley quickly became a hub for the Jewish community, which now makes up about 40 percent of the city.

A 2013 study from the Jewish Federation of Central Ohio’s Jewish community found 5,400 Jews lived in the city that year.

Mayor Ben Kessler says one thing that might have attracted Jews is the city’s walkability.

This is speculation, but I think that may have had an impact on why the Jewish population came to Bexley?” Kessler suggests. “An observant Jewish population is a walking community on the Sabbath.”

Fast forward decades later, and Bexley is still thriving. It boasts one of the best public school districts in the state, as well as several prestigious private schools. According to U.S. News & World Report, Bexley High School is the fourth best in the state. St. Charles Preparatory School, Columbus School for Girls and Capital University are all in Bexley as well.

Today, Bexley’s median household income is $101,736, according to the U.S. Census. That’s more than twice the average household income in Columbus, which is $47,156.

“Sure, we have the park views, Columbias and mansion districts, we have the governor’s mansion and the president of OSU’s house, and we’re really proud that we have those,” Kessler says. “Bexley also has a preponderance of middle-class housing. It has low-income housing. There’s just a big variety of housing, I’d say more so than probably any other first-ring suburb of Columbus.”

Kessler says the city is becoming more diverse, and the U.S. Census supports his assertion. From 2010 to 2016, the black population has grown from 3.7 percent to 6 percent. In contrast, the white population has gone from 92.2 percent to 88.8 percent.

From the outside, though, Bexley still looks like an island.

“It’s important to note the complexity of the lot of ways in which our development and our housing has been discriminatory here in Columbus,” Reece says. “And we see that reflection today in who lives where throughout the city.”

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