Long-retired Columbus police officers Fred Yentz and Cleon Sweeney remember when Jackson Street was last open to through traffic between First and Eighth streets.
“It was a lot more lively in those days,” Sweeney said of the period before 1971.
That’s when the road was closed between Third and Fourth streets for construction of the Courthouse Center, later to be renamed the Commons Mall.
“We spent a lot of our time arresting drunks and breaking up fights in the taverns,” Sweeney said.
When Jackson Street is reopened to through traffic in the next few weeks, there will be nothing to remind longtime residents of the old days, certainly not in the block that has been closed to traffic for the past 41 years.
Long gone have been once-familiar spots such as the Sportsman Bar and the Indiana and Davis taverns, which were nestled together in the 300 block of Jackson Street.
They weren’t lacking for neighbors. Four other bars or taverns lined the street to the north — bringing the total from First to Eighth to seven. Those other bars also went the way of progress years ago.
Although there were an unusually high number of drinking establishments on the pre-1971 Jackson Street, the thoroughfare was actually a mix of houses, hotels, gas stations, car dealerships and assorted retail businesses for the first seven decades of the 20th century.
In some respects, Jackson Street was the border between two towns, a territorial line that fell somewhere between it and its neighbor to the East, Washington Street.
“The difference between Washington and Jackson streets was night and day,” said Yentz, who later in his police career served as police chief. “We had to do most of our patrols on foot, and most of our activity was on Jackson Street and its alleys.”
Sweeney recalled that officers sometimes would venture onto Washington Street but usually only on weekends.
“That was in a time when a lot of the farmers would come into town on the weekends and gather on the sidewalks in front of the stores on Washington Street just to visit with each other,” he said. “The merchants would complain that customers couldn’t get into their stores because there were crowds blocking the entrances, and we’d have to go in and ask people to move. We dealt with a lot different problems on Jackson Street.”
Sweeney remembered one difficult arrest he had to make outside a Jackson Street bar.
“There was this one fellow who was drunk and making a disturbance,” he said. “He was a lot bigger then me, and I had a devil of a time getting him under control.
“I finally was able to get handcuffs on him, but they were on one hand and one leg. That’s how I had to bring him into the jail.”
While acknowledging the problems they had to deal with on Jackson Street, both former officers said there were good qualities about most of those who lived, worked and relaxed on Jackson Street.
“You have to realize that Jackson Street wasn’t all that far from Death Valley,” Yentz said, referring to a downtrodden area — literally on the other side of railroad tracks — which in the early 1960s was cleared and converted into what today is Mill Race Park. “A lot of Death Valley simply spilled onto Jackson Street.”
In fact, that area was identified as one of several blighted areas in the city that needed to be removed. The city began taking steps in that direction in the late 1950s, and in 1961 a redevelopment commission was created to address some of the issues.
At the same time, the downtown area was beginning to experience an exodus of retail merchants. One of the main missions of the redevelopment commission was to develop a plan to stop that exodus. Central to that mission was a project that was called the “super block,” the development of a large, enclosed downtown shopping center.
“Super block was the integral element in the redevelopment project,” said Ben Bush, who served on the commission in the 1960s. “It was viewed as an opportunity to keep a strong retail presence in the downtown.”
To accomplish that, major changes had to be made, including razing of numerous buildings in an area bordered by Third, Fourth, Washington and Brown streets. A continuous mall originally named Courthouse Center filled the space, effectively shutting off Jackson Street traffic between Third and Fourth streets.
Among the first buildings to go were those housing the Davis and Indiana taverns and the Sportsman Bar. Eventually after construction of the mall got under way, the taverns on Jackson Street to the north and most of their neighboring buildings were emptied.
“I’m sure that the
redevelopment project was responsible in part for changing Jackson Street,” Sweeney said. “But actually, Jackson Street really began to change when Interstate 65 was opened in the early 1960s and the traffic that had been routed through the downtown was diverted to the west.”
In the years that followed the closing of Jackson Street between Third and Fourth, the area to the north became an avenue of parking lots on the east side.
The soon-to-be-reopened stretch of Jackson Street between Third and Fourth streets already is sided with two Cummins office buildings to the east and the Indiana University Center for Art and Design and Yes Cinema on the west.
Life is returning to Jackson Street, but it’s unlikely it’ll ever rival the “lively” atmosphere of the years before 1971.