Like most people, when asked where America’s first urban renewal project was undertaken, I would have probably guessed cities like New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, or Boston. These are all logical guesses, but the first urban renewal (or redevelopment) project in the nation took place in a much smaller city/town – Circleville, Ohio. Like subsequent urban renewal projects, this one devastated a unique and charming urban design. Even worse, it completely destroyed the wondrous ancient Hopewell mounds and earthworks that literally gave Circleville both its place name and its founding identity.
Placemaking is a planning concept and tool that relies on multiple factors to be successful. These include, but are not necessarily limited to identity, history, and locale. In placemaking, it is crucial to determine and build upon those attributes that endowed the community with its identity and not become overwhelmed by the bland sameness that has infected too many places in the United States. Placebreaking, on the other hand, can be defined as the destruction of place through misguided actions, mistakes, bad decisions, and those activities that detract from rather than enhance a community.
Founded in 1810 as the seat of Pickaway County, Circleville was named for the circular portion of the magnificent ancient Hopewell Culture earthworks located there. These earthworks consisted of an impressive 1,100 foot diameter circle connected to a 900 foot square (see image below).
In an attempt to mitigate the impact of the new community on these timeless archaeological treasures, the core of Circleville was laid out in a radial concentric street pattern by Town Director Daniel Dresbach. In preparing this platted design, Mr. Dresbach attempted to preserve some of the Hopewell mounds and earthworks. Though not a perfect scenario, it was a surprisingly respectful 19th-century attempt to incorporate the ancient archaeological features into the town’s design. At the center of the circles would be the octagon-shaped Pickaway County Courthouse.
As can be seen by the images included in this post, Circleville was indeed initially developed in this manner – an urban design and land use pattern that truly was unique for its time. Unfortunately, the quasi-utopian desire of early American settlers coexisting respectfully with an ancient archaeological site began to unravel less than three (3) decades later.
Apparently, the original radial street pattern was unsatisfactory to a certain portion of the citizenry of Circleville. As a result, the State of Ohio was petitioned in the 1830s to allow the town to be redeveloped in a traditional square grid pattern. This request was approved by the Ohio legislature in 1837 and within 20 years (by 1856) Mr. Dresbach’s beautiful and largely respectful urban design had been obliterated…along with the ancient Hopewell earthworks that personified Circleville. Even the unique octagon courthouse was demolished as part of this multi-year process. The images depict this unfortunate series of changes where Circleville literally destroyed the placemaking features that had made it unique and noteworthy.
Today, Circleville proudly boasts on its website about its planning history as being the place of America’s first urban redevelopment (or renewal) project. However, to this retired planner, the actions that altered the original urban design and the ensuing impacts on the wondrous archaeological features once located here are hardly anything to be bragging about.
Perhaps, Circleville should have been renamed Blundertown, because the steps taken between 1837 and 1856, were a tragic and irreversible mistake that permanently destroyed the ancient Hopewell earthworks that were the town’s namesake. One can hardly do more damage to a community’s identity than to ruin its namesake. It would be akin to blocking off Niagara Falls or draining the Great Salt Lake.
The staggering losses resulting from the destruction of the Circleville Earthworks is incalculable, whether measured in historical, archaeological, cultural, ethical, moral, societal, or financial terms.
The lost scientific knowledge that could have been gained from continued study of the Circleville Earthworks has limited our collective (societal) understating of the Hopewell Culture. It also weakened Circleville’s place in the hierarchy of archaeological importance. Similar adverse implications can be noted for historical and cultural impacts resulting from the destruction of the Circleville Earthworks.
From a financial standpoint, this renewal project also likely cost Circleville millions of potential visitors and the associated tourism revenues. A city designed in such a unique, thoughtful, and impressive manner would certainly would have become a tourist attraction akin to Savannah, Charleston, Williamsburg, New Bern, Zoar, Quebec City, and the French Quarter of New Orleans. In addition, those tourists who are interested in the rich archaeological features of this region now drive right past Circleville to Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe a mere 25 miles to the south, or to the Newark Earthworks some 50 miles to the northeast.
But, the most damaging aspects are the ethical and moral implications resulting from the destruction of the Circleville Earthworks. Americans have a terribly unpleasant penchant for destroying the very things that make a particular place special. Whether it has been done through grading, clearing, burning, altering, bulldozing, polluting, re-platting, overpopulating, or paving; at times it seems we find more ways to desecrate special places than we find to enhance them. Circleville was just the earliest noted example of our moral and ethical compass going haywire as part of an urban renewal project. Sadly, it would prove repeatedly not to be the last mishap.
We have seen historic Black neighborhoods and main streets demolished, Latinx barrios fall to the wrecking ball, and poor/underprivileged parts of cities leveled by bulldozers, all in the name of urban renewal. These are the continuing examples of America’s ethical and moral obligations being out-of-whack beyond the loss of the Circleville Earthworks.
Perhaps, one potential micro-level solution would be for placebreaking mistakes like happened in Circleville to receive greater emphasis in urban planning school programs. On a societal level, however, the ill-conceived myth of American exceptionalism must be reined-in to a paradigm that is more communal, diverse, inclusive, accepting, and universal. Otherwise, we will continue to repeat these woeful mistakes time and time again and harm ourselves (both individually and collectively) in the process.
If you find the historic mounds and earthworks of ancient Native American cultures to be interesting, here is an excellent resource available through Amazon.com* about those located in the Mid-Ohio Valley, including areas near Circleville.
*A small commission is earned from purchases that are made using these links to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.