Tuesday, December 27, 2016

MANSFIELD PART 2: A RUST-BELT ICON


Mansfield skyline
In all the traveling around I’ve done in Ohio since my teen musician years, this time-warp ride on Joerdie’s magic carpet was my first trip to Mansfield. And my first impression was of “something different”, as Joerdie’s Lincoln SUV climbed the hill on which the town is perched and she parked it in the municipal lot on the main square. I mean, to start with, you’ve kind of got to like a town from the get-go, when the principal feature of the main square is a huge indoor carousel. But it went beyond that.
I’ve been in towns where depression seemed to hang in the air. Like the one not far from this one, where, when I briefly returned to my native state in 1990, I was offered a job as its daily newspaper’s editor. I really wanted to “go back home” to Ohio for a while, after seventeen years as a newsman and international correspondent in Buenos Aires, and equally wanted to like the idea of being that small-town paper’s editor. But after a less than inspiring talk with its editor-in-chief and a long walk around town, I pretty much decided that trying to make a career out of that place would, at the very least, turn me from a social (quite often too social) drinker into a full-blown alcoholic. So, I had to respectfully decline the offer. There was a kind of heavy pall that hung over the place, from the newsroom to the shops downtown, and attempting to cope with it would have been impossible—fatal, even. But Mansfield didn’t feel that way at all. It seemed to have character, a kind of vitality that belied its recent history.
Have to like a town whose main feature is a carousel
Speaking of which...Mansfield is a sort of “rust belt icon”. This is something I know a bit about, since Wapakoneta, the little town Joerdie, Jim and I all hail from, is a next door neighbor to Lima, Ohio, an erstwhile thriving industrial town with a once big-city feel that pretty much choked to death on the post-Vietnam industrial recession that ended up spelling the permanent demise of a lot of northern and central Ohio steel-related industries (once known as the “steel belt”—hence, rust belt), and on the decline of its once vibrant oil industry that gradually fell victim to the growing importance of oil finds elsewhere in the country and abroad. Today, Lima’s population is about half what it once was and many of the myriad industries that once thrived there have since gone elsewhere or have shrunk substantially—so much so that two of the city’s top three employers are now hospitals. And although its perennial mayor has brilliantly sought to rehab the city center and keep its spirit alive in the nearly three decades since he first took office, downtown Lima today looks to me like the fossilized, if carefully staged, remains of the still hopping town that it continued to be when I played in its then-numerous nightclubs and worked at a music store just off the main square back in the 1960s of my youth. And even back then, it was a far cry from the City of Lima that my father had grown up in, despite the Great Depression of those years.
Perhaps it was just the inspiring company I was with—the aura of any sort of visit or adventure with Jim Bowsher is palpable and our friend Joerdie has a powerful, positive and engaging personality of her own—but downtown Mansfield didn’t feel “ruined” like that to me. It was more a feeling of “still being there,” of persisting in the face of adversity, despite everything that’s been thrown at it. And indeed, the years since the sixties have not been kind to that city. Like Lima, the once booming industrial town that burgeoned on the junction of three major regional rail lines, is today bereft of most of the industries by which it once prospered. A drive around town reveals huge, empty concrete-covered wastelands where factories once stood, or abandoned red-brick industrial structures from another age, whose dark, vacant windows now haunt passersby with their dead, mournful stare.
Nor do its economic woes date back entirely to the seventies and eighties when the rust belt first encroached on the region. As late as 2010, Mansfield became the largest Ohio city (population a little under 50,000) to be declared in a state of fiscal emergency by the state auditor’s office. At the time it had already initiated urban renewal efforts and blamed its inability to reduce its deficit on the Great Recession inherited from the Bush era market crash and banking crisis. It wasn’t until 2014 that the town was able to get itself taken off the auditor’s list and once more indulge its penchant for civic pride, which is plain to see in the historic downtown area.
We meet Jim and Joerdie’s friend Mark Jordan at the Coney Island Diner on the main drag. Mark’s a Mansfield native son. A writer, journalist, playwright, actor, director and full-time manager at a farmhouse hostel out on Malabar Farm, Mark is also something of a local historian. Through him, I begin to piece together a picture of community engagement that I could only presume before. As it turns out, we’re having lunch on the edge of what has become the heart of Mansfield’s cultural revival, which now includes an open-air recital venue called The Brickyard, hosting events such as jazz festivals that sometimes draw crowds in the thousands. But the town’s “Carousel District” also manages to support a symphony orchestra, a youth orchestra, two dance companies (the NEOS Ballet and the Richland Academy Dance Ensemble), an opera company and a performing arts theater (the Renaissance, which is also home to the Symphony).
Inside the Coney Island
Lunch at the Coney Island is an experience in itself. It’s a diner of the type my father and two of his brothers founded in our town in 1946, after they returned from armed service during World War II. This place makes me miss Dad’s, which was called the Teddy Bear, and which, in 1969, finally succumbed to the super highway that by-passed Wapakoneta and to the plethora of fast-food chain stores that sprung up out by the Interstate exit. But the Coney Island pre-dates the Teddy Bear. It’s been around since the 1930s and looks, inside and out, like a typical 1950s soda fountain and grill. If the décor piques my nostalgia, the food also couldn’t be more like the kind of unabashedly caloric comfort food (just known as “food” back then) that my dad and his brothers dished up when I was a boy.
Although I’m eyeing a case full of homemade pies, Mark suggests crossing the street for dessert and coffee. Turns out it’s a unique building with a sort of New Orleans façade full of ironwork that I was looking at when we first pulled in, intriguingly named “Relax It’s Just Coffee”.
On the way, nursing a fetish from my newspaper days, I stop in front of a newsstand next to the Coney Island called the City News ("Mansfield's Most Complete Newsstand"). But the window next door at Main Street Books also catches my eye.  Instead of the usual depressing array of trite, vacuous, gazillion-copy bestsellers, this independent bookstore boasts a display for which the window-dresser might have been Alfred Hitchcock or Stephen King. Prominently featured in the show-window are books about the darker side of Mansfield that it has become best-known for, and which has lately turned it, increasingly, into a something of tourist attraction. The books have titles like The Mansfield Killings, The Shawshank Trail Guidebook, and The Haunted History of the Ohio State Reformatory.  There were also books by Louis Bromfield, the late owner of Malabar Farm (now a State Park) and an author of national note.
Relax It's Just Coffee
I could have lingered there for a spell, but everybody else was already crossing over to Relax It’s Just Coffee, so I did the same. The coffee shop is obviously a popular downtown meeting place that has no problem being just that, since it advertises business hours seven days a week and is open 24 hours a day Tuesdays through Saturdays. I’m still thinking “pie” when I walk in, but am such a sucker for iced sugar cookies that I have one of those instead and it turns out to be one of the best ever.

But it’s mid-November and the afternoon daylight hours limited, so, although it would be tempting to sit here and chat a while, it’s time to move on.
To be continued...

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

MANSFIELD: A TRIP ON JOERDIE’S MAGIC CARPET


Before making one of my ever more regular visits to my home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, last month, I first emailed my friend, Joerdie, and suggested she, our mutual friend Jim Bowsher, and I should go on an outing together. Jim doesn’t have email...or a cellphone...or a computer, despite being a writer, researcher and historian. Jim’s old-school and considers those things distractions, folly if you will. So Joerdie’s always our go-between—except when I call Jim on his landline—since snail mail from Patagonia to Ohio can take weeks...months.  Nothing new for Joerdie. She has long acted as Jim’s link to the virtual zone that just about everybody else these days thinks of as the “real” world. Cyberspace, the place where “everything’s happening.”

By way of suggestion—though I said I was up for whatever adventure they might have in mind, since, knowing Jim, if he had gotten wind of a potential archeological treasure trove somewhere, wild horses wouldn’t be able to restrain him from going off to sift through layers of time to see what he could find, so he would ultimately decide our destination—I said I’d heard of an abandoned prison in Mansfield, Ohio, that was supposed to be one of the most haunted places in the United States and that I thought it might be fun to go there. Did she or Jim know anything about it?
They did. Joerdie wrote back right away to say that she and Jim went on a practically annual pilgrimage to that area, which was very close to Malabar Farm, one of their favorite places to visit. And it was about time for them to go there again, so we could go together for sure. I should count on it.
When I blew into town from Patagonia, via Miami, one of the first people I called on checking into the Wapakoneta Best Western was Jim.
“So Joerdie tells me you want to go up to Malabar Farm,” he said.
“To the old Mansfield prison, actually. But Malabar Farm sounds nice, even though I know nothing about it,” I said. “The prison just sounded like something I might want to write about.”
“Well, we can do that too,” Jim said, seeming to betray a certain air of ennui, “but you’re going to love Malabar Farm!”
“Is it the old prison farm.”
“No. Nothing to do with it.”
“Oh, so maybe we could go to the prison, and if there’s time after...” I tried.
“Joerdie’s setting it up with our friend down there, Mark Jordan. You’ll love this guy, and he’s an expert on that area.”
That night, I got together with Jim for supper at near-by Woody’s bar and grill and then we went back to his place to continue our chat. While there, I again mentioned the prison, and he again said, yes, we’d be going down to Malabar Farm the next day. Then he called Joerdie and she confirmed we’d be heading for Mansfield the following day, Monday.
Why was I so interested in going to an abandoned prison? Well, for one thing, because it’s the one where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed: the feature film starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, based on a Stephen King novella called Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. And for another thing, because it was there that another close friend, photographer Mary Jo Knoch, took one of the most haunting pictures I’d ever seen. An image one might describe, superficially, as of a chair and a window in an otherwise empty room, but a scene that I was unable to get out of my head for days after seeing it and that, when I first saw it hanging on her living room wall, I was sure was a print of a hyper-realistic painting.
The next morning, I picked Jim up at his house and we drove up to near-by Shawnee where Joerdie lives. On the way, I said I’d drive. I had a rental, it was all-wheel drive, a Mazda CX5, and comfy to ride in, so there was no use Joerdie’s having to use her car and fuel.
The Ohio State Prison of Shawshank fame
“Oh, no,” Jim said. “She’ll want to drive. She always drives. And she’s got all this stuff in the back of her vehicle that she takes along so...better not mess with it.”
It was a lovely November morning. Cool, not cold, and sunny. And Jim was right. Joerdie had it all under control, her big Lincoln SUV waiting and ready to go as she took orders in the kitchen, where we stood chatting with her pleasant, soft-spoken cardiologist husband, Eric, another home town boy: “Dan, do you want a coffee for the road? I have a Thermos mug here for you, if you do. Jim, you do, right? Water? Well, there’s water in the car...”
And soon we were on the road. Along the way, Joerdie spoke to her car, saying: “Call Mark Jordan.” And it did.
I listened as she and Mark made plans to meet at Malabar Farm and horned in once again: “And then I’d like to go to the prison in Mansfield.”
“Mark,” Joerdie said, “Dan wants to go to the prison, so do you want to meet us in Mansfield for lunch?” He was game and suggested the traditional Coney Island Diner on Main Street.
Whenever Jim, Joerdie and I get together, we always have a lot to talk about and this was no exception. And in the midst of the running dialogue, we missed the turnoff of I-75 for 30 East to Mansfield. Joerdie’s navigation system told us which exit to take in order to backtrack south and catch Route 30 from a different angle.
Then something strange happened. Just shortly after Joerdie called Mark Jordan again to let him know we’d missed our exit and would be arriving a little later, Jim said, “Hey, this isn’t Mansfield coming up already, is it?”
Now, Mansfield is a good hour and forty-five-minute to two-hour drive from our neck of the woods and, according to my watch, we’d only been on the road for a little over an hour.
“It can’t be,” I said.
“Can’t be,” Joerdie said, “but it is.” And then looking into the rearview mirror, she said to Jim, who was riding in the backseat, “We’re warping again, Jim.”
“Warping?” I asked, bewildered. And in a confidential-like aside to me, she said, “This happens to us all the time.”
“But only in this car,” Jim added. “I don’t know what it is but it’s something about us traveling in this car...”
And sure enough, we were on the outskirts of Mansfield, as if magically transported there in record time, despite missing our turn and having to backtrack south to Route 30.
Joerdie called Mark again and told him the news, that we were pulling into Mansfield.
“Already?” he asked. “I thought you said you’d missed your turn...”
“We did.”
“Then how the...Well, I haven’t even left the farm yet to drive into town so you’ll have to wait for me.”
When they hung up, I said, “If I hadn’t been in the car with you, I’d never have believed it. This is crazy!”
Jim said nothing.
Joerdie just smiled.
This was business as usual for them. I’d just happened to witness it.
To be continued...


Sunday, December 4, 2016

IN THE HEART OF CLEVELAND


The Cleveland skyline
Before my parents and younger brother (almost collectively) died between 2003 and 2005, the City of Cleveland was “where my sister lived.” Darla, my sister, settled there right out of college in the late nineteen-sixties and never left. Whether in the city or in the suburbs, she always lived in or around that city. It made sense. She was a talented sociologist, and Cleveland was a city that had a demand for her talents.
Tom, her ex-husband—and the father of her two sons, Jon and Andrew—was from Cleveland originally. Or better said, from Berea, a West Side suburb. The city had need of his talents as well. Very soon after he graduated from Miami University (Ohio)—also Darla’s alma mater—he became a probation officer, a job from which he eventually retired after decades of keeping ex-cons on the straight and narrow and of putting them back in the slammer whenever they jumped their parole.
The city glistens by night
But my knowledge of the place—such as it was—always tended to be scant at best, and usually had to do with driving up with or without my parents for a couple of days whenever I was “back home” for a visit, following careful instructions as to how to get to my sister’s house without getting lost, enjoying a brief get-together at her place, and returning to our hometown of Wapakoneta, three hours southwest. Often when she could make it down to Wapak (as locals abbreviate the name of our town), there was no trip to Cleveland at all for the rest of us. Back then, we were all very busy people and visits were short if sweet.
My late brother Dennis lived there briefly as well, when he was an area manager for an Ohio-based chain of record stores, living in the area of Greater Cleveland known as Olmstead Falls. But that was at a time when I spent several years outside of the United States before getting back for a visit, and by the time I made it back, he was on his way to a knew destination and I only visited him in Cleveland for a single weekend.
After our parents both passed away in 2003, Dennis decided to sell his place in Lima, Ohio, and move into the Florida condo Mom and Dad had bought a decade and a half earlier as a winter home. It was an unlikely move on his part, but by then, he was doing a lot of unlikely things, trying to change something...change everything. Our family home of forty-two years in Wapakoneta we sold. And suddenly, I felt cut adrift. That place had been my anchor to the US and my official American address since I had moved to South America thirty years earlier. Now, suddenly, it was gone. So for the two years that my brother was alive after that, my also unlikely US address became Ocala, Florida, as well, and Dennis and I even shared a post office box there.
Following our brother’s untimely death, however, my sister and I decided to sell the condo. She wouldn’t be using it, she said, and with no further family ties there, I certainly wouldn’t be either. God knew Florida was low on my list of places to get to know back then— unless it were with my folks, who had chosen to live there.
Cleveland's Hope Memorial Bridge with its
massive Guardians 
Again, then, I was “homeless” in the US. At the time, Darla was living with someone—Ron, a widower—and they had set up housekeeping at his place. He was an ex-Airborne Ranger with whom I shared Army veteran status and memories of crawling around in the course red dust of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, if practically nothing else in the way of politics or beliefs. But he generously let me borrow his address in the Highland Heights area of Cleveland and gave me the run of the house and his liquor cabinet whenever I was in town. “You can drink the Scotch,” he would say. “I don’t mind.” And since that was back in the days when, left to my own devices, I tended to drink as much Scotch as I could hold, that was a truly tempting offer.
Eventually, however, Darla decided to take a whole new step, moved out, and bought herself a condo in Rocky River, just a few blocks away from the Cleveland Metro Parks. From then on, for her, it was mi casa tu casa with me. And this was at about the time that I started getting back to the US for a visit about once a year. Suddenly, Cleveland was no longer “where my sister lived” but my home away from home when I was in the States as well.
Oddly enough, Cleveland, way up north and way over by Pennsylvania from our central western Ohio home town, is connected to our history and geography. For one thing, the great Auglaize River which rises to the surface up by Harrod, Ohio, in the territory of the old Hog Creek Reservation that the Shawnee nation once occupied, meanders more or less south to Wapakoneta, then turns sharply west and runs, like a ribbon of liquid highway, right through our town before looping north and flowing over a hundred miles to its confluence with the Maumee that feeds Lake Erie, on the shores of which Cleveland was founded. The Auglaize was home to the Indians before it became the territory of the white man and is rich with the tragic history of the Shawnee, Mingo and other tribes that happily populated the area until a couple of decades into the nineteenth century when they were displaced and sent on a death march to Kansas after the government broke its treaty (and its word) with them.
My sister Darla can always be counted on for fascinating 

cultural outings, like this  exhibition of gardens painted by 
artists from Monet to Matisse at Cleveland's stunning Museum
of Fine Arts. 
But there’s an even stronger connection than the muddy waters of the Auglaize, mixed with the tears of the Shawnee nation. Cleveland, named (minus the “a”) for expeditionary General Moses Cleaveland who explored the area, laid out plans for the founding of a village and then left, never to return, wasn’t incorporated as such until 1814. But from the 1820s on, its growth was exponential, thanks to completion of the Miami-Erie Canal, a man-made waterway that was an early brainstorm of President George Washington but that didn’t become a reality until a quarter-century after his death. An incredible project for its time, the canal ran the south-north length of the state, from the Ohio River to Lake Erie, providing a major commercial and industrial link for the transport of resources from the new Ohio Territory to the Great Lakes and from the Great Lakes to the great ports of the American East Coast.
Beer-drinkers never go thirsty in Cleveland
The canal was a major building block in Cleveland’s growth as an important Midwestern lake port and thus too in its development as a great industrial power in the days before it went from being the capital of the steel belt to being a victim of the rust belt following the Vietnam War. And that same canal runs smack through our county—Auglaize County, of which our home town is the county seat. Grand Lake Saint Marys, Ohio’s largest man-made lake, a few miles from Wapak, fed that canal with water that carried barges north from the river to the lake, pulled by horses and mules along towpaths that stretched from Cincinnati to Cleveland along the narrow scar of waterway that was nicknamed “Deepcut”.
In the years since Cleveland agonized through the rustbelt era, the city has almost naturally reinvented itself—minus a big chunk of population that left when industrial job sources dried up—developing from being a once grimy, smoky mill town to being a more streamlined, glistening, cultural and business center, a city with, among other things, glass-sheathed skyscrapers, stunning natural parklands, one of the world’s finest art museums, upscale shops and galleries, and one of the most celebrated symphony orchestras in the United States. Of late, it has also gained a growing reputation for fine and varied cuisine,  and as a platform for the micro-brewing industry: Beer-drinkers never go thirsty in Cleveland and the city has served as the cradle for some of the finest craft brews imaginable.
The Cleveland church where the wedding scene from "The Deer Hunter" 
was filmed
Nor is old Cleveland forgotten. The city has given birth and praise to artists who document it, from film-makers and photographers to the likes of the late graphic novelist, Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame. Among other movie projects, it famously provided some of the exteriors and interiors seen in the now classic 1978 Michael Cimino feature film, The Deer Hunter, starring Robert De Niro, John Savage, Christopher Walken and John Cazale, despite the fact that the story was set in Pennsylvania (and Vietnam). There was an early role for Meryl Streep as well in The Deer Hunter, that of the “stock, vague girlfriend, Linda”. Cleveland figured most prominently in the scene in which the characters all go to the wedding of Steven and Angela (played by the John Savage and Rutanya Alda) filmed at the St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Catholic Church in the City’s Tremont neighborhood, and in scenes in the mill where the male characters work, which were shot in US Steel’s Cleveland plant.  

It is to this City of Cleveland that I have come late in life as an adoptive son—making it official by voting in the last two presidential elections as a Cuyahoga County resident—and getting to know it through the eyes of my sister and my nephews, who swell with pride at their unique city. Doing so has made me defensive about the “hick-town” jokes of which Cleveland is often the brunt in movies as well as conversation with New Yorkers, LA residents and others from America’s better-known metropolises.
My guides are just the right balance of street and high-brow culture. Darla often plans outings for me that include museums and other points of cultural interest, and the city’s extraordinary Museum of Fine Arts is always a favorite—like last year when she and I visited a fascinating exhibition of gardens seen through the eyes of some of the greatest impressionist and expressionist painters of all time.
My nephews, Jon and Andy, meanwhile, can always be counted on to submerse me in the very fabric of popular Cleveland culture with every visit of mine including multiple tours of their favorite pubs, breweries, pool halls, neighborhood bars and restaurants—ranging from mid-twentieth-century retro diners and delis to high-end dinner clubs—as well as outings to points of interest in the downtown area. And spending a Christmas and a couple of Thanksgivings there has endeared the city to me all the more, since when I’m far away in my Patagonia home, I can imagine the days and the surroundings of my Cleveland family whenever I choose.
Cleveland, then, has become another bright brushstroke in the rich tapestry that I call “my dual life”, time shared between my native Ohio and my adoptive home in South America, a far-flung two-part world that allows me to refer to myself as “a southern Yankee”.