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...

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