What country, friends, is this?
This is Illyria, lady.
And what should I do in Illyria?
What should I do, indeed?
Readers, I come from Elyria, Ohio. When I first ran across this passage from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Act I, Scene II), as an English literature major at Oberlin College—15 miles (give or take) southwest of Elyria—I smiled to myself. How, I thought, could Shakespeare possibly have known that, in truth, there’s really not that much to do in ‘Illyria.’
Aye, there’s the rub.
Elyria, like so many neighboring towns in Northeast Ohio—including that metropolis to the east, Cleveland—has experienced more than its share of brain drain. Not that I’m such an Einstein, but after my divorce I moved to my alma mater’s eponymous town. I had gone to school at Oberlin and by then had worked at the college for ten years. My diaspora-of-one was not just to save myself a 15-minute commute twice each day; it was to live my life in a community of like-minded people, with steps-away access to internationally renowned concerts and lectures, where I no longer felt as though I were a stranger in a strange land. What a thing to say about one’s hometown! But it was true. I felt I had outgrown Elyria, although in some ways it’s quite possible it was the town that had outgrown me.
I remember when the fine arts were a lively part of life in Elyria. My mother spent—no, volunteered—countless hours selling subscription tickets to the Elyria Community Concert Association. Many backwater towns sponsored similar cultural lifelines, and Elyria was a thriving hub on the circuit. I remember seeing opera legend Leontyne Price, the Vienna Boys’ Choir, Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, the piano duo of Ferrante and Teicher, and many others artists perform live in the auditorium of Elyria High School. Imagine that: a town without a performing arts center nevertheless brought internationally respected artists to visit.
And I remember taking the bus downtown with my mother, browsing through any number of sweet little shops that sold fashionable clothes to “the smart set,” eating at any number of mom-and-pop restaurants or soda fountains, buying chocolate cupcakes at Gartman’s Bakery. I saw the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night at the old Capital Theater downtown, and bought my 45-records at Wagner’s Appliance Store. I failed to learn how to swim at the Elyria YMCA across from Ely Square. I’ve already shared with you my childhood memory of the old Elyria Public Library, pictured above. All those places are gone. The library, torn down, opened a modern, one-story facility on Washington Avenue, sometime in the late 1960s, as I recall. It’s still there, although now there’s a newer, larger, main library on the west side.
You know that a city is growing when one library isn’t enough to contain all the dreams of its readers.
Elyria was changing, and I was changing with it. All the shopping was now centered at the Midway Mall. If you didn’t drive you had to take a taxi to get there, because the buses had stopped running. All the downtown movie theaters—and at one time there were four—were shuttered. The Community Concert Association folded; people now drove south to Oberlin to satisfy their longing for culture, or north to Lorain County Community College, at the very edge of the city, where a lecture series and a performing arts series were gaining a foothold. (I actually began my college education there, and received an excellent foundation that prepared me well for Oberlin.) The point, however, is that there really wasn’t much of anything left in Elyria except for government offices, banks, and lawyers.
It made sense that as long as I was starting a new life, I might as well give myself a new city in which to start it. Oberlin was an oasis in the corn belt that rimmed the rust belt of Elyria.
I’m indulging in this reverie because today’s Sunday New York Times features a portrait of my hometown on its front page—the first in a five-part series. Dan Barry, a gifted writer and reporter for the New York Times, spent untold hours in Elyria, interviewing residents, business owners, and government officials—including my oldest and dearest friend, a woman who has remained in Elyria her entire life, never, ever giving up on it. She now serves as the city’s Safety-Service Director. Her passion for helping the city’s current administration turn the city around is inspiring. I hope that she—that they—can do it.
P.S. About the diner that serves as the lens through which Dan Barry views Elyria: After my second husband and I got our marriage licenses, in the fancy new justice center across from the square that also figures prominently in Barry’s article, we walked over to Donna’s Diner for lunch. Several members of the ‘Breakfast Club,’ also referenced in the article, were still there, lingering over their coffee. As is often the case with small towns, I knew several of them. I said hello, and introduced to them the man I was about to marry.