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.
Lovely article written by a dear lovely woman
Thank you to a dear, lovely woman…
Grown and Flown said:
Small town life is something that those of us who live at the edge of large sprawling cities find very alluring, even if is just exists as memories. You have given us a delicious taste, and for that thank you.
G & F…I appreciate your lovely comment, and—with a huge acknowledgement to Dan Barry—am glad to share a bit of my hometown with you. Thanks for reading!
Stillblondeafterall (@stillblondeaaty) said:
I am from a small town, much smaller than this actually. It’s amazing how a small town just becomes part of your identity. That’s why I love the Lyrics of John Mellencamp:
Well I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Prob’ly die in a small town
Oh, those small – communities
All my friends are so small town
My parents live in a same small town
My job is so small town
Provides little opportunity, hey!
Educated in a small town
Taught to fear Jesus in a small town
Used to daydream in that small town
Another born romantic that’s me
But I’ve seen it all in a small town
Had myself a ball in a small town
Married an L.A. doll and brought her to this small town
Now she’s small town just like me
No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be
Got nothing against a big town
Still hayseed enough to say
Look who’s in the big town
But my bed is in a small town
Oh, that’s good enough for me
Well I was born in a small town
And I can breathe in a small town
Gonna die in a small town
Ah, that’s prob’ly where they’ll bury me
Yes…where we come from is imprinted on our hearts. Even after we leave, it stays with us. It made us who we are. Thanks so much for stopping by to read & comment. I really appreciate it.
mindy trotta said:
I’ve never really lived in a small town, but the allure of it always appealed to me–like something straight out of a Jimmy Stewart film. I see now that the reality for so many of these towns is very far from the pages of a Thorton Wilder script. I read the original article yesterday and was saddened by it. I wish Donna well, but I imagine she will eventually take that judge up on his offer. What choice does she have?
I know, Mindy. As I understand it, the restaurant business is one of the most difficult to manage. Add Donna’s other challenges, and the prospects seem dim. (Incidentally, Thornton Wilder attended Oberlin for two years, so your observation is spot-on.) Thanks so much for stopping by, and for taking the time to share your thoughts.
Ann Dunnewold said:
What a great portrait of life in a small town. I know the small towns of Ohio well, having been born in Oberlin, spent the first two years in Brownhelm, then North Lima and Mt. Vernon. Elyria was city to us in neighboring Brownhelm. Very nostalgic to remember the days of walking downtown, having French fries and Coke at Kresge’s counter and taking a dress home “on approval” from the department store. I yearn to return to a place where there are front porches and friends within walking distance.
Meanwhile, the suburbs surrounding the sprawling city I now inhabit rapidly build “town centers,” which are really shopping centers full of chain stores and restaurants trying to recreate the small town feel. What a great loss for this country that we could not have preserved these gems. Hindsight versus foresight, as humans seem to err.
Wow! Ann, you were born in Oberlin? What a small world…We’ll have to chat off-line about this! But yes, I agree with you about the sprawl factor. We truly were part of a time we’ll never see again. Thanks so much for stopping by the “front porch” of my blog, and thanks for your thoughtful comment!
Sharon Greenthal said:
I grew up in a small town on the edge of New York City. There was a sense of intimacy in a place where everyone knew me, my parents, my grandparents and the rest of my extended family. Contrasting that was our access to all things cultural and otherwise exciting just 20 minutes by train in Manhattan.
I read the article in the paper this morning, before I saw your post. How melancholy it must be for you to read about the hardships, which I’m sure you were already aware of, as a representation of our country’s problems. Your post personalized the town for me even more.
Sharon, thanks so much for stopping by. Your small-town experience mirrors my husband’s. He was born in Bronxville and grew up in Eastchester and Tappan. How lucky you each were to have the best of both worlds.
Ginger Kay said:
What wonderful memories. Sad, too, that so much was lost. That small town ideal is such a part of our cultural memory, that even those like me, who were raised in suburbia, feel the loss of it. We want it to be there for someone, even if it can’t be us.
Thank you so much for taking the time to write—and thanks very much for signing on to follow the blog! Yes, so much was lost that only lives on in memory. My hope for Elyria—and so many towns like it—is that an creative, entrepreneurial spirit that can create an iPhone or a robust social media platform can spark a revival of America’s struggling towns. We used to say ‘If we can put a man on the moon….’ But why not ‘If we can build an app, we can rebuild a city.’ Thanks again for adding your thoughts to the conversation!
I also grew up in a small town and really miss it sometimes. We use to just drop by each other’s houses and walk right in…doesn’t happen at all in the big city where I live now. This was a charming article.
Hi Pam! Thanks so much for visiting the blog, and for taking the time to share your thoughts. I’ve lived in a big city for the last two years. I tend to view our neighborhood as a small town…a sort of magical thinking that gives me a measure of comfort.
Beautiful piece. We grew up in Victoria BC, a small city on the west coast of Canada. It used to be known as “home of the newly wed and nearly dead,” but it’s livened up some since then. Still feels like home to us, though. 🙂
Thanks for stopping by, and thanks very much for your incredibly kind words. I must have lived in Victoria in another life–Vancouver, too–because for years I’ve felt a strong desire to go there–the photos I’ve seen of those cities are just beautiful.
Bill Boyd said:
Thank you for your follow-up to the Barry snapshot of Elyria (and your 2:57 pm NYT post of yesterday). Like you, born and reared in Elyria, I enjoyed the article which captured the sad-looking Elyria that I and my brothers and sister and my son visited in early August, spending the better part of a week with our mother who resides at the Methodist Village (nee Methodist Home).
That experience left me both shocked but not surprised by that moldering landscape. Along with Isaly’s, I recall the Men’s Shop, the Bell Company, JR Dall–all now gone–and also the Little League East field, long since relocated from its former location just south of what we called “the Lace Factory.”
I’ll drop by on occasion to read your blog.
Thank you so much for stopping by my blog, and for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment. My mother spent some time in the Methodist Home—I remember that place very well. I also recall most of the landmarks you mention. (I lived near South Rec, where I actually learned how to twirl a baton.) Do you remember Sterner’s Restaurant? My mother and I used to shop at Merthe’s, Berson’s, the Style Center….the end of an era. I so appreciate your note. Thanks again for writing!
Helene Bludman said:
I grew up in not a town but a smallish city, and the pleasant memories of growing up there are in stark contrast to the shock of what this city has become. Loved reading your post.
Aren’t these stories of our childhood cities heartbreaking? I look forward to reading your own post about the topic, Helene. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about mine.
Lori Lavender Luz said:
I went to college in a small town. Your portrait of Elyria has me feeling wistful.
Not a bad place to be from 🙂
Lori, thanks so much for swinging by and taking a moment to chime in. Elyria, as it was when I was growing up, was not a bad place to be from at all. It was when it began to devolve that things took a turn—I think the point of Dan Barry’s series is that Elyria is the objective correlative for the decline of all American small towns. My hope for the attention Elyria is getting is that it helps get things turned around for that beautiful little town. Again, many thanks for writing!
I’m from Lorain and the series certainly brings me back. I left Lorain in the early 1970s, when I felt I had to choose either a more ambitious path or stay forever. I’m glad I left, ahead of the development of the Rust Belt, but God, there are days I miss it. I believe in those days that the Pioneers regularly beat us Steelmen.
Thanks so much for stopping my, and for sharing your connection to Lorain County. My mother was from Lorain; I know that city almost as well as I know Elyria. There’s a lot of real beauty in that area, if you can get past the rust and decay. I hope the Times series will inspire a rebirth.
I am occasionally tempted to move back and try to contribute. I’ve always thought Lorain has more to offer than many people recognize but given what’s happened int the last few decades, it would be harder to fix than it was in the past.