The national championship game between Ohio State and Florida is putting a struggling Lake Erie town trying to reinvent itself back in the spotlight.
Gators coach Urban Meyer and Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman are natives of Ashtabula, a city of 21,000 people about 60 miles east of Cleveland.
I, too, have a personal tie to Ashtabula. My mother grew up in a house right on the lake there, and in fact went to the same High School as Urban Meyer, albeit a number of years earlier. My grandfather used to work for the railroad (I have a family history tied to railroads, especially on the Irish side) at the harbor. I have many a fond memory trudging through snow drifts head-high (I was a young lad) with my grandfather and little brother the two miles to Main Street to go to the local diner for breakfast every morning when we visited for Christmas.
Even as a young boy, I was aware of the depressed economic conditions – most acutely when the old diner closed.
The exposure comes at a good time for a city that has struggled with a declining population, vacant storefronts downtown and pollution so bad in the Ashtabula River that people have been told not to eat fish caught in a two-mile section. The U.S. Census in 2000 revealed 21.4 percent of the city’s residents live in poverty and median household income was $27,354.
In reality, this is fairly representative of a lot of “small-town” Ohio. My mother and aunt both went away to college and never went back. My uncle, who needs full-time care because of his disabilities, was unable to be cared for in Ashtabula. Eventually, when they were no longer able to live completely independently, my grandparents both moved away to be closer to their children – and they are both now buried back in Ashtabula.
This long-term rot is indicative of a problem with the death of industry as communities move towards “service economies”. America seems to be producing items of value less and less often. I’m not certain that a strictly protectionist policy where we move back to producing our own coal and steel domestically is the right approach (in fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not), but being a nation of consumers without producing our own goods leads us down the road Ashtabula is on. It’s just not sustainable over the long term.