'Basically, we need someone to rescue us.'
February 24, 2008 12:00 am
Long ago, when rival gangs fought knife and knuckle to offload ore from ships that docked in its rowdy Lake Erie harbor, and even later, when chemical plants and factories paid good wages to soldiers who came home from war, this place mattered.
"Basically, we need someone to rescue us," said Jason Strong, the city's director of community development. Empty storefronts dot Main Street, shuttered plants hug the low hills next to boarded houses, and the city's population has fallen from 30,000 to 20,000. After three decades of scanning the horizon, city fathers have yet to catch sight of a rescue party, certainly not one riding a campaign bus.
As Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama rip their way from Cleveland to Columbus and back and Sen. John McCain pays homage to Republicans in the state's heartland, Ashtabula, Iroquois for "river of many fish," hugs the outer fringe of this pivotal state, an object lesson in much that has gone wrong in the body politic.
"The demographics of Ashtabula are sort of skimming along the bottom," said Lorenzo "Ren" Carlisle, whose family name adorns a hollowed-out department store building years after he sold the company.
The numbers fairly scream despair. One in four citizens lives below the poverty line. Half are on some kind of social assistance. Sixty percent of the workforce is classified as unskilled. Nearly half of the households are renters in a nation where the national average is only seven.
Of the young who go on to get college degrees, about three percent return, said Anthony Cantagallo, the elected town manager -- the Ashtabula equivalent of a mayor. Mr. Cantagallo grew up here and returned to the northeastern Ohio city early this decade after a career with the FBI and, later, with a development company.
Shortly after taking office, he took a friend from New Mexico on a guided tour of the town.
"I drove him all through the city and he looked at me and said, 'Tony, you know you've got a town in trouble when three stores in the city have the word dollar in their title.' "
Mr. Cantagallo laughed
"A couple days later, it wasn't so funny," he said. "That's the level of our shopping. We're dealing with people who want to buy things for a dollar. That is the standard by which they're living."
Precisely what a president can do to make things better in the Ashtabulas of America is as unfocused as much of the rhetoric that swirls around the nominating campaign as it enters its climactic primaries. Yet, locals say that if ever a town was emblematic of the structural damage left over from the decline of America's blue-collar base, it can be found here, a laboratory of economic decay and a transition that has widened the gap between the haves and have-nots.
At Walnut beach, a spit of sand and dune along a restored Lake Erie now dotted with sailboats of the haves, Gene Ovak manages a concession stand where he sells sandwiches and soft drinks. Last summer, he began to notice youngsters who sat at tables near the stand at midday to stare at people eating.
Parents had taken to dropping the kids off at 6:30 on weekday mornings on the way to work. Cash-strapped, they had no lunch money to leave the kids. MORE