Sunday, June 30, 2013

"Downtown Ashtabula; a New Era Rising."

by Nicholas J. Vocca

Be it a Saturday morning, or sometime during the course of a normal business day, downtown Ashtabula over the past few decades often made me think of the Johnny Cash hit, "Sunday Morning Coming Down" when walking or driving along that thoroughfare.

Bleak, desolate, and utterly depressing, are perhaps the best adjectives used to describe the feelings how most who knew what this shopping and business district used to be like before an urban renewal project in the mid-1970's backfired and brought it to its economic and social knees.

Despite strong warnings that such a project would put a noticeable crunch on our beloved Main Avenue businesses from some City of Painesville officials who had initiated a similar project years before in their town, and then tore it out after they saw such an erosion to their downtown, Ashtabula's leaders at that time forged ahead with the proposed project in assurance it would only bolster the district's potential which had suffered a marked decline in business when some merchants in the late 1960's had either taken up shop in or near one of our area's plazas, or closed entirely when unable to compete with the franchises of national retailers who were steadily advancing and drawing once faithful consumers to their stores.

Admittedly, I originally gave strong nod to this project, and kept abreast of it through maintaining a subscription to the local Star Beacon at my home in the Arlington district of Jacksonville, Florida.  Why not?  Jacksonville, "The Bold New City of the South," had recently began some extensive urban renewal projects in some of its rather run-down areas, such as the eastern portion of Bay Street; an area of that city pocked with dilapidated storefronts, dingy-looking rooming houses, skid row bars, and a character element so seedy you dared not travel through even in the daytime unless your windows were up, doors locked, and you had one ready in the chamber of your Ruger.

When later looking at the proposed copies of some architectural drawings I had requested from the city, I became even moreenamored and supportive of the project and, being the persistent daydreamer I am, I breathlessly anticipated the day I would be able to venture north and visit when it came to fruition!

An open, fresh-air mall where maybe a local restaurateur would add a nice sidewalk cafe for your daily and nightly dining pleasure, and other affordable attractions. Maybe some street vendors selling all-beef hot dogs, fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, or some novelties. Maybe some live entertainment would be provided free for the delight of all as they wearily trudged along with their bags and packages. Maybe outdoor art shows and poetry readings.

An occasional three or four piece quartet playing some soothing Classical music to help one unwind from their hectic and chaotic morning at the counter, or office.  An upbeat Dixieland Band to set the tone for an enjoyable day of selecting that special gift for a loved one, or that special friend celebrating some hallmark event in your life.  Perhaps a "Battle of the Bands" where local musicians and singers could demonstrate their talents, and possibly be discovered by some out-of-town agents. 

Able to sneak into town with three friends from my unit shortly after noon one Friday on a 96-hour pass as a result of driving here non-stop from Jacksonville not long after the Arrowhead Mall had been completed, my initial belief that this was a good thing for the city still remained strong.  Carlisle's was still open, as was Globe-Bell, Schaeffer's, and some of my otherfavorite haunts. Though not as bustling as usual, there was a respectable amount of people mingling about to and fro, and I assured my buddies, all who hailed from major cities like Detroit, Saint Petersburg, and Philadelphia, that this was the "shot-in-the-arm" needed to revitalize our "Port of Progress."

They all seemed impressed with that, along with the many other sights of our community, and after a weekend of touring Walnut Beach, Lake Shore Park, The Harbor, and everyone of the then 20 or more bars here, we arrived back at base with enough time to get at least an hour's rest before making morning roll call at the Provost Marshal's Office.

Saying goodbye to Uncle Sam, and nixing a job offer to train as a sheet metal worker at the shipyard, I packed what I could in my Malibu and rented U-Haul trailer, then made my way home, via Gillette, Wyoming.

After several days of scrubbing, painting, and making some minor repairs to my North Depot home, I stepped out oneSaturday morning and headed directly for Main Avenue.  Why not?  Wasn't that always the best place to find anyone you wanted to on a Saturday?

Entering through the back door of Carlisle's, I made a "must stop" at the Olsen's Bakery counter, bought one of their scrumptious maple donuts, and proceeded to the front door with great expectations of running into old friends I had not seen since enlisting almost a decade before, even though aware some had uprooted after high school or college graduation to earn their way elsewhere.

While I did reconnect with some friends, it took about two-hours of hanging near the front of Carlisle's, or visiting what few once-popular stores were left, that reality bit me like a Bull Mastiff how this once thriving and enjoyable venue was barely breathing with life.

Nothing was playing at Shea's Theater; it's doors were locked, and its marquis read "Closed."  The same went for Bud's Corner Store, a place where you could find all kinds of unusual widgets and model supplies which were virtually impossible to find in the chain stores, and I drew an even greater lament in seeing how most clothing stores, save for Bernie Schaeffer's, were now vacant, dimly lit dwellings stocked only with memories, instead of fine apparel.  Damn!  Even Newberry's and their lunch counter bit the dust!

While several new businesses moved in and a few long-established merchants remained in good-faith as beacons of hope that Main Avenue would spin around and make a comeback when consumers grew tired of the characteristic 'impersonal' services offered by most franchises and outlets, Ashtabula soon suffered further devastation which would still the winds of any new life coming her way.

The often-heard rumors of the late 1970's that many companies in our once strong industrial base who paid well would be scaling back on employees or, even worse, had plans of relocating for better deals in other communities, soon proved to be fact as a new decade arrived.

During the early to mid-1980's, there loomed a lurid cloud of uncertainty in all circles of the community, which eventually trickled down to the privately-owned business sector, that Ashtabula would plummet perilously into one where more and more households would end up existing almost entirely on dependency from whatever public and charitable assistance they could net in order to sustain because it became more evident that some industries were setting things in motion to vacate in the near future.

By the end of that era, such speculations rang true as we watched three Reactive Metals facilities, both Rockwell plants, General Tire, Linde-Aire, Union Carbide, Reliance Electric, and several other major manufacturers give almost immediate notifications that they were leaving with subsequent announcements from others that they were down-sizing in order to cut back expenses during the recession of that time.

If there was any hope for obtaining any gainful employment with somewhat respectable pay and benefits, it came from the likes of Elkem Metals, Bush Industries, and a few others who set up shop in some of the abandoned plants. But most opportunities for careers with these companies were short-lived as they, too, skipped out for less expensive utilities and labor elsewhere.

Delivering more despair to a mainly now-downtrodden and depressed area came when our once-thriving railroads and local shipping ports were laying off, or eliminating more jobs.  Ashtabula, for all purposes, began taking on the general complexion and mood of those "has-been-towns" from the Pre-WWII era that we occasionally read about, and, in time, more Mom and Pop operations followed suit in order to sustain and safeguard their investments.

Main Avenue dwindled significantly from its former days where it teemed with hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of shoppers and motorists who trekked along its route to shop, dine, and conduct other business.  

Sad how, at best, you may see maybe 20 or 30 cars parked along its curbs on a weekday when not so long ago you had to get there early, or circle the block several times and pray you could find a spot anywhere near the particular business you were going to.  Sad how during the peak business hours of the day you may count less than 100 people at varied times on the street, and even sadder when you saw at least half of them pass by storefronts because they were simply 'passing through'.  Of course the saddest part was seeing enthusiastic owners of new businesses open their doors, only to discover that they had to close months, if not weeks later, solely because they went bust from a lack of business.

Regardless of the many note-worthy joint-attempts between its merchants and city officials over the years in hopes of revitalizing and resurrecting Main Avenue from the rancid rubble of a failed economy that they may rekindle the patronage of area consumers, all efforts were met with relatively mediocre approval, or none at all.  

Not long after the new millennium arrived, I surrendered my hopes of ever seeing anything viable come to Main Avenue, avoided her like the plague, and joined in with those others who felt she had seen her glory days, but was now 2 degrees short of being pronounced clinically-dead.  She had a fallen into a dismal demise of absolute destitution where only the wrecking ball and new buildings could redeem her as a potent business district.

Judging from some things which have been transpiring over the past few years, it is evident that some have a different view on Main Avenue's future, and if the works and progress they have made so far is any indication of what other good things will be coming from them, Ashtabula can only consider herself blessed to be associated with such fine, steadfast, and dedicated people.

Due mainly to the creative efforts of Linda Annick, Director of the Ashtabula Downtown Development Association, along with Nikki French, a very not unattractive and open-minded lady, and a small host of concerned merchants, politicians, and citizens, we have enjoyed nearly five annual Multi-Cultural Festivals; a time where people can explore, participate, and become educated in the history, music, foods and other interests of the generous variety of cultures that make up our nation.  In fact, there are about a dozen or more of us here, and from other cities and states, who are considering participating in this event within a few years, and possibly incorporating that weekend into one of our Gothic Madness conventions, along with one or more Gothic bands.  (Would be nice if we could get Evanescence!)

Even though it started about seven-months ago, the non-profit "Saving the History of Ashtabula" has certainly done many commendable things for Main Avenue, and one can only guarantee that, given more community support, they will provide nothing short of excellence and continuity in their diligent endeavors to enhance the ambiance and appeal of Ashtabula's downtown and political hub.

In mid-spring of this year, members of that organization, in cooperation with the merchants on Main Avenue, some local city officials and other concerned individuals, all spent their weekends setting out new planters and painting the facades of buildings, with all items provided free through the generous donations of some area stores, organizations, or private donors.  

They also have stepped in to join the on-going battle to save our once heralded Shea's Theater and restore it to its original grandeur, and I believe they will to the point that I plea for all who can to donate to that cause; even if it is just a few bucks, those bucks add up, and I can assure you this is one organization who will not let our community down!

Main Avenue!  It may take some time, but due to the efforts of those mentioned above, it is going to make a very bold comeback!  But don't just sit back and watch, get involved, today!


  1. I don't know how many generations back my grandfathers family go back in Ashtabula county but I do know my grandmother hailed from the upper Peninsula of Michigan were my grandfather had migrated to work as a logger. My mother and uncles were all born in logging camps in the thirties there. Soon after my grandfather returned with his new family to Ashtabula to settle down. My grandmother often said our family were born "with sand in our shoes" meaning we were were like Gypsies, moving here and there were work and fancy presented itself. Such as they moved to Painesville during WWII so she could work in a bomb factory like many women did at the time.But always they returned to Ashtabula were home and heart seemed rooted. When my grandmother couldn't take my grandfathers drinking any more and booted him out for good she remained in Ashtabula while he skipped out to Florida. With my uncles departures to the Army she, my mom and Aunt uprooted to follow my other uncle to Florida where he had set up his own family. That's where I come in. I wasa born in Florida but by the time I was 5 my mother was diagnosed with Lupus and since the sun is the enemy of Lupus patents we al packed up and back to Ashtabula they went.

  2. My first memory as a 4 year old was of the snow- having never experienced such a thing it was a marvelous and beautiful sight! That was 1966. the yerars went by and the older I got the more the city died around me. As youngster my grandmother would take me to Woolworth's to shop and we would inevetably have the beast lunch I can remember with a grilled cheese sandwich or a hamburger with the best fries!! I still lament those days and have searched for that burger ever since. Yes it probably is nostalgia that remembers those greasy burgers as being the best ever but it still is the bar for which i hold a burger too. greasy spoons hole in the wall restaurants have held a special place ever since in my heart. Upon returning to Ashtabula my mother worked as assistant chef under chef Bennie Vacca at the Hotel Ashtabula for 10 years until it was sold. The glory days of me coming in to help bus tables and set up for the many events that the Hotel catered to came to a crashing halt. I still miss the home made bread and dinner rolls Bennie made from scratch, or the roast beef sandwiches he would give me, behind my mothers back, Sadly My grandmother passed in '75 which was about the time I was starting to notice the decline in the town everywhere. I ran the street with the many others of my generation, hanging out in the summer at Walnut Beach and sometimes Lakeshore Park, which once was a place that seemed like a great adventure with the penned in deer and the peacocks fluttering everywhere crying out that aweful call they do that can be heard a mile away. I learned to drive there. By the time we were teenagers it was long past it's prime, as was most of the town. My ffreinds and I learned to ice skate in the empty lot that the city made an ice rink in the winter. but in the summer it was jsut another sign that the town was crumbling around us. Growing up and seeing moire of our friends parents unemployed and the prospects getting bleaker many of us left in the military. Some returned but others, including myself who left in '79, left never to return except to maybe visit. Now I look out over the Pacific Ocean as I did many years ago over Lake Erie. I have friends and family still In Ashtabula now but thirty plus years later I do not regret having left as the adventure that I have had since I wouldn't trade for anything. I do get melancholy thinking of my youth and the change of seasons and chasing adventure down in the gulf on the Ashtabula river or exploring the beach, the bonfires, the parties, the following the grand illusion of youth. It's been about ten years now since I've ventured back but still Ashtabula calls my name to come back and check in on friends that have their own struggles to make a stand in a little corner of Northeast Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie.