November 2008 Issue
Ohio's Best Hometowns 2009 - Athens
They say the Sixties came to Athens and never left. We dig it. Decades later, what remains of the era in this rural southeastern town is undeniably the best of its philosophies: forward thinking, questioning convention, a deep sense of environmentalism and a progressive spirit of community that goes well beyond waving flags at an annual parade. There is simply no other town like Athens in Ohio, and maybe just a few kindred spirits outside of the state. Take a short walk down Court Street and you’ll immediately understand that this is a community that marches to the beat of its own drum — one that is undoubtedly locally made from natural fibers and recycled products.
For many, Athens’ sustainable sensibilities are instantly magnetic.
“This town does have a polarizing effect,” says Paige Alost, executive director of the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Some come here and say ‘this isn’t for me,’” she explains, as she browses collections from local and national artists in the gift shop at the Dairy Barn Arts Center, a name that says it all. “Others are just passing through and somehow never leave,” she says, prompting two store employees within earshot to nod their agreement.
Athens shares its downtown (actually referred to as “uptown” by the locals) with Ohio University, a campus of about 16,600 undergrads that’s also Ohio’s oldest public institution of higher learning. The Georgian architecture of campus buildings such as Cutler Hall set against the rolling hills makes the view of the campus from St. Rte. 33 seem New England quaint.
In addition to being one of the biggest employers in town, the university has been called the “Berkeley of the Backwoods” for its outstanding academics and environmental initiatives. “The university brings us a constant turnover of creative spirits,” says Alost. Two years ago, OU added the Office of Sustainability, which is dedicated solely to involving students, staff and the local community in efforts to minimize the university’s ecological footprint. Its efforts include programs for improving recycling in the dorms and switching to compostable flatware in the student union.
But in some ways the university is merely reflecting the sensibilities of the town, which walks the line between progressive and perpetually anchored by its Appalachian roots. The entrepreneurial spirit of Ohio’s Appalachia thrives in the community of independent business owners whose efforts are staunchly supported by the locals. Just try to find a Starbucks in uptown Athens. Instead you’ll find Donkey Café, independently owned and known for serving “coffee with a conscience” (free trade coffee). Nearby there’s Casa Nueva, — “Casa” to the locals — one of the oldest worker-owned restaurants in the country. Casa’s kitchens are equipped with composting buckets, and the restaurant recycles everything it possibly can, which includes passing along its green glass to local artist Sheri Wilson, who recycles it into furniture. Casa also gets a good deal of its produce at the year-round Athens Farmers Market, which got its start in 1972 and is constantly touted as one of the best in the U.S.
Even though nearly one-third of its population is transient, Alost says the spirit of Athens has a way of pulling you in, even if it’s just temporarily. “When you live here, it’s a commitment to the community,” she says. “You shop locally and get involved.”