November 2007 Issue
Sense of Place
One's view of a hometown changes with time, distance, and maturity.
Ephesus, the Mediterranean hometown of the philosopher Heraclites, is a crumbling ruin today. This is worth pointing out because it was Heraclites who famously said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” His meaning, our college professors told us, is that there is no permanent reality. Everything changes.
Heraclites wouldn’t be surprised then, to come back to life and find Ephesus abandoned, but for the tourists poking about the shattered walls of his adolescent haunts. And he probably would not feel the same about his hometown as he did when he last visited about 2,500 years ago: First, you can’t buy beer at the Agora any more. More important, Heraclites would have a new perspective on life (having been dead all those years) and he might discover something new about his hometown – something that had been there all the time.
|Elyria's town square fountain.
|Touchstones: Loomis Camera
Literally speaking, I stepped into the same river many times during the 20 years I spent growing up in Elyria. The county seat of Lorain County, Elyria is located about 40 miles west of Cleveland at the confluence of the east and west branches of the Black River. In the 1960s and 1970s it was a town that was just beginning a downward slide from post-war prosperity, but I didn’t know it at the time. Sure, Elyria never boasted the industrial muscle of neighboring Lorain, where iron-ore freighters and Ford Thunderbirds were built, but it had a respectable industrial base, making mechanic’s tools, oil burners and golf balls. These factories, combined with county-government jobs and the local community college, provided plenty of jobs for a comfortable middle class.
I didn’t actually live within the city boundaries. My father, the son of English and Welsh immigrants, had grown up there, and met my mother when she was attending nursing school there. After the war they built a house just south of the city limits on the banks of the Black River, where I spent countless hours fishing, ice skating and exploring. Elyria was my hometown, even though my school was part of a rural consolidated district outside of town. Elyria was where I attended church, cooled off in the city pool, visited the doctor and dentist, indulged my reading obsession at the local library and played in the sandy playground at Cascade Park. In the days before I-480 cut the trip to Cleveland in half, Elyria was the closest thing I knew to a city, and it seemed quite prosperous to my young eyes.
Once I was old enough to move about on my own, Elyria was a destination for exploration, a bike ride on a warm summer’s day. I’d ride to my grandmother’s in town to cut her lawn and then, still smelling of freshly cut grass, I’d ride downtown and watch the fountain in the classic town square, buy an ice cream, or shop for LPs at an independent record store (I have a particularly vivid memory of a ride home, burning with anticipation, holding the handlebars with one hand, the other clutching Bruce Springteen’s new release, “Born to Run”).
As a high-school student I cruised the McDonald’s in my Volkswagen after football games, drank Little Kings Cream Ale with a girlfriend in isolated corners of the Midway Mall parking lot, and trespassed into Cascade Park at night to skinny dip in the park’s landmark circular pool.
Idyllic, I’m thinking, with 30 years of hindsight. By the time I reached college age, however, Elyria was an oppressive symbol of the middle-class values my adolescent psyche so wanted to reject. “Elyria is Lorain with cheap paneling,” a college friend sniffed, and I couldn’t have agreed more. I’d read Winesburg, Ohio, and was not surprised to learn that its author, Sherwood Anderson, started writing about the loneliness and frustration of small-town Midwestern life after having a nervous breakdown while running a paint store in Elyria.
I couldn’t imagine spending another day there, and dreamed of bigger cities with greater challenges. I’ll never come back here, I vowed, as I packed everything into the back of a borrowed Ford pickup and headed off to college. But I was back within a few years, for a short stint at the local newspaper, and already my perspective had changed. From the viewpoint of a young journalist, Elyria was a good training ground, a place to learn about local government, race relations and community pride — the latter a struggle for a rustbelt town trying to set a new course in a rapidly changing economy. Factories were closing, and friends whose families had relied on auto and steel jobs for generations were discovering they’d probably need to do something else for their livelihood.
But I had no interest in hanging around to find out what would happen. I left again in 1985 and have not lived there since.
Now, with my parents dead and my visits becoming less and less frequent, Elyria has become something entirely different, a place of comfort and warm memories. And it doesn’t matter so much whether the physical aspects of the community have changed. They have, of course. The hospital where my first daughter was born (and my mother died) has added multiple layers of modern new buildings. My parents’ church has expanded as well, as has City Hall, and Elyria High School’s oldest section soon will no longer house classrooms – significant because the original high school was the first chartered high school west of the Alle-gheny Mountains. Grassies, a restaurant frequented by reporters when I worked at the local paper, burned down several years ago. The black bears that once occupied cages under a rock outcropping at Cascade Park have (mercifully) been gone for decades. The giant camera that hangs over Loomis Camera Shop on the square is now a 35 mm SLR (when I was young it was an Instamatic with a flashbulb that actually flashed).
More importantly, I’ve changed. My hard feelings about my hometown have disappeared with age, and in its place are warm memories founded, perhaps, in a better understanding of what makes a city livable, especially for children. I know high-school friends who have stayed, and each seems to have found a way to earn a comfortable living, and be comfortable doing so.
A hometown isn’t defined by its neighborhoods and shops and streets so much as it is by the collective memories of the people who live (or lived) there. Today, when I do go back, what I remember is early mornings at Cascade Park, when my Dad and I would attend the annual Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. My carved balsa wood car never was competitive, but my memories revolve around the early morning fog off the Black River that obscured the ford in the river, and the smell of bacon and eggs being prepared for the assembled scouts. I also recall family dinners at the Polish Club on Friday nights during Lent, when the club opened to nonmembers for a fish fry of fresh Lake Erie yellow perch. Our family was neither Polish nor Catholic, but the sweet fish, cut in butterfly filets and lightly breaded, were a treat to me — and still are.
I remember the excitement of hurtling down the sledding hill at Cascade, and the sweet smell of hot chocolate that we’d pack in a thermos to keep us warm. The mulberries that grew on the tree behind our church and the stains they left on our fingers.
As a parent, I now suspect that Elyria is a warm and comfortable place to many who live there because it is filled both with good memories and with good neighbors, like the young couple who bring food to my aging aunt, or the church members who tell me stories about my parents, and so keep their memories alive.
As I get older, I don’t know how Elyria will change, but I do know that it will change not so much in its buildings or in the highways that connect it, increasingly, to the Cleveland metro area. It will change because I’ve grown, and see it through different eyes. Dismiss it as nostalgia if you will, but I prefer to think of it as a more mature understanding of what makes a town a community.
I doubt I’ll ever go back to live, but I’ll still go back to visit, even when everyone I know there has gone. But I won’t expect to see or feel the same things that I did as a youth, or as I did last month.
You can’t step in the same hometown twice.
Randall Edwards is a freelance writer and native Elyrian who now lives in Columbus. A former newspaper journalist for 20 years, he has contributed to Ohio Magazine since the mid-1990s.