Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Looking Back at Ashtabula

Recently my husband and I drove through the town I once called home. I was saddened to see that nothing had changed. Same old houses, same crumbling streets, and I've been told, the same crushing loads of poverty and hopelessness.

I spy on Ashtabula, keep in contact with a few relatives. Peek at the online newspaper to see if there is anything at all positive going on. Beside the fact that Lake Erie is blue instead of the somber brown of my childhood or the green I recall from my teens, there are no visible changes.

All along the lake front, from upstate New York downward there were little mom & pop shops, wineries, farms and so forth. But those petered out from the Ohio line until Geneva-on-the-Lake. As if there was a line of demarcation at the state line.

"Abandon hope all ye who enter here."

The big plants are gone. There are a few, jealously guarded, high-playing jobs, but not many. Not enough to give anyone any hope of better days ahead.

The schools limp along, churning out students, but what quality of skills do these hapless graduates possess? What of the dozens of drop-outs? There aren't enough fast food restaurants to employ them all. I know of one woman, a college graduate in her 50's who worked part-time at McDonald's because that was the only job she could get.

The Mall may have opened up hundreds of minimum wage jobs, but who wants to raise a family on minimum wage with no benefits? Thousands of ill-educated, often drug addicted residents don't even try anymore. They exist in the gray twilight, working some and stealing some, wheeling and dealing to keep their habit going one more bleak and hopeless day.

Tourism is touted as the big fix, but why come to Ashtabula? Geneva-on-the-Lake is pretty and has wineries. Ashtabula proper has nothing to draw in the tourists besides a few marina's on the Ashtabula River. (Just don't drink the water or eat the fish or go on to Bridge Street after dark.)

The lake is cleaner, but the myriad of toxic waste dumps are still oozing poison into the drinking water. Birth defects, mental retardation and cancer are higher in this county than another place besides the infamous "Love Canal." The EPA was gutted ages ago, there is no cleaning the toxins out of the river.

The local paper has no hope to offer. In fact The Star Beacon talks about an attitude they give a cute euphemism for it. but the attitude can be summarized by the rallying cry: "So what's the government going to do about it?"

Though some claim the attitude was imported from the hills of West Virginia, I can attest that it was alive and well in the 1960's thru 1992 when I left town. It permeated my high school in both the black and white students, teachers and all the people I came in contact with.

It is a sign of times, I suppose, that the average Ashtabula 'hillbilly' expects some government fairy god-father to come in and undo what nearly a century of corruption has done to the county. But short of having some FBI g-man, like a re-incarnated Elliot Ness come in to assasinate the "god-fathers" the status quo is not going to change quickly.

Does that leave me meeping the blues like some dying songbird?

No, because I never thought that "the government" was competent enough to save it's own backside, let alone that of some 30k lost souls.

What Ashtabula really needs is a dose of TRUE hillbilly attitude. Independence and self-reliance are neither prized nor taught in our society. They are the skills of the Depression's children, not the skills of the baby-boomers.