Ashtabula: A city that cries despair

'Basically, we need someone to rescue us.'

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ASHTABULA, Ohio -- The candidates don't come here.

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.

"You can tell which ones they are," said Mr. Ovak. "They'll just sit up there for a while until finally I say, 'Come here,' and give 'em a hamburger and a pop."

"You can't blame the little kids," Mr. Cantagallo said. "They're hungry. And their parents don't have the wherewithal to have somebody watch them. So they have lifeguards and a police department at the beach who in effect are watching their kids for nothing."

"Sometimes," added Mr. Ovak, "they even have a hard time getting back home." So, he drives a few of them.

If all politics is local, it remains unclear to citizens here just what a singularly un-local politician in the White House can do for Ashtabula.

"The reality is, yeah, what can a president do?" said Dave Parsons, who moved here from New England to open an upscale restaurant in one of the brick row buildings that line the harbor neighborhood.

A need to 'reinvent'

At the start of the last century, roughly a quarter of the ore and coal shipped in the United States passed through the Ashtabula harbor. Rival ethnic gangs fought each other on the streets for the rights to offload the ships, before a crane-hoisted scoop was invented and made them obsolete.

Today's obsolescence came, say locals, from a combination of cutthroat foreign trade that made overseas manufacturing a better bargain for multinational firms.

Today, Ashtabula, with its newly cleaned lake, a freshly dredged and navigable river, and 23 wineries within a brief drive, talks of tourism. That led couples such as Mr. Parsons and his wife, Posie Ford, to venture back to the harbor neighborhood and set up shop.

The restaurant fills on weeknights, even in winter, and others have opened stores. Mr. Carlisle, and his wife, Toni, run a small store. Decades ago, Mr. Carlisle's family ran 14 stores -- department stores. Today, what had been the home store, is vacant along Main Street, years after the family sold the chain.

In the Great Lakes, famous for cold winter winds, tourism is a seasonal proposition, with jobs that pay a fraction of the long-gone industrial work that was once Ashtabula's mainstay.

One of Mr. Carlisle's major concerns is the educational level of the workforce here. Roughly three-quarters have gone only as far as high school. Sixty percent are classified as unskilled, a legacy he says, of the good times, when unskilled laborers could land good-paying factory jobs. With the factories closed, the population declining, and the tax base eroding, it's hard to cover the costs needed to train and educate.

"We need to reinvent ourselves," said Mrs. Carlisle. "We need a vision of our place in the new economy."

Her business neighbor, Posie Ford, the restaurateur, ventured her own solution to some of the town's woes -- a refrain echoed by many others here:

"You may want to keep jobs in the country instead of sending them to Mexico or China," she said.

That would mark the skepticism, heard throughout Ohio, and even among suburban Detroit's Republicans in last month's Michigan Primary, about the North American Free Trade Agreement. In Ohio, both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have run hard against NAFTA, an agreement inked during the presidency of Mrs. Clinton's husband.

But a deeper running problem here, say officials, is a workforce that has not adapted. Functional illiteracy, says Mr. Cantagallo, runs high. City officials such as Mr. Strong, the development director, still shudder at the memory of a program three decades ago that essentially drowned the town in federal dollars when they, essentially, tried to turn poverty into a revenue-producing industry.

Keen to land federal housing subsidies and spur new construction, the city advertised for needy people to come north from Appalachia for federally subsidized housing.

"They actually were running ads in Kentucky and West Virginia saying 'Come to Ashtabula. We have cheap housing' and they actually used the term 'fast welfare,' " said Mr. Cantagallo.

On a tour of the town, Mr. Strong pointed out a jumble of quickly tossed together homes he said are now decaying, amid neighborhoods where the poor came to stay. In one, a row of houses was put up, ostensibly designed to house the "working poor," who could apply their rent toward an eventual purchase.

"They weren't the working poor," Mr. Strong said. "They were people who didn't work. Within a year, about a third of them were Section 8" subsidized rental housing.

At mid-morning, 15-year-old Laron Wells was walking down the street in that neighborhood. He said the town has little by way of recreation for its young. In winter, he said, the YMCA is the best option.

"Most parents around here can't really afford one. They're just out here getting in trouble. Selling drugs and doing all that other stuff," he said. "Me, I try to stay out the way and stay out of trouble. I just sit in the house."

Blaming NAFTA

Ashtabula's dilemma -- not simply its economic throes but the fact that it goes through them unwatched by candidates keen to win favor in places such as Cleveland, 50 miles to the west -- is part of a cycle. Without jobs, population declines. Without population, influence wanes.

Locals talk of the days a president -- they're not sure which one -- visited and stayed at the Hotel Ashtabula. It has not seen a guest, prominent or obscure, for decades. Part of it is rented out for a daycare center.

"It isn't George Bush, it isn't Bill Clinton, it isn't Democrat or Republican. It's just that we don't have enough people here to vote that it matters," said John Ginnard, who moved here from Detroit and opened a coffee bar called the E-Comm Cafe.

His wife, Melissa, is a computer technician. Customers -- some of whom had to be introduced to cappuccino and other drinks through a chart they set up -- get free Internet access, a service popular with the unemployed, Mrs. Ginnard said.

The E-Comm Cafe is one of two new businesses to set up in recent years, a sign of optimism.

"We're the ones that have stepped up to the plate to become a cornerstone in the revitalization program," Mr. Ginnard said. "It's going to take support from the local community. It's going to take hard work. It's going to have to take one thing more: and that's to believe in the town."

Could a president help?

"A nominee visit would just give you an acknowledgment that we're here," Mr. Ginnard said. "Policies of a president can't really help Ashtabula except for one thing: take the trade barriers down. The ability to not have to compete with a Wal-Mart. The majority of their product is foreign."

On a chill weekday afternoon, Tom Williams, a daytime custodian at one of the local schools, wandered into the coffee shop after his 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift ended.

A barrel-chested man of 66 with an Old Testament beard, he recalled the days of wealth, when Rockwell and True Temper had plants, and the Carlisle family had a chain of 14 department stores.

The town's dilemma, he said, might have to be solved by the kind of program that once paved the streets here: the Works Project Administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

"If you look at the bricks in this town -- we've maybe got two streets left of it. All the blacktop is on top of bricks. They were built during the WPA. The red bricks," Mr. Williams said.

A Depression-era solution at the dawn of the new century?

Mr. Williams stroked his white beard and thought it over.

"If we get that desperate, yeah."


Dennis B. Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.


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