[Me About to Cross the Mississippi]
Going to Ohio (and Pittsburgh) was revisiting old friends: people and places. I knew so many of the cities personally from earlier visits that I wasn't sure if I was spouting inherited wisdom when I said that they were largely rustbelt backwaters. I hadn't known enough about them as a kid to view them as such. Coming from Dayton (where I lived until 13), they actually seemed like decent-sized towns with plenty to offer.
But having moved to Chicago at 13, and seen the world since (nearly two dozen countries), I did see Ohio cities now as sort of isolated. Sure, they may have everything, but only one of everything. Hungarian food is a niche offering you might not expect in Toledo, but if Packo's is the only game in town, then you become used to that and judge others by it right or wrong. And if you look at the answers I got, people there seemed just as ambiguous about whether they were small towns or big.
A museum worker in Toledo laughed about her town, "It's a big small town is what it is." A cherubic bookstore worker in Dayton scoffed, "Dayton is not sure if it wants to be a small town or a big town." In Youngstown, a woman from Australia said, "Even though you hear awful things about Youngstown and how many people were killed this week. There's lots to recommend Youngstown, I think. If it were the size of New York, you wouldn't even hear about these things. The only thing is it's in the middle of Ohio."
Many viewers and critics felt that Hopper's paintings captured something about America and many people I just interviewed felt that they lived in typical examples of American cities, which all also agreed were becoming more homogeneous.
In Columbus, a disheveled man reading books at a café couldn’t come down on either side of the big town/small town issue. "We're just a common, typical Midwestern, middle-of-the-state, middle-of-the-country, middle-of-the-road city." The artist Randy in Kaldi's said, "Cincinnati is run by a bunch of fascists. There's only a county board run by suburbanites. The only thing they can think to do to the city is make it into some kind of mall." A sculptor in Toledo said, "The average guy here is a hard-nose working guy: gets up, goes to work, comes home, raises a family. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people in this town wouldn't know who Edward Hopper is." Andy in Toledo put it this way: "America is a melting pot. Toledo's a pool."
More cities in Ohio than any other state had Hoppers, also, implying that they somehow identified with his paintings. Many said that they did see Hopper's isolation in their towns. Ohio may be a Hopperesque State and in a Hopperesque state.
In Cincinnati, a lawyer who got into art when assigned a case involving the post office shipping a painting said of Hopper's Prospect Street, Gloucester, "Before I saw the Gloucester thing there on the sign, I thought maybe this was a scene from Cincinnati." His wife concurred, "In Cincinnati, you would find this sort of isolated empty streets, We consider people keep to themselves in this town." A short, stocky transplant to Cincinnati fired out, "Cincinnati's kind of a city that you have to make your own circle," "'Cause you won't be invited in."
A young arts maven in Dayton sneered, "Dayton? It's an incredibly isolated place." The Youngstown art museum doorman said, "There's not too much exchange between people. It's people you know [who you talk to]. I was taught to learn how to deal with all creeds, colors, and nationalities. Now I guess there's this young generation that's coming up. They're angry."
In Pittsburgh, girl-next-door-looking Michelle said unflinchingly, "I think people in Pittsburgh are some of the most isolated, parochially minded people I've ever met in my life." A woman with swollen ankles and a wart on her nose said in front of that town's Cape Cod Afternoon, "I think sometimes we [in Pittsburgh] are backwards, provincial." Her partner, a portly man in Greek-fisherman's cap, opined, "I agree with Hopper's vision. I think basically we're all very isolated. "
In Cleveland's Shaker Square, a bookstore counterman echoed that sentiment, "[Hopper] represented a situation, where, even though we weren't there, we thought we had been there or we knew where it was. I'll bet you a thousand million people have been in that diner that Hopper painted. You can be 10 years old or 110: you've all seen that window. They may be lonely, in love, or they can't sleep. But they've been in that diner."
Maybe more people felt more isolated than they let on. As a teenaged worker at a park in Youngstown said, "You know what it's like: we can put it down, but it's our town. I grew up here my whole life. You haven't." An older, first-generation Italian woman at Cleveland's biggest celebration in Little Italy declared with a dual-edged subtext, "There's the diversity of the whole city right outside. A few years ago, some of these types would have been run out of the neighborhood. I mean, we don't have any problems down here, you know. For the festival, they like to come down here."
But isolation wasn't always unwelcome. In Cleveland, a painter who worked at the museum told me, "My friend, who you saw the other day, she said that she hates Hopper paintings because they're so sad and morbid and lonely and awful and… But I look at 'em and go: 'Oh, yeah. That'd be great to be alone.'"
The connection felt to Hopper's paintings could be due to these towns being static as a painting and as frozen in time as Hopper's scenes. Maybe it was the history of greatness (many were once leading population and commerce centers) and familiarity with the town's ways and institutions. The citizens were satisfied with their towns but acknowledged that other people might find them wanting. The legacies of these towns often had people expecting a return to the heydays or coasting on what was left from their heydays.
The bar bouncer in Cincinnati had told me that Mark Twain claimed, "When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it's always twenty years behind the times." But that frozen quality can be comforting, a stabilizing factor. He knew a woman moving back from New York because "She said she meets somebody, and three weeks later they're gone 'cause they can't make it in that town. So she said every two months there's a new circle of friends rotating through Manhattan." At the park in Youngstown, the older woman said, "They tried to bring back the Youngstown area, but I don't think that it's ever going to come back."
Sometimes, history had etched patterns in the locals that they might not even remember. In Cleveland, a woman in a cafe stated, "East and West Siders freak out about going to the opposite side of town. You ask them for directions and they say, 'Well, I'm not familiar with that area.' And I say, 'You've lived in Cleveland your whole life. How can you not know that area?'" My research for the novel I wrote about Cleveland turned up that this was from the early days when the wealthy could afford the higher ground on the west side and thus avoid the summer infestation of mosquitoes and the diseases that they brought downtown where the mouth of the Cuyahoga came in off of lake Erie and spread to the lower lands east of the river. (The first three bridges across the river connecting the two sides were burned down by people who didn't want to be connected.)
Cincinnati was the site of racial tension as the first town north of the Ohio River and thus slavery; immigrants like my Irish ancestor had to vie with African Americans for jobs, and the competition bred resentment. 150 years later, there were still race riots in that town.
In Pittsburgh, John, behind the counter of a downtown deli, mused, "Pittsburgh, for as many people that are trying to drive the city forward, there are that many people still holding it back." A black youth sitting on a bench on Pittsburgh's The Strip commented on the town's entrenched old-boy network way of hiring, "You don't know nobody to get in a job, there's basically no job."
Part of Ohio's big-town feel was that each city had a good art museum. The Industrial Era Robber Barons all wanted an art museum for their cities. Many came from European cities with well-known works. Many just admired art and believed in art's importance to a finer life. And to be blunt, many were trying to justify their monetary wealth with an equal social standing (there's that cultural capitol again). In the U.S., taste became something you could buy after the fact rather than earn, inherit, or grow up nurturing. But by bequeathing to museums, they made sure that future generations like me could grow up appreciating art.
In Columbus, a barista told me, "I am from Indianapolis. People say they're the same, but they're not at all. Indianapolis is totally about business, sports, and heavy metal heads." She wrinkled her nose. "Columbus is not like that at all. It's got intelligentsia because of the university. It's much more about art, culture." Randy in Kaldi's said that he had a patron "who really looks at the work and responds to the visual experience. Those people are the only thing that's ever been important in the art scene." Bernie, the Toledo sculptor, came from three generations of glass workers. "I'm the fourth. But I'm doing it in a different way." He had turned the industrial history and know-how into crafting sculptures. Similarly, artists I met in every town were turning the rustbelt element to their favor by renting cheaply large spaces in which to work. "Hugo" in Kaldi's said that there were a lot of empty warehouses and old machinery that made Cincinnati a sculptor's dream city.
And many felt Ohio cities' small-town aspect saved them from big town evils, including Hopperesque isolation. In Toledo, a hefty, world-weary bartender pointed her bar rag and roared, "Not from each other, they're not isolated. Not if you're from the area. Everybody knows everybody else." Dinah said that, despite the interview quotes, she loved living in Pittsburgh. And isn't that enough? Why shouldn't I believe their words rather than reputations or statistics. As Andy in Toledo said about the census, "They say a neighborhood is 90% black. Or it's 90% white. But it just shows you where people live. It doesn't necessarily reflect their attitudes."
* * *
When I was growing up in Ohio, there was a term I learned to describe Ohio and Pennsylvania and the other northern states between New England and the Mississippi River: the "Mideast." I don’t know if the term lost currency because THE Mideast became "the Mideast" or America just started to consider those states part of the Midwest, but I liked the term then and I like it now. If you look at the U.S. map, it doesn’t make much sense to call those states the Midwest (particularly Pennsylvania, which has a port on the Atlantic Ocean!). They are nowhere near the geographic middle of the country. But also there is a difference in feel between the two regions. The Mideast is a lot more industrial or at least views itself that way, while the Midwest beyond the Mississippi has always been largely agricultural. Ohio was one of the first states added after the founding of the country. The states on the other side of the Mississippi didn't come into the country until the 1850s and 1860s, and many were rushed in to balance the number of Union and Confederate states when the Civil War began to look inevitable. And the Civil War so changed the country's image of itself that it's almost like the ones on the other side of the Mississippi were entering a new country.
I was about to get a chance to see for myself how different the two regions were. I was headed out onto the Great Plains. Barely after I was back from Ohio, I set off again in the other direction to Des Moines, Iowa; Lincoln, Nebraska; Wichita, Kansas; and Kansas City, Missouri. The Great Plains represented to me what it did to the pioneers: the unknown. Whereas I had frequented Ohio's cities, I had only experienced the Great Plains states on a whirlwind family drive to the Grand Canyon in my teens. I was going to see the Great Plains towns I had heard about or read about in history books but which I had no preconceived notions of. I might see things a little more clearly because I didn't know them like I did Ohio. I surely would see new things because I had never visited any of them before. When I got back, I would be changed forever. We all would.
[Me About to Cross the Mississippi]