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October 18, 2012 9:30 AM   Subscribe

"Is she O.K.?" a customer asks.
"My mom?" asks Kristy, the waitress.
"Yes," the customer replies.
"No."


Since Sunday, the front page of the New York Times has been featuring a portrait in five parts of Elyria, Ohio (pop: 55,000), seen mostly through the lens of a local diner. (Second link is to a full multimedia feature, but direct links to the five individual articles can be found within.)

Part 1: Donna's Diner: At The Corner of Hope and Worry
Part 2: Elyrian Landscape: New Mayor, Big To-Do List
Part 3: Elyria Then, Elyria Now: After a Childhood Pouring Refills, Reaching Beyond the Past
Part 4: Never-Ending Conversation: In the Hard Fall of a Favorite Son, A Reminder of a City's Scars
Part 5: Resilient Reinvention: With a New Menu and a Makeover, A Promise to Keep Going (Published today.)

The author's article archive: Dan Barry. His column was the subject of a MeFi post in 2007. Elyria's official site.

The Times Ombudsman weighs in:
The “Donna’s Diner” articles, which have been featured on the front page since Sunday, are quiet, clear-eyed and thoughtful. They make no violent assertions. They merely offer a window into the way many Americans live today in parts of the country that get little attention, except as places where swing-state voters remain undecided. The stories offer that window through skillful storytelling about good people who are struggling to get by.

The series is, indisputably, very long. Its opening piece last Sunday was 4,000 words — beginning on the front page under an inviting headline, “At the Corner of Hope and Worry,” and continuing to two full pages inside.

I wondered, for a moment, if I had misunderstood. Five parts about a diner in Ohio? A total of almost 14,000 words?
A response from someone who grew up in the town: Where I Come From

How does the town feel about the profile?

Poynter is hosting a live chat at 2pm ET today with Dan Barry for a "behind-the-scenes look at the Elyria series."
posted by zarq (42 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
What town are they going to cover next? Tortilla Flat, Arizona?
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:37 AM on October 18, 2012


It's got that Dickensian aspect.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 10:00 AM on October 18, 2012 [7 favorites]


While Tortilla Flat has that Steinbeckian aspect.
posted by mcstayinskool at 10:02 AM on October 18, 2012


How far from Elyria is Winesburg?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 10:04 AM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


While Tortilla Flat has that Steinbeckian aspect.
Which is pretty similar, if lacking in Cockney urchins.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 10:05 AM on October 18, 2012


Winesburg is, more or less, the fictionalized version of Clyde, which is about 50 miles west of Elyria.
posted by plastic_animals at 10:07 AM on October 18, 2012


God, I hate these "look-at-the-little-people" profiles. I know the writers meant well, but it somehow manages to hit every small-town-profile trope imaginable in the first few paragraphs of the first article (diner? check. idiosyncratic local characters with regular orders at said diner? check. references to the peoples' religiosity? check)
posted by downing street memo at 10:12 AM on October 18, 2012 [8 favorites]


America: diner? check. idiosyncratic local characters with regular orders at said diner? check. references to the peoples' religiosity? check

Well, this isn't about a logging town in Washington state, and the diner isn't the Double R, but I'll take it.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 10:22 AM on October 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


I know the writers meant well, but it somehow manages to hit every small-town-profile trope imaginable in the first few paragraphs of the first article (diner? check. idiosyncratic local characters with regular orders at said diner? check. references to the peoples' religiosity? check)

....Those tropes exist for a reason. (And I ran screaming from my own small town for that very same reason.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:23 AM on October 18, 2012 [9 favorites]


I grew up next door to Elyria; in fact, our two high schools had the longest running prep school football rivalry in the country when I was a kid, though I believe it's been disrupted. We're talking about an area where the Ford plant closed in 2005 and many of the little related businesses went with it; the steel mill functions at about 25 percent of its former workforce. Many of the blue-collar jobs have simply vanished. The Times likes to refer to my hometown as a "grimy milltown" and loves writing about a little used-goods store that apparently is one of the few open stores in the old downtown.

There are many characteristics of places like that that are worth writing about--its ethnic makeup, for example, makes the area a bit of a little Chicago--tons of eastern Europeans, for example, refugees from World War II, and the Hungarian uprising, lots of southerners who came up to work in the Ford plant in the 1950s and 1960s, a large Puerto Rican population that arrived after World War II.

The school system is a disaster; they're busy building new buildings and meantime the kids are failing every test known to man. The area was once a vacation resort area, where people came to enjoy boating on Lake Erie and the area is attempting to return to that.

While I'm glad to see the Times series, there is still such a a touch of condescension and outsider views from these series that are a little hard to read.
posted by etaoin at 10:27 AM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


It is so weird to see this in the NYT, and now on the blue. My wife and I live in Pittsburgh now, but we only moved here in January. For the preceding 14 years we lived in Oberlin, which is only a few miles from Elyria. We shopped for groceries there every week, and renewed our license plates at the Elyria DMV, within blocks of Donna's.

Elyria is not an isolated small town. It's basically a suburb of Lorain, which is your standard small rust-belt city, permanently enslaved to its excess infrastructure which it can no longer afford to maintain very well. It was once was a big ship-building place, but no longer. The shipyard was converted to a park. There's still a US Steel plant in Lorain. Big Mexican population too, and the excellent food that goes with it.

We have friends who live in a pretty residential area just north of downtown Elyria. The blocks of well-kept upscale 1950's houses make it obvious that Elyria didn't always struggle the way it does now.
posted by jon1270 at 10:35 AM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


(diner? check. idiosyncratic local characters with regular orders at said diner? check. references to the peoples' religiosity? check)

This exists at the diner three blocks from my house in San Francisco. Although, substitute "tattoos" for "religiosity."
posted by rtha at 10:42 AM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've skimmed through a bit ... too many words for the moment. Donna’s Diner is facing Taco Bell competition. In a a handful of years, Taco Bell is going to be facing robot chef-in-a-small-box competition, and Papa Johns drivers will be replaced with driverless delivery vehicles. This is a world where unimaginable abundance is possible, but most human labor is nearly worthless.

Many of the rich are still getting richer in America, getting their yearly raise from 100 to 115k, 120 to 140. And just about everyone at the bottom is drowning. We don't just have enough life boats, we have entire life boat factories that churn out more and more for the people who through luck or skill or privilege or soulless ambition or usually some combination of all four, wound up at the top.
Every day, after expenses, there is not much left — though, now and then, she peels off $20 to gamble at a video-lottery place she calls “the joint.”
I think people looking back on the late 20th/early 21st century will just be astounded by the paradox of our simultaneous progress and collapse. People in some parts of the western world are probably more physically and mentally unhealthy than at almost any point in history - look at how Donna and many of her customers are obese - and we can't seem to figure out what to do about it.

Where does Donna's sense of meaning and purpose in the world come from, when no one especially needs a diner? America, the "me" nation, has no answer.
posted by crayz at 10:43 AM on October 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


The NYT ran a similar feature about its neighbor, Lorain, a few weeks back. My wife grew up there, and it can be quite bleak. Few jobs. Abandoned Main Street. Crime issues. Schools are among the worst ranked in the Cleveland area (second only to East Cleveland).

As Flint knows, it's tough to be an industry town once the industry leaves.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:48 AM on October 18, 2012


On the bright side, the International Festival kicks butt.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:50 AM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


My uncle was a steelworker in Lorain. It seems like for twenty years and going that his work situation has been a continual flux of working full time, working part time or being laid off. It always seemed like I could gauge how Lorain was doing at the time by his employment status.
posted by charred husk at 10:55 AM on October 18, 2012


While I'm glad to see the Times series, there is still such a a touch of condescension and outsider views from these series that are a little hard to read.

If I may ask, would you mind pointing out where the condescension is in the articles? One of the reasons I posted this is because I felt the profile was thorough and detailed enough to not make the town sound provincial. I've lived in a small southwestern town, and would like to think I'd have noticed that tone. If I thought this was a negative profile, I wouldn't have posted it.

(The presence of an outsider viewpoint in an article like this is a given, of course.)

The only section that stuck out to me as condescending was in the third article. Specifically this: "Her mother and grandmother each became pregnant at 16, but little Bridgy Harvan, now almost 21, broke that emerging pattern. When not working, she attends Lorain County Community College, Elyria’s academic marvel. She studies her textbooks during the breaks in diner action, like a cartographer charting a path through the unknown." Did I miss others?
posted by zarq at 10:57 AM on October 18, 2012


All he usual snark aside in some comments, and yes, typical and thus ok, I am left with one question:
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
posted by Postroad at 10:59 AM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is a short walk from the sleek new courthouse, where the Judge, a regular customer (grilled chicken, cottage cheese, fruit), ruminates in his chambers with an unlit cigar in his mouth and a portrait of Che Guevara on his wall. on his wall.

Yeah, brother.

Little surprises like this are what counterweight the cliches.
posted by liketitanic at 10:59 AM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Postroad:
"All he usual snark aside in some comments, and yes, typical and thus ok, I am left with one question:
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?"
I don't know, man. The problem is more than just the buggy whip makers being put out of business by the automobile. Almost anything the people of Lorain could realistically try to do could be imported from China for less cost. And we need enough people creating things to export to support all the people who can do no more than be in the service industry now.
posted by charred husk at 11:14 AM on October 18, 2012


charred husk: I don't know, man. The problem is more than just the buggy whip makers being put out of business by the automobile. Almost anything the people of Lorain could realistically try to do could be imported from China for less cost. And we need enough people creating things to export to support all the people who can do no more than be in the service industry now.

Realistically, the solution would be tariffs or restrictions on good produced using methods that we cannot or do not want to replicate in the US (slave labor, subpar working conditions, and rampant ecological damage). This would allow US businesses to compete, at least in the US.

Good luck getting anything like that passed.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:18 AM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I, too, know Elyria from having been at Oberlin. That's where we went to find a mall or a bigger movie theater than the one in town. I always thought of it as small-suburb-y than tiny-town-y, though granted, my memories of it are fairly limited at this point.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 11:23 AM on October 18, 2012


Realistically, the solution would be tariffs or restrictions on good produced using methods that we cannot or do not want to replicate in the US (slave labor, subpar working conditions, and rampant ecological damage). This would allow US businesses to compete, at least in the US.

Good luck getting anything like that passed.


Would help for sure, at least for a while. I have commented before that jobs and workers is now a big game of musical chairs only the chairs are being taken away faster and faster and we are adding more and more people to the game all the time, I am really worried for the future.
posted by Cosine at 11:23 AM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


ook at how Donna and many of her customers are obese

What? She's not obese at all.
posted by jokeefe at 11:29 AM on October 18, 2012


WHAT IS TO BE DONE

What is to be done is that the voting populace, particularly in places like Elyria, needs to grow up and acknowledge that big economic changes bring big dislocations, and the country's transition from a manufacturing to a service/information/entertainment economy is one of the biggest ever. Instead of USA! USA! we need to invest in programs that put a robust economic floor under the dislocated, while offering low or no-cost education and training to help make our workforce competitive with the rest of the world.

Instead of, say, investing in "job creators" who will continue to job the rest of us by hoarding an ever-larger share of the national wealth, with the indulgence of fully-paid-for lawmakers, rather than hiring new workers. Which, honestly, would be asinine and irrational until the vast middle class gets some cash in its pocket.

So, more federal spending, higher taxes on the rich. That is what is to be done. Not original to me.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:37 AM on October 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


So, more federal spending, higher taxes on the rich. That is what is to be done. Not original to me.

And unfortunately, not palatable to a good chunk of the country - including, I'm guessing, plenty of people living in Elyria. Fox News has done it's work well. But even then...

This assumption that we can just have an uber-trained workforce that will fill the JOBS OF THE FUTURE just rings false to me. Even assuming we could lower the cost of education to the point where people/workers don't have to go into debt up to their eyeballs to learn the skills - the reality is, a significant chunk of the workforce may not have the aptitude to ace the training.

This country, every country, needs low-skilled jobs that pay a livable wage. It's the only way everyone has a shot at success. We had that once - you could drop out of high school, get a job on the local factory line, buy a little bungalow and a car, maybe sock away enough for your kid to go to college. Increasingly, that is ceasing to exist in this country because we've allowed/promoted global wage arbitrage. Those jobs will go to where labor costs are lowest.

And we're left with towns like this one, full of older folks with basically no future, and younger ones who simply can't wait to flee.
posted by kgasmart at 12:25 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


a significant chunk of the workforce may not have the aptitude to ace the training

There's a ton of people on Wall Street or in the orbit of Wall Street who make a decent wage who never see a spreadsheet. Information workers need dry cleaners, they need to live in houses, those houses need repair, etc. etc. Even in the most Googly future you can imagine, there's going to be opportunity for people who are incapable of or uninterested in cash flow forecasting and database design. But if we continue as usual, you will never see a Silicon Valley in Licking County so you will never need any of those folks.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:50 PM on October 18, 2012


When the oil runs out (or at least gets too expensive to make it worth it) then the jobs will come back, because it won't be economically feasible for Wal-Mart to ship container-loads of cheap shit across the ocean any more.

It will be too late for Donna, though.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 1:36 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Holy cow, fellow Lorainites on the blue!
Sorry, I didn't mean to say this series was condescending; I dropped a word, trying to say "some of these series."
This one is good; no complaints.
posted by etaoin at 2:22 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


OK! :) Thanks for clarifying. Also, I'm sorry.. I realized upon rereading my comment that I sounded really defensive. I don't feel that way -- was just trying to explain my pov.
posted by zarq at 2:27 PM on October 18, 2012


When the oil runs out (or at least gets too expensive to make it worth it) then the jobs will come back, because it won't be economically feasible for Wal-Mart to ship container-loads of cheap shit across the ocean any more.


We don't even need to wait for this (and the opinions on whether or not it ever will are ongoing). The cheap labor is china is rapidly running out (like maybe 1/2 of a generation) and it is just one more generation in most other places left as well. There is a huge, huge demographic shift coming as people aren't having big families anymore, not just here or the industrialized world but everywhere. We are almost at the replacement rate world wide (and maybe at it with the quality of data on that number).

Manufacturing is kinda moving back to the US for at least for the quality durable stuff. It won't replace all the jobs that were lost, but a lot of those jobs weren't all that great to begin with(all though they sure beat unemployment, well usually) and we aren't looking at enough people to fill them anyway. In another 20 years we are all gonna ask what the hell happened to all the immigrants and living standards in the us slide somewhat and rise in the rest of the world and birth rates continue to go down as they always do when living standards increase (and women get access to family planning).

Interesting times indeed.
posted by bartonlong at 2:34 PM on October 18, 2012


I grew up in Elyria. Left for the West Coast over 20 years ago, but still have family and friends there. I go back every few years. In many ways it hasn't changed at all, other ways dramatically so. I rarely miss the place, knowing it was a dead end for me, but have to admit there are times, as with reading the NYT article over the last week or so, that I get a little bit nostalgic for the place. The small hometown feel of it, the slower way of life. But then I remember the boredom, hopelessness, and close-mindedness, and the nostalgia begins to drift away. Not to say that there aren't some great and wonderful people there, but I'm glad I left.
posted by Sir BoBoMonkey Pooflinger Esquire III at 3:11 PM on October 18, 2012


Oh, Lorain also produced the only American woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. So there's that.
posted by leotrotsky at 4:17 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I grew up in Lorain, and I loved it, though even when I lived there it was starting to fade, some. I lived on West 7th, four doors down from Charleston Cemetery, where we played baseball, using the crumbling graves as bases. Everyone I knew either worked or had worked in either the steel mills or the auto assemblies, and there was something comforting about that--in jobs that would be there forever. And then the jobs weren't there, and no one knew what to do. They still don't, as far as I can tell.

The house we lived in had belonged to my great-grandparents, and my parents bought it after their deaths, shortly before I was born. When I drive through now, the house I grew up in has bars on the windows. Even the grand houses along Erie Ave east of the river seem less grand--not all of them, but many of them have started to crumble, and some have been divided into apartments.

What kgasmart said above really resonates with me. Lorain, and cities like it, are full of young people who can't wait to leave, and older people with no future. I don't know, at this point, anyone who's in Lorain by choice. They're there because they can't leave--because there's not anything better for them anywhere else, and better the devil you know than the one you don't. And when you grow up somewhere, you love it, even if you hated it, even if you knew, all along, that you were going to leave. So I still love Lorain, and when I'm in the area, I still park my car on the street where I used to live, and I walk through the cemetery and around the block. But I do it sadly, alone, because no matter how much I love the city, I know that the only place it's going is down.
posted by MeghanC at 4:19 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Meghan! I grew up on Lovett Place.
posted by etaoin at 4:35 PM on October 18, 2012


I just moved to Elyria from Los Angeles this past July as I have a temporary teaching gig at a local college. I moved right as the Olympics started- the lead leg on the World record setting 4x100 women's team is from Elyria. I haven't explored downtown as much as I should have but even the Midway mall seems to be losing business to newer shopping areas in North Olmsted and Avon.
posted by cnanderson at 4:42 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Etaoin, how old are you? I used to ride my bike up and down Lovett Pl all the time. (Also, we grew up to have the same job--I'm also an editor. Twilight Zone theme music, that's your cue!)
posted by MeghanC at 5:04 PM on October 18, 2012


Thank you, zarq, for linking each video file. I'm blaming one of my Chrome blocker extensions on why they would only play in IE, but totally worth opening IE for!

I'm finding a mefi trend where there is a lack of a general appreciation for a glimpse of life without over analyzing everything and making a mess of things. I expected more of you.
Lighten up, Francis!

This town reminds me of Norwalk, Ohio the place our extended family gathered several times a year.
I found the series endearing and wonderful and well produced and ... loved the mix of stills with video and audio.

Facebooked it for the peeps back home, even.
posted by TangerineGurl at 8:15 PM on October 18, 2012


Strange world, indeed, MeghanC, and Etaoin. I'm not an editor at the moment, but only because I'm between editing jobs. I will be starting one in the coming month though. And early in my childhood I lived on Meadowbrook Ln.
posted by Sir BoBoMonkey Pooflinger Esquire III at 10:30 PM on October 18, 2012


The solution, unfortunately, seems backward-looking, not forward-looking. When you add places like Flint, Toledo, Buffalo, Akron, Detroit, Cincinnati - other rust-belt cities centered around shipping or industry - and look at them in the aggregate, you see cities who had both quick growth and a feeling of permanence. Ok, well, have we learned our lesson? There is no permanence. Those jobs weren't going to be there forever. Our jobs now, our industrial centers now, or travel hubs now - they too can have their bottoms fall out. City planning, divestment of industry, controlled growth. We might not ever be able to save some of these cities and return them to their past glory, but can we find ways to prevent other cities from suffering the same fate?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 5:52 AM on October 19, 2012


I'm finding a mefi trend where there is a lack of a general appreciation for a glimpse of life without over analyzing everything and making a mess of things.

Critiquing things doesn't make them go away. Refusing to critique them doesn't make them more valuable.
posted by liketitanic at 5:56 AM on October 19, 2012


Holy crap, Sir BoBoMonkey. Small world indeed. Maybe it's something in the water out there?

TangerineGurl, I don't know that anyone's failing to appreciate this slice of life--many of us in the thread are from the area, and I'm reading this thread and seeing a lot of nostalgia and sadness for somewhere that many of us once loved and feel that we've lost.

Also, personally, I sort of want people to overanalyze Elyria/Lorain and the surrounding environs--I'd like to think that maybe someone will find a solution to the problems that plague this sort of town, and the more people who are aware of places like this and talking about them, the greater the chances of that become.
posted by MeghanC at 6:28 AM on October 19, 2012


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