I was born and raised in Lima, Ohio. And in many ways, I’ve never left. Home weighs heavily on us all. Our early experiences deeply influence the way we see and understand the world around us. I had a charmed upbringing– safe, comfortable, and loved. My parents encouraged me in everything I did. They bought me books and looked the other way when I stayed up way too late reading by flashlight under my blankets. Even then I was awful at subtlety. My community was great. Supportive teachers who pushed me, but also publicly recognized my talents. Warm and kind church-members at both West Elm UCC and Trinity United Methodist, who well lived the sort of compassionate Christianity our faith preached. My friends were solid guys who understood loyalty, solidarity, and collaboration. Few things ever brought me more joy than playing basketball for hours on end with the Gregs before retreating indoors for some serious games of Madden. In those moments I remember Lima as a simple, friendly example of America as it could be.
Of course, we also carry the scars and insecurities of our past– my relatively modest economic and social upbringing hung over me like an anvil throughout college, grad school, and the early stages of my career (and still seeps in from time to time now). I was always fearful that people would figure out what a poor rube I was. At times early in my college experience it seemed like every other place, activity, or cultural reference my friends made was something I had never heard of. Couscous? What the fuck is couscous? But we are also buoyed by the hopes and dreams we fostered in our youth. For me, and most of my closest friends in high school, that was the dream of a better, more fulfilling life somewhere (ANYWHERE) bigger and grander than Lima. It pushed me through four degree programs and into a career (and life) I could never have imagined or realized if I had stayed home. For me, those hopes were the product of fear as much as of any dream– namely, the fear of returning home in failure. Nothing drove me more than the idea of people back home looking at me as a disappointment or failure. My fears of returning home are very different today.
Kewpee. A Lima icon. The place my parents met, where every Lima ex-pat returns to, and perhaps the only aspect of my hometown that measures up to my memory.
Lima is the perfect case study of 20th century US economic and social politics. Her growth was the result of the decentralization of the auto industry and white flight. The sizable African-American community was the product of the Great Migration. The steep economic and demographic decline is a microcosm of the Rust Belt phenomenon. Our racial divides are deep. The poverty is overwhelming. Its drug problems are real and multiplying. And the thought process, politically, socially, and economically are beyond fossilized (and run counter to everything that would be good for the region). It is the very model of the modern American urban crisis.
Of course, this is the narrative of a historian looking back at his home. I see it in the stark terms of where it fits into the story of modern America. I see how forces beyond our control created and destroyed our town. We failed, like nearly every other Rust Belt city, to diversify our economy. Our poor, late-19th and early 20th century white immigrant population never got over it’s labor and cultural strife with the internal migrants of the Great Migration. We actively fight against economic regulation and labor protections, despite being a city of workers. Corruption has been a common part of the political and legal process and an extremely small number of ruling elites continue to exert undue control over the city (though we sneer gleefully at big cities like Chicago and Detroit for having these problems). In these and a hundred other places I see how complicit we have been in our own destruction. This destruction was coming, one way or another, but we poured a lot of gas on the fire. (Or dumped a bunch of crude in the sewers, if you are partial to historical Lima oil-based disasters.)
Insane Tea Party rally in ’09, where local auto sales magnate Tom Ahl bitches about taxes, mortgages given to black people, and government spending that threatened our freedom. No word on whether or not our freedom has been sold to China or our society has collapsed in the last 7 years. The boo’ing of Medicare by a town full of recipients is just too Lima.
If you asked my friends and family back home about the area you would likely hear a different story. They would all lament the lack of jobs and opportunity– that is unavoidable in any narrative of the area. However, most would blame it on unions and the greed of workers– if we hadn’t asked for so much they wouldn’t have moved the factory to Alabama or Mexico!– rather than mechanization, a poorly educated workforce, or the greed of factory owners who sought to maximize profits at the expense of their employees well-being. Few would agree with the notion that our perverse preoccupation with vocational education plays any role in our economic woes– after all, these are the sort of good, blue-collar, hard-working American jobs our nation was built on. Who needs all those useless skills from a liberal arts education? (Only every white collar job ever.) They would likely tell you that there is little racial conflict, ignoring the clear distinction in pay, employment, arrests, and incarceration. Not to mention the continued flight of remaining whites into the shitty suburban areas around the city– defended with the typical “better schools” or “safety” euphemisms white flight has always hid behind. In fact, I have not seen a single article or comment posted about Lima ranking as one of the 10 worst places to live as a black by anyone I know who lives there, nor has anyone reacted to the series on being black and white in Lima that the Lima News ran last week. No doubt this is in part because my social network became whiter the last few years I lived there– a direct connection to the disparity in educational outcomes and the social stratification of the city itself. I noticed it happening at the time, but lacked the knowledge, insight, or sense to understand why. The diverse meritocracy I thought I lived in was a lie.
Most of what I see and hear from back home disheartens me. It is full of anger and rage aimed at boogeymen. They take no blame for their plight, nor do they foster constructive policies that point the way forward. Frankly, it is a list of right-wing talk radio and Fox News bullet points. It is oppressive taxes that hold Lima down! Ignoring, of course, that the property and incomes of the region are so low as to make taxes practically negligible for the region. Unions ruined industry and eliminated jobs! Let’s just pretend that those union jobs were not the only thing that made living in this town viable for most people. Planned Parenthood is evil! Ignore that we don’t have one. Obama is coming for our guns! Everyone still has them. The city is run-down and can’t attract businesses! This, of course, has nothing to do with white people taking all the tax dollars to the suburbs, which invest nothing in the infrastructure and public services necessary for recruiting non-industrial companies in the 21st century. Poor people (read: blacks) and their entitlements are draining us of our tax dollars for services and education that we do not use. Right. As though your atrocious property values and paltry salaries actually amount to anything in the state or federal tax code.
They are pissed that abortion is legal– they won’t stand for such godlessness. What they are angry about locally is beyond me, as there is currently no place for a woman to go to legally seek an abortion– you would have to drive an hour to the Toledo or Dayton area. From what I can tell, there are two STD clinics in a 20 mile radius– the Allen County and Auglaize County Health Departments. The nearest Planned Parenthood’s are around 60 to 90 minutes away in Springfield, Fort Wayne, or Delaware. Coincidentally, Lima has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the state and Gonorrhea rates that trail only Dayton, Cincinnati and Cleveland. It is almost like limiting reproductive health care options might have a negative impact on people’s health.
“Even if the whole study could be unfounded, the reality is that the perception is there that blacks don’t have the opportunities,” the Rev. Lamont Monford, pastor at Philippian Missionary Baptist Church, said about a study that listed Lima among the 10 worst cities for black Americans. Above, Monford addresses concerns in December 2014 on tensions between minorities and law enforcement in the Lima community. Richard Parrish | The Lima News
They are angry that people keep insinuating that Lima has a race problem. They assert that they have never seen it. Apparently, they are as blind as I once was. Because it is totally normal for a city that is about 25% black to have one black cop (or roughly 1.2 percent of the police department). Or to have just 26 black teachers (note: I only had two, my fifth-grade teacher Mrs. McCoy and my Spanish teacher Mr. Peppers). Or for the average black family in the region to make roughly 30,000 less than the average white family (it is appropriate to use the wider county numbers in this estimate, given the amount of white’s working in Lima, but living outside the city– particularly in the medical field). No matter how you slice it, living in Lima (which is already pretty fucking terrible for most people) is damn near unbearable if you happen to be black.
They are despondent over the lack of jobs and opportunity. Yet, they love and support the suburbanization movement that stripped the city of its tax-base (which, as noted above, has disastrous effects on infrastructure and education– the most important public goods) and retrenched its already strong racial prejudices. Mechanization and computerization made businesses more “efficient” allowing them to cut jobs, but the people of Lima largely reject investing in education so that our youth will have the skills necessary to contribute in the 21st century economy. New jobs to run these machines or computers largely go to outsiders with higher education and special training (things we helped kill with our suburbanization). Poorer regions offered tax deals and lowly paid labor to lure our industries away, just as we attempt to do to lure them back. Getting crappy jobs that pollute our air, land, and water while contributing little or nothing to the public good are of dubious value (and possibly a net negative in the long run), but desperate people will make reckless deals. Unions were systematically stripped of their power, largely by workers selling each other out and political ideology that tells them they are best off doing so, leaving laborers with no ability to negotiate with their corporate overlords. State tax burdens have been enthusiastically shifted to localities, allowing the wealthiest people in Ohio to keep more of their money at home and to leave poorer communities to fester (and no Bath, Shawnee, and Elida, you are not a wealthy community– indeed, you are quite poor compared to the rest of the state). Lima voters ostensibly agree with all of these moves, yet piss and moan about their effects.
I no longer fear returning to Lima with my head hung in shame over my failures. I fear returning to Lima because I can’t handle the shame of her failures. Her failure to grow. To learn. To pursue the sort of justice, freedom, and prosperity everyone in the region claims to believe in. I’m no longer ashamed of the things Lima lacks in culture and status– I’m ashamed of what Lima’s culture and status DOES have.
Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again. The nostalgia of the past is a fantasy, full of positive conformation bias. Lima has not degraded since I left. It is as it always was– full of well-meaning, willfully simple people who foster an intolerant, uncurious, and insular community more interested in “God, guns, and glory” than in education, jobs, and justice. It didn’t change. I did. They yearn to make Lima great again. I know now that it never was.