November 28, 2011

Occupy Ashtabula, Ohio?


If you’re not from Ohio or western Pennsylvania then chances are you’ve never heard of Ashtabula. Other than a passing mention in Jack Kerouac’s The Road and Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When Your Gone” Ashtabula has had little to no chance to enter the national consciousness. The once important port town on Lake Erie has had double-digit unemployment for at least a decade. Docks that once loaded and unloaded cargo ships are now long closed, or worse, no longer extant. The dozen or so manufacturing companies that operated there over the years have all left as well.

Add to this troubling economic situation the fact that Ashtabula still possesses the mouldering infrastructure of a once bustling downtown shopping district, a harbor district and enough housing to put-up generations of workers and their families; add all that up and you have seriously depressed real estate values and little to no tax revenue. Ashtabula is not so small and this is what makes it all the more tragic. You can buy a house there for under $20,000.

My grandparents both started their life in Ashtabula. My grandfather, Carlos Cappitena (shortened to Capp), was born the son of Finnish and Italian immigrants and started his construction business there after fighting in World War II. Though he did the majority of his work in south Florida, he yet retired to the snow belt and Ashtabula out of love of his home town. Fifteen years ago when they decided to make the move back to Ohio the town was already in a state of advanced decay. There had not been a major employer in Ashtabula for decades. Fifteen years later and it is obviously worse. This is not a new story. All over the country, let alone in the Rust belt itself, there are neglected cities like Ashtabula.

This Thanksgiving I traveled to see my ninety-year-old grandparents in Ashtabula. Small towns are generally celebrated for their ability to remain the same over the years but unfortunately Ashtabula does not have such a luxury. Every time I visit it, it’s a little bit diminished. The buildings have been uninhabited downtown for one or two years longer than before. Houses have been on the market that much longer, too, unsold.

So when I learned that the town boasted an Occupy movement of its own I wasn’t shocked at all. It might seem quaint in comparison and lack the noteworthy names spending their night in jail for a bold evening or two like the bigger occupations, but the occupations at Ashtabula and even the larger one at Youngstown, Ohio are perhaps more clearly defined than the foundational one at Wall Street. While Wall St. is certainly the fortress of everything the movement is fighting against, a city like Ashtabula is everything that the movement is or should be fighting for. The 99% is a wide-ranging demographic, but at its bottom is the forgotten mill and port towns. Places like Ashtabula, Ohio or York, Pennsylvania.

So it is heartening to share the humble picture above, of four stalwarts keeping a camp open in Ashtabula. That night they were going to be joined in solidarity by Occupy Youngstown for a night of planning and sharing. Occupy Ashtabula has since temporarily broken up, due to problems involving harassment and danger from local homeless populations, but they plan to continue to hold weekly meetings and when the time is right, reform.

You can follow Occupy Ashtabula on Facebook, perhaps lending some solidarity or equipment. You can also read this wonderful article on the Daily Kos about Occupy “Bula” which does a much better job of talking up the beautiful covered bridges and the charm of Ashtabula than I have. The harbor now boasts a run of bars and restaurants well worth visiting and I can certify the steadfastly maintained and always open doors of Loft House Books in downtown “Bula.”

Hopefully when you visit the movement will have reformed in the park. You can find it right across from the massive old courthouse, which sports a giant slab of marble in front, etched with the celebrated words of John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you,” etc. A sentiment that seems perversely cruel in a city that has been abandoned by its country for at least thirty years running.


Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.