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From the Smokestack

"I was already nervous about my tenuous relationship to this place, the growing paradox that it could feel both intensely personal and glaringly shallow."

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The Knox Area Development Foundation sits in a gorgeous building. A converted railroad depot, its sandy bricks and arching windows look out on the now-empty Sandusky Street factory, once the center of Mount Vernon’s booming industry. To either side are overgrown lots with rusting jalopies, American makes, and at its front is West High Street, where newer cars zoom into the city’s revitalized downtown. It is a transitory setting, rooted in history while facing the future — the perfect location for the seed of a changing city.

If I had to summarize all that the ADF does, I would say it is like a small but crucial organ in the county’s evolving economy. As a nonprofit contracted by the local government, it doesn’t control much capital itself; instead, it is more of a conductor, attracting new businesses and helping current ones thrive. “We kind of think of ourselves as a little think tank,” Jeff Gottke, the director, said. By we he means himself and Cathy Youtkus, the projects coordinator.

But even before I knew all that, before I had stepped foot in the building, I was excited about the narrative possibilities of setting. I visited the ADF on a bitingly cold day, the kind of gloom I have come to associate with trudging Ohio Februarys, and as soon as I pulled into the parking lot, I knew I wanted to include the building in my article. It was the type of straight-from-reality metaphor that I love to slip in between standard reporting. The ADF, I figured, was a good place to start.

I came into my final semester a little burned-out from journalism. On top of all the other things I wanted to cram into my last Gambier spring, I knew a large side project would mean too many late nights, so I decided to pursue a story that had been on my mind for a couple years: the revitalization of downtown Mount Vernon. It was a trend I had noticed just by living in the area, a collection of developments that together seemed to spell an exciting momentum. The kinds of new businesses — cafes, breweries, specialty goods stores — that generate buzz in the disposably-incomed. Importantly, it was a positive story, with plenty of willing sources; I already had several leads. The article, in my mind, would emerge with little resistance.

I remember a cloudy morning (February, still) at Wiggin Street Coffee with Sam Barone ’72, who served as the executive director of the Knox County Foundation for 18 years, and his wife Paula Barone ’72. Both are former city council members. The Knox County Foundation controls a collection of funds it uses to award grants throughout the county, and as its head, Sam Barone witnessed the development of almost every public project in the past couple decades. Before I asked my first question, he launched into a neat, chronological narrative of Mount Vernon’s downtown revival. There was a beginning, a cast of characters, a steady staircase of progress. As Barone put it, “it was a phenomenal convergence of interests… that really set our community up for success for many decades to come.” In about a decade, the city’s hollowed-out Main Street went from a relic of bygone prosperity to a site of exciting potential. The first-floor vacancy rate downtown is now, in Gottke’s words, “basically zero.”

All I had to do was nod and clarify a few points as Barone spoke. It seemed fortuitous that I could end my college career with this story whose narrative peak so neatly coincided with my four years on the Hill.

The Knox County Area Development Foundation sits in an old B&O Railroad depot.

In March, once I could take a breath from all the million-and-one other disruptions of the pandemic, I thought, “Well, what do I do now with my article?” The idea of writing it as I had planned exhausted me. I was hundreds of miles away from Knox County, would never exist in it the same way again. The economy, everywhere for everyone, was reeling. I couldn’t help but feel that my relationship to central Ohio was severed.

Once, halfway through my first year at Kenyon, my grandma suggested I write an opinions piece for my hometown newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News. She thought I should share my observations of rural Ohio, its differences from familiar, suburban Silicon Valley. She said she knew an editor.

I was game. However, in my only draft, I quickly grew hesitant to make any sweeping judgements. And as a result, the article is vapid. I offer a few anecdotes of countryside runs and short trips into town before equivocating on any real reflection. I imply meaning while refusing to overtly claim it. At one point, I recount an entire episode from the hospital parking lot in which the big twist is: Something defied my expectations! I write, “What does that say about Ohio? Probably not a whole lot.” I was already nervous about my tenuous relationship to this place, the growing paradox that it could feel both intensely personal and glaringly shallow.

The weekend I came to clear out my apartment, right before the pandemic ground everything to a complete halt, I drifted around campus with the constant weight of coming tears. It was sunny that day and I kept thinking of those treasured weekend mornings when the weather was finally warm, the sense of fullness I used to and would no longer feel as I walked to Peirce.

Later, my friend drove us through downtown Mount Vernon on our way out. We were both sniffling. I took in the familiar brick facades, the newly-shuttered storefronts, remembered how, in some of the photos Barone later sent me, these couple blocks of Main Street appeared to hum with optimism, and thought, “This place has left something on me.” But when the tears finally arrived, they only staggered out in tense waves, as if I was shoving them out where they didn’t belong. I sat there in the passenger seat, choke-sobbing, window-longing, wondering what to make of this bizarre tearing in myself.

Barone’s intro: It all began with Ariel-Foundation Park. “It is impossible to look at what has been going on downtown distinct from what has also been developing simultaneously at Ariel-Foundation Park,” he said.

The park was just an exhausted quarry when former Mayor Richard Mavis bought the land in 2000. He knew the Kokosing Gap Trail, if extended to connect to the Heart of Ohio Trail, would run right next to the property; he saw the potential for man-made lakes. Conversion of the land was slow at first, but development took off after the Foundation Park Conservancy, which was formed in 2009, acquired the neighboring Pittsburgh Plate Glass Factory with funds from the Ariel Foundation, the philanthropic wing of local manufacturer, Ariel Corporation. Over the next few years, the park was landscaped into lakes, wildflower meadows, a meditative labyrinth, and ruins formed from parts of the old factory. The Schnormeier Event Center, named after Park Project Director Ted Schnormeier, is a converted 17,000 square foot structure left from the factory.

Because of this, Ariel-Foundation Park “has become a quintessential example of industrial reuse,” Barone said. In his telling, it set the tone for the following developments downtown, their trend of renovating instead of demolishing — a celebration of the past next to an awareness that the city is evolving. Conveniently, the park is another setting-turned-metaphor I happen to like.

One Friday afternoon, in the early fall of my junior year, I rode the KAT into Mount Vernon to do some reporting. I first interviewed Carrie Hyman, executive director of Main Street Mount Vernon, for an article on First Fridays, the monthly festivals on South Main Street, then walked the two miles from downtown to the Knox County Historical Society to receive a tour from its director, Jim Gibson. I was looking for more potential stories, though, after about two hours there, I mainly just remember learning about Paul Lynde, the Mount Vernon native who was a TV celebrity in the 1960s and ’70s. Lynde’s old 1964 Ford Thunderbird was parked in the middle of the room with a cutout of his smiling face on the driver-side window, as if he was still steering the wheel. Afterward, I walked back downtown to attend that month’s First Friday.

I had some time to kill, so I decided to pass through Ariel-Foundation Park on my way. It was my first time visiting, and the park, save for a couple bicyclists passing on the Gap Trail, was empty. As I climbed the stairs that wind up around the Rastin Observation Tower, a 280-foot-tall free-standing smokestack leftover from the factory, the immensity of the land gradually hit me. 250 acres is far too large to take in from ground level — the rolling lawns, the expansive lakes, the smatterings of industrial ruins. I was amazed at the investment put into this quiet, tucked-away gem.

Once I finally reached the top, I could see the rooftops of downtown Mount Vernon rising out of the trees. White spires and red brick, reminiscent of the type of quaint American town that, growing up in California, I had known well from history books without actually seeing in real life. There was a sense of unquestionability to it all, a plain-and-simple correctness; and, for that small moment, my world felt like a postcard.

The central premise of my abandoned article for the Merc was a statement my father once made: “Ohio is the armpit of the world,” he told me before I moved to Gambier. He had attended Case Western Reserve University during the ’80s, around the peak of Cleveland’s rust-belt depression; his memory of the city is riddled with abandoned urban lots. I had no context for how Knox County would be any different, so, gross generalization and snobbiness aside, I took the comment to heart. On the coast and in a city, it doesn’t take much to form reductive opinions about the heartland, and much of my continuing surprise in Ohio, I think, comes from that inherited scorn.

I pursued this article on downtown Mount Vernon in part because the city so frequently refuted my attempts to read it as another rust belt narrative. The same fall of my climb up the tower, a couple of my friends wrote an article for this magazine about the Sandusky Street factory campus. It was the year Siemens Energy Corporation, the most recent occupant of the facility, announced it was leaving without a replacement, and the article traced the history of the soon-to-be-empty campus and its long time occupant, Cooper, whose growth paralleled much of Mount Vernon’s own development. The story seemed to line up with my notions of struggling American industrial towns — indifferent corporations, sinister globalization — and yet I didn’t know how to reconcile that with all the activity I was seeing downtown.

I ran this by Gottke in our first interview, phrasing it as the problem of “the factory leaves town.” “We do not have that problem,” he agreed. He brought up neighboring Coshocton, which has seen the departure of several manufacturers in the last few years. “Comparatively, we’re doing much better than some peer cities of ours.” I remember an evening during my first month at Kenyon when I ate at Local Smoke, a food truck parked downtown, and watched a CrossFit class run around the neighboring building. I was shocked: the words CrossFit and rust belt seemed antithetical to me. No one had told me to expect trendy exercise classes.

Still, there are times when my biased assumptions come true. “This is not Shangri-La,” Barone added at the end of his narrative. “We have our problems. I mean, like a lot of communities like ours, we really struggle with opiates and meth addiction. We’ve still got some underemployment in the community; we’ve got some poverty.” The opioid pandemic, the brain drain, the Wal-mart effect — terms so-often tacked onto discussions of rural plight — are all phenomena that still apply to Knox County. It’s probably more accurate to say that the region’s success, like its struggles, is only part of the story.

To be honest, Mount Vernon’s downtown revitalization may not be all that repeatable for other old industrial centers. It owes much of its success to the city’s lucky circumstances: a proximity to the rapidly-growing Columbus, the rise of the family-owned and endlessly-philanthropic Ariel Corporation, and the presence of collaboration-eager institutions of higher learning. Gottke lauded the last group for the new purpose they have provided to Mount Vernon. “Downtown’s revitalization began around nonprofit institutions, particularly the three colleges in the county,” he said.

The Barones, too, placed emphasis on what some have taken to calling the “education corridor” along Main Street. In 2009, Mount Vernon Nazarene University (MVNU) renovated an old department store downtown into the Buchwald Center, which houses its visual arts program and an art gallery, then followed that up next-door with Hunter Hall in 2011, the home of its nursing school and the café Happy Bean. A year later, Central Ohio Technical College (COTC) opened its satellite Knox Campus in what was once a two-screen movie theater. And, finally, Kenyon joined the mix in early 2017 with the Wright Center, a renovation of the iconic Buckeye Candy Building. The new facility holds the College’s film department, its Office for Community Partnerships (OCP), and SPI, a science play space for children.

“Part of what Mount Vernon realized,” Paula Barone said, “is that its really big industry is education, with three different universities in the area, and that they needed to play on that.”

All three schools are now within a block of each other, bringing new opportunities for not just foot traffic but collaboration between the institutions and the community. In late 2019, Kenyon earned a joint grant with MVNU from the Interfaith Youth Core, a nonprofit focused on promoting interfaith understanding. The project, titled “Countering Polarization,” will bring small groups of students and faculty together from both institutions to train them on productively engaging with their differences (MVNU is affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene whereas Kenyon, despite its Episcopal beginnings, is secular). They are then expected to influence their respective campus cultures with what they have learned, according to Jewish Chaplain Marc Bragin, one of the leaders of the effort from Kenyon. Initially, the project was going to start next fall and contain a community-service and celebratory feast component, though that might change with the pandemic.

The joint grant, said Jan Thomas, the senior advisor for community relations at Kenyon, “would probably not have happened two years ago even, and not because there was ill will, just because we didn’t have the contacts.” The idea was almost dismissed when it first came up, she added, until its proponents realized they actually did have connections at MVNU to work with.

Kenyon’s participation in this revitalization push represents a break from its isolationist past. Thomas noted changing perceptions of Kenyon among the rest of the county: “People are happy to have Kenyon in the discussion. They do look at us as having expertise and resources, and I think there’s been a sense that we were holding it in Gambier. Now we’re really saying ‘Nope, we want to play with you too. We want to be part of this.’” Having an actual building downtown, she said, shows a strong commitment to that goal.

The OCP itself is a fairly recent development. The office was founded in 2015 with the help of a Mellon Foundation grant, just two years before a nearly $3 million donation from the Ariel Foundation made the construction of the Wright Center possible. But it has already taken an important role in Kenyon’s mission. Community Engaged Learning classes, which bring students out of the classroom to interact with and often help solve local problems, and the Community Internships program, which places Kenyon students at local businesses and organizations, are key components of Kenyon’s push for more “high-impact practices” — pedagogical jargon for experiences that best prepare students for the real world.

Like the ADF, the OCP acts as an important network in the community. “Honestly, that’s a lot of what we spend our time doing, is just making connections,” Thomas said. “Oftentimes we can back out then. It’s really just bringing the people together who need to have the conversations.” In my mind, the office is like a magnet between two morphing entities, Kenyon and Mount Vernon, encouraging them to grow into each other and form lasting bonds.

The most fascinating expression of this, at least to me, is the Lofts of Mount Vernon, a current project of the Ariel Foundation. The Lofts will convert unused upper-level space on the corner of Main and Gambier streets into 16 condos for downtown living, eight of which will be given to Kenyon with the other eight being split evenly between MVNU and Knox Community Hospital (KCH). The spaces are meant for the three institutions’ temporary housing needs, like visiting professors, missionaries, or medical professionals. “This is creating an opportunity for all of them to be neighbors,” Jen Odenweller, executive director of the Ariel Foundation said, “to get to know each other and to socialize and to do it in a space that has an industrial-revitalized, touch-of-urban feel.” That last part is what really gets me. When I first heard of this plan for dense urban-ish living in downtown Mount Vernon, my mind did a somersault.

What’s more, according to Odenweller, the Lofts are intended to be a pilot project that will encourage more renovations of living spaces downtown. Most buildings there have multiple floors, and while some of that upper-level space is already used for commercial or educational purposes, a good portion has the potential for conversion. When the Lofts project was announced, Odenweller received several calls from interested occupants — they hadn’t realized the condos were already given away — so, if that is any indication, the demand is there. A private investor has already purchased a building off the Mount Vernon Public Square with the intention of renovating some of it into living spaces.

Odenweller painted a picture for me of a sort of urban development feedback loop, with downtown residents drawing more business to the area and growing business drawing more residents. “There’s a ripple effect on that,” she said. Throw in the efforts for increased walkability (Gottke showed me proposals to turn the edges of the egregiously wide roundabout surrounding the Square into green space) and a potential cultural institution in the historic Woodward Opera House, and the vision of vibrant city life, at least in those few blocks of downtown, starts to seem like a real possibility.

I expressed to Odenweller how crazy that all sounded to me. When I first came to Kenyon, I remember thinking downtown looked like it was on its last legs. Maybe, just maybe, these new loft residents will do CrossFit together.

The Ariel Foundation helped turned a burned-out department store into South Main Plaza, which sits across Main Street from the location of the new Lofts project.

Three years ago, my art class visited a local custom wallpaper maker. His cavernous studio was on the second floor of another building along the square, and in it, there were two rows of long tables, about fifty feet each. He used them to lay out the rolls of paper on which he would repeatedly stencil his designs. The results were often ornate, adhering to specific historical styles — they were as labor-intensive as they were niche.

At some point, a student asked him why he worked in downtown Mount Vernon. His answer: It was cheap.  

The poster child of the OCP Community Internships program also happens to be my former housemate, Lucas Kreuzer ’20. After completing a summer research project on the history of industry in Mount Vernon, he got an internship with the Knox County Land Bank. As part of the ADF, the Land Bank uses its special legal status to clear up vacant and tax delinquent properties for resale. In return, it vets potential buyers depending on what they will use the property for. “The last thing we look at is what they’re gonna pay us for it,” Gottke said. The Land Bank has sold a house for one dollar before; what’s important is that the new owner contributes toward building a vibrant community. That means permanent residences over storage space, historic restoration over demolition.

Kreuzer’s role was to research the neighborhood on which the Land Bank was currently focused; his work helped envision what the refurbished community could look like. He had checked out a book on American architectural styles from the library, and one evening in my apartment, we flipped through it, noting all the different influences on the historic homes along East High Street and Gambier Road — Greek revival, Italianate, Victorian; all jammed together on the same block, sometimes in the same house. Here was one of my peers, a native of the Philadelphia area and soon to become a teacher in Austria, who was, for the moment, deeply ingrained in his local terrain.

Kreuzer even got the attention of the Office of Communications, which made a promotional video about his internship for Kenyon’s website. In it, there’s a slow-mo shot of him on Middle Path, some staged meetings between him and Gottke. I admit, my friends and I teased him some for it. But the fact that his work became front page material shows Kenyon’s excitement about these opportunities. Jan Thomas agreed: “Those are the kinds of experiences that prospective students are looking for… We’re not ashamed of where we are. It’s an asset.”

To be fair, Kreuzer might be an extreme example — on some weekend nights, he refused to hang out with us because he was busy writing his honors thesis on local industry — but I think his experience speaks to Mount Vernon’s dynamic moment, how its current malleability has presented openings for those looking to make a change. Half a decade since the OCP was founded, Kenyon’s community already seems incontrovertibly tied into that of greater Knox County. It’s as if both sides were primed to intermix. All they needed was a small catalyst to make that first link.

The headline: “Political divide impacts Class of 2021 admissions.” In 2017, applications to Kenyon were down 12.5 percent, the Kenyon Collegian reported. Part of the reason, at least according to Vice President of Enrollment and Dean of Admissions Diane Anci, was Trump’s election. High school guidance counselors had told her that students from the coasts were afraid of moving to a region with Trump signs and confederate flags on prominent display.

It’s almost cliché to talk about the growing political divide these days. The fact that I feel this after four years at Kenyon, which is so politically isolated in its surroundings that it received mention in the New York Times, is perhaps a sign of how much discussion around the issue goes on at the College. Trump won Knox County by nearly 40 percentage points in 2016, the same year I entered Kenyon, and ever since, it seems the mostly-liberal faculty have been pondering how to address this gap.

In my junior year, I wrote for this magazine about the Ken Harbaugh congressional campaign whose energetic democratic challenge to the republican incumbent, Bob Gibbs, fell short. Part of this energy, especially in Knox County, came from the local democratic-leaning group, Ohio 7 Watch, named after the region’s congressional district. The group existed before Harbaugh’s campaign and has continued to organize after it, working to bridge their political differences from the area through on-the-ground connections; and many, though not all, of its leaders are Kenyon faculty or staff who described 2016 as a sort of wake-up call. They are not representative of the institution as a whole, but neither would I say they are outliers; in other words, Kenyon’s increasingly outward perspective may influence a subtler development in Mount Vernon. Viewed from a partisan lens, the foundations of the city’s pivot toward the future — urban appeal, an emphasis on higher ed — have an unmistakably liberal slant.

I doubt, though, that Knox County has to fear a makeover from the dreaded liberal elite. After all, downtown is just a small portion of the city and Barone’s comment about its differences from the rest of the region still rings true. Despite my urge to hypothesize this revitalization as a rural Ohio version of Short North, that chic Columbus neighborhood, comparisons might be more limiting than illuminating here. The idea, as I understand it, of bridging the gap between Kenyon and its surroundings, is not to convert the region to an ivory-tower blue but to recognize the many commonalities on which both sides can meet. Considering the oft-lamented polarization of the moment, there aren’t many blueprints for such an endeavor. I struggle to imagine what a thriving city that still maintains its factory-town and rural influences could look like, and that is telling.

After my interview with the Barones, they pointed me to Sam and Lacey Filkins, the director of student engagement and director of first-year experience and student success, respectively, at Kenyon. The Barones cited them as two younger adults deliberately choosing to make a home in Mount Vernon — a trend I had first heard about from Gottke. I was curious to tap into their perspective; it seemed that this population, its aspirations for the city, would be a good measure of how much the revitalization efforts were shifting Mount Vernon life.

It turned out, according to the Filkins, that what they find attractive about Mount Vernon is not what it could become but what it has always been. They described themselves as both growing up in “small-town Ohio,” and, after living in Cleveland and Tampa, they wanted to move back to that environment to raise their family. Sam said he enjoys running into friends at the grocery store, the ability to form close bonds with his neighbors. Most everyone he knows who has chosen to stay in the city feels the same way: “the things that make [Mount Vernon] a hallmark are the small community things, so if you don’t like those, if you want to be more anonymous…” he paused and Lacey filled in, “Mount Vernon is never gonna be a town of 100,000,” she said. “That’s just never going to be Mount Vernon’s identity.”

The Filkins praised the downtown revitalization, which Lacey called “staggering,” but saw it as the result of a larger force. Mount Vernon is a city that believes in itself right now. It is somewhere where “if you have dreams about what you want to do, you can just go out and go for it,” Sam said. Lacey described euchre nights with their friends in which they all discussed how to best create change on a local level.

It is here that my Short North comparison really falls apart. Ultimately, it makes sense that if a person wanted that sort of urban environment, they would just move to Columbus. The Mount Vernon crowd wants something different. “Most of the people we know aren’t frequenters of Columbus,” Sam said; they were content with Mount Vernon’s increasing but relatively small nightlife. The main exception was single young professionals, a fact which, to be honest, only affirms Mount Vernon’s persisting roots in a small-town and family-friendly appeal. The “education corridor” has not made it a college town. Several of the callers interested in the lofts, Odenweller said, were retirees looking to downsize their living space.

Perhaps this should have been obvious to me from the start, but it wasn’t. Even after four years in Knox County, my grasp of the small-town ideal is persistently thin.

The pandemic and its economic effects, so far, have been comparatively mild in the region. In April, I called Gottke to hear what things were like there. He was between a mixture of fatigue and optimism. The ADF was sending out daily informational emails to help large employers navigate aid and find new opportunities, with Main Street Mount Vernon and the Knox County Chamber of Commerce doing the same for smaller businesses. But once they weathered the storm, Gottke thought, things would recover. “As long as we can keep money in people’s pockets and the demand pent-up, when we are able to pump up regular business again then things will get back to normal quickly,” he said.

Hearing that from where I was at my aunt’s apartment in Brooklyn, it sounded a little too hopeful — the idea of feeling safe in public spaces has already become foreign to me — but when the county opened up through May and early June, residents flocked back outside. Fear of infection seemed to be low; the county, after all, has only had 35 total cases. Gottke calculated that unemployment in the county peaked at 12 percent in April and that it is now below seven percent. It has the second lowest unemployment rate in the 11 county Columbus region, a fact that Gottke attributed to the colleges, hospital, and government being top employers behind manufacturing.

Up to this point, much of the construction in downtown Mount Vernon has operated as a stimulus instead of a response. Gottke explained how economic models have shifted since the ADF’s inception in the mid-20th century: “The old model was: factory moves into town, workers come to the factory, vibrant city shows up. Now it’s sort of the opposite: We need to make a vibrant city so workers come to town so factories come.” The downtown revitalization along with the Land Bank are part of that goal.

But there are limits to this. Some of those involved in the restoration of the Woodward, Sam Barone said, thought the theater’s historic value was enough of a draw to bring in consistent revenue. It wasn’t. Now the Woodward has to figure out how to operate as a small entertainment venue. And despite some gains in new employers, Mount Vernon is still largely a bedroom community. It exports about 3,200 workers a day while importing only 360, according to Gottke. He acknowledged that being in the Columbus region provided a wealth of opportunities — the county’s per capita income has grown by 35 percent since 2000, a number that wouldn’t be nearly as high without Columbus — but that it could also be a curse: “In certain particularly white-collar jobs we are having a hard time competing with the salaries that Columbus offers,” he said.

One of the biggest weaknesses in the county’s economy, Gottke added, is its lack of diversification. 22 percent of its workforce is in manufacturing. “We have more manufacturing workforce as a percentage than anywhere else in the Columbus region,” he said, “so we make things here.” Industry has been and is still Mount Vernon’s identity. The problem is that most of that is in the oil and gas industries, which can be “unpredictable.” The traits that make Mount Vernon what it is — its sleepy charm, its blue-collar spirit — might be the same things that limit its growth.

The historic Woodward Opera House on South Main Street.

It is hard to overstate the importance for Mount Vernon of the Ariel Corporation, its philanthropic foundation, and its CEO, Karen Buchwald-Wright (as Sam Barone told me, the three are often considered one-in-the-same). The privately-owned company is the leading manufacturer of natural gas compressors in the world, tying it to an industry that, because of new technologies like hydraulic fracturing, is in the middle of a boom. The fact that much of that money has found its way to the community is evidenced by just how many buildings and parks either carry the name Ariel, Buchwald, or Wright. For practically every major development in the city since the late 2000s, Buchwald-Wright has served as the financial backbone to actually get it done. Her contributions are so extensive that not even the Ariel Foundation’s website lists every project she has helped, ranging from support of local nonprofits and education programs to “brick-and-mortar” construction, like a new family care center for KCH or the Grand Hotel, which she gave to MVNU to run.

“It’s important for us as a community to balance all these things out,” Jen Odenweller said. “We can’t only focus in one area. We will never increase and improve the vibrancy, the vitality, the sustainability without trying to address a number of different pieces of the greater puzzle.” It just so happens that Buchwald-Wright, a Mount Vernon native who has often expressed her commitment to the city, has the funds to think about the entire puzzle.

It is in discussions of Ariel’s role that my bias as a storyteller is most apparent to me. As crucial and generous as Buchwald-Wright’s philanthropy has been to the revitalization efforts, I am reluctant to center it in my writing because, on some level, I think I’m disappointed that the secret ingredient to Mount Vernon’s growth may just be its personal money tree. There have been dozens of dedicated players like the ADF that have worked toward Mount Vernon’s current health, but a large reason why the city has avoided the rust belt woes is simply that another powerful company rose to take the place of Cooper. As Gottke pointed out, Knox County is still heavily dependent on manufacturing. Connecting and cooperating, two things my sources told me the community does well, in addition to those types of plans-turned-into-reality that Sam Filkins described, become a lot easier when there is a deep-pocketed philanthropist around.

Filkins noted the psychic effect of that presence: “That’s really what separates Mount Vernon from some other small towns,” he said. “We have a billionaire that lives here and that cares that much about the community.” When I read that quote now, it sounds a little sardonic, but Filkins was cheery as he said it.

Odenweller described a philanthropic process based on widespread conversations. “We sit and we have coffee and we talk,” she said, “we talk on the phone and talk to people on the streets.” I don’t doubt this — Buchwald-Wright is not Les Wexner, the retail magnate who turned nearby New Albany into his personal sandbox — but still, I imagine her own desires for Mount Vernon must at least partially seep into the money she gives out. A thriving city that maintains its industrial-rural roots would make sense for the region’s leading manufacturer, even if it is popular among residents like the Filkins for other reasons.

What really interests me though is Buchwald-Wright’s political leanings: beyond the community, she is a major donor to several conservative Super PACs. For all my musings about an increasing liberal presence in the county, Buchwald-Wright’s far-reaching influence is a strong indicator that political change will be more of a balance than a wave. But neither is she trying to freeze the town as it is. The revitalization she has helped fund, like encouraging more participation from the colleges, does seem to be shifting voices in the region.

On Monday, June 1, Mount Vernon had a demonstration in support of Black Lives Matter. Hundreds of locals, waving “No Justice no Peace” and “Black Lives Matter” signs, marched around the Public Square for an hour to join in the movement against police brutality and systemic racism that was sparked by the killing of George Floyd. Mount Vernon wasn’t the only small town to hold a version of the nation-wide protests and public opinion on the prevalence of racism in the country is rapidly changing, but still: Knox County is over 95 percent white. In the article on Knox Pages, a news site for the county, longtime Knox County resident and advocate for racial justice, Jim Singletary, was quoted as saying “I never thought I’d see anything like this here in Knox County.” I agree.

Perhaps I am underestimating the power of the moment, but a large part of me feels that Mount Vernon must have undergone some internal shift since 2016 to be able to hold such a protest (Catie Hayes, one of the organizers, said she deliberately avoided the word “protest," instead opting for the softer “demonstration,” but I see no reason for assuaging fears now that it is over). If so, I can’t help but tie some of that change to the increasing influence of the colleges. Three of the four organizers went to MVNU and many of the participants, like President Sean Decatur, were connected to Kenyon. Even before that, I wonder if Signs on the Square, a weekly protest organized by the leaders of Ohio 7 Watch, helped familiarize county residents to the idea of protest, or if the Knox Alliance for Racial Equality (KARE), a nonprofit formed in 2018 to address issues of race in the county that is co-chaired by an MVNU professor and administrator and supported by several Kenyon connections, laid some groundwork for the conversation on race in the county. Hayes, along with her husband, another organizer of the June protest, regularly attends a book discussion group led by one of KARE’s founders, Scott Elliott. She credited her local activist forebears for all the work they’ve done in a less-receptive environment to lead up to this point.

No matter what, the protest went off smoothly. Knox Pages reported a truck driving around with “White Lives Matter” and “Fuck the Protestors” spray-painted on its windows but that seems mild compared to the possible armed counter-protest city officials anticipated. Hayes felt bolstered by the success. “It made me feel that real change could happen,” she said. The police chief and mayor had called her beforehand to help coordinate the event; officers were on the sides handing out water. When, at the end of the march around the square, a group broke off to continue down South Main Street, the police helped escort them. “It was incredible,” Hayes said. “I couldn’t say a negative thing about my interactions with them.” She had previously gone to a protest in Columbus and described feeling afraid of the police presence there; she hadn’t felt that at all in Mount Vernon.

At a memorial I attended in Brooklyn for George Floyd, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio got up to speak. The crowd booed him before turning their backs; he left without finishing his speech. Soon after, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams got up and, in the middle of a heavily-cheered speech, declared “We have the wrong president, and the wrong governor, and the wrong mayor.”

The night before, in that same plaza, police had boxed-in peaceful protestors who were breaking curfew, and charged with batons, causing panic and making several arrests. The crowd-control maneuver, called “kettling,” has become increasingly popular among police and increasingly denounced by protestors.

There’s a lot to be said about the split between these experiences, but for now, what I feel most sure of is that I’m glad I know about both.

In my interview with Jan Thomas and Stacy Haught, the assistant director of the OCP, they mentioned they would like to see a story about the less-publicized interactions between Kenyon students and the local community. The stuff that wasn’t directly linked to the OCP.

Instead of carrying on with the interview, I started telling them about my barbershop. It is a decidedly male space, the military and sports being its primary sources of décor; the only women I’ve seen in there were mothers taking their sons for a haircut, though once, when I was waiting my turn, a group of women popped in and hovered around the doorway, giggling and asking, “So what are you boys up to today?” It is also a political space. One of the barbers told my friend, who was reluctant to share his political opinions, “If you get your hair cut here, you have to tell us who you’re voting for.” After my friend nervously said Pete Buttigieg, his barber revealed he was voting for Bernie Sanders. Across the room, another barber chimed in, “I’d vote for Bernie if I knew how he was gonna pay for everything.” I’ve read so much about swing voters, these “average Americans” whose foremost concerns are taxes and not party, without actually knowing any, that, over the years, they started to seem like a mythical creature to me. I half-expected some candidate to walk into the barbershop and, with an I’m-listening face on, start shaking everyone’s hands.

It’s true my location has led to an almost unexpected education. There’s a definite way I can sell that experience, one that would perhaps fit next to Kreuzer on promotional material, and while it’s not wrong, I’m also not sure it’s right.

My first semester at Kenyon, because of a misunderstanding and my enduring inability to say no, and in spite of the fact that I’m not religious, I wound up at a youth group dinner in Mount Vernon. It was held on the upper-floor of a church, a room set up just for us teens. I sat down with a group of high schoolers. I forget exactly how but the conversation, as it often does, found its way to the topic of my race. I told them I was half Chinese.

The high schoolers were elated. “Amanda!” they called out to their friend, “come over here.” Amanda appeared. “Get this,” one of them said, “Justin here is Chinese.”

“No way,” Amanda said, now also elated. She pointed to her face. “Everyone always says I look Chinese because I have slanty eyes.” She tugged on the corners of her eyes to demonstrate.

A little while later, during a video about accepting God into your life, the girl next to me nudged me and motioned at the screen. A Korean woman was opening her front door onto a sunny day. “Look Justin,” the girl said, “it’s your mom.”

I just nodded, failing to clarify that my mother, who is in fact not in that video, was white.

By my junior year, I had dropped my interests in anthropology, neuroscience, and philosophy. I started taking more Spanish classes, especially ones with a Latin American focus. What drew me to them was the subject matter, how its embrace of hybridity and its scrutiny of the U.S.’s self-image, in turn, helped me understand myself.

In the article on the Sandusky Street factory, Jim Gibson called B.B. Williams, Cooper’s president during the boom years of the early 20th century, “a Jimmy Stewart type of guy.”

I’ve been rolling that over in my mind. Jimmy Stewart is the lead actor in It’s a Wonderful Life, that enduring celebration of American small-town life. There’s a cozy ecosystem in the movie, everyone helping everyone, the forces of kindness countering the big bad Mr. Potter. It is a heartwarming story, I don’t want to begrudge that, but it is also one in which I have trouble imagining my hapa face.

Paul Lynde, I later found out, was closeted his whole life. He struggled with alcoholism. I watched a compilation of his one-liners from the game show Hollywood Squares and was struck by their snark, the way they oozed flirtation with the host, Peter Marshall. I don’t know if I missed something, but I can’t remember a single thing in the Historical Society or Gibson’s stories that even hinted at this part of the hometown hero’s life.

Come to think of it, three of my favorite Mount Vernon restaurants, Fiesta Mexicana, Hunan Garden, and Ichiban Sushi and Hibachi, are all on the outskirts of the city. None of them stand out in terms of cuisine, but there is something about their energy that kept me coming back. Maybe part of me took comfort in their piecemeal entrepreneurship, in their spatial navigation that, like mine, was feeling its way through a defined difference. I’m not sure; that sounds a little too noble. I also just like those types of food. A friend of mine once lamented the fact that Ichiban served Thai and Chinese dishes on top of Japanese ones, that the owner and many of the workers of this Japanese restaurant were actually Chinese, but I don’t see his point. I just figure that, like me, the restaurant is mixed.

In the middle of this story, though, I realized I couldn’t picture any of these restaurants in the new downtown. All of them have a sort of ethnic kitsch to their décor, like the replica terracotta soldier at the entrance to Ichiban or the sombrero murals in Fiesta — the product of marketing themselves to a majority-white customer base, I imagine — and I just can’t see that harmonizing with renovations that aim to “respect the city’s history.” These restaurants form a pillar of my experience in rural Ohio, but where do they fit into Mount Vernon’s identity?

I returned to the Rastin Observation Tower at the beginning of my senior year, when my father visited for parents weekend. I wanted to show him the view.

Again, the park was mostly empty. Those shimmering lakes and that idyllic town in the distance. It was just the two of us up there. My father, I think, loved it. He circled the platform taking photos, commenting on how green everything was. He’s visited me a couple times before, on excursions from Cleveland business trips, and we always do the same thing: a run on the Gap Trail followed by a meal in town. At one diner, he was floored by the low price of a steak; he tipped extra well because he was so excited. He is an effusive man. He has told me, on several occasions, how happy he is that I ended up where I did.

I don’t think my father really believes Ohio is an armpit. During his time at Case, his own father, recently divorced, moved from the Bronx to German Village in Columbus, a neighborhood that I would guess has more red bricks than the entire state of California. I never got to hear from my gonggong about that experience, but I wonder if, like his son and his son’s son, he felt that tug of dissonance. A solid and true desire tinged with the lingering knowledge that it has never been for you. I suspect my father took those photos on the tower for the same reason I took him up there, for the same reason the Filkins love Mount Vernon, for the same reason Buchwald-Wright has invested so much money in revitalizing a historic downtown. Mount Vernon will remain a town where patriotism is an unquestioned virtue, where civic cooperation still holds the public’s trust, where high school football reigns supreme. If you can touch that image of all-American certainty, why would you ever let it go?

Despite all my fears of position, I still feel compelled to write about this place. I guess, in a chorus of voices, a single off-key note won’t cause too much harm.

On that last trip to Knox County, before I moved out for good, my friend and I drove by Wolf Run Park. We both realized we had always wanted to walk through those meadows, so we did, parking in the gravel lot off Yauger Road. The sky, at that point, was a heavy gray; the trails were mostly mud. But we still managed to squish our way through, blabbering the whole time about all the things we would never get to do in Knox County. “It’s not fair, it’s not fair,” we kept saying. We had such big plans for our goodbye.

Once I returned to New York and began the rhythms of quarantine, the primary feeling I had was detachment. My aunt has been a wonderful host, taking me in when I decided not to go back to San Jose, but Brooklyn is not my home. During bouts of claustrophobia, I go on aimless runs through these streets, taking lefts or rights for the sake of continuous movement, trying to remember the street names but knowing that, ultimately, it won’t matter. That all I can do is listen and wait. Perhaps limbo is the only place to be when your world is shaking, when the tremors won’t stop to give you footing; and, I admit, I’m excited to hit the ground running; but I know, too, that limbo can be terrifying. There are days, weeks, when my unmooring becomes so heavy that I can’t escape the bog. It is in those periods that I find myself longing for my last solid home, for a place I know well, for, as it turns out, a small village and a shifting town in the middle of Ohio.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the Knox ADF is a government office. It is a private nonprofit contracted by the government.


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