Winter of the American Heartland
A long cold spell grips a proud culture. When will spring arrive?
I spent my childhood in a place called Marion, Ohio. Situated an hour north of Columbus on US-23 and two hours southwest of Cleveland along I-71, Marion is a flat, tree-lined haven of cornfields, baseball diamonds, train tracks, and steel.
If Ohio is the heartland of America, Marion is geographically and culturally the heart of that heartland. And if Ohio is the middle of nowhere, Marion is oblivion.
But Marion is something else. It is a very typical Midwestern town. A residential and commercial hub at the core of a sprawling and mostly rural county. It is where people live, work, eat, pray, go to school, play ball, and blow off steam. Midwestern towns aim for self-sufficiency. They want to exist on their own hard work, grit, and moxie. They reject dependency.
The American heartland is dotted with such towns. Connect those dots and you have a picture of America’s “flyover” states. Traditionalist enclaves typifying a unique blend of country and urban, industrial and agricultural, yesterday and tomorrow. If you understand these towns, you understand the American culture which exists outside of heavily populated coastal cities. It is a culture rich with pride and achievement. A culture comprised of the best of both our conservative and liberal impulses. People in places like Marion endeavor to work hard, play hard, live, and let live. But over the past three decades, places like Marion have grown increasingly stagnant, frustrated, and neglected.
Marion’s birth as a village dates to 1821. Gifted with rich soil deposited by a glacial melt some 14,000 years ago, it became a productive agricultural center in the fledgling economy of the new America. Situated at the junction of two main rail lines, the town’s growth was fuelled by commerce and logistical advantage. It grew faster than many others in its region of Ohio, hitting nearly 4,000 residents by 1880.
The Industrial Revolution brought further growth. The town’s access to rail made it an ideal location to build heavy machinery. Marion Steam Shovel Company opened its doors in 1886 and would later build the shovels that dug the Panama Canal.
The company later evolved into Marion Power Shovel, entrenching as the city’s largest employer for most of the twentieth century. Several members of my own family worked there over the decades, including my grandfather.
They built the shovels that dug the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River and the transports that moved the rockets of the Apollo space program to their launch pads. Incidentally, Neil Armstrong grew up an hour away in Wapakoneta, a rural village on the same farming plain.
Over the years, other industries grew in and around Marion, with factories and warehouses supporting companies like ConAgra, Wyandot, Whirlpool, Eaton, and dozens of others. Steel and metallurgy became town trademarks. My Dad spent just over two decades in a Quaker warehouse, packaging pet food products. He brought home deeply discounted Quaker oats and cereals throughout our childhood. To this day I can barely stand the sight of a bowl of oatmeal, and if I never have another bowl of Cap’n Crunch, it’ll be one too many.
Readily available work drew people into Marion, and with the influx came a construction boom to absorb more working class families. The population swelled to nearly 40,000 by the middle of the 1980s. The city had ridden the baby boomer wave and kept right on going, with large and close-knit families more and more common over time.
Growing up in Marion was excellent. I even thought so at the time, though not without the typical, if inexplicable, teen angst. It was a town big enough that you didn’t quite know everyone, but small enough that you could get from one side to the other in 10 minutes. If you wanted new friends, you could find them. If you wanted to deepen existing relationships, it was easy to run with the same crowd for a dozen years. Harding High School was fed by three middle schools whose catchments covered the whole of the town. So by the middle of the ninth grade, kids from across the town spectrum were simmering in the same melting pot.
Anything you wanted, you could find close to home. Buckeye football was less than an hour down the road, inspiring a level of fanaticism not quite present in the overlapping fan bases of the Reds, Indians, Bengals, Browns, and Cavaliers. This doesn’t mean Marionites are casual about their professional sports teams … ask anyone my age how they feel about Art Modell moving the Browns to Baltimore and you’ll get an ear full. If the other ear gets jealous, ask whether Pete Rose should be in Cooperstown.
In the 1980s, it was a prototype town. Great schools, safe streets, and a strong athletic culture for kids to rally around. A mile from city center, Lincoln Park provided a dozen well-maintained baseball fields where kids of all ages could come of age, summer over summer. Those summers closed out with an annual Popcorn Festival which transformed the downtown into a week-long carnival. Kids walked the streets in a pre-ordained loop, spotting friends and shooting the breeze. The other 51 weeks of the year, they did the same thing in the same place, but drove their cars instead. “Shooting the loop” was a seemingly hollow and mundane activity, yet a mainstay of the Marion teenager.
There were people less advantaged than others, but no one seemed to be truly impoverished. Families and friends pitched in to help those down on their luck until they could grapple for a better lot in life. My brother and I lived with our Mom for several years after our parents were divorced. She went back into a workforce she’d been away from for a decade. We bounced around for a few years, living in a half dozen different rentals. But she was always able to find work and never wanted for a safety net.
Families had vacations every summer — usually to Lake Erie, but sometimes further afield, such as Disney or Myrtle Beach. We went out to eat regularly. Our parents drove decent cars — many of them Hondas built down the road in Marysville — and most of us had our own wheels as teenagers. We wore decent clothes. We had cable TV, which was a new thing back then. Nearly all of us had then-cutting-edge gaming consoles. My brother and I got a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas in 1986 despite our Dad’s emphatic hatred for video games. We collected sports cards. We attended entertainment events at the coliseum and rode rides at the fairgrounds. We had decent shoe leather.
But as the 1980s wound down, things changed. The trademark steel comprising Marion’s spine started to rust. Almost overnight, a town basking in the light of a seemingly eternal economic summer felt the chill of a precipitous slowdown. Cold rapidly descended. Thirty years later, it has only grown colder.
I left Marion in 1990 to join the military. I’ve visited sporadically over the years since. Every time I have returned, the visuals and the vibe have reflected a city worse off than during the previous visit. Marion has been in a downhill slide for a long time.
Today, there is an entrenched problem with unemployment and underemployment. Gone are the massive industrial warehouses and factories of yesteryear. Marion Power Shovel went defunct in 1997 after being bought and liquidated by a rival company. Steel manufacturing and metallurgy have all but abandoned the town, with only a rebar plant and a train tank refurbisher remaining in the sector. Trains now roll through rather than stopping.
Indeed the vast majority of Marion’s former industrial employment base has long since fractured and eroded. Today the city boasts only about 3,000 industrial jobs — less than half the number it traditionally offered to a smaller population in decades past. A fair number of the industrial jobs which do exist are temporary roles secured via recruitment agencies. They pay substantially less, offer fewer benefits, and promise zero income security. This makes workers reticent to part with their earnings, resulting in 10% less retail spending in Marion as compared to the national average. This has dried up a once vibrant shopping culture.
Industrial jobs have been back-filled to a great extent by service and retail positions which also pay less and offer fewer benefits. This has put the squeeze on Marion families to pay a much higher basis for their health insurance, leaving many short of the income and asset threshold to buy a home and settle down. This has contributed to a declining population, which is 2.0% smaller over the past decade in contrast with national population growth of 6.4%.
Marion’s unemployment rate is 7% higher than the national average, contributing to a 10% higher poverty rate. The rate of home ownership is 8.4% lower in Marion against the national median, and it shows in the neglect and decrepitude of once respectable homes. Fewer than six in ten homes in Marion are owner-occupied, 6.5% less than in comparable American cities. Renters have less incentive to maintain and improve properties, and landlords cannot demand high enough rents to reinvest meaningfully.
Consequently, home values are $130,000 lower than the national median in Marion … you can expect a mere 35% of what you could get on average elsewhere when selling your house. More distressingly, developers seem to have given up. There were zero residential building permits open within Marion as of the 2018 census.
Even more concerning is that Marionites are starting to give up on themselves. In a town that once boasted some of the finest public schools in the state, only 73% of kids are now finishing high school. Only 10.5% of Marionites hold a Bachelors degree or higher, compared with an average of 31.5% in other municipalities with similar populations.
With declining incomes, reduced property ownership, elusive job prospects, and waning education levels, it’s not surprising social ills are on the rise. People turn to drugs, crime, and collective stagnation when things are this bad for this long.
Marion’s crime rate is 11% worse than the Ohio average, with both property crimes and violence rising in recent years. I can’t recall us ever locking the doors of our homes or cars growing up in this town. Today no one would rationally consider leaving either unlocked.
The driving force behind rising crime rates is a drug epidemic that has gripped the city for more than a decade. Heroin made its way to the city around 2007 and skyrocketed in popularity as rates of opiate prescription and addiction grew in the subsequent years. Marion’s fate ran parallel to Ohio’s. As of 2017, the state had the second highest rate of opioid-related drug overdoses in the nation.
Ohio’s overdose deaths have increased by a multiple of 35 since the turn of the century. The accidental overdose death rate in Marion continues to climb from a rate of 11 per 100,000 population in 2014 to 42 per 100,000 in the most recent data. A 2015 report from NPR chronicled the tragedy and helplessness of a once idyllic community being made into a shell of itself by heroin, fentanyl, and opioid addiction.
From a policing perspective, all criminal roads lead back to the same source. Theft, shoplifting, and robbery are traceable to drug-seeking, while assault, battery, and rape reflect drug trafficking and use.
All of these changes over time have conspired to undermine the cohesion and identity of the Marion community. The town has lost its sense of self. And like many other communities trapped in seemingly perpetual socioeconomic decline, it has begun the search for ready-made villains.
Marionites upset about their declining city and culture tend to blame national politicians, immigrants, welfare recipients, and the decline of traditional values. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this narrative echoes what many Americans are fed by prominent politicians, pundits, professional malcontents, and the media. The rise of social media provides constant fuel for disillusionment, along with a ready supply of proposed bogeymen.
Against this backdrop of declining horizons, Marion has been a dependably conservative voting bloc. You have to go all the way back to LBJ in 1964 to find a Democrat nominee who carried the county in a general election. Donald Trump won the county by more than 9,000 votes in 2016 — a whopping 34% margin of victory. Not unlike other downtrodden cities and towns across the American heartland, Marionites are desperate for a political leader to carry them back to greatness.
Given that 50 years of faith in Republican politics has been matched with decline, it’s fair to question the validity of wishing for a Republican answer to Marion’s economic crisis, which is the engine driving every other problem.
But it’s also understandable for people in communities like Marion to resent the likes of Bill Clinton, who championed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This trade deal had benefits for America, but it triggered the mass departure of manufacturing jobs, and this is the root cause for the city’s decay. NAFTA has inspired a deep-set anti-Clinton sentiment in places like Marion … and unless the Democrat party dissociates itself from “Clintonism,” Marionites and their ilk across the heartland will remain susceptible to messages promising the arrival of a political messiah equipped to repair the rust belt.
One thing is clear. No matter who has been president, governor, or mayor … jobs have not come back to Marion. That is a political failure with massive human consequences.
In many ways, Marion’s story is that of America writ large. A proud and great society ushered into a post-industrial economy without first being structured or equipped to succeed. Advantages have been given away willingly because doing so benefited someone with access to lawmakers. But without those advantages, the American worker is stuck in a cold and darkening environment where things are always getting worse … and there is seemingly no way to break the cycle.
And yet, in the midst of all this misery, there is so much virtue. The people of Marion are hard-working, lacking only the opportunity to prove it at scale. They pay their taxes. They go to church. Even those whose families are touched by addiction, unemployment, failure … they keep the faith. Marion’s population is declining, but it’s remarkable how many families have chosen to remain. It’s a bit like watching people stay in their homes as a hurricane approaches … they are unwilling to surrender, even in the face of nature’s wrath.
And there is no more patriotic place the world over. Marion’s men and women have a tradition of military service dating to the city’s founding. They love and support their veterans, even and especially those serving in unpopular wars. My father was drafted into Vietnam and served as a machine gunner in Pleiku province. When he came home, he didn’t experience any of the anti-war hostility noted elsewhere. And when he died, the staff at Marion General Hospital paid their respects by draping him in the flag of the United States and commemorating his service. This was a man they barely knew, but they honored him. This is typical of Marion, a town that despite it all still believes in the American dream … and has given more than its fair share to secure it.
Saying farewell to my Dad recently made me ponderous about the status and trajectory of the town in which he lived his life, save for the few years he served abroad in uniform. Like most of us, he identified with his home. It was, for him, where things made sense and where he best connected to family, nature, and his own soul. It raises the question why men like him maintain such love and affinity, even in the face of ruin.
I think the answer lies in the concept of duty. My father’s generation, and many before and after, feel a duty to uphold and uplift their community rather than abandon it. If stewardship is the heart of loyalty, then staying and fighting through the slow times is at the heart of that stewardship.
By just about any measure, Marion’s ordinary citizens have performed their duty over the years. They’ve been model Americans. Patriotic, hard-working, civically active, propelled by traditional values. They’ve maintained a semblance of tranquillity against all odds.
So the question is when politicians and business leaders will recognize that fulfilled duty by bringing jobs back to Marion. Jobs are the entire issue. Not immigrants, nor welfare recipients, nor the unruly or irreligious. Not even drugs. All of these are symptoms of the underlying problem: too few jobs and a declining economic horizon.
The loss of jobs is what has crippled Marion. And the return of jobs is what will heal it. Winter descended when the jobs left, and when they return, so will spring.
Society, war and peace, politics, even life itself … these all behave cyclically. Decline is answered by renewal. Winter is answered by spring.
But such cycles assume the ordinary nature of things. The question on the minds of people in places like Marion is when will spring arrive again? It has been a longer and colder winter in the American heartland than should ever be accepted as ordinary. Still it darkens more, and the clouds lower, and the wind bites as it whistles through leafless trees.
When will someone pull the sun back above the horizon? The instant it begins to shine, the American heartland will rise again … and prove that given the right conditions, it can be the greatest of places to live, work, and raise a family.
Written in tribute to my late father, Dale E. Carr, and the town he called home.
Tony Carr is an American veteran, pilot, lawyer, and writer. He lives and writes in Manchester, United Kingdom.