Celeryville, Revisited

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a feature on Willard, Ohio – a town of some 6,000 people about 30 miles southwest of my birthplace of Oberlin and about 15 miles northeast of Savannah, where my 90-plus year-old parents now live.  Growing up, I called it “Celeryville”, after a smaller, nearby community.  Then, as now, Willard was famous for root and stalk vegetables – an anomaly in the corn growing areas that surrounded it.

This specialization meant that, unusually for Ohio agricultural towns, Willard is highly dependent upon migrant labor, and the Times article does a good job of laying out the crosscurrents this dependency produces in the age of Trump.  I’m not going to try to summarize these tensions – they are all in the article.

Instead, some numbers: Migrant, often-undocumented, Hispanics who move through Willard temporarily earn up to $18 an hour planting and harvesting Willards seasonal crops, whereas the median family income in Willard (2000 census) is just north of $17 an hour.  Savannah’s median is a little higher.  By contrast, Oberlin – closer to Cleveland, with the eponymous college, and with racial, rather than ethnic divisions – was at $28.50 in 2000, about a dollar over the national median.  I used to be described by such numbers, but they seem low to me now.  This ex-Oberlinite, albeit at his pre-retirement peak, is earning several times the national median – and this brings me to my next point.

Forty years ago, when I was a junior pastor and (volunteer) tennis coach living in Ontario, Ohio, I thought of Willard, 15 miles north, as, well, rich.  Not that Ontario was poor.  My then-town was a former country corners that had chanced upon a major General Motors plant.  Fresh off ten years in New York City, I didn’t find Ontario to be a cultural Mecca, but I could see that its citizens were well paid.  Ontario had a shopping mall and a modern, well-regarded high school.  Even so, when we played Willard, it’s kids seemed preppier, more worldly, more raised-to-compete.  The Willard kids on the other side of the net were more like you would expect mine to be, if I were twenty years younger but with today’s income, than the more working-class kids I was helping to coach.

I don’t want to make too much of this – I am hugely oversimplifying the socioeconomics and I can’t imagine more biased samples than two boys high-school tennis teams – but the wealth I noticed in Willard (call this class division rather than ethnic division) is what is mostly missing in the Times story.  I don’t say inequality is the story in Willard, but it was part of the story forty years ago and I suspect it still is.  I know that heartland Americans today don’t identify themselves by class – Samuel Huntington’s geopolitical “clash of civilizations” has morphed into a clash of cultures that defines our politics – but it seems pretty clear to me that the tensions around “illegals” in Willard are fault lines that have emerged between groups whose overall share of the pie is fairly small.  My point is not that class should define us, only that it matters.

I recommend the article strongly; Miriam Jordan has done a fine job. Jordan is the Times “national immigration correspondent” and certainly has a valid take.  Her Willard reminds me of the Savannah I still visit.  But there is this one thing.  Back when I lived in small town or semi-rural mid-Ohio, people talked more about who had money and who didn’t.  I’m wondering what has happened to that conversation.

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