Saturday, July 4, 2020

Destroyed on the Fourth of July

The author at Ashland Balloonfest 2004
As Americans endure the strangest July weekend in years, I'm reminded of another holiday weekend years ago, in my hometown, where celebrations and destruction occurred within blocks of each other, and how these clashing events became a pivotal part of my most recent novel, but it took years for the anticipated story to finally happen.

With July 4 celebrations on hold due to COVID-19 –except for the multiple illegal noise and sparks that have been going on for weeks in cities across the U.S.– it is a strange time to be celebrating our 'freedom' and 'liberty' when so many centuries of oppression, racism, and capitalist cruelty are being exposed, sadly with little immediate consequence. Our utterly, blatantly corrupt administration and its deranged president continue the neo-fascist insanity at a dizzying pace.

Ashland BalloonFest 2004
Sixteen years ago, I made a rare summer visit to my parents' home in Ashland, Ohio. I'd enjoy a week of humid bucolic semi-rural pleasure with Mom, Dad, and their adorable cats, and the nearby BalloonFest, which had at the time become an annual event, set in a large field near my childhood home.

But the real reason stemmed from a phone conversation with my mother, who mentioned that an entire block of homes near ours was set for demolition to make way for a large parking lot that Ashland University claimed was 'necessary.' I had to witness this massive destruction and displacement.

I immediately knew these events would become part of my then-in-progress novel, Now I'm Here. Why? Because I predicted them. I'd already considered some form of urban 'improvement' as part of a late chapter in the story. But instead of making it up completely, I presciently knew that this would happen.

Although the smaller, more southern fictional Ohio town of Serene would undergo changes through the story. I hadn't anticipated such a stunning example of municipal mendacity and idiocy.

First, the pleasant part of my 2004 visit. The Children's Home Field, as it was informally known, spread across acres behind a street of homes near ours. At the opposite end of the open area, where as kids we played in summers and winters, was bordered by a small strip of woods that divided the more wealthy Country Club homes.

Sound familiar? That setting was used in my fourth and fifth novels, Every Time I Think of You and in its sequel, Message of Love. The field served as a literal and metaphorical distance between Reid and Everett.

But in 2004, those novels hadn't even begun. I was still considering Now I'm Here as my next book (or another one, which will be out in September 2020-stay tuned for that!).

So, while I enjoyed the colorful balloons with my parents over that July 4 holiday, a mere stroll from our nearby home, less than three blocks away, the housing carnage had begun.

The home of my piano teacher
Eagle eyes
Here's the story, in brief, none of which you'll find online. Besides being behind a paywall with a limited archive, the local newspaper, The Ashland Times-Gazzette, was quite complicit with its coverage. The University being  prominent advertiser surely had something to do with that.

How it went down: AU decided it wanted a newer bigger parking lot on Samaritan avenue, where dozens of low- to middle-income houses had been for decades. A shifty realtor offered below-value cash settlements for homeowners to vacate and move elsewhere. Pressured by the realtor who lied by saying others had taken the deal, most took the offer.

So, during my visit, which included a stunningly absurd City Council meeting worthy of a Marx Brothers movie scene, albeit less funny, I took pictures of bulldozers and clawed demolition equipment chewing through the walls of homes, most of which had been at one time part of my teenage paper route.

Along with knowing I'd eventually add some of this to my novel, the journalist part of me longed to expose this corrupt deal, Of course, I knew the Times-Gazette wouldn't be interested in my angle on the story, despite having been a paperboy, and having been in the paper's articles through my local theatre and academic successes. I pitched the story to a few regional Ohio publications, and even interviewed a few neighbors; no bites.

"That crunching sound..."
My parents joked that they would have taken an offer, but the plans for the parking lot fortunately stopped half a block short of our address.

There were a few holdouts at the opposite end of the planned parking lot, along King Street. One of those houses was that of my by-then widowed piano instructor, a home that is included in Now I'm Here, where, in the late 1970s, a young Joshua premieres his piano solo performance of Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody.'

In Now I'm Here, I shifted that setting to be the home of Joshua's widowed mother (No apologies for the spoiler alerts; you've had two years to read the book.)

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 42, titled 'It's Late'

THE CRUNCHING OF a John Deere extractor claw ripping through the wall of Bobbie Shoemaker’s parents’ house left a sad half-kitchen exposed.

Almost an entire long block was destroyed, leaving Sara Evans and two of her neighbors, whose homes faced the adjoining Center Street. Senior couples both of them, they simply refused to sell.

Each demolished house contained a personal story. Mike Kendall’s home, where at a sleepover of tents in his yard we first heard David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs played from speakers aimed out the window; Bonnie Rathborne and her twin sister Barbara, one known for her studious nature, the other as a consummate flirt; Ricky Bettancourt, who, as an enterprising teen, mowed lawns up and down the block for a few dollars.

They had all moved on, leaving their parents to cash out, move elsewhere: to Florida finally, or Zanesville, if they were less adventurous. Serene endured ”renewal,” a death of sorts, with a brash influx of residents unconcerned about the past.

The corrupt deal was exposed in September 2004 by Seth Pritchard, a Serene native and news writer for the Columbus Dispatch, whose summer visit to his parents’ home three blocks away left him horrified by the sudden disappearance of half of his entire grade school paper route.

Pritchard’s story was published soon after nearly all the homes had been sold and demolished, leaving gaping holes in the earth down through the basement, with only sidewalks and bulldozer-trampled lawns remaining before it was all flattened into a new parking lot of Beekam College, now a “University” through some other financial swindle.

Stairway to...
The lies began with Arthur “Artie” Hinckle, a more ambitious son of my family’s main real estate competition for decades. Artie told one resident that all his neighbors were going with the deal, offering to buy up the lower-to-middle-income homes for around $60,000 each. Then, when they agreed, he told others, until the aging parents of schoolmates decided to pack up for retirement homes or apartments in the newer section of town.

When the dust settled and that awful crunching sound abated, Sara Evans and her two neighbors’ homes stood alone at the edge of the lot. Where for years Sara could admire her neighbor’s oak tree and rose garden from her kitchen sink window, she now had to buy drapes to cut the evening glare of street lamps looming over the mostly unused parking lot.

*  *  *

You can read Now I'm Here to see more of how I combined these real events, and others, into fictional ones. Because that's what we do as authors. As Americans, and through this July 4 weekend, we continue to tell ourselves fictions about our history, because like this comparatively small tragedy, the real version is too horrible to admit.

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