Left Behind in Rural Ohio

Member Group : Salena Zito

VAN WERT, Ohio – Two sunnyside-up eggs, four thick slices of bacon and wheat toast will lighten your wallet by under three bucks at Balyeat’s World Famous Coffee Shop in this Northwest Ohio town.

Raisin-bran muffins "made from real Raisin Bran cereal" are placed on the table, free of charge.

Harold Fleming, 81, sits on a low shiny-leather stool, one of 10 lining the lunch counter, waiting for his cheeseburger take-home order. Dressed in overalls and a plaid shirt, the farmer and former factory worker picks up a meal on Thursdays and Sundays, religiously.

The Main Street diner with its iconic neon sign — "Young Fried Chicken DAY and NIGHT" — is a Norman Rockwell cover from The Saturday Evening Post, down to its placemats decorated with hands folded in prayer that remind hungry customers to give thanks for the food in front of them.

Welcome to Van Wert, a farming and manufacturing community. Its downtown is a charming mix of 19th-century storefronts and a dazzling county courthouse with ornate brick-and-stone towers at each corner, a bell that peals the hours and a sparkling zinc statue of Justice.

It is a shopping district with an abundance of empty storefronts.

"Well, not long after Wal-Mart was built up the road, everyone started shopping there. Pretty soon shops closed, one after another," said Don Davies, who manages the restaurant owned by his brother, Dale; the family bought the eatery in 1964, 40 years after it opened.

Waitress Phoenix Grenzebach offers a choice of seven homemade pies, ranging from Dutch apple to strawberry cream, to a frail gentleman in a "World War II Navy Veteran" ballcap, sitting with his daughter and son-in-law.

You don’t see it at first, because it is hidden by the town’s charming veneer, but "Van Wert is very much a town that has been left behind," Davies said. He echoed a sentiment that President Obama addressed last week when talking about young black men in urban America.

A lot more of America than just its poor young urban blacks has been left behind, all of it equally disconnected, forgotten, frustrated. This chasm crosses racial lines, generations, rural, suburban and urban enclaves; it might best be understood in terms of what professor and noted "radical centrist" Walter Russell Mead called the "collapse of the blue model," according to Curt Nichols, an American history professor at Baylor University.

Nichols said Mead believed the "gaps between the social system we’ve inherited and the system we need today are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper them over."

Mead wrote that core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for 60 years after the New Deal don’t work anymore. In the old system, he argued, both blue-collar and white-collar workers held stable jobs, and living standards for all social classes steadily rose.

"The collapsing of the old model has resulted in many citizens feeling — and getting — left behind," Nichols said.

They also are mystified by detached governing, open borders, overseas conflicts, a booming Wall Street that overshadows a sluggish economy, and the brutality of ISIS beheading a journalist.

Fourteen years ago, P.J. Burnett, 59, bought Ramblers Roost, just down the old Lincoln Highway. The restaurant, which opened in 1951, is covered in rooster memorabilia brought from as far away as Jamaica by friends and passing truckers.

Burnett said the rooster theme is a big misinterpretation. "The truck drivers ramble, and the farmers roost!" she explained of the name. But one rooster gift spawned another, eventually leaving not one inch of the convenience store-diner unadorned by some kind of poultry-themed bric-a-brac.

The addition of the Wal-Mart down the street, and the rerouting of the Lincoln Highway from the restaurant’s front door to several miles away, forced Burnett to work a little harder to keep her business going.

She keeps gas prices lower than her competitors’, pocketing only 20 cents per gallon; in one week, she said, she sold 10,000 gallons of gas.

That may not be a lot for Wal-Mart but she’ll "take her dimes and be happy," she said, patting her jingling pants pocket.

She’s not out to make a killing, she added: "Gotta sleep at night, right?"

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]